Wednesday 10 May 2023

'Mary the Virgin: your own holy mother': Devotion to Our Lady in the Early Irish Church

Our Lady of Dunsford, Co. Down

As May is the month traditionally dedicated to Our Lady, I have been enjoying some of the early Irish sources which pay tribute to her.  It is worth reflecting on the fact that the year 431, the year in which Pope Celestine sent Palladius as the first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ, is the same year in which Saint Cyril of Alexandria was defending Mary's claim to be Theotokos, the god-bearer, at the Council of Ephesus. So, what evidence is there of devotion to Our Lady in the centuries following Christianity's arrival up until the year 1200?

I will begin with the Irish calendars which refer to both the person of the Blessed Virgin and to her feast days. The Prologue to the ninth-century Martyrology of Oengus draws a contrast between Pilate's haughty queen 'whose splendour has vanished since she went into into a place of mould. Not so is Mary the Virgin..Adam's race...magnifies her, with a host of angels.' Saint Oengus often describes Christ in relation to His Mother as the 'Son of holy Mary' or as 'Mary's great Son', and he begs God in the Epilogue to his Martyrology to 'heal my heart for sake of Mary's Son'. He is no less enthusiastic when recording Marian feasts. February 2 is 'The reception of Mary's Son in the Temple', August 15 the 'great feast of her commemoration, very Mother of our Father, with a host of kings, right splendid assembly!', September 8 is the day 'Thou shalt commemorate Mary' and at December 25  he declares 'At great marvellous Christmas, Christ from white-pure Mary was born'. We can find the idea of Our Lady as Queen of All Saints reflected in the Irish Martyrologies too. In the Epilogue to the Martyrology of Oengus, there is a description of the various companies of heaven being grouped around important figures of the universal Church. Stanza 249 begins with 'the troop of martyrs around Stephen' and ends with 'the troop of holy virgins around Mary.' The later martyrologist, Marianus O'Gorman, whose very name is a Latinization of the Irish Máel Muire, meaning someone devoted to Our Lady, records at November 1 'On the venerable day of Allhallowtide behold ye the Lord Himself, the angels, a mystical band and all the saints of heaven, hosts with clear white purity, around great honourable Mary.' 

Irish monastic poems, hymns and devotional texts reflect the same understanding. A Litany to Christ known as the Scúap chrábaid ‘The Broom of Devotion’, ascribed to Colcu úa Duinechda, an eighth-century scholar and lector from Clonmacnoise, includes this petition "I beseech you by all the holy virgins throughout the whole world, with Mary the Virgin, your own holy mother'. Later the author begs to be heard 'For the sake of the pure and holy flesh which you received from the womb of the virgin' and 'For the sake of the holy womb from which you received that flesh without loss of dignity'. Also from the eighth century are the two poems of Blathmac, son of Cú Brettan, published in 1964 by Professor James Carney, having been re-discovered as a neglected seventeenth-century manuscript of Friar Michael O'Clery's in the National Library of Ireland in the 1950s. The poet addresses both of his works to Our Lady and the first poem is all the more remarkable because it begins with Blathmac wishing to join with Her in keening Her son: 

Come to me loving Mary that I may keen
with you very dear one.
Alas that your son should go to the cross, 
he who was a great emblem, a beautiful hero.

The image of Our Lady of Sorrows is something we associate more with the later Middle Ages, with Saint Brigid of Sweden, with the Servites etc., yet here this Irish poet centuries earlier wishes to compassionate the sorrowful mother. He ends his poem saying:
Come to me loving Mary,
head of pure faith,
that we may hold converse with the
compassion of unblemished heart. Come.

Blathmac also uses a particularly Irish form of endearment when seeking Our Lady's intercessory power, asking:
 Let me have from you my three petitions, 
beautiful Mary, little bright-necked one; 
get them, sun of women, 
from your Son who has them in His power'. 

Another eighth-century work of special interest is the hymn composed by Cú Cuimhne of Iona,  Cantemus in omni die, 'Let us sing every day... a hymn worthy of holy Mary. I have previously published a Victorian hymnographer's translation of the text here, but below is a more recent and literal translation:
Let us sing every day,
harmonising in turns,
together proclaiming to God
a hymn worthy of holy Mary.

In two-fold chorus, from side to side,
let us praise Mary,
so that the voice strikes every ear
with alternating praise.

Mary of the Tribe of Judah,
Mother of the Most High Lord,
gave fitting care
to languishing mankind.

Gabriel first brought the Word
from the Father’s bosom
which was conceived and received
in the Mother’s womb.

She is the most high, she the holy
venerable Virgin
who by faith did not draw back,
but stood forth firmly.

None has been found, before or since,
like this mother -
not out of all the descendants
of the human race.

By a woman and a tree
the world first perished;
by the power of a woman
it has returned to salvation

Mary, amazing mother,
gave birth to her Father,
through whom the whole wide world,
washed by water, has believed.

She conceived the pearl
- they are not empty dreams-
for which sensible Christians
have sold all they have.

The mother of Christ had made
a tunic of a seamless weave;
Christ’s death accomplished,
it remained thus by casting of lots.

Let us put on the armour of light,
the breastplate and helmet,
that we might be perfected by God,
taken up by Mary.

Truly, truly, we implore,
by the merits of the Child-bearer,
that the flame of the dread fire
be not able to ensnare us.

Let us call on the name of Christ,
below the angel witness,
that we may delight and be inscribed
in letters in the heavens.
In addition to these devotional texts, we also have an Irish apocryphal text, the Transitus Mariae, the Passage of Mary, which deals with the traditions surrounding Her Assumption into heaven. Scholars believe these traditions reached Ireland, possibly from Syria, in the seventh century. Here is how the Transitus Mariae depicts the end of Our Lady's life:
24 Thereupon Christ, son of the living God, came with the angels of heaven, who were singing heavenly harmonies for the Saviour, and in honour of Mary. Christ greeted the apostles, and Mary saluted him, saying: "I bless you, son of the heavenly father. You have fulfilled all your promises, and have come yourself [for me]". 

25-27 When Mary had finished saying these words, the spirit of life departed from her, and the Saviour took it in his hands with reverence and honour. The archangels of heaven rose up around her, and the apostles saw her being raised up by the angels, in human form, and seven times brighter than the sun. Then the apostles enquired whether there was any other soul as bright as the soul of Mary. Jesus answered and said to Peter: "All souls are like that after baptism. When in the world, the darkness of bodily sin adheres to them. No one else in the world is able to avoid sin as Mary could, therefore Mary's soul is brighter than the soul of every other person in the world".
 Finally, we have the tradition of regarding our national patroness Saint Brigid as Muire na nGael, the Mary of the Irish, a type of the Virgin Mary.  This tradition can be traced through the centuries beginning with the early seventh-century prophecy preserved in genealogical sources relating to Leinster. It tells of the great saint to come ..'who shall be called, from her great virtues, truly pious Brigit; she will be another Mary, mother of the great Lord'. Various of the Lives of Saint Brigid describe her in similar terms, and she is equated with Mary in the List of Parallel Saints, which compares Irish saints with important figures of the universal Church. And I can think of no better way to close than with the ending to the hymn of Saint Broccán Clóen, published by the seventeenth-century hagiologist, Father John Colgan, in his Trias Thaumaturga which says:
 'There are two virgins in heaven who will not give me a forgetful protection, Mary, and Saint Brigid. Under the protection of them both may we remain'. 
Amen to that.

Sources and Resources:

The two major historical studies of devotion to Our Lady in Ireland I used are (1) Helena Concannon's  The Queen of Ireland: An Historical Account of Ireland's Devotion to the Blessed Virgin (Dublin, 1938) and (2) Peter O'Dwyer, O.CARM., Mary: A history of devotion in Ireland (Dublin 1988). 

Translations of the Irish martyrologies are available through the Internet Archive at
For the poems of Blathmac see James P. Carney [ed.], The poems of Blathmac, son of Cú Brettan: together with the Irish Gospel of Thomas and a poem on the Virgin Mary, Irish Texts Society, 47, London: Irish Texts Society, 1964.

The 'Broom of Devotion' is one of the texts included in the collection edited by Oliver Davies and Thomas O'Loughlin Celtic Spirituality. Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1999).

The translation of Cantemus in omni die can be found in the anthology edited by T.O. Clancy and G. Márkus O.P.,  Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (University of Edinburgh Press, 1995).

The Transitus Mariae is among the texts included in M. Herbert and M. McNamara MSC., Irish Biblical Apocrypha: Selected Texts in Translation ( Edinburgh, 1989). 

Sources for Saint Brigid can be found in Noel Kissane, Saint Brigid of Kildare- Life, Legend and Cult (Dublin, 2017). 

Finally, the photograph shows the medieval stone statue of Our Lady of Dunsford taken on a visit to Saint Mary's church in Chapeltown in 2017.  Local historian Duane Fitzsimons has written a book about the statue's rediscovery and the parish which houses it called Under the Shade of Our Lady's Sweet Image - The Story of a Unique Coastal Parish in the Diocese of Down and Connor (Killyleagh, 2016).

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