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March 2012

Archive of the Month

Douglas Hyde’s “modern Irish” translation of St Patrick’s Breastplate

March 2012

As gaeilge, cliceáil anseo

Mr Douglas Hyde © Courtesy Douglas Sealy, Hyde TrustFor the month in which St Patrick is honored as patron saint of Ireland – on March 17th – we introduce Douglas Hyde’s “modernized Irish” translation of St Patrick’s Breastplate, which he provided at the request of Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise, the Irish Guild of the Church, in 1915.

Fan of CardsIn 1914, in the context of rapidly changing political and cultural life in Ireland, the Irish Guild of the Church of Ireland had been founded for interested members of the Church of Ireland ‘to promote the objects of the Irish Revival amongst Irish Churchpeople’. The early minute books of this organization survive and are kept safe in the RCB Library (MS 131), revealing the main objects of the new Guild:

  1. To promote the use of the Irish language in the public services of the Church, particularly in the Irish speaking districts.
  2. To collect and if possible, publish, suitable Irish Prayers and Hymns and other religious literature.
  3. To revive the use of Irish Art and Designs in Church buildings and furniture.

Two additional objects were later added:

  1. To encourage all that tends to bring the Church of Ireland into harmony with the spirit of the ancient Irish Church.
  2. To bring into touch with one another and provide a bond of union for all members of the Church of Ireland interested in Irish ideals.

Minute book coverA preliminary conference was held in January 1914 in the vestry room of St Ann’s Church, Dublin, to explore the direction that the new organization might take, to which Dr Douglas Hyde, then Professor of Irish at University College Dublin, sent a letter of apology. Hyde, as a son of the rectory (the fourth child of the Revd Arthur Hyde, Rector of Tibohine, or Frenchpark, diocese of Elphin 1866–1905) was supportive of the initiative to highlight the Irishness of the Church of Ireland and especially promotion of the Irish language within its worship and outreach – a cause to which he was passionately committed. Hyde was then President of the Gaelic League, in addition to his busy academic and writing pursuits, and was clearly in the circle of many of the founding members of the Guild, including the first President, Benjamin John Plunkett, Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, 1913–19, and Edward Culverwell, Professor of Education at Trinity College Dublin, 1905–16. Reports of meetings reveal that Hyde regularly attended meetings and events organized by the Guild.

St Ann's church, Dawson Street
St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street

Culverwell was an active promoter of the Church of Ireland’s Irish identity, the need to celebrate its early Christian roots, and especially use of the Irish language. At the inaugural meeting of the Guild, held in St Ann’s parish room, at the Diocesan School, Molesworth Street, Dublin, on 29 April 1914, he is reported to have spoken warmly of the Guild’s efforts when he seconded the adoption of its objects. At its first annual meeting held in the same place the following year he lamented his Church’s use of ‘the Irish language and Irish hymns’ which he regarded as ‘exceptionally backward’ (The Irish Times 14 April, 1915).

Miss Beatrice (Eitne) Culverwell, ©Courtesy Revd Martin HilliardHis Irish interests appear to have been shared by his only child, a daughter baptized Anne Beatrice Culverwell born in 1890, was a member of the Gaelic League, and also became a member of the Guild in July 1914 at the age of 24.  At this time, she appears to have preferred using a pet name “Eitne” (also spelt variously Eithne and Ethne) at this period – the minutes of the Guild’s October 1914 meeting recording that ‘Miss Eithne Culverwell Sen. Mod. B.A.’ read a paper on ‘Ancient Irish Religious Literature’, and ‘afterwards a discussion on the paper followed, in the course of which Dr Douglas Hyde gave a very interesting account of the relation of the religious to other old Irish literature’.

Perhaps it was on this occasion that the scholarly Eitne’s abilities came to Dr Hyde’s attention, because it was she whom the Guild later deputed ‘to get a modernized version of the Breastplate’ from him, ‘being known to be rather a pet of his’. In a handwritten note she penned in 1980, when she presented the collection to the RCB Library, she recorded the story of how Hyde’s translation came about. Initially Hyde had said ‘he was too busy, but on pressure’ agreed that if she ‘sent him the original version of the hymn on postcardfuls [sic.] he would return me postcardfuls’ which he seems to have duly done, writing to her at the family home, ‘the Hut’ on Howth summit, County Dublin, including with the translation of each verse, his notes to the writer, and apologies for in his opinion the poor quality of his translation. Each of his five postcard replies is signed with his distinctive pet–name ‘An Craoibhín’ [the little branch]. On the final card he wrote: ‘This is the last for you. I am not sorry it is the last [as] have done it badly. Many blessings to you, Your friend An Cr’.

Addressess Postcard text
The final postcard containing the apology

Continuing the story, and commenting on his piecemeal return of the work, Eitne reflected how the postcard replies were ‘characteristic of him in his playful mood’, and also how fortunate it was that he had completed the translations before ‘the great blow fell of his elder daughter’s sudden death after she had been said to be cured of T.B’. Less than a year later on 30 September 1916, Nuala Hyde, ‘poised, articulate and gregarious – the daughter said to Miss Nuala Hyde, ©Courtesy Douglas Sealy, Hyde Trustbe most like himself’, died at the age of just 22, (see J.E. Dunleavy and G. W. Dunleavy, Douglas Hyde A Maker of Modern Ireland Berkeley, 1991, pp 346–7). 

According to the Companion to the Irish Church Hymnal (Dublin, 2005) pp 450–1, 11th century manuscripts preserved in the Library of Trinity College Dublin tell the legend that St Patrick wrote the Breastplate hymn to protect him as he made his way to Tara, County Meath, to proclaim the Christian faith. Tara was the seat of Loegaire MacNeill, one of the supporters of the Druid religion of fire–worshippers. Loegaire had laid an ambush for the saint and his followers to prevent them reaching Tara, but as they sang the Lorica, Patrick’s group was mistaken for a herd of deer – an event which earned for the hymn its alternative title of ‘The Deer’s Cry’. The hymn contains elements of druidical incantation, of war–song and of creed. With the exception of the last stanza, this iconic poem, was written in Gaelic and entitled the ‘Lorica’ or a Breastplate of Patrick. Various translations into English followed during the 19th–century but the Irish version of the original had never been modernized.  The language had changed so much in the 16 centuries since the Lorica was written that the original text had become almost incomprehensible.

In November 1915, the Guild’s approach (through Miss Culverwell) to Douglas Hyde – who by then had just resigned as President of the Gaelic League – for a translation was a strategic decision to capture a modern Irish version of this iconic poem from a recognized champion of the cause to ‘de–anglicize Ireland’ – in a language sense. On the 30 November, 2 December, 8 December, 9 December and 10 December 1915, he returned his translations to her in his distinctive Old Irish script hand. Within three months, in March 1916, the Guild had published this Irish version of the Breastplate as part of a compilation of hymns, Duanaire Diadha (Dundalgan Press, Dundalk, 1916). This was to be used at Irish services in the Church of Ireland, including the monthly services in Irish at St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin – a Guild initiative aimed at promoting the use of the language in active worship – with the support of the Dean, Charles Thomas Ovenden (Dean of St Patrick’s 1911–1924) another active Guild member. The modest price of 6d was set, while efforts were made to have the collection more widely available as the Guild’s minute book indicate that both the Bishop of Tuam and Archbishop of Dublin (John Henry Bernard) had sanctioned it ‘for use in their dioceses’. Efforts were then made to request similar permission from bishops of other dioceses.

Postcard  Printed Text
The handwritten postcard and the published text

The preface to the Duanaire Diadha (containing a total of 16 hymns, the opening one of which is Hyde’s version of the Breastplate) reveals that the sub–committee responsible for the publication was Úna Dix, Eitne Culverwell and George Ruth who acknowledge the role of Úna Ní Ógáin (Úna Young) in collecting most of it, and the Dean, Dr Ovenden, ‘for his help with the music and for welcoming us to the Cathedral’. Dix, Ruth, Young, as with Culverwell, all belonged to the Guild. Úna Dix was a member of the Gaelic League, and writer of short stories and drama who married Ernest Reginald McClintock Dix, a lawyer and writer, who also belonged to the Guild. George Ruth served for many years as Honorary Secretary of the Guild. He was a civil servant in the General Registrar’s Office who was later seconded to assist with the opening of Coláiste Moibhí, the Protestant Preparatory College in April 1927, and was its first principal. His wife, May, was the first female member of the Church of Ireland General Synod.  Úna Young was a founder member of the Guild who began collecting religious poems around 1915.  Before her sudden death in 1927, she described the Breastplate as ‘the great Trinity Hymn of Irish Christianity’, and paid tribute to her friend Douglas Hyde for his efforts to make it ‘more easily understood’. After her death, it was Hyde who ensured that an additional collection of poems set to Irish music tunes for which she had collected the words (and to which Riobard Ó Duibhir arranged organ music) the  Dánta Dé was published in Dublin in 1928.

Eitne Culverwell went on to have an interesting life. According to her unpublished memoirs, E. J. Gwynn wished her to take up the professorship of Irish at Trinity College, but in 1916 she married Gustavus Everard Hamilton, of Ballinteer, County Dublin, a barrister, who tragically, like Nuala Hyde, died of T.B. just two years later in 1918. She married again to the Revd George Frederick Hamilton (no relation of the first) rector of Moylough in the diocese of Tuam 1904–23, and the couple had three children, Ethne, Mary and Patrick. Two of her grandsons (Ethne’s sons) Stephen (died 1990) and Martin were ordained as Church of Ireland clergy. Martin is now rector of Kells in the

Beatrice Hamilton's handwritten explanatory notediocese of Ossory. In 1980, just two years before her death in 1982, at the age of 92, Beatrice Hamilton (alias Eitne Culverwell) presented her postcards containing Hyde’s original Irish translation of the Breastplate to the RCB Library, together with her fondly–written explanatory note, where they have been accessioned as MS 163, and are available for public consultation.

We present each of them here in the accompanying slide show, together with a selection of photographs and related archival sources. We are most grateful to the late Douglas Sealy, grandson of Douglas Hyde, and his family for kindly making available family photographs; to the Revd Martin Hilliard, grandson of Eitne Culverwell for sharing his memories of his grandmother and making available her photograph; to the late Dr Valerie Jones for her expertise shared generously on lesser–known Protestant Republicans; and to Caroline Nolan of the Irish Guild of the Church, for their assistance in this month’s presentation. All materials in the slide show are in the custody of the RCB Library unless otherwise stated.

Clicking on images on this page will open them up in a larger window.

Douglas Hyde's “modern Irish” translation of St Patrick's Breastplate

Click here to view the online album

For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood
RCB Library
Braemor Park
Dublin 14
Tel: 01–4923979
Fax: 01–4924770
E–mail: susan.hood@rcbdub.org

Church of Ireland

The Irish Guild of the Church
Ardteampall Chríost, Baile Átha Cliath 8
Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin 8

Caroline Nolan
(Oifigeach Forbartha Gaeilge)
+353 (0)85 1632772
+353 (0)26 45741
Aonghus Dwane
(Rúnaí Oinigh)
+353 (0)87 6232841


Bunaíodh Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise sa bhliain 1914 chun (1) meon na Sean–Eaglaise Ceiltí a choimeád beo in Eaglais na hÉireann agus baill na hEaglaise a chuireann spéis sa Ghaelachas a bhailiú le chéile, (2) úsáid na Gaeilge a leathnú san Eaglais, (3) iomainn agus ábhar diaga eile a bhailiú ó litríocht na Gaeilge agus (4) ceol agus ealaíon Éireannach a chur ar aghaidh in imeachtaí na hEaglaise.
Background Information
Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise: The Irish Guild of the Church was founded in 1914 to (1) promote all that tends to preserve within the Church of Ireland the spirit of the ancient Celtic Church and to provide a bond of union for all members of the Church of Ireland inspired with Irish ideals, (2) promote the use of the Irish language in the Church, (3) collect from Irish sources suitable hymns and other devotional literature, (4) encourage the use of Irish art and music in the Church.



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