In the National Museum of Ireland there is a manuscript containing Irish language poems, written some time in the seventeenth century. About fifty years ago, a scholar named James Carney edited and translated the poems, and showed that they were probably written not in the seventeenth century, but in the eighth century. The poet was identified as Blathmac, son of Cú Brettan.
Two of the poems are very interesting for anyone who has a devotion to the Rosary. Each contains (or originally contained) 150 stanzas, imitating the 150 psalms in the Psalter, just as did the three fifties of Hail Marys in the traditional Rosary.
The first poem is in the style of a ‘keening’ poem. This was a standard genre of poetry in the Ireland of the time, and a patron might pay a poet to write a poem in honour of his deceased child, for example, or kinsman. In the case of our poem, the one ‘keened’ is Christ, and the ‘patron’ is Mary herself. The poem begins:
Come to me, loving Mary,
That I may keen with you your very dear one.
Throughout the poem this intimate tone is adopted, with Mary addressed in a natural, affectionate fashion. She is not just ‘Maire’, but ‘Mairenat’ (dear Mary), ‘Maire muingelnat’ (little bright-necked Mary), ‘Maire mas’ (beautiful Mary), ‘boídMaire’ (loving Mary) and ‘Maire co llí’ (bright Mary). Over 150 stanzas which mark with great sorrow and solemnity the sufferings of the good Christ, the repetition of the name of Mary is a constant reminder of the humanity of the one suffering. Just as in the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary, our sorrow is kept fresh by viewing the awful events of the Passion through the eyes of Christ’s mother:
Most difficult, most grievous was every tribulation
of holy Christ, greater than that of any renowned captive;
sad was it, Mary, the deep wound of points upon your first-born.
And throughout, the poet himself unites his sorrow to that of Mary: ‘I myself will lament your son with you’.
The second poem is very different – it is not a poem of mourning, but a praise poem, with the same subject and the same ‘patron’ as the first poem. Mary is told the praises of her Son, and she herself is also addressed in terms of praise. She is the ‘sun of our race’, the ‘sun of women’, and with Christ in her womb she was like a ‘chosen coffer of red gold’. Again though, Christ is the focus, and with Mary as his constant point of reference the poet praises Christ, risen from the dead. With an imagination informed by faith, he envisions the ‘household of Heaven’ breaking into tears as they welcome Christ on his Ascension into Heaven. Blathmac describes the power of Christ over the heavens, the sun and the moon, and ‘the chess-board of beautiful stars’. And he imagines in great detail his second coming, all the time addressing his words to Christ’s mother:
Beautiful maiden, were a hundred tongues to speak of it
they could not recount the extent of your son’s power.
Blathmac wrote his poems centuries before the Rosary developed, but anyone who prays the Rosary regularly will instantly sympathise with his approach to the Christian mysteries. He situates himself in the snug space between Mary and her Son, a place of tender sorrow and world-conquering joy. The first poem ends with the same words it opens with, which simply sums up the spirituality of the Rosary: ‘Tair cucum a boídMaire…’ – ‘Come to me, loving Mary, that we may converse with compassionate hearts’.
Br. Conor Benedict McDonough, O.P. St. Saviour’s Dublin.