Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas Eve in Ireland

Frontispiece to The Irish Christmas (Dublin, 1917).

Today is Christmas Eve and as a child I remember hearing that on this night we should leave a light shining in the front window of the house. This was to act as a signal that even if there was 'no room at the inn' elsewhere, Saint Joseph and Our Blessed Lady would find shelter with us. Katharine Tynan in her poem 'Christmas Eve in Ireland' alludes to this tradition and also to the fact that people not only displayed lights but kept their doors unlocked. Obviously it was an earlier and more innocent age!


NOT a cabin in the Glen shuts its door to-night,
Lest the travellers abroad knock in vain and pass,
Just a humble gentleman and a lady bright
And she to be riding on an ass.

Grief is on her goodman, that the inns deny
Shelter to his dearest Dear in her hour of need;
That her Babe of royal birth, starriest, most high,
Has not where to lay His head.

Must they turn in sadness to the cattle byre
And the kind beasts once again shake the bed for
Not a cabin in the Glen but heaps wood on the fire
And keeps its lamps a-trim.

Now the woman makes the bed, smooths the linen
Spreads the blanket, soft and white, that her
own hands spun.
Whisht! is that the ass that comes, on his four
little feet,
Carrying the Holy One ?

Nay, 'twas but the wind and rain, the sand on the
A bitter night, yea, cruel, for folk to be abroad.
And she, not fit for hardship, outside a fast-closed
And her Son the Son of God!

Is it the moon that's turning the dark world to
bright ?
Is it some wonderful dawning in the night and
cold ?
Whisht! did you see a shining One and Him to
be clad in light
And the wings and head of Him gold ?

Who are then those people, hurrying, hasting,
And they all looking up in the sky this night of
wondrous things ?
Oh, those I think be shepherdmen, and they that
follow close
I think by their look be kings.

Not a cabin in the Glen shuts the door till day,
Lest the heavenly travellers come, knock again
in vain.
All the night the dulcimers, flutes, and hautboys
And the angels walk with men.

Saturday 8 December 2012

The Immaculate Conception - Ave Maria Purissima

The Eastern Churches have a number of religious salutations - 'funky' was the term I read once used to describe them - like "Glory to Jesus Christ" to which is responded "Glory forever" or "Christ is risen/baptized/born/in our midst" and so forth.

Actually the Western Church has them also, except nowadays they are not so well practiced.

One of the common salutations was this Marian one:


Hail Mary Most Pure
Without sin conceived.

This greeting was the byword of the "Immaculists" during the years when the Immaculate Conception was not yet dogma. It was especially prevalent in Spain and all the Spanish influenced countries particularly in central and South America. Spain particularly was on the side of the Immaculists - the country was placed udner the patronage of the Immaculate Conception and had the Office Sicut Lilium and the Mass Egredimini granted to it.

If you are wondering what I'm nattering about, until the mid 19th century, approx. before the dogma was declared by Pius IX, the de facto Office and Mass for the Immaculate Conception was the same as the Mass and Divine Office for the Nativity, with the word "Nativity" subsituted by "Conception" (no "Immaculate"). However, certain countries and orders were allowed to use a special Office and Mass - Sicut Lilium and Egredimini - which made direct the reference to the Immaculate Conception.

I'm veering off topic so I'd better retun to Spain. Apparently people used to "bawl" it out, according to one Protestant visitor.

I think some effort should be made to restore such pious acclamations to daily use. I'm tempted to answer the phone and say "Ave Maria Purissima?". I'd probably get a non-salutary "Eh?" or hang up in reply, though.

But if I can't use it in real life, I can on the Internet! So for the Immaculate Conception I'm greeting everyone by saying "Ave Maria Purissima".

Sine peccato Concepta!

Thursday 6 December 2012

Saint Nicholas: the Irish Connection

Below is a post which first appeared on my former blog Under the Oak in 2009. I have now closed this site but continue to blog about the Irish saints at my new blog Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae

December 6 is the commemoration of an eastern saint who is truly loved the world over - Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra. A Russian lady once told me that her people love Saint Nicholas so much that they are apt to forget he isn't actually Russian himself. This set me wondering if there might be an Irish dimension to the veneration of the great bishop of Myra. I found that there is, but that it owes more to the Normans and the Crusades than to the earlier native church. In his 12th-century Martyrology, Marianus O'Gorman begins the list of saints commemorated today with 'Nicolaus a holy man'. The Cathedral of Galway, constructed in 1320, was dedicated to Saint Nicholas in his capacity as a protector of seafarers. He was seen as an appropriate patron for a rising commercial city and indeed, the great bishop of Myra is the diocesan patron of Galway and is honoured as such in the Litany of Irish Saints. But Ireland makes an even more extraordinary claim in relation to Saint Nicholas - it claims to be the place where he is buried! Below is an article from an Irish newspaper which summarizes the story:

CURIOSITIES: SANTA CLAUS may well be buried in a little country graveyard in south Kilkenny. Incredible as this might seem there is evidence to substantiate the possibility that Saint Nicholas of Myra, the original Santa Claus, is buried just west of Jerpoint Abbey, one of the finest Cistercian ruins in Ireland, in Co Kilkenny. The unmarked grave is in the ruined church at Newtown-Jerpoint (two kilometres outside Thomastown) once the site of a thriving Norman town that was abandoned in the 17th century probably due to plague, writes Gerry Moran.

St Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Turkey, died in AD 342 and was buried there. How his remains, or a portion of them, arrived in south Kilkenny has much to do with the Norman crusaders.

Jerpoint Abbey was founded around 1158 by Donnchadh Mac Giolla Phádraig, King of Ossory. In 1180, it was taken over by the Cistercian order. In 1200, William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, of Kilkenny Castle, decided to build a new town just across the river from Jerpoint Abbey. He called the town Nova Villa Juxta Geripons meaning "The New Town Across from Jerpoint". That same year the Church of St Nicholas of Myra was built in the town and, according to the historian Canon Carrigan, the tomb was laid that same year also.

When Strongbow invaded Ireland in 1169, his most trusted lieutenant was Sir Humphrey De Fraine. When the church of Newtown-Jerpoint was built and dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra in 1200, the most powerful Anglo-Norman baron in south Kilkenny was Nicholas De Fraine, son of Sir Humphrey.

The story goes that the Norman Knights of Jerpoint, the crusading De Fraines (or De Freynes) when forced to evacuate the Holy Land exhumed the remains of St Nicholas of Myra and brought them to Normandy from where they eventually found their way to Jerpoint. The remains were laid to rest beneath a slab, now broken across the centre, depicting a monk in habit and cowl. The grave, whether it be that of the real Santa Claus or not, can still be seen to this day. [see photograph above]

I am cynical about these old stories that supposedly go back into the mists of time, often the truth is that they cannot be traced back beyond the beginnings of the Victorian tourist era. I would be interested to know how far back this one about Saint Nicholas can really be charted in the historical record, if this is a genuine medieval tradition, one would expect to find some mention of it somewhere. I wouldn't be surprised at all if it cannot be traced back any further than the 19th century. I wouldn't be surprised either if it receives a new lease of life in our own time when yarns about secret lore, knights, crusaders and relics have topped the bestseller lists.