Thursday, June 21, 2012

The role of the Anmcara in the Early Irish Church

RIA MS 23 P 3 f14v
The Rules of Carthach and Cormac
The role of the Anmcara (Soul Friend) was vitally important in the early Irish church. Outside of Ireland many Christians in the early medieval church feared to confess their sins (particularly serious ones). The washing away of ones sins at baptism was regarded by many in the church as a fearful thing, since what could the Christian do if he sinned in a major way after his baptism? Augustine’s parents did not have him baptized as an infant for this reason, (Augustine was later baptized in his thirties). For those who had been baptized and later fell into sin there was the opportunity for a second ‘baptism of tears’. This was public confession followed by a strict penance, which usually involved being separated from the main congregation at church services, dressing in sackcloth, and being denied regular access to the Eucharist. This public confession was offered once, a last chance, any further lapses meant excommunication. As a result many Christians did not partake in confession but put it off until they were old and near death.

The early Irish church adopted a different approach. Instead of a once off public confession they advised all Christians (lay and religious) to have a Anmcara, a soul friend, to whom they could privately confess their sins and receive correction and advice. This was not a once off event, but part of the daily life of the Christian. The Rule of St. Carthach of Druim Fertain (c. 630), outlined the duties of the soul friend, such as leading by example, encouraging a candid and contrite confession of sin, listening with silence and being able to teach the penitent the way of truth. The ninth century Rule of Cormac lauded the value of a humble learned Anamcara (anmchara umal eóla) who could encourage his brothers to converse with the Scriptures (comrad fri Canoin) and live holy lives.

The Anmcara was seen by the Irish as someone who was both a trusted confessor and also a teacher who brought the penitent back to Scripture. While the Anmcara was someone to confess your sins to, they did not act in a sacramental capacity i.e. bestowing absolution. They simply were seen as a spiritual doctor directing the penitent back to God. The Irish writer Cummean (c.650) described the ‘medicines of Holy Scripture’ as central to the correct understanding of repentance. Comgall, sixth century Abbot of Bangor, was credited with the Irish proverb, colann cen ceann duine cen anmacharait” (a person without a Anmcara is as a body without a head). The day Comgall’s old soul friend died he described himself as a body without a head. One of the younger monks under his rule came to him with a Gospel book and advised Comgall to pray for a new soul friend. Comgall was moved to see the young monk display such concern for him and so he took him as his new Anmcara. The young monk had displayed the key characteristics for an Anmcara, he was concerned for the spiritual health of another and he brought the Gospel to them. In essence that was all that a true soul friend was required to do.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's Sunday evening and I'm wrecked

RIA MS 23 P 16.
Page 46
I love the glosses that an Irish scribe added to an Leabhar Breac. They read something like Tweets or Facebook updates. Small notes in the margin of his manuscript that recorded his fatigue and cold as he slowly worked through the laborious task of copying out by hand an Irish manuscript of sermons and martyrologies.

On page 33 he lamented in a marginal note, "Twenty days from today to Easter Monday, and I am cold and tired without fire or shelter."

Further on he paused from transcribing a homily on the circumcision of Christ to record "I am weary both head and foot" and again on another page "alas, I am so tired!"

Still, he kept going and when the going got really tough he paused to remind himself on page 46.

"Cumain lium, a Christ, bat scribend uair, isam toirsech indiú. Noin Domnaig and budesta."

(I shall remember, O Christ, that I am writing of Thee, because I am wrecked today. It's now Sunday evening.)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Queen Elizabeth II and the Nugent Primer

Queen Elizabeth II at Dublin Castle 2011

Opening page to Nugent's Primer
I remember when Queen Elizabeth II visited Ireland in 2011. It was a historic visit, the first time a British monarch came to Ireland since we won our independence from the UK back in 1922. The part I remember best was the opening line to her speech at Dublin Castle “a Uachtaráin agus a chairde”, spoken in that unmistakable Windsor brogue. I was impressed, it was probably more Irish than Bertie Ahern could have put together. But of course the real significance was in the symbolism. A British monarch addressing the Uachtaráin na hÉireann, and as gaeilge no less!

Nugent's Irish alphabet
with the ancient Ogham titles 
By a curious twist of history there was also another British monarch by the name of Elizabeth who wanted to learn a cúpla focail. Elizabeth I (1533-1603) requested a manuscript with a few Irish phrases for her to learn. She was fond of employing foreign expressions at court and it was probably nothing more than a curiosity. Christopher Nugent an Old English Baron from Westmeath obliged her and wrote a manuscript outlining the history of the Irish language, its alphabet and a list of phrases with Latin and English translation. Nugent went far beyond providing just a list of phrases, he wrote a mini apologetic for Irish culture and civilization. He was perhaps naïve in thinking that the English court would adopt a more civil attitude to a race they conceived to be little better than animals once they read his book. The manuscript still survives and is kept in the Benjamin Iveagh Library in Dublin.

List of Irish phrases
translated into Latin and English
from Nugent's Primer
As it turned out for Nugent, his love of Gaelic culture soon drew the displeasure of the crown. He was later arrested on the suspicion of treason against Elizabeth I and died in Dublin Castle in 1602. This was the same castle where Elizabeth II addressed the President of Ireland and her new Irish friends as gaeilge in 2011. Another sad irony of Irish history.

It was a brighter moment in the annals of Anglo-Irish relations when the Queen of England trod on the sacred sod of Croke Park and the Rock of Cashel. Yes, I was impressed by Elizabeth's speech that day. It meant something to me to hear the Queen of England show the Irish people and their culture such respect. As a parting gift the Irish state presented Elizabeth with a facsimile of Nugent's Primer, so she can keep practicing her Irish. As an Irishman I would like to wish her all the best on her Jubilee, go sabhála Dia an Bhanríon!