The Virgin Mary

From the sixth century onwards, references to Mary, mother of Jesus are increasingly found in Irish religious literature, especially in hymns, poems and litanies. They are mostly devotional in tone, concentrating on her earthly life, virginity, place in heaven, influence with God.

O Mary, loveliest jewel, thou hast saved our race
O truly lovely light
O garden for kings, shining one, gleaming one, who practisest bright chastity, beauteous, resplendent, golden coffer, thou holy one from heaven.
Poem recorded in the eleventh century, said to have been written by Colmcille quoted in Peter O'Dwyer, Mary: a history of devotion in Ireland, Dublin, 1988, p. 67.

Later, she was addressed in litanies, sequences of highly imaginative titles of honour and devotion. The earliest one from Ireland contains the following titles, amongst others:

- O greatest of Marys

- O beauty of virgins

- O paragon of women

- O fountain of the gardens

- O mother of affection and forgiveness

- O breast of infants

- O mother of the golden light

- O star of the sea

- O gate of heaven

- O garden enclosed

- O golden casket

- O true fountain sealed

- O bed of kindness and compassion

- O adder of heaven.

Litany from Leabhar Breac quoted in Peter O'Dwyer, Mary: a history of devotion in Ireland, Dublin, 1988 p. 70.

Her Gaelic name Muire was special to her and was not used for naming girls. However, few representations of her have survived from the early Christian period. Indeed, few females appear amongst the portraits in Irish illuminated manuscripts or amongst the figure sculptures on Irish metalwork and stone crosses of this period. Neither do the three women present at the crucifixion of Christ appear in representations of the scene.

Adam and Eve with the Tree of Knowledge are found occasionally on high crosses while the Book of Kells has a well-known full page picture of Mary and the infant Jesus, one of the earliest of its kind in Europe.

Adam offers Eve the apple - Moone Cross

Eve offers forbidden fruit to Adam on the High Cross at Moone, Co. Kildare

Book of Kells Madonna

Detail from the Madonna and Child in the Book of Kells
Permission of the Board of Trinity College, Dublin

 Flight into Egypt - Moone Cross

The flight into Egypt on the
High Cross at Moone, Co. Kildare


  1. List the images of light in connection with the Virgin Mary in the above prayers.
  2. Which image do you think is most attractive? Give reasons for your choice.
  3. Which image, if any, do you think is most puzzling? Suggest an appropriate meaning?
  4. Describe the attitude to the Virgin Mary in the above prayers.
  5. Why do you think the name Muire was special to her?
  6. Why do you think there are more portraits and figure sculptures of males than of females in early Christian Irish art?


  1. Compare the impression of the Virgin Mary presented in the above prayers with that presented in the Gospel of St. Luke and discuss your findings.
  2. Study 'Women in the AFM' at the end of this section.
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