Irish – A Blessed Language

“Oh the word of my Lord, deep within my being…” is a familiar hymn based on the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah could say this because when he tried to evade the mission the Lord put before him, he was told not to be afraid.

“I then said, ‘Ah, Lord Yahweh; you see, I do not know how to speak: I am only a child!’

But Yahweh replied, ‘Do not say, “I am only a child,” for you must go to all to whom I send you and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of confronting them, for I am with you to rescue you, Yahweh declares.’

Then Yahweh stretched out his hand and touched my mouth, and Yahweh said to me: ‘There! I have put my words into your mouth. Look, today I have set you over the nations and kingdoms, to uproot and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’”

Jeremiah Laments the destruction of Jerusalem – Rembrandt (1606 – 1669)

“I have put my words into your mouth.” This was the occasion of an interesting insight given in the homily of Fr. Johnnie Cusack.

Just as God had put his words into the mouth of the prophet, so also did he put his words into the Irish language. As Fr. Cusack developed this thought, he claimed that the Irish language is so rich in blessings and pious invocations that it is hard not to see that the consciousness of the people was alive to the presence of God in every aspect of their lives.

For hundreds of years, Irish people had a love for the spoken and written word. Many of the world’s most acclaimed writers were Irish, some even winners of the prestigious Nobel Prize for literature. This love of words and talent for poetry and song combined with the deep-seated links to Christianity, brought about a unique tome of Irish blessings and invocations. We hear them and see them written for wedding ceremonies, funerals and other special occasions. In fact so many of these words have come down to us over the centuries that we can be sure there is an Irish blessing for almost every life event.

The poet and patriot Patrick Pearse declared that the identity of a nation is tied into its consciousness of language “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.” (A country without a language is a country without a soul.) If language then is part of the identity of a people, was anything lost when traditional blessings were translated into English?

As time went on, blessings began to lose their God-centredness. In fact many translations have only an approximate meaning. Take for example “May his soul rest at the right side of God” (Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam). This is the traditional Irish blessing for the dead which is usually translated as simply “May he rest in peace.” To translate it as simply “May he rest in peace” is not the same thing. The latter is just a platitude to which no-one, even an atheist, could object. The original is a sincere prayer that the deceased person will find eternity at God’s right side. To be on God’s left side would mean something not to be desired. This is just one instance of how an entire meaning can be changed due to approximate translation.

What a beautiful prayer it was to say “Go mbeadh Dia eadrainn agus gach dochar!” (May God be between us and all harm!) when news of the unexpected reached us, especially when there was cause for concern. How rare it would be to hear those words today! Yet in our own country they were seldom more needed than now.

Irish Gaelic blessings are a massive art of the Irish language and culture which traditionally respected the accumulated wisdom of the elders and passed on their knowledge to the generations.

Some blessings are too ancient to trace but there are many older Irish men and women still familiar with using the names of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary in everyday language. It has also largely been forgotten that in Irish, even the days of the week have religious significance.

Dé Domnaigh (Sunday) means “God’s day” and refers to the Resurrection. In Irish, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mean first fast, the day between the fasts and fast. Indeed, it is hard to get away from the original Irish greeting of “Dia Dhuit” (God be with you) to which the traditional response is “Dia is Mhuire Dhuit” (God and Mary be with you.)

The Irish have a unique word for Mary (Muire) which is distinct from the Irish Christian name of many women (Máire) Our Blessed Lady is given the title Muire na nGael (Mary of the Irish) which indicates the honour afforded her as “Mary of the Irish.” A person with any kind of disability is lovingly described as Duine le Dhia (God’s person)

What has happened to Irish people who are reluctant to remember the richness of the language God placed in us? While other countries extol their contrasting cultures we seem to be ashamed of our differences. Although historically many times invaded, Irish people nevertheless retained a character that was distinct, sometimes giving rise to humorous quotations: “In England the situation is serious but never hopeless, in Ireland it is hopeless but never serious.” In writing about our lost nobility, G.K. Chesterton declared
“The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

Like the chosen people of the Old Testament, who clamoured for their own king to make them like other nations, when their own King was God himself, we Irish failed to realise that we had no need to emulate others. As one commentator claimed, we traded our gold for plastic and now have to live with the consequence.

Language can be understood as what is planted in us, giving expression to how we live our lives. This is what Fr. Cusack meant by claiming that God put his words into our language. The words spoken to the Israelites might also apply to the Irish.

“I will plant my law within them and I will write it on their hearts and I will be their God and they will be my people. (Jer 3 I :31-34)
Fr. Cusack also made the point that we use other kinds of greetings and farewells except now we say “Good luck” or “Take care” and more recently, “Stay safe.”

Since we no longer include God’s name automatically in everyday speech, perhaps we can look on this as another challenge to our Faith. Although many Catholics, especially older ones, will say “God bless” or “God willing,” it is becoming more and more rare and almost unknown in the speech of young people.

Apart from the spoken word, it should not be difficult to end a text message or an email with a few words that we hope will enable the receiver to think of our Creator and Lord even briefly. Before we get entirely caught up in saying the platitudes that have become so familiar, let us make a conscious effort to do this, if God spares us.

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