The Significance of the New Irish Missal

The translation of the Missal into Irish, An Leabhar Aifrinn Rómhánach, is undoubtedly an achievement. (Those who do not realize that Irish is a completely different language to English can consult this text of the Mass for St. Patrick’s Day in Irish).

Ireland was the first country to be evangelized in Latin, and even though Christianity reached Ireland in the fifth century, a decision was made by the earliest missionaries not to translate the liturgy into Irish, but to evangelize the country through the medium of a Latin liturgy. (In contrast, four hundred years later Cyril and Methodius evangelized the Slavs and made the decision to translate the liturgy into the language of the new Christians). Ireland has been referred to as the harbinger of the Middle Ages, and at least in terms of the history of the liturgy this has been the case. While the inhabitants of the former Roman Empire had some understanding of Latin, most medieval Irish Christians did not understand it (although the monastic schools in Ireland were very good at forming their students in ancient languages such as Greek, Hebrew and Latin).

The manner in which Irish churchmen, and, under their influence, other “barbarian” (i.e. non-Roman) churchmen approached Latin as a precise written language was to have some consequences for the West in general. The Anglo-Saxon monk St. Boniface (d. 755), famous as the Apostle of Germany, had learned Latin as a foreign language. This led to problems in his dealings with Pope Gregory II, who spoke an Italian form of Latin as his everyday language. The two men were, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, divided by a common language. Boniface was uncomfortable speaking with Gregory, as he found the Pope’s Latin to be too informal and vague, and he preferred to communicate with the Holy Father by letter, as at least there both shared common grammatical conventions.

The Irish and the Northern Europeans generally preferred a more precise Latin that was different from the early Romance languages. The insistence of a new scholarship in Latin, in the schools of Charlemagne, was to have the unintended consequence of promoting a liturgical spirituality that considered Latin as a sacred yet foreign language that wasn’t widely understood. This in turn led to the formal division between Church Latin and the early vernaculars spoken in many regions of Europe.

After the Reformation there had been some attempts by the Anglican Church to worship in Irish, but these were not met with much success. For Irish Catholics, Mass was not celebrated in Irish until after Vatican II. The first edition of the Missal in Irish was not the work of a committee but the work of one man, and it did not translate the whole Roman Missal.

This new edition of An Leabhar Aifrinn Rómhánach (The Roman Missal) will be complete. The earlier edition was a freer translation; this one is more literal. It has been translated by a team of translators and according to the lines of Liturgiam Authenticam. Unfortunately, this will mean that priests who are not fluent in Irish may have more difficulty in celebrating in Irish as it is of a higher linguistic level than the older book that some of them are familiar with – although Mass-goers are faced with far fewer changes in their responses than those who attend Mass in English.

Perhaps a general point that bears reflection is that this new edition of An Leabhar Aifrinn Rómhán is a true translation prepared by a committee composed of native Irish speakers who are proficient in Latin. It was possible to find a team of people who were proficient in both languages at both the level of the Irish episcopal conference and the Vatican. (For this new edition of An Leabhar Aifrinn Rómhán the Holy See was particularly interested to see that the use of Irish was not unnecessarily burdened by neologisms, and that reference be made to medieval Irish texts when translating words that are not commonly used in contemporary Irish).

The question is whether it will be possible to form such a committee in twenty years time, as the amount of people who study Latin in depth is decreasing and today most newly ordained priests have very little proficiency in Latin. This is a widespread difficulty that many other bishops’ conferences are facing. While Liturgiam Authenticam may give very specific rules for liturgical translations and their official recognition, the lack of linguistic experts makes these rules practically impossible to implement in many languages.

Although English is by far the most commonly spoken language in Ireland, in fact, Irish is the only official language in the Republic of Ireland. In reality about 80,000 of the 6.4 million people who live in Ireland reported that they speak it on a daily basis in the 2011 census, although anybody who has gone through the school system in Ireland will have learned some Irish. However, if truth be told, this book is as much a cultural monument as a landmark liturgical publication. Very few parishes actually celebrate a regular liturgy in Irish, and most Irish people would be totally lost in an Irish Mass. A good number of the clergy are incapable of presiding at Mass in Irish.

As Irish is the official language of the Republic, about 6% of school children in the Republic go to school through the medium of Irish and receive their pastoral care in school (including First Communion and Confirmation) through Irish. In other parishes, the major “event” Masses (Confirmations, First Communions, certain funerals, etc.) often will have some small sections of the liturgy prayed in Irish (one of the petitions of the Prayer of the Faithful, the Kyrie invocation, or the Lord’s Prayer), and some parishes might celebrate an Irish Mass on St. Patrick’s Day.

The new Irish Missal will also benefit from the rich selection of prayers for the local saints that were included in the newest English-language edition of the Missal published in Ireland, these are also included in this new Irish edition suitably translated into Irish.

Another part of this picture is that all parishes in the country are being strongly encouraged by the bishops to buy a copy of this new Missal, and there is definitely an argument to be made that every parish should possess a Missal in the only official language of the country. The bishops have said that unless they can print a thousand copies, the project will not be economically viable. (The book is projected to cost about €250 or US $280, if every parish in the country buys a copy).

I am happy to note that one of the selling points for this missal is that it will mimic the style of London’s Catholic Truth Society chapel edition of the Missal. The order form for the Missal can be seen here.

Download (PDF, 1.03MB)

In the few weeks between the time this order form was distributed and the bishops officially announced the publication of the book, the name seems to have changed from An Leabhar Aifrinn to An Leabhar Aifrinn Rómhánach (the word Roman has been added).

The English-language Missal published by the episcopal conference in Ireland has proven to be practically unusable (Ireland shares the common English-language translation of the Missal with the other English-speaking countries). Many people were quite unhappy with the English-language Missal published in Ireland. Not only were corners cut in producing the physical book, but it was disastrously typeset. Nearly every church in the country had to replace the expensive new locally published English editions with US editions, which were cheaper and more user-friendly than the edition published by Veritas, the publishing house of the Irish episcopal conference.

It is to be hoped that this new edition of An Leabhar Aifrinn Rómhánach will encourage a new flowering of Irish culture. In fact, the evangelization of culture is one of the greatest challenges facing Christianity in contemporary Ireland, where the Church has very little room in the public square.

There are many factors that have influenced the current crisis in Irish Christianity. But one of them could be the problem of language. Vincent Twomey wrote a book The End of Irish Catholicism? lamenting the fact that the Catholic Church in Ireland never recovered from the change of language from Irish to English. There is something to be said for his arguments, and a true native inculturated Catholicism still needs to be born in Ireland.

One of the best successes of the first edition of the Missal in Irish was the Mass setting by Seán Ó Riada [insert link: ]. This combination of traditional Irish music with the words of the Missal have become a monument of post-Vatican II Irish spirituality. Here is the communion antiphon:

and the Lord’s Prayer:

Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is the Vice Rector of the Redemptoris Mater House of Formation in Dundalk, Ireland.


  1. I think the rendering of the Our Father is inaccurate — the little grace notes are dropped. (I also dislike the way it is sung, as I dislike most Irish singing today.)

    Sean O Riada died young, very frustrated to leave his work unfinished. It’s a bit sad that his mass setting seems to be the only known Irish language mass setting.

  2. Irish is not the only official language in Ireland. English is the second official language. Article 8 of the Constitution reads:

    Article 8

    The Irish language as the national language is the first official language.
    The English language is recognised as a second official language.
    Provision may, however, be made by law for the exclusive use of either of the said languages for any one or more official purposes, either throughout the State or in any part thereof.

  3. Back in the early 1980s, when I was fresh out of college and people in Ireland still went to Mass, I spent months traveling and workgin in Ireland. Early one Sunday morning, somewhere in west Galway, I departed from the B&B I’d spent the night in (£5 Irish/night) and went looking for a church. After a couple miles of lonely country roads I found one. Mass had already started, and to my surprise it was in Irish—the only word I could understand was ‘agus’.
    The collapse of Catholicism and indeed of morality in Ireland is of course multifactorial—the materialism that comes from worldly prosperity, the influence of a decadent Western culture, the arrogance and hypocrisy of the hierarchy. But a key factor surely must be the post Vatican II liturgy, with all its manifold defects. The Irish people, like people everywhere, wanted and needed clericalised sacral drama, an opportunity to encounter the numinous, to experience the holy–not the banal dialogue of the Pauline “reformed” liturgy. After all, if they wanted a chat show they could switch on Gay Byrne. The hierarchy, of course, are to blame for imposing these unwanted “reforms” on the people, and the result is not only a collapse in church attendance, but a loss of faith and morals.

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