|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:
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
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.
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".
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