From Treasures of Irish Christianity: People and Places, Images and Texts, Salvador Ryan and Brendan Leaky, editors
The Liber Hymnorum, the Book of Hymns, survives in two manuscript copies from the eleventh century. It is an anthology of prayers and hymns that formed part of the liturgy of the medieval Irish Church. Most of the hymns are associated with native saints or church personages. A small handful is attributed to more universal figures such as the Virgin Mary, Saint Zachariah, and Saint Hilary.
Most of the thirty-four hymns are in Latin. They include the earliest surviving poem (fifth century) composed in that language in either Ireland or Britain. This is Saint Sechnall’s hymn praising Saint Patrick’s missionary work. Nine of the hymns are in Irish, and six of these are early compositions dating from the seventh to the ninth century. In language and theme these Irish hymns illustrate the strong native element in community worship in early Irish Christianity.
A number of the texts in the Book of Hymns are of a general devotional nature in praise of God, Jesus, or, as in the eighth-century poem by Cú Chuimhne, of “Mary the marvelous mother, who gave birth to her [own] father.” Cú Chuimhne’s Hymn – “Cantemus in omni die” – is of interest also, in that it refers explicitly to the choral element in the performance of these hymns.
Other hymns were probably intended to be sung on the feast days of particular saints: non-native saints such as Saint Michael, Saint Martin, and Saint Philips; or, more often, one of Ireland’s great trinity – Patrick, Brigid, and Colm Cille. Fiacc’s Hymn, for example, is a metrical life of Saint Patrick, while Broccán’s Hymn is devoted to an account of the miracles performed by Saint Brigid during her lifetime. The latter hymn also refers to something mentioned more than once in these texts: the time-honored identification of Brigid with the Virgin Mary: “It was clear from her deeds that she was the unique mother of the Son of the Great King.” Another text, Colmán’s Hymn, ends with an invocation to all three of these saints, and also emphasizes the community element of this part of the liturgy: “A blessing on the patron Patrick, with the saints of Ireland about him, a blessing on this monastery and on all within it.”
A prominent theme of the hymns, particularly those in Irish, is the appeal for protection, both physical and spiritual. Recitation of some of the poems, we are told, acted as a defense against dangers such as plague, poison, and sudden death.
The more powerful of the hymns are distinguished by personal requests to God or Christ to act as a bodyguard. In the words of Sanctán’s Hymn: “God behind me, God on my left, God before me, God on my right; may God help me against every danger that I risk; let there be a bridge of life beneath me, and the blessing of God the Father above me.” This reaches its apogee in Saint Patrick’s Hymn, a renowned eighth-century incantation which, in invoking protection against the “spells of women, smiths, and druids,” reflects in part the concerns of the early Irish Church with countering paganism. It belongs to a wider genre known as lorica or lúireach (“protective breastplate”), and its recital was said to give to Saint Patrick’s followers the power to pass undetected by their enemies. It summons the powers of Heaven and nature against every evil, and asks Christ to be present in all places:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I stand, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
Later than any of the other compositions in the Hymn Book is a short poem by Máel Ísu Úa Brolchán, a famous poet of the community of Armagh who died in the monastery of Lismore in 1086. This is one of the finest lyrics of the period, in which Máel Ísu addresses the Holy Spirit and reprises the theme of seeking protection against spiritual and physical harm. Like many other hymns in the Hymn Book, although composed centuries ago, it has travelled well over time, retaining its relevance and beauty of expression to the present day.
In Spirut nóeb immune,
innunn, ocus ocunn;
in Spirut nóeb chucunn
táet, a Christ, co hopunn.
In Spirut nóeb d’aittreb
ar cuirp is ar n’anma,
díar snádud co solma
ar gábud, ar galra.
Ar demnaib, ar pheccdaib,
ar iffern co n-ilulcc,
a Ísu, ron-nóeba,
ron-sóera do Spirut.
May the Holy Spirit be about us, in us, and with us; let the Holy Spirit, O Christ, come to us speedily.
May the Holy Spirit dwell in our body and our soul; may he protect us readily against peril, against diseases.
Against devils, against sins, against hell with many evils, O Jesus, may thy Spirit hallow us and deliver us.