Sunday 12 February 2012

The Hymn in Praise of Saint Brigid by Saint Ultan

Saint Ultan is said to be the author of a hymn to Saint Brigid, Brigit Bé Bithmaith, and was believed by Colgan to be the author of one of her Lives. Saint Ultan is only one of a number of suggested authors for this hymn, which came into public view again in the 19th century with the publication of the two-volume work, the Irish Liber Hymnorum. This hymnbook of the early Irish church contains a number of hymns traditionally associated with various Irish saints, prefaced with accounts of their supposed authorship and date. The translation below of Brigit Bé Bithmaith and its preface are taken from Goidelica, an anthology of texts and translations by Whitley Stokes. The preface starts by listing four other potential authors besides Saint Ultan. The first candidate is Saint Columcille who composed the hymn as a protection in a storm. Alternatively, there is the possibility that three of Saint Brigid's own monastic familia composed it as a protection against poison while travelling to Rome, or Brocc the squinting, to whom is attributed another famous hymn, Ní car Brigit, may have been the author. Next comes a charming tale of Saint Brendan the Navigator, who is somewhat put out to find that Saint Brigid's reputation for sanctity is more feared by the monsters of the sea than his own and decides to find out why. Finally, Saint Ultan's claim is staked, and his monastery of Ardbraccan given as the place of composition. Note that Stokes himself calls the text 'Ultan's Hymn in Praise of Brigit'. It is clear from the preface that no matter who the original author was, the hymn was used a powerful lorica of protection, asking for the intercession of Saint Brigid against the principalities and powers while praising her burning brightness. Brigit, excellent woman! Who will argue with that?

(Lib, Hymn, 166.)

The Preface

Brigit excellent woman! It may be Colum-cille that made this hymn, and in the time of Aed son of Ainmire he made it ; in … (?) he made it. This is the cause of making it. A great storm came to Colum-cille when he was going over sea, and he came into Breccán's Caldron, and besought Brigit that a calm might come unto him, and he said 'Brigit bé bithmaith'.

Or it is Brocc the squinting that made it, and at the same time as 'Ní car Brigit' was made.

Or it is three of Brigit's family that made it. They were going to Rome and reached Placentia, and a man of the city met them outside and asked them whether they needed hospitality. They said that they needed it. Then he took them with him to his house, and a student, on his way from Rome, met them there and asked them whence they came and why they came. They said “for hospitality.” “ It is a mistake," says he, “for that is the custom of this man to kill his guests," and they asked that through the student's teaching. So poison was given to them in ale, and they praised Brigit for the saving of them, and they sang Brigit bé bithmaith. They drank the ale with the poison, and it did no harm to them. So the man of the house came to see whether the poison had killed them, and he beheld them alive, and he beheld a comely virgin amongst them. Thereafter he came in, and was seeking the virgin, and found her not, and he asked of them, “Why has the virgin gone?” And they said they had not seen her at all. Then a chain was put upon them, that they might be killed on the morrow unless they would disclose the virgin. Then the same student came to them on the morrow to see them, et invenit, &etc

Or it is Brenainn that made this hymn navigans mare etc.

Now came Brenainn thereafter to Kildare to Brigit that he might know why the monster in mare had given honour to Brigit beyond the saints besides.

Now, when Brenainn reached Brigit he asked her to confess in what wise the love of God was with her. Said Brigit to Brenainn, "Give thou, O cleric, thy confession prius and I will give (mine) thereafter." Said Brenainn, " From the day I took orders I never went over seven furrows without my mind (being) on God." " Good is the confession," quoth Brigit " Do thou, now, O nun," quoth Brenainn, " give thy confession." . " By the Son of the Virgin," quoth she, " from the hour I set my mind on Him I never took it from Him." " By God, O nun," quoth Brenainn, " the monsters are right though they give honour to thee beyond us"'

Or it is Ultan of Ardbreccáin who made this hymn. For Brigit's praise he made it. For he was of Dal Conchobair, and so it was with Brigit's mother, namely, Broicsech daughter of Dallbrónach. In the time, however, of the two sons of Aed Sláne it was made besides, for it is they that killed Suibne son of Colman Mór on one hand of Ultan. In Ardbreccan, moreover, it was made.

The Hymn

Brigit, excellent woman, a flame golden, delightful,
May (she), the sun dazzling splendid, bear us to the eternal kingdom!
May Brigit save us beyond throngs of demons!
May she overthrow before us (the) battles of every disease!
May she destroy within us our flesh's taxes
The branch with blossoms, the mother of Jesus!
The true virgin, dear, with vast dignity :
May I be safe always, with my saint of the Lagenians!
One of the pillars of (the) Kingdom with Patrick the pre-eminent,
The vesture over liga, the Queen of Queens!
Let our bodies after old age be in sackcloth
With her grace may Brigit rain on us, save us !

Whitley Stokes (ed.) Goidelica – Old and Early Middle-Irish Glosses, Prose and Verse, 2nd edition,(London, 1892), 133-7.

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