The feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, or Giniúint Mhuire gan Smál in the Irish Language, is one of the dearest feasts to Gaelic hearts.
Devotion to Mary's Immaculate Conception, although it is to be found in the earliest days of the Church, was not placed upon the Universal Calendar of the Church until 1708 by Pope Clement XI. Likewise, although the feast of the Immaculate Conception was being celebrated in Ireland long before 1708 (it is included in the calendar of the Martyrologium of Tallaght, c. 790, and the Féilre of St. Aengus, c. 800, and Synods in 1614, 1631 and 1685 declare it a holyday), we can trace the devotion in Ireland from before 1708, largely through the Franciscan Order and the friendship with Spain, whose Monarchs prided themselves upon their zeal for the Immaculate Conception.
The Irish Franciscan, Blessed John Duns Scotus, known as the Subtil Doctor (Doctor Subtilis), was the first to posit the solution to the great obstacle to the universal acceptance of the doctrine, namely, how could Mary be conceived free from all sin before the Redemption that her Son was to accomplish on Calvary had won the freedom of Mankind from sin.
Fr. Luke Wadding, O.F.M., had learned the pratice of devotion to the Immaculate Conception from his family. He had written a life of Blessed John Duns Scotus, the Vita Scoti. In 1618, King Phillip II of Spain appointed Fr. Wadding as theologian to the embassy that he sent to Rome to promote the definition of the Immaculate Conception as a Dogma of the Catholic Faith. Fr. Wadding was a mere thirty years old at the time.
Writing from Spain in 1625, Count Philip O’Sullivan Beare, nephew of the great O'Sullivan Beare, hero of Dunboy, makes reference to Ireland’s devotion to Mary and in particular to her Immaculate Conception. Likewise, the Irish College in Seville (founded in 1617) was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.
Hugh MacCaghwell, O.F.M., Archbishop of Armagh (d. 1626), composed a tract and a litany honouring the Immaculate Conception. Several other Franciscans such as Florence Conry, Archbishop of Tuam, John Ponce or Punch (professor at St. Isadore's in Rome with Wadding), Anthony Hickey (pupil of the great Archbishop MacCaghwell and professor at St. Isadore's) and Bonaventure Baron (also of St. Isadore's) wrote tracts in Our Lady’s honour on the same theme.
The link between St. Isadore's and present-day Ireland is a direct one in that, when the Papal States were invaded in 1870, many precious manuscripts that had been lodged there, having been saved from destruction at the hands of the heretic invaders at home, were returned to Ireland, to the Franciscan Convent at Merchant's Quay, Dublin, where the Church known as 'Adam and Eve's' is more properly called the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
On the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1650, the Catholic Confederation, sitting in the City of Kilkenny, and which then governed almost the entire Kingdom of Ireland solemnly consecrated the Kingdom to the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the following terms:
“By a unanimous vote of the Supreme Assembly it was decreed that the Virgin Mother of God, under her title of her Immaculate Conception, should be solemnly and publicly proclaimed Patroness of the Kingdom of Ireland, and that as a perpetual memorial to the happy event, the feast of the Immaculate Conception should be solemnly observed in Ireland from that day forward until the end of time.”
*The image of the Immaculate Conception in this post is by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), dated 1767-69, housed in the del Prado Museum in Madrid.
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