Monday 1 May 2023

The Old Irish Litany of Our Lady

May is the month traditionally dedicated to Our Lady and below is the translation of an Old Irish Litany in her honour. It has been taken from a work in the public domain, which includes not only the Irish original but also a Latin translation to enable its use by Catholic religious communities. Professor Eugene O'Curry, who first drew attention to the existence of this text, described it on page 380 of his 1861 Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, as:

A beautiful and ancient litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, differing in many ways from her litany in other languages, and clearly showing that, although it may be an imitation, it is not a translation. I believe it to be as old, at least, as the middle of the eighth century. It consists of sixty invocations, beginning: "O great Mary! O Mary, greatest of all Marys! O greatest of women! O Queen of angels," etc., and it concludes with a beautiful and eloquent entreaty that she will lay the unworthy prayers, sighs, and groans of us sinners before her merciful Son, backed by her own all-powerful advocacy for the forgiveness of their sins.'

Not everyone agreed. Fellow nineteenth-century scholar and translator Whitley Stokes questioned O'Curry's decision to describe the prayer as a litany and felt that the form of the Irish used suggested it was more likely to be a twelfth-century composition. Irish Jesuit, Father Patrick Bartley, published an article on the subject in The Irish Monthly in 1919. He too questioned the text's description as a litany, saying:

In 1862, the Rector of the Catholic University, Monsignor Woodlock, petitioned Pope Pius IX to "attach Indulgences to the following Prayer, or Litany of the Blessed Virgin", i.e. the Old Irish Litany. In the brief granting the Indulgence, the Pope never uses the term "Litany". He speaks twice of a "Prayer" and once of a "Pious Prayer or Form of Supplication". This cautious phraseology seems to indicate a doubt as to whether the prayer is really a litany.
Various continental clerics added to the debate. A German priest, Father Joseph Sauren, in his 1895 study Die Lauretanische Litanei, accepted O'Curry's view completely and declared that this Irish prayer was the oldest known Litany of the Blessed Virgin, pre-dating the Litany of Loretto by centuries. Italian Jesuit, Father Angelo de Santi, writing two years later on the Litanies of the Blessed Virgin strongly disagreed, saying:

We cannot accept as a litany properly so called a composition totally lacking the essential form of a litany. There is no question here of anything more than simple praises of the Blessed Virgin, praises followed by a beautiful and charming prayer. We may add that these laudatory titles closely resemble invocations frequently found in the 'Praises of Mary', which were so common in the middle ages.
Father Bartley's sympathies were with his Italian confrère, saying:

A litany, as usually understood, consists of a series of invocations, to each of which a petition is attached.  The beautiful prayer at the end of the Old Irish Litany contains a long list of petitions... but there is nothing to show that any of these petitions were repeated after the invocations in the way characteristic of litanies. Neither is there any evidence that a petition such as "Pray for us" was repeated after each title of Our Lady. There is, therefore, no positive proof that "the essential form of a litany" was observed in the case of the Old Irish Litany. In the absence of such proof, its claim to rank as a true litany cannot be established.  

Rev. Patrick Bartley, S.J., 'The Old Irish Litany' in The Irish Monthly, Vol. 47, No. 552 (June, 1919), pp. 293-300.

Father Bartley went on to discuss the possible sources on which this Old Irish Litany may have drawn,  concluding that two medieval sermons known as the Sermones Dubii of Saint Ildephonsus, which share about half the titles given to Our Lady in the Irish text and in the same order, were the most likely candidates. In addition, both Litany and Sermons had probably borrowed from a common source, most likely a hymn. But whatever its source, status or dating, there is no doubt that what remains known as the Old Irish Litany of Our Lady is a beautiful song of praise in Her honour:  

Mary, greatest of Marys,
Most great of women,
Queen of the angels,
Mistress of the heavens,
Woman full and replete with the grace of the Holy Spirit,
Blessed and most blessed,
Mother of eternal glory,
Mother of the heavenly and earthly Church,
Mother of love and indulgence,
Mother of the golden light,
Honor of the sky,
Harbinger of peace.
Gate of heaven,
Golden casket,
Couch of love and mercy,
Temple of the Divinity,
Beauty of virgins,
Mistress of the tribes,
Fountain of the gardens,
Cleansing of sins,
Washing of souls,
Mother of orphans,
Breast of the infants,
Refuge of the wretched,
Star of the sea,
Handmaid of God,
Mother of Christ,
Abode of the Godhead,
Graceful as the dove,
Serene like the moon,
Resplendent like the sun,
Destruction of Eve's disgrace,
Regeneration of life,
Perfection of women,
Chief of the virgins,
Garden enclosed,
Fountain sealed,
Mother of God,
Perpetual Virgin,
Holy Virgin,
Prudent Virgin,
Serene Virgin,
Chaste Virgin,
Temple of the Living God,
Throne of the Eternal King,
Sanctuary of the Holy Spirit,
Virgin of the root of Jesse,
Cedar of Mount Lebanon,
Cypress of Mount Sion,
Crimson rose in the land of Jacob,
Fruitful like the olive,
Blooming like the palm,
Glorious son-bearer,
Light of Nazareth,
Glory of Jerusalem,
Beauty of the world,
Noblest born of the Christian people,
Queen of life,
Ladder of Heaven,
Hear the petition of the poor; spurn not the wounds and the groans of the miserable.

Let our devotion and our sighs be carried through thee to the presence of the Creator, for we are not ourselves worthy of being heard because of our evil deserts.
O powerful Mistress of heaven and earth, wipe out our trespasses and our sins.
Destroy our wickedness and depravity.

Raise the fallen, the debilitated, and the fettered. Loose the condemned.
Repair through thyself the transgressions of our immorality and our vices.
Bestow upon us through thyself the blossoms and ornaments of good actions and virtues. Appease for us the Judge by thy prayers and thy supplications. Allow us not, for mercy's sake, to be carried off from thee among the spoils of our enemies. Allow not our souls to be condemned, but take us to thyself for ever under thy protection.

We, moreover, beseech and pray thee, holy Mary, to obtain, through thy potent supplication, before thy only Son, that is, Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, that God may defend us from all straits and temptations. Obtain also for us from the God of Creation the forgiveness and remission of all our sins and trespasses, and that we may receive from Him further, through thy intercession, the everlasting habitation of the heavenly kingdom, through all eternity, in the presence of the saints and the saintly virgins of the world; which may we deserve, may we enjoy, in saecula sceculorum. Amen.

Rev. John Greene, S.J. ed., Ancient Irish Litany of the Ever Blessed Mother of God in the original Irish with translations in English and Latin (New York, 1880).



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