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0 Heart it! Gabriel Rosenstock 74
September 25, 2018
Gabriel Rosenstock
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Gabriel Rosenstock

Prayer is a ladder to Paradise, is an old Irish saying. A book of prayers came my way a few years ago, Paidreacha na Gaeilge/ Prayers in Irish, edited by Donla uí Bhraonáin. The publishers Cois Life announced recently that they are going to the wall – publishing in Irish hasn’t got a prayer, it seems. A pity.

The book makes use of artwork by Evie Hone (1894 – 1955) but its real riches lie in the weight of the simple prayers and prayer-poems gathered within.

On my Irish mother’s side of the family (my father was German) prayer was very much alive and the intonation of the family rosary in my grandmother’s house was like a Tibetan chant to my ears as a child, an aural memory of considerable force to this day.

Even die-hard humanists and atheists would be moved by the poetic power of Irish-language prayer and by the intimacy and primitive energy of the sacred keen:

These are the opening words sung by Iarla Ó Lionáird in his version of The Lament of the Three Marys: 

A Pheadair a Aspail/ An bhfaca tú mo ghrá geal/   Óch-óchón agus óchón ó /

Chonaic mé ar ball é á chéasadh ag an ngarda/ Óch-óchón agus óchón ó/

Cé hé an fear breá sin ar chrann na páise/   Óch-óchón agus óchón ó/

An é ná aithníonn tú do   Mhac, a Mháithrín?/ Óch-óchón agus óchón ó . . .

Oh Peter Apostle

Have you seen my Beloved

Óch-ochón agus óchón ó

I saw him a while ago

Tortured by guardsmen

Óch-ochón agus óchón ó

Who is that fine man upon the Passion Tree

Ah Mother, it’s your Son, do you not recognise me?

Óch-ochón agus óchón ó

It would be worth learning Irish just to acquire a first-hand knowledge of such uniquely moving material.

There’s a wonderful child-like innocence in many Gaelic prayers, an innocence hard to find in our smart-alecky world, prayers which owe a lot to pre-Christian pagan charms, prayers to local saints such as St. Gobnait of Ballyvourney and to saints of national importance such as Brigid, Patrick and Colm Cille.

Who were the people who composed these prayers and when? Not easy to say. And when did these prayers die out, for the most part? Did people say, ‘That’s it. No more prayers. No more prayers in Irish.’

Did the prayers die a swift death or a slow one? As the language froze on people’s lips, did some memory of old prayers linger on, remembered and uttered from time to time in what must have sounded like gibberish to a generation that had ‘converted’ to English?

My own mother frequently exclaimed, ‘A Thiarna Dia is a Rí na Tine’ which would translate as ‘Lord God and King of the Fire’. I became seriously interested in the language as a young man and began to write in Irish and told her that the second half of her prayer sounded dodgy to me. What it should be was ‘A Rí na Cruinne – King of the Universe.’ She conceded that my reading made more sense – in a word, she didn’t know what she was saying when she used that particular exclamation!

I took down a few of her favourite exclamations, such as ‘Ababúna!’ and you wouldn’t believe how surprised she was when I showed them to her in a dictionary. She had always thought they were mere nonsensical sounds from a forgotten time: that they were real words in a real language surprised her greatly.

Is prayer something natural? If so, is it unnatural to abandon prayers and charms? Or have we outgrown them? Are new prayers being composed as old ones die out?

I was in Thekaddy in India, pestered by mosquitoes. I decided I’d compose a charm against them, believing in the inherent power of the Irish language to be more effective than burning incense. After all, Irish bards were able to kill rats with nothing more than their linguistic skills, as Ben Jonson (1572-1637) reminds us: “Rhyme them to death as they do Irish rats in drumming tunes.”

Ortha in aghaidh na Muiscítí/ Charm against Mosquitoes

Saint Colm Cille who once had a pet fly

We call upon you now

Protect us from these little flying devils

That come between us and gentle sleep.

Teach them kindness and civility

And a bit of decent manners.

In the name of God.

Keep us unblemished, unbitten

And give succor to all who suffer

This night in Thekaddy.


And did it work? Yes, for a while. But I think you have to say it 108 times!

The traditional prayers I like best are not petitions. In fact, they read like little Zen sermons:

Ná hamharc go minic ar do bhróig,

       Is ná déan stró ar do bhrat,

       Siúil go huiríseal i ród

       Agus beannaigh faoi dhó don duine bocht.


Don’t be looking too often at your shoes

Don’t be too concerned at all about your cloak

Humbly walk along the road

And greet the poor person twice wherever you go.

Gabriel Rosenstock’s latest book is Stillness of Crows:




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