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The Song of Brigid’s Cloak by Catherine Ann Cullen (Illust. by Katya Swan)

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The Song of Brigids Cloak

By Catherine Ann Cullen

‘There was a wise woman, we’re all agreed,

some call her Brigid, some call her Bríd.

She grew up kind and she liked a joke

and she always wore a wee small cloak.’

I’m a poet, songwriter and children’s writer, and in my seventh book, The Song of Brigid’s Cloak, I feel that these three different strands of my writing have come together for the first time. The book, published by Beehive Books in October 2022, started as a song and is now a picture-book, beautifully illustrated by Katya Swan. It’s a retelling of the story of Brigid’s magical or miraculous cloak.

The song itself has had an exciting life since I wrote it in 2020 as part of a project called Songs for our Children. The project created a body of new songs to traditional airs, and was devised and coordinated by Aileen Lambert in Enniscorthy, with over a dozen singers and songwriters from all around Ireland. My participation was funded by Create Louth (thanks to my Drogheda beginnings). I wrote several songs for the project, and the Brigid one emerged because I felt there were not enough songs about this Irish woman who is both historic and legendary. Brigid is an unusual figure, because she is beloved by Christians as a saint and she’s considered a Celtic or pagan goddess by others. There are many festivals in Ireland, such as Hallowe’en/All Saints Eve or Samhain, which cross over that Christian/pagan divide, but I don’t think there is another person who does.

I’m a scholar of ballads, and the narrative ballad, which tells a story in a very compact way, seemed the perfect form for a retelling of the story of Brigid’s cloak. The song tells the story of how Brigid outwitted the mean old King of Leinster when he refused to give her land to build a church. Very soon after it was written, it was shared in a lovely version by Aileen Lambert and her daughter Nellie Fortune for February 1st, 2021, or Lá Fhéile Bríde, the first day of spring in Ireland. The video had had a warm reaction from teachers and parents, folklore groups and singing circles, and Aileen and Nellie did a longer, workshop version of the song that teachers and others could use. The Catholic Girl Guides of Ireland adopted the song as an anthem for their younger ‘Brigín’ guides. I have two of my own versions of the song online too, the latest one on the Beehive Books website.  Between these four versions of the song, there have been over ninety thousand views (and counting!) on Facebook and youTube. The phrase ‘going viral’ may have lost some of its cachet in recent times, but for me all those views suggest that the song is catching, in the best possible way.

When Síne Quinn took over as Managing Editor of Veritas and their new imprint, Beehive Books, she already knew of my Brigid song. I’ve worked with Síne on book projects for many years. She was keen to turn the song into a book, and she sent me a link to Katya Swan’s website to see what I thought of Katya as a possible illustrator. As soon as I saw the work, with its strong sense of nature, flowing blues and greens and magical feel, I knew it was a wonderful fit for Brigid. Katya worked very quickly and efficiently to produce a pencil draft of the illustrations, and from that point on, there was a relatively small amount of back and forth between Síne, Katya and myself to tweak a few details and colours in the book. One detail that Síne and I agreed on was that when Brigid set out from Faughart in Louth for Kildare, we wanted a signpost with both counties named on it. In an earlier version of the text I’d mentioned Louth, but in the process of getting the song right and tight, I’d had to leave it out. My birth county does get a nod in the illustration, though! Overall, Katya showed an intuitive understanding of the flow of the story, and she said that her illustrations were inspired by the landscape of Ireland. There are gorgeous spreads of green, yellow and orange fields and beautiful trees everywhere. Of course, the centrepiece of the story is Brigid and the ‘four best friends’ I invented for the song. Katya did a careful and creative job of realising them all, and their journey across that evocative landscape is a wonderful enhancement of the text. I couldn’t have asked for a better home for The Song of Brigid’s Cloak than with Síne, Katya and Beehive, so warm thanks and the blessings of Brigid on them all! 

(c) Catherine Ann Cullen

About The Song of Brigid’s Cloak:

The Song of Brigids Cloak

‘There was a wise woman, we’re all agreed,

some call her Brigid, some call her Bríd.

She grew up kind and she liked a joke

and she always wore a wee small cloak.’

A miserly king is no match for a smart young woman in this lively retelling of the beloved Irish legend of Brigid and her miraculous cloak. Award-winning poet and songwriter Catherine Ann Cullen’s words are brought to life in glowing illustrations by Katya Swan. Read the story and learn to sing The Song of Brigid’s Cloak!

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Catherine Ann Cullen was the inaugural Poetry Ireland Poet in Residence 2019-2021, and is currently an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at UCD and Poetry Ireland. She is the author of three poetry collections and three children’s books in verse, including All Better: Poems on Illness and Recovery (Little Island, 2019), which was reimagined from Latvian. Her first book, The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat (Little Brown, 2001) won a Gold Award for Poetry and Folklore from the American Parenting Products Association. Her ballad scholarship has been published by the Irish Traditional Music Archive and by The Ballad Partners in London.

Katya Swan is an illustrator living in Ireland. She is very passionate about picture book illustration, packaging, and character design. Katya has illustrated a number of picture books, including Bea’s Rumble Jungle, Bea’s Ocean Commotion, Frankie Pants and Mr Fox, and Monster Mom.

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