Tuesday 25 March 2014

'Give your assent, Mary; you shall bear a beautiful son': The Feast of the Annunciation in Irish Sources

As today is the Feast of the Annunciation, I republish a 2010 essay from my former blog where I examine some of the Irish sources which record it:

Pictorial Lives of the Saints (1878)

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I have been trying to gather together some of the Irish sources for this feast and turned first to the Martyrologies to see if the date of March 25 was that observed in the earliest Irish calendars. The entry for March 25 in the Martyrology of Oengus is an interesting one as it links this feast to not only the crucifixion of Christ but also to the martyrdom of the apostle James. Canon O'Hanlon supplies a translation from the Leabhar Breac copy of the Felire Oengusso:

“The Crucifixion and Conception
Of Jesus Christ, it is meet
On one feast with piety [to celebrate them]
With the passion of James”.

and comments:
The Incarnation and Crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Martyrdom of the Apostle St. James. In the "Feilire" of St. Oengus, we find the foregoing festivals noted, as having been celebrated, on this day, in the ancient Irish Church. The feast of Christ's Incarnation is now usually called that of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There seems to have been a very generally received tradition, likewise, that the Crucifixion of Our Divine Saviour occurred on this day. Besides, the Martyrdom of St. James, the Apostle, who was beheaded by Herod, about the Feast of the Pasch, is celebrated in many ancient Martyrologies. Sometimes, the present Apostle is called "Frater Domini", and sometimes, "Frater S. Joannis Evangelistae." [1]

A more recent commentator, Father Peter O'Dwyer, looks at the Martyrology of Tallaght, which he describes as ' the immediate source of the Felire Oengusso' and records its entry for today:

Dominus noster Jesus Christus crucifixus est et conceptus et mundud factus est .... Et conceptio Mariae. (Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified and conceived and the world was made ... and the conception of Mary.)

Father O'Dwyer also notes that the Crucifixion and the Annunciation are linked in the Stowe Missal. In a footnote he adds:
The tradition concerning the coincidence of the two dates is recorded by St. Augustine PL, 42, Cols. 893-94 and is found in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum on 25 March which is described as the anniversary of both events, the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. [2]

Thus it would seem that this double commemoration is not something unique to the early Irish Church.

Mrs Helena Concannon, who examined the history of Marian devotion in Ireland some fifty years before Father O'Dwyer, has an account of a sermon preached at the great Columban foundation of Bobbio:
A Bobbio sermon on the Annunciation has some beautiful passages. One reproduces a favourite Bobbio motif: the contrast between Mother Mary and Mother Eve:

“Satan by the serpent spoke to Eve, and through her and her hearing, brought death to the world. God by the angel uttered the word to Mary and poured out life on the whole world”.

And then it goes on: “Holy Mary was made the heavenly ladder, because God through her descended to the earth that, through her, mankind may deserve to ascend to the heavens. When the angel said Ave, he offered to her the heavenly salutation. When he said 'full of grace' he showed forth that now the wrath of condemnation was wholly set aside, and that the grace of full blessing was restored”. [3]

The Annunciation is also praised in Irish poetry. Scholar Andrew Breeze has published a number of articles on this feast. In one he looks at the theme of the Mother of God being the daughter of her Son. This motif, he suggests, is earlier than the one alluded to in the Bobbio sermon where the Ave of the angel reverses the sorrow brought by Eva 'Eve' to the world. Breeze locates the origins of the daughter of her Son motif in North Africa, and thus one automatically thinks of the writings of Saint Augustine as the most likely source for its dissemination into Ireland. Breeze, however suggests that it may have come directly from Spain, where the eleventh Council of Toledo in 675 declared Christ to have been both father and son to the Virgin Mary. It was a theme which had clearly reached the monastic poet Cú Chuimne of Iona (d. 747), for it is reflected in his Hiberno-Latin composition Cantemus in omni die (Let us sing every day) in praise of the Blessed Virgin. Stanza Eight as translated by Breeze reads:

Maria, mater miranda,
patrem suum edidit,
Per quem aqua late lotus
totus mundus credidit.

Mary, wondrous mother,
bore her own father,
through whom the whole world,
washed in water, believed. [4]

He then goes on to an interesting discussion of how this theme might have reached Cú Chuimne, which centres around the fact that Cú Chuimne was linked to a group of scholars at the monastery of Lismore, County Waterford. Lismore had a monastic library rich in Spanish texts, including those of the Council of Toledo. Further proof that this Council's texts were known soon after 675 in Ireland is shown by their quotation in the Hiberno-Latin scriptural commentary De Ordine Creaturarum, which  was written before 700.

The Iona link with this motif is maintained in an 11th-century poem attributed to Saint Columbcille, stanza eight of which reads, in the translation of Father Paul Walsh:

O victorious one, O founder,
O multitudinous, O strong one,
Pray with us to Powerful Christ,
The Father and thy Son. [5]

I close though with my personal favourite among the Irish poems, that of Blathmac, son of Cú Brettan:

151. Well did there come a stout messenger from God, the Father, to woo you! Well did you assume a modest sober countenance at the words of Gabriel!

152. ‘God be with you, Mary, full of grace’, said Gabriel (wondrous countenance!) – You are wholly blessed and the fruit of your holy womb’.

153. ‘The Lord has sent me on a journey’ said Gabriel, ‘concerning a message: that you will be the mother of Christ’ – fair tidings! – ‘a son that will save your race’.

154. ‘I declare that I know not man in the matter of cohabitation, holy bright one; true chaste virginity of body, this have I offered to God, the Father’.

155. Said Gabriel: ‘Give your assent, Mary; you shall bear a beautiful son; let Jesus be his name, he will be the saviour of the world.’

156. Then you conceived (clear telling!) on the eight of the calends of April; and you bore a son of whom I vaunt on the eight of the calends of January.

157. How well that you conceived Christ (victorious flame!) without marring of true virginity by the power of the Holy Spirit, a son that has caused great riches to us! [6]


[1] Rev. John O'Hanlon, Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol. III, (Dublin, 1875), 952.

[2] Peter O'Dwyer, O.Carm., Mary: a history of devotion in Ireland (Dublin, 1988), 58-59.

[3] Mrs H. Concannon, The Queen of Ireland - An Historical Account of Ireland's Devotion to the Blessed Virgin (Dublin, 1938), 42-43.

[4] Andrew Breeze, 'The Annunciation I: Mary, Daughter of her Son' in The Mary of the Celts (Leominster, 2008), 1-3.

[5] Rev. Paul Walsh, 'An Irish Hymn to the Blessed Virgin', Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. XXIX., 172-178.

[6] James Carney, ed. and trans., The Poems of Blathmac Son of Cú Brettan - Together with the Irish Gospel of Thomas and a Poem on the Virgin Mary (Dublin, 1964).

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