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Our Lady in Old Irish Folklore and Hymns

by James F. Cassidy


James Cassidy examines the folklore and hymns of the first Christians of Ireland in order to show their deep devotion to the Mother of God.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, June 1960

The tradition and literature of the Gael provide ample evidence that early Christian Ireland was in a very marked way devoted to the Mother of God. Of these sources of evidence, the most telling and fascinating seem to be folklore and hymns.

The name of Mary was so treasured by the ancient Irish that they were wont to use it to leaven with beauty and sweetness their everyday speech and actions. That name flashed like a jewel in commonplace greetings such as: "May God and Mary bless you." Its protection was often invoked when people were about to undertake an important journey. Proof of this we have in the ancient prayer still used in Gaelic-speaking parts of Ireland: "May the Cross of Christ's Body and Mary guard us on the road." It hallowed the lips of a visitor to a house when, on entering it, he said: "May God and Mary bless all here." It was used to show reverence for the dignity and goodness of labor in the expression: "May God and Mary bless your work." It very often appeared in prayerful ejaculations for the dead whom the ancient Gael's strong sense of spiritual kinship could never hand over to oblivion in the grave. The name of Mary was, indeed, a household word, for it was one of the most favored names for Irish womanhood. But, to manifest unique respect for this name, it was "Muire" in Gaelic for Our Lady and "Maire" for all other Marys.

In the hymns, too, which were an integral part of Gaelic folklore, there is striking evidence of devotion to Our Lady. Much material disclosing this evidence was discovered for us by the late Dr. Douglas Hyde. From the lips of Gaelic speakers this noted Protestant scholar collected a body of hymns, which he published with the title, Religious Songs of Connaught. This collection, even if we had no evidence from other sources, yields ample proof of popular devotion to Our Lady in ancient Ireland, for there is no surer mark of the trend of a nation's thought than the traditional lore of its people. For this incorporation of religious ideals in Gaelic tradition we have, very likely, to thank the old Irish tribal system. Thus it happened that the Irish (who--with the exception of the Greeks--were the only European race to blend their mythology with their history) loved to mingle their Christian memories with the secular records of their land.

As in the daily speech of the people, we find in this collection many brief prayers in verse form to hallow the most commonplace actions. And in most of these we find the name of Mary invoked with fascinating simplicity and a profound confidence in her maternal protection.

The hymns, too (which came from scholarship), reveal a signal devotion to the Mother of God. What they manifest is of special worth because the hymn was the spiritual brother of the secular poem, and the latter was the most characteristic mode of cultured expression in old Gaelic literature. The themes of hymnology, therefore, were well calculated to capture the reverence of a people governed by deep emotion, vivid imagination and a marked attachment to music.

For the earliest of these scholarly hymn tributes to Mary we can go back to Patrician times to a theologian and poet whose name was revered throughout Western Europe. This man, Sedulius, was the author of the Carmen Paschale still preserved by the Church in the Divine Office. In this hymn we find this beautiful tribute paid to Mary's Immaculate Conception:

Safe from the rugged thorn springs up the tender rose
In honour hidden the parent stem, in beauty's softness grows;
So from the sinful stem of Eve all sinless Mary came,
To cover and to expiate her mother's deed of shame.

About the same era, St. Ultan, in his Christus in nostra insula, indirectly praises Our Lady, when with her he compares St. Brigid, the national patroness of Ireland. Speaking of St. Brigid he considers the praise he gave her the highest when he likens her to Mary.

Passing to the sixth century we find St. Columbanus, Ireland's premier foreign missionary, telling us how our hope for life immortal came to us through Mary. "As death," he says, "has come to us through Eve, so is the path of all life opened to us through Mary." Equally devoted to Our Lady was St. Columcille of the same century whose name is so often linked in honor with the names of Patrick and Brigid in the national tradition. From the same period we have a hymn of St. Colman in honor of the Blessed Virgin, which was considered a powerful protection against plague.

After these we pass to Aengus in the tenth century who has many references to Our Lady in his Festology of the Saints. In one of the best parts of this work there appears a hymn to the Infant Jesus by St. Ita who, with an intimate and fascinating tenderness, seeks to imitate Mary as the gentle and reverent nurse of the Divine Child. To this same century Celtic scholars ascribe the Liber Hymnorum, which contains considerable evidence of old Irish devotion to Mary. In this we find a long list of native saints grouped in pairs because of supposed similarity between their lives. Of all these saints the one most honored is Brigid because she is placed in the company of Our Lady. In the Liber Hymnorum, too, there is another beautiful hymn rich in Celtic fervor in honor of the Mother of God. In this all the glories of Mary most prized by Catholic hearts are sung with a rhythmic grace and familiarity of expression very suggestive of modern Marian hymnology. We here produce some of its verses from an excellent translation by Father Potter, a former professor of All Hallows College, Dublin:

In alternate measure chanting, daily sing we Mary's praise,
And in strains of glad rejoicing, to the Lord our voices raise. br>With a twofold choir repeating Mary's never-dying fame,
Let each ear the praises gather, which our grateful tongues proclaim.
Judah's ever-glorious daughter, chosen Mother of the Lord,
Who, to weak and fallen manhood, all its ancient worth restored.
From the everlasting Father, Gabriel brought the glad decree,
That the Word Divine conceiving, she should set poor sinners free.
Of all virgins pure, the purest, ever stainless, ever bright,
Still from grace to grace advancing, fairest daughter of the light.
Wondrous title--who shall tell it--whilst the Word Divine she bore,
Though in mother's name rejoicing, virgin purer than before!
By a woman's disobedience, eating the forbidden tree,
Was the world betrayed and ruined, and by woman's hand set free.

From the same source we give yet another quotation which embodies a typically Celtic tribute to Mary:
Mary, the Mother of the Creator,
The Holy Virgin; she is our sister,
And she is akin to every triad.

For the student of Gaelic poetry there is much enshrined in this verse. Here the strong family and tribal instinct of the writer leads him to strike the true Celtic note of spiritual kinship with the Blessed Virgin and, thereby, intimacy with the world of the supernatural. He envisions a sublime family in which he holds membership. Furthermore, he seeks, with a sense of profound devotion to his great "sister," Mary, to bestow on her the highest praise in simple bardic fashion by saying she is "akin to every triad." The triad or triple proverb containing the condensed and traditional wisdom of the Gael is frequently encountered in epic tale and ancient poem. Its triple character implied a sacrosanct and mystic significance, which carried an authority almost bordering on the infallible. If, then, Our Lady was "akin to every triad," she was a person for whom no praise could be too great and one of whom to think otherwise was to challenge one of the truest and most sacred ideals of ancient Gaeldom.

We conclude with reference to a hymn entitled: "The Protecting Corselet of Mary" which the great scholar, O'Curry, considered to be "seven hundred or more years old." It is rich in laudatory epithet of a decidedly Celtic type. An attractive simplicity of thought, recalling the closeness of the early Gael to nature, lives in these lines. The rugged humility of the tribesman and the chivalry of the good warrior seek hand-in-hand the protection and leadership of a great Queen in whom they see a fount of spiritual fortitude and a mighty inspiration. Its note of childlike familiarity and trustfulness tell of the ease with which the Irish have always lived in the world of the supernatural. Heaven for the writer of this hymn meant simply the "visit" of a child to its Mother. Of that "visit" he felt assured just because she was such a Mother and he had such a vivid sense of his childlike right to her maternal protection.

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