The Irish God: Protector, Provider, & Punisher

cliffs in Ireland
Photo by Thomas Verleene on Unsplash

Every culture relates to its religion and gods in its own way. Some practice polytheism; others worship only one deity. Some believe in capricious, selfish gods; others prefer benevolent, omnipotent ones. Irish Catholics worshiped, and still worship, a trinitarian God–the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–who serves as a source of salvation, security, and even vengeance. In Irish poetry from the seventh to the nineteenth century, God plays a multifaceted role, acting as a protector, provider, and punisher.

Beginning as early as the seventh century, Irish poets entreat God for protection. Colm Cille’s “Sét no tíag téiti Críst” [The road on which I go”] acts as a prayer that seeks God’s protection on the roads (Bone and Marrow 41). Almost a thousand years later, Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird echoes Colm Cille’s plea for protection, hoping that God will “Go mbé ag rinnfheitheamh romhaibh” [“prepare thy way before thee”] for Aodh Ruadh, his patron, who ventured into mainland Europe to secure aid to launch an Irish rebellion (Bone and Marrow 291). A hundred years thereafter, Tadhg Ó Neachtain beseeches God to “Mo Phítear beag dílis cuir chugam-sa slán” [“Send my little Pítear safely to me”] (Bone and Marrow 531). Despite such variation in time and circumstance, God’s role remains the same: a protector of travelers. However, just as conflicts in Ireland escalated over the centuries, so too did the intensity of the Irish’s entreaties for protection.

When the English crown and its proxies asserted its rule over Ireland, starting with the “surrender and regrant” policy of the mid-1500s and continuing beyond the “Glorious” Rebellion of 1688-1691, the Irish turned to God for a different kind of protection, one that secured them more than safe travels. In “Tuireamh Shomhairle Mhic Dhomhnaill” (“Elegy for Sorley MacDonnell”), Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta directly acknowledges God’s role as a protector by naming Him as the being who “Críosta da shlánaigh síol Ádhaimh as gach dócúl” [“saved all Adam’s people”] (Bone and Marrow 437), a title steeped with the implied hope that God will do the same for Mac Cuarta’s people. More explicitly, Eoghan Ó Dubhthaigh begs God, or, specifically, His Son, to “A aoinMhic Dé, ainic í” [“protect”] Ireland (Bone and Marrow 213), while Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird implores Christ to “Tógaibh láimh, a Mheic Muire” [“lift up thy hand”] against the English (Bone and Marrow 243), providing two more examples of the Irish entreating God for protection against the English. Revealing both the true severity of the Irish’s plight and their deep reliance on God, Dáibhí Ó Bruadair posits that “Acht inneamh an fheartaigh is faire na n-uasal sin” [“the hand of their Lord”] remains the only thing standing between Ireland’s women and children and the end of a sword (Bone and Marrow 423). In a much graver situation, God becomes a much more serious protector, actively standing between swords rather than simply guarding roads.

During this period of intense English-Irish conflict, God often straddles the line between provider and protector as Irish poets beseech him for deliverance. On one hand, God acts as a provider by actually providing salvation. On the other hand, God acts as a protector since deliverance from the English often equates to protection from them. Regardless of the combination thereof, poets place God in both these roles by pleading for deliverance from danger, for a savior to protect them from the English, and for freedom from captivity (Bone and Marrow 457; 321; 177). In a more general sense, Salvador Ryan’s dissertation,“Popular Religion in Gaelic Ireland 1445-1645,” suggests that “God was seen to intervene, then, as a benevolent force in the lives of people, often saving them from themselves or, rather, saving their souls from their bodies” (19). Whether God saves the Irish from outside forces or themselves, he protects them from evil, while providing them with salvation.

The urgency with which the Irish beseech God in the sixteenth century onwards contrasts with the banality of their requests and thanksgivings in earlier centuries. In a fourteenth-century praise poem, for example, a bard thanks God not for deliverance nor salvation as one might expect, but for his subject’s “Béal dearg tana” [“fine red mouth”] (Bone and Marrow 157). Perhaps even more frivolous, early bards declare both their poetic ability and simply their poetry a “Asgaidh Dé sein go soiléir” [“gift of God”] (Bone and Marrow 113; 79). They do not concern themselves with saving their society from destruction like later poets. On the contrary, they engage in their own self-aggrandizement in God’s name. As Salvador Ryan remarks, “theology does not exist in a vacuum” (3). It changes and evolves with the era. Before the English-Irish conflicts escalated, bards typically did not need to beg God for their lives, resulting in Him acting as a different kind of provider.

For comparison, between 1687 and 1688, after English invasion, Irish rebellions, and, finally, the accession of a Catholic king, Diarmaid mac Sheáin Bhuí Mac Cárthaigh gives “céad buidhe re dia” [“a hundred thanks to God”] for overthrowing the Presbyterians and restoring the Irish to their rightful status (Bone and Marrow 413-419). Across Catholic Ireland, the Irish expected King James II’s accession to “be the prelude to the restoration of their religion” and land (Gibney 134), something they desperately needed as Protestants seized more and more of their holdings. To highlight the deteriorating nature of the Irish’s situation, in 1641, Catholics owned 66% of Irish land, but, by 1675, the number dropped to 29% (Gibney 138). The Catholic Irish hoped that a Catholic king would return their land to them, which mac Sheáin Bhuí Mac Cárthaigh captures in the grateful, triumphant tone of his poem. He attributes much more to God than a pretty mouth or his poetic skill; instead, he marks God responsible for social upheaval and, consequently, his and all of Ireland’s good fortune. Throughout the centuries, God fulfills his role as a provider in Irish poetry in many fashions depending on the political and social situations of the time.

Unfortunately the good fortune remarked upon in “Céad buidhe re dia” [“A hundred thanks to God”] proved fleeting, a brief light quick to appear and equally swift in its extinction. As a result, in the periods before and after King James II’s accession to the throne, Irish poets looked to God for restoration and healing. In response to the Cromwellian conquest of 1649-53, for example, Seán Ó Conaill wrote,

Ní díon dúinn cnoc ná caolta.

Níl ár leigheas as liaig í n-Éirinn

Acht Dia do ghuí’s na naoimh i n-aonacht.

[We have no shelter from hill, wood, or marshes.

The physicians of Ireland cannot heal us

we can only pray to God and the saints in unison.] (qtd. in Gibney 141)

Here God functions as a source of salvation and hope: the Catholics cannot access necessary shelter or healing through earthly means, so they turn to God. In his analysis of vernacular theology in bardic poetry, Thomas Finan claims that “God the Father is sometimes referred to as an herb that heals humanity of our illness, sin” (40), so Ó Conaill’s implication that God can provide healing that human physicians cannot echoes an understanding of God established as early as the thirteenth century. A healing God is a providing God. Ergo, Ó Conaill’s poem and Finan’s analysis further develop the Irish God’s providing role.

After the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688-1691, a Protestant retook the throne, dashing any hopes for the restoration of Irish Catholics’ land or status. Fewer poets thanked God for more trivial items, pleading instead for support and help against forces dedicated to eradicating them and their society. Providing one instance of the Irish beseeching God for help against the English, Aogán Ó Rathaille “Ar ghoirm Mhic Mhuire dom fhortacht” [“[invokes] Mary’s Son for succor”] in his quest to free a maiden from a symbolic representation of King George I (Bone and Marrow 461). Likewise, Lochlann Ó Dálaigh hopes God will “Clann Phroinsias na bhfuighleadh dtaidhiuir” [“restore the children of Francis”] to their monastery, which the English ransacked (Bone and Marrow 223). When Ó Dálaigh wrote his poem, the English invaded Ireland and attempted to destroy all vestiges of Catholicism, placing him in a considerably more dire situation than the early bards. Similarly, Fearflatha Ó Gnímh questions the Trinity if Ireland will “An mbia an dream-sa ar deóradhacht” [“be in exile”] much longer or if the Irish “Nó an mbia an t-athaoibhneas againn” [“will have [their] joy restored?”] (Bone and Marrow 255). Again, a poet marks God responsible for providing the Irish’s good fortune: a substantial task in a tumultuous time. The poets look to God not only for the restoration of Irish society in general, but for the restoration of individuals as well, such as an imprisoned Irishman, Niall Garbh Ó Domhnaill (Bone and Marrow 297). Realizing God’s role in aiding the Irish against the English in real life, Nicholas Canny recounts that “the Irish rebels claimed that the opportunity for revolt had been provided them by God” (114), proving that the sentiments extended beyond poems. In a time of greater political and social upheaval, the Irish’s behests increase proportionally, but their provider–God–remains the same.

In addition to protecting and providing, God performs a third function in the lives of the Irish: punishing. Salvador Ryan suggests that God’s role as a punisher stems from medieval Europe’s belief in an Old Testament God (15), one who smites unbelievers and transforms people into pillars of salt. Even in a poem exalting God’s goodness as a provider, mac Sheáin Bhuí Mac Cárthaigh cautions,

Le heagla dé bídh déirceach carthannach

Is gan dearmad déinidh réir na n-aitheanta

[For fear of God give alms and be kind;

Do not neglect to live by the Commandments.] (Bone and Marrow 419)

The poet lays the foundation for a God who punishes those who disobey Him, for why else would one fear Him? Albeit in a slightly different circumstance, Ó Clabaigh, an Irish annalist, asserts that God, through “miracles,” punished a renowned historian’s wife for smothering her husband in his sleep (qtd. in Ryan 16). With the “miracles of God” serving as the vehicle of punishment, this historical account provides context for the poets’ depictions of a vengeful God. Most damningly, Geoffrey Keating refers “to the punishment of God on the non-repentant taking one of three forms: death by the sword, famine or plague” (244-247). In describing three ways God punishes people, Keating takes God’s role as a punisher for granted. Poets and historians from mac Sheáin Bhuí Mac Cárthaigh to Ryan to Keating all portray God as a punisher, highlighting a third aspect of the Irish God.

In their desire for God to punish their enemies, Irish poets emphasize God’s third role. Foreshadowing this other side of God, Pádraigín Haicéad invokes God’s name as he denounces what he calls a “Ach fuagraim tréad an chaolriagh chuimsithe” [“narrow-minded tethered herd”], members of the Dominican order he accuses of censoring the Irish language (Bone and Marrow 141). His invocation of God as he denounces the alleged censors begins the process of associating God with helping his people as well as hurting those against them. Interestingly enough, Haicéad implicitly calls God to help him punish fellow Catholics. If poets believe God will help them punish or denounce Catholics, then it seems reasonable to assume that God’s willingness to punish will extend to those staunchly against Him. When paired with the assertion that the English “Is leo nach mian do Dhia seal géilleadh” [“have no desire to show obedience of God”] (Bone and Marrow 371), it comes as no shock that Irish poets call upon God to punish the English. Throughout Salvador Ryan’s dissertation, he refers to God as “a partisan God” and mentions that Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh also perpetuates the idea of a God who intervenes on the side of His people against enemies (17). Likewise, in his poetic rallying cry, “Iar dTionsgnadh don Chogadh so na hÉireann insa Bhliadhain 1641” [“On the Outbreak of This War in Ireland in the Year 1641”], Haicéad states “A lámh ag Dia san deabhaidh” [“God is certainly on our side”], while begging that “Dia leó’s a mbiodhbha gan bhrígh” [“God be with them, may He weaken their foes”], petitioning God to punish their enemies (Bone and Marrow 327). Compounding the point, Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill claims that God’s vengeance will lay the English low (Bone and Marrow 467). Even in a poetic controversy, God’s punishing nature asserts itself in the Catholic Church’s concluding argument that “Is ar fheartaibh Mhic Dé, nár mhairidh tú i gcéim” [“by the miracle of God”] the Protestant Church will be sorry (Bone and Marrow 485). Irish poets’ belief in a punishing God reveals itself as they call on Him to denounce, lay low, and make sorry those they believe deserve it.

While the Irish often focus on God’s ability to punish others, they realize that God exacts vengeance on them as well. Dáibhí Ó Bruadair recognizes that God does not exempt the Irish from His wrath as he acknowledges that the “A athair na bhflathas ó ar fearadh na fraoichbhéime” [“Father of Heaven…has struck us so forcefully”] and begs Him to

Ar thaisibh na dtreabh so tug t’fhala re crích Éibhir

Ná hagair a gcartha náid peacaidh a bprímhréime.

[Do not plead their crimes, nor those of their ancestors,

Against the remnants of the tribes that drew down your wrath on Ireland.] (Bone and Marrow 395)

Ó Bruadair attributes the English’s invasion to God striking the Irish as punishment for ancestral crimes. Echoing this view, Lochlainn Ó Dálaigh opines that “Díoghaltas Dé as adhbhar ann–” [“the vengeance of God is the reason for it [the English invasion]”] (Bone and Marrow 277). Fearflatha Ó Gnímh cautions that Ireland’s downtrodden state could become permanent if the Irish “Síol Éibhir Sguit ón Sgithia” [“Do not put their trust in God”] (Bone and Marrow 255), implying that, if the Irish do not do as God wants–in this case, put their trust in Him–then God will punish them by taking away their claim to the land. Commenting upon the Irish’s response to the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688-1691, Nicholas Canny explicitly states “the afflictions that followed in the form of military defeat, loss of property and religious persecution were seen as a divine retribution on the Catholic Irish for disunity and the sins committed by them in their brief moment of victory” (110), creating a concrete link between Irish sin and godly punishment. In their descriptions of a vengeful God, the poets further develop the third facet of God’s role in Irish society by showcasing the extent of His punishing nature.

Through their petitions for protection, solicitations for salvation, and pleas for punishment, Irish poets create a triune God in another sense of the word. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are trinitarian both in terms of their theological identity and their role in medieval Ireland. Whether they sought safe travels, successful rebellions, or salvation in this life or the next, the Catholic Irish typically projected their hopes and prayers to one God. Although the context in which God protects, provides, and punishes might change, the roles themselves persist in Irish poetry throughout the centuries.

Works Cited

Canny, Nicholas. “The Formation of the Irish Mind: Religion, Politics and Gaelic Irish Literature 1580-1750.” Past & Present, no. 95, 1982, pp. 91–116. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Nov. 2022.

Finan, Thomas. “The Bardic Search for God: Vernacular Theology in Gaelic Ireland, 1200-1400.” Eolas: The Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies, vol. 2, 2007, pp. 28–44. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Dec. 2022.

Fisher, Samuel K., and Brian Ó Conchubhair. Bone and Marrow = Cnámh Agus Smior : an Anthology of Irish Poetry from Medieval to Modern. Wake Forest University Press, 2022.

Gibney, John. “Ireland’s Restoration Crisis.” The Final Crisis of the Stuart Monarchy: The Revolutions of 1688-91 in Their British, Atlantic and European Contexts, edited by Tim Harris and Stephen Taylor, vol. 16, Boydell & Brewer, 2013, pp. 133–56. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Dec. 2022.

Keating, Geoffrey. Tri bior-ghaoithe an bhdis: the three shafts of death, edited by Osborn Bergin, 1931, pp 244-247.

Ryan, Salvador. “Popular Religion in Gaelic Ireland 1445-1645,” PhD Dissertation submitted to Department of Modern History National University of Ireland Maynooth, vol. 1, 2002.