By Dr Gillian Doherty
Devotion to Mary is an ancient and cherished feature of Catholicism in Ireland. From the first proclamation of the Gospel by St Patrick, St Declan and other missionaries in the 5th century, the Blessed Virgin was beloved by the Irish as the Mother of Jesus, our Saviour. In the past, some scholars claimed that Marian devotion in Ireland only became widespread and popular after the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century, but the evidence bears witness to a much older tradition. References to and representations of Our Lady in manuscripts, in folk tradition, on stone and precious metal demonstrate that Irish fidelity to Mary took root in the hearts of the new Christians from the very beginning.
St Patrick’s arrival in Ireland in 432 AD was just one year after the declaration of the Council of Ephesus that Mary is THEOTOKOS, God-bearer, Mother of God. St Patrick and the native Saints that followed him, proclaimed Jesus as Mac Muire, Mac na Maighdine, Son of Mary, Son of the Virgin, and always described Mary as Muire Mháthair or Máthair Dé, Mary Mother, Mother of God. St Brigid (obit.c. 525 AD), one of our national patron saints, was bestowed with the title ‘Mary of the Irish’ as a token of the highest estimation afforded by her people.
In the centuries that followed, scholars and sculptors, poets and artists paid homage to Mary as Queen and Mother. The earliest known image of Mary in Irish art is in the Book of Kells c.800 AD, which shows the Virgin Mother seated on a throne with the Divine Child cradled in her arms. It is a poignant image of Motherhood, but also of Divine Queenship, as Mary is seated in glory, surrounded by Angels, with a halo denoting her Sainthood.
Irish monks, renowned internationally for their learning, eloquently expressed Irish dedication to Mary in missals, martyrologies, poems and prayers of remarkable beauty, some of which are still used in the Divine Office. Consider, for example, an ancient Irish litany to Our Lady attributed historically to St Columcille (dated by modern scholars to c.1000AD):
‘O Mary, kind, gentle maid, give help to us;
O casket of the Lord’s body, O shrine of mysteries!
O queen of all who reign, O holy virgin maid,
Pray for us that through thee our wretched sin may be forgiven.
O compassion, O forgiving one, with the grace of the pure Spirit,
Entreat with us the true-judging King, thy fair fragrant child.’
Litanies such as this were learned by heart, recited aloud, and passed on from generation to generation. Since manuscripts were rare, and since most people were illiterate, litanies were an important means of teaching people about the mysteries concerning Our Lady, and about Mary’s relationship to her Son and to the Father, and to us, her adopted children. Such key teachings included the Annunciation, Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, Nativity, and Mary as Mediatrix, intercessor. In the first centuries of Christianity in Ireland, before the introduction of the Rosary in the 13th century, litanies fostered deep devotion to Mary, which has ever since been an authentic characteristic of the faith in Ireland.
In poetry devoted to Mary, the most common themes are comparisons with Eve (Mary being the second Eve who has been the means of undoing the sin of the first Eve); Mary’s virtues: purity, humility, sanctity; her suffering at the Passion; her closeness to her Son, especially as his Mother who tenderly nursed him; her power as an intercessor before God the Father, especially at the Last Judgement; her beauty, which is frequently compared to nature, the heavens and the seas.
Irish love of Our Lady, as expressed in word, image, artefact, and practice through the centuries, has been a constant source of immeasurable joy, strength and consolation to Irish people, especially during periods of famine, warfare and persecutions. Just as Our Lady was to the fore in the first evangelisation of Ireland, she is again at the heart of the new evangelisation of the 21st century. We pray that Mary will continue to favour us with her patronage and succour in this mission to our own people.