How Brigit Got Lands for the Poor
A Celtic pagan story from Ireland, told by Erica Helm Meade in her book of wisdom tales, The Moon in the Well (Peru, Illinois: Open Court/Carus, 2001). Permission pending.
Long ago in Ireland, a few wealthy landholders owned great tracts of fertile land, while the poor were forced up into the rocky hills to eke out a living from the sparse soil. One year the crops went bad and the poor could barely scrape together an onion or a carrot for their supper. Brigit went to one of the richest landholders and said, “The harvest is grim this year, and the peasants need your help.”
The landholder replied, “Ah, Brigit, I’ll think on it, but in truth, if the people would only work harder they surely could fend for themselves.”
A few weeks passed and the situation grew worse. Brigit went again to the landholder and said, “The peasants have no food. They've taken to the hills to eat shamrocks and grass. What will you do for them?”
“Now, Brigit,” said the landholder, “Don’t get pushy. I’m a busy man. Why is it you’re here talking to me, when you should be talking to the peasants about what they can do for themselves? I’ve no time for this, now be gone with you.”
Another week passed, and the situation became grave. Brigit went again to the landholder and in a rage she cried, “You’ve done nothing to help and now the children are starving! I demand that you give land to the poor!”
“Well, Brigit,” said the landholder, “It couldn’t be that bad. You don’t look to be starved yourself, nor lacking for warm clothes. ’Tis a fine wool cloak you wear on your back. Let it not be said I’m a stingy man. Here’s what we’ll do: You go out to the plain. Choose any spot. Spread your white cloak on the ground, and the plot that it covers, I’ll donate to the poor.”
“Tax free?” asked Brigit.
“All right, tax free,” said the landholder, “but don’t ask for anything more.”
So that day Brigit and three of her sisters went out to the very center of the fertile plain. Each took hold of a corner of the white cloak.
Brigit said, “All right now, girls, pull it taut.” They did so, and then Brigit cried, “Now take a step backward.” Each of them took a step back, one to the north, one to the south, one to the east, and one to the west, and as they did, the cloak expanded. Then Brigit cried, “All right, keep walking!” They did, and as they did so, the cloak continued to expand until it covered the whole expanse of the plain.
That afternoon as usual, the landholder went up into his tower to look out and survey his lands. At first glance it looked as if a snow had fallen. Then he saw that the rocks above were bare. “The cloak,” he whispered, falling to his knees, now seeing providence at work in the matter. When he saw Brigit striding up the walkway, he leaned out the window and cried, “Mercy, Brigit, I’ll keep to my word! The whole of the plain belongs to the poor, and I’ll throw in a hundred bags of oat seed that they might prosper by it!”
“That’s fine for tomorrow,” said Brigit, “but what will you do for today?”
“For today?” said the landholder. “Why, a feast for today, a feast for all.”
“What sort of a feast?” asked Brigit.
“Why, a feast of stews, and roasts, and compotes, and mashes, and stuffings, and jellies, and cakes,” replied the landholder.
“And bags to take home?” asked Brigit.
“Why of course, bags to take home,” assured the landholder. “Very well, then,” said Brigit, “I’ll spread the word.”
“Aye, Brigit, I’m sure you will, and I don’t mind saying, that if you spread the word as efficiently as you spread the cloak, not a soul will miss this feast.”