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An Bheatha Chrábhaidh: A ‘Popular’ Translation

An Bheatha Chrábhaidh : Une traduction « à succès »
Charles Dillon
p. 2-10


Cet essai s’intéresse au texte gaélique An Bheatha Chrábhaidh, traduit en 1650 par Pilib Ó Raghallaigh d’après le texte français de St François de Salles, Introduction à la vie dévote. Il cherche à mettre en lumière les intentions et les motivations du traducteur ; le texte est replacé dans le contexte de  l’activité de traduction au début du XVIIème siècle, surtout du latin, du français et de l’espagnol vers le gaélique d’Irlande. Quelques-uns des emprunts découverts dans les traductions en gaélique sont également analysés.

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1This article seeks to discuss the Irish text An Bheatha Chrábhaidh (1647-50), to assess it as a translation, and in doing so examine some of the motives of the translator, as evidenced in his choice of source text and in his style and choice of vocabulary.  In doing so, it is hoped to give this text its place in the wider field of Irish translation activity, especially on mainland Europe, in the first half of the seventeenth century.

  • 1  Catholic Encyclopaedia, vol. VI, 35.

2An Bheatha Chrábhaidh is one of the larger texts which were translated into Irish Gaelic during the seventeenth century, containing some 300 pages in its manuscript form, and as such merits closer study than it has received over the years from literary historians. It is a translation from the French Introduction à la vie dévote, written originally by S. François De Sales, Bishop of Geneva (1567-1622), in 1608. Several further editions and reprints were prepared during the lifetime of De Sales, the final one from his hand appearing in 1619. Introduction à la vie dévote is a series of counsels on devout and pious behaviour authored by the saint and directed at a relation of his, Mme de Chamoisy, which took shape after De Sales had entered into correspondence with her on the subject, and subsequently became her spiritual adviser and confessor. A friend of Mme de Chamoisy later recognised the generic practical value of the teachings contained within the letters of De Sales, and urged him to prepare them for publication, which he duly did.1

3The reason for this call for publication is not difficult to appreciate, even measured against the standards of our own time. The key to the appeal of the text is that it speaks directly to the reader, advising and counselling him on such diverse matters as attendance at mass and frequent communion, on the suitability of friendships and relationships, on the dangers of overindulgence in leisure, and in how to avoid and overcome temptation. Great detail is given in the description of the horrors awaiting sinners and unbelievers in Hell, as well as the eternal paradise of God’s presence awaiting faithful souls.

4The book begins with a considered and lengthy reflection on the need for devotion, in which De Sales urges his reader to meditate on the nature of his or her life, and to resolve to take immediate action in order to cleanse and purify the soul of all sin and intention to sin. Attention is drawn to the fact that man was created to serve God, and that any deviation from this service is sinful. De Sales urges the reader to pray to God to send him a companion, a guide to accompany him on his spiritual journey. De Sales sees this guide as essential to act as a counsellor, a confessor and as one who is on hand to give practical advice as to the best course of action in any set of unforeseen circumstances.

5Once the reader has made the choice and is ready to embark completely upon this path of service, De Sales moves on, in the second section of the book, to techniques involved in prayer, and the correct way to approach and observe the sacraments of penance and communion. The largest section of the work is next, and details the practice of the full range of virtues – from prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance to faith, hope and charity. The practice of these virtues is applied in the text to all facets of daily life, from conversation to proper attire, from table manners to foolish friendships, from chastity to patience, from the dangers of ill-informed judgements to social interaction. Widows are singled out for special advice on virtue, as are virgins and married couples. The fourth section of the work gives the reader practical advice on the nature of temptation and extols him or her to overcome it by all available means, both by practical distraction and by prayer for fortitude in its face. The fifth and final section urges the newly fledged pious reader to periodically renew his devotion and commitment to God, and gives various means by which that can be achieved. It also offers practical advice on what to do should one’s prayer and devotion become stale and uninspiring.

6A striking feature of the style of writing in the text is the depth and wealth of analogy on which De Sales is able to draw in his explanations and instructions. This, when coupled with the emphasis placed by De Sales on the practical implementation of devotion in everyday life, leads one to conclude that this is plainly no dry work of theology or spirituality, but a manual intended to be drawn upon by the ordinary reader for guidance and advice on all matters in life, however trivial. He cites numerous examples of behaviour from the animal kingdom – the honeybee, for example, is used in analogy again and again to illustrate piety in duty and behaviour; the snake is singled out quite often as representative of sin; where the snake puts its head its whole body can go, and in a similar fashion sin, upon initial entrance, can forge its way in completely and take possession of the soul. The elephant, which mates once every three years and takes great care in rearing its young, is offered as an exemplar of best sexual practice, as is the leopard which mates quickly, quietly, and washes itself immediately in a river. There are numerous other similar examples, involving pigs, hens, pigeons, kestrels, worms, all of which continue this demonstration of the text being rooted in, and informed by, the practical experience of every man.

7Broadly speaking, what theory that is included in Introduction à la Vie Devote, that which deals with the practice and implementation of virtue, has its roots in the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas, and frequent reference is made also to the lives and teachings of St. Gregory of Nasiansenus, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostomus and St. Cyril. A lot of examples of piety and devotion in everyday life are given from the lives of the saints, especially St. Francis, St. Theresa and St. Catherine.  Examples of sayings attributed to the saints, and examples of deeds attributed to them, are given repeatedly by De Sales in order to inform the reader of the implementation of his teachings. Another central element in the Introduction is the consistent and detailed reference to the writings and quotations of Saint Paul, to whom De Sales refers simply as ‘the apostle’, another saint who sought to bring Christian teaching to the everyday lives of his readership.

8It can be said, therefore, that De Sales’ Introduction à la vie dévote is a text aimed at a broad and general readership, a manual for the Christian soul seeking counsel in the implementation and integration of church teaching in everyday life. De Sales brings a common touch, and couches his teaching in layman’s terms with all the skill one would expect of a saint said to have swayed the hearts of many with his talent for sermonising and conversion. He uses analogy from the animal kingdom and from the lives of the saints as a vehicle in which to convey his message of devotion, a ready-made frame of reference for the common man.

  • 2  An edition including Parts 4 and 5 appeared in 1609, and two more revised editions were published (...)
  • 3  Information on all these translations can be found in the British Library Public Catalogue (http:/ (...)

9The popular appeal of De Sales’ Introduction à la Vie Dévote is readily visible not only in the frequency of its reprinting and revising during the life of the author,2 but also in the amount of translation and reprint it underwent even long after the death of De Sales. In 1613 John Yakesley, an Englishman based in Douai, had prepared an English edition - more of which later - even before the final edition (1622) from the hand of the De Sales; the Irish version which is under discussion today was prepared in 1647 – and appears to have been among the first translations of the text. A Spanish (Castilian) version was made in 1673, a Latin translation in 1688; it was translated into Breton in 1710, to Polish in 1743, and two Basque dialect versions were prepared in 1749 and again in 1863.3 The fact that several more marginal language translations were made long before a translation was made into Latin, the language of the Church and the language of scholarship, goes some way toward demonstrating the popular, rather than the scholarly, motives of both author and translators.  

10The English language translation of Introduction à la vie dévote, as mentioned above, appeared before the final version of the author’s text. In fact, two reprints – in 1614 and 1617 were required of the English translation before the death of De Sales in 1622. A further reprint was made in 1637, and this reprint seems to have sparked off regal proscription, for in an edict dated May 1637 we read

  • 4  Proclamations II, Charles I. [1625-1649] London, 1637

By the King. a Proclamation for calling in a book, entituled, An Introduction to the Devout Life [Being a translation by I.Y. from the Frenche of Saint Francis de Sales,] and that the same be publikely burned.4

Such regal censure, however, did not stop further publication of the book. A new translation by priests at Tournai was made in 1648, and by 1701 English reformers had decided that, instead of seeking to ban the book they would be better employed seeking to adapt its counsels and teachings to their reformed faith, and a reformed edition appears in 1701, William Nicholls the translator, entitled thus:

An Introduction to a Devout Life . . . Translated and reformed from the errors of the Popish edition to which is fixed a Discourse of the rise and progress of the Spiritual books in the Romish Church.

  • 5  A reliable recent edition is ed. Lajeunie, Étienne-Marie, Éditions du Seuil, 1962.

The book remains in worldwide currency to this day and is still in demand among those seeking counsel in how to couple piety and devotion with demanding lifestyles.5

11Two main factors can explain these popular motives of the author and, by proxy, of the eager translators. Firstly, the nature and accessibility of the text itself, as outlined above, gave the text a popular appeal which made it an instant hit. Secondly, it came at a juncture in the history of the Catholic Church when it was striving to meet the challenge laid down by the Protestant reformers. An enhanced communication between dogma and man was necessitated, and the spoken word was no doubt an important element of the reforms the Catholic Church felt it needed. The Council of Trent (1545-63) had made particular reference to and provision for the correct training of priests, and a seminary was to be set up in every dioceses. It is to be assumed that in their efforts to give sermons to their assembled congregations, newly ordained priests and missionaries found the Introduction à la vie dévote a most useful and inspiring resource. In effect, the nature of the Church’s relationship with the common man had been changed by the eruption of the Protestant Reformation, and when a new contact was forged in the early years of the seventeenth century, speech would play a central role in contact. De Sales’ Introduction, with its accessible approach and cogent arguments would have been an invaluable weapon in the armoury of any sermoniser. The importance and currency of sermons can be gauged from the fact that what is held to be the most widely printed Irish book in history is a book of Sermons written by James Gallagher in 1732, a book which was no doubt read and re-read by Catholic priests and preachers in order to facilitate and elucidate the teachings of the Church for the common man. Other collections of sermons were copied and disseminated in manuscript form – some written in a phonetic or pidgin script where the scribe had little or no knowledge of the accepted conventions of Gaelic orthography.

  • 6  For general history of Irish in Prague, see Parez, J, ‘The Irish Francisans in Seventeenth and Eig (...)

12It is almost certain that this usefulness in sermon preparation, together with its popular appeal and emphasis on practical implementation, is what led the Introduction to be translated into Irish in 1647 by Pilib Ó Raghallaigh, a Franciscan born in the Breifne region (now generally Co. Cavan) but stationed at that time in the Irish Franciscan College, Prague. Irish Franciscans came to Prague initially in the early 1620s, having come from Louvain in the Netherlands seeking housing and patronage, their accommodation at Louvain overflowing with Irish refugees and seminarians, and already being short of money and food. Father Patrick Fleming, of Dunleer in present day Co. Louth, who later was murdered outside Prague by Protestant insurgents, gained permission to found an Irish Franciscan convent or seminary in Prague, which would be used, as were many other similar foundations in Paris, Salamanca, Rome and Lisbon to name but several, to prepare Irish Catholic priests to return to the ongoing mission in Ireland, where attempts were afoot by the English Crown to eradicate the Catholic faith. The college in Prague was built and was opened in 1629, and functioned as a seminary until 1786, when it was confiscated and dissolved by the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph.6 The elegant building still stands, its baroque architecture standing out against its Gothic backdrop, on the street known as Hybernska, or Irish Street. It now houses a theatre.

  • 7  The historian Kenny dubbed this project in its entirety the Thesaurus Antiquitatum Hibernicarum (“ (...)

13The Irish Colleges at Louvain and Prague are to be set apart from their counterparts mentioned above due to the use of the Irish language in the texts and publications prepared for return to Ireland in the possession of the newly ordained priests. The Franciscans based in these two colleges had an acute awareness of the importance of the vernacular in the protection of Catholicism in Ireland. This linguistic importance had not been lost on the Protestant crown of England, Elizabeth I, who had a printing press especially made in Dublin to handle Gaelic script, and commissioned the translation into Irish of several key reformed church texts, among them the Book of Common Prayer and the Old Testament of the Bible. Indeed, many historians see the translating and literary activity of the exiled Irish Franciscans as a direct response to the challenge laid down by this move on behalf of the English Crown, and indeed some of their writings make disparaging mention of certain texts having been translated. However, when the spiritual writings are considered in the full context of all the historical, hagiographical and linguistic writings of the Louvain and Prague Irish Franciscans, it is clear that a broad and ambitious project of conservation of their Gaelic heritage was ongoing and bore a lot of published fruit. Both the Lives of the Irish Saints (ed. Colgan 1645) and the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Ó Cléirigh 1636) are invaluable products of this project.7 Ó Raghallaigh’s translation of the Introduction à la vie dévote, therefore, is to be viewed in the context of this broader interest among the Irish Franciscans at the beginning of the 17th century.

14Perhaps the most notable devotional translation into Gaelic carried out in the early 17th century was Sgáthán an Chrábhaidh, or the Mirror of Piety (also known as Desiderius, the name of the principal character), which was translated by Fláithrí Ó Maolchonaire, or Florence Conry, in 1616 in the Irish college at Louvain. It is a translation of the 15th century Castilian text El Desseoso. It is perhaps the best known because it is in his preface to the translation that Ó Maolchonaire writes about his motives and intentions in translating the work, and this has obvious historical value, as do his less than favourable references to the reformers in Ireland working to propagate the Protestant faith. The translation also contains a significant amount of interpolation on the part of the translator – at one point the Castilian original is interrupted by over 50 pages composed by Ó Malochonaire, extolling particularly the Irish Catholic not to pay heed to the words of the Protestants, which he perceived, of course, as heretical.  

15Most interesting from a literary point of view, perhaps, is Ó Maolchonaire’s stated policy of departure from the norms of Gaelic writing which to a large extent were still in currency among Gaelic prose writers contemporaneous with Conry, who says he purposely employed a relaxed, open style of language in order to include in his readership ‘...daoine simplidhe, nach foil géarchúiseach a nduibheagán na Gaoidhilge’ - those not trained in the complexities and intricacies of the Bardic style of writing. Notwithstanding a tendency among the Franciscans to be self-effacing in the descriptions they give of their linguistic abilities, in this statement of translation policy, we see the practical implementation of the mission of the Irish Franciscan translators – to preach to the Irish Catholic in his own speech.  

  • 8 Buaidh na Naomhchroiche, ed. Ó Súilleabháin, Pádraig: Dublin, 1972.
  • 9 An Bheatha Dhiadha, ed. Ó Fachtna, Anlselm: Dublin, 1967.

16Ó Maolchonaire set a trend which other Irish Franciscan translators and writers espoused readily, and their written works dating from this period are remarkably close in all ways to modern day Irish speech which can be heard to this day. Bonaventúr Ó Conchúir translated Triumphus Crucis, by Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498) into Irish from Latin as Buaidh na Naomhchroiche in 1640,8 and La Vita Divina, a Spanish text by Juan Eusebio Nieremberg (1595 – 1658) was translated into Irish as An Bheatha Dhiadha9 by an unknown translator based in Prague in the mid-seventeenth century. These three texts, and added to them Ó Raghallaigh’s translation of the Introduction à la vie dévote, all use this new and free style of language, a style quite readily recognisable to any reader of modern Irish.  

  • 10  The Vineyard of Nabuteus.

17Notwithstanding this obvious willingness on behalf of the Irish Franciscan translators to embrace and translate works written originally in several European tongues, their style of translation also shows a willingness to import words and concepts not readily translatable into Gaelic. Seamlessly integrated into the Irish prose of Buaidh na Naomhchroiche and An Bheatha Dhiadha, we find such obvious borrowings as blasphemin, seraphin, tabernacul, temporal, sacrament, fundament, tallent, satisfacsion, mortificasion. In An Bheatha Chrábhaidh, Ó Raghallaigh’s Irish version of De Sales’ Introduction, we find the following forms: argumeint, debhosion, reverens, examen, leopard, elephant, strutio and tinniculus. Ó Raghallaigh also encountered a number of proper animal, plant and placenames for which he could find no Irish, and he duly gives their fully declined Latin form.  Thus we find reference to an ‘dá Chatarín Senensis et Genuensis’, to ‘ ...cuid fíneamhna Nabutei10, and to mixtures of language such as ‘Gríghóir Nasiansenus’.  

18What all this points to is the Irish language, as a medium, becoming enriched and influenced by its contact with other languages in the early seventeenth century. The fact that new styles of writing were being practised generally due to new approaches to communication between the church and its faithful, and coupled with the zeal of the Irish translators to preserve the Catholic faith among their countrymen in Ireland, led to a break from tradition in Irish writing; a break from the conservative, highly convoluted, grammatically complex sentence structures like those of Keating. This zeal made Franciscans such as Ó Maolchonaire, Ó Raghallaigh and Ó Conchúir hungry for raw material, geared towards the common man, which they could convey in their own tongue to their fellow Irish Catholics. Small wonder, then, given the nature and content of De Sales’ Introduction à la vie dévote, that an Irish version of this should have been available less than thirty years after his death.  

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DE SALES S. François, “Introduction à la vie dévote” (1962, ed. LAJEUNIE, Étienne-Marie), Éditions du Seuil.  

DOUEHI M, “Elephantine Marriage”in Modern Language Notes 106, 4: 780-792.

KENNY JF, “The Sources for the Early History of Ireland”, 1969.

Ó DÚSHLÁINE Tadhg, “An Eoraip agus Litríocht na Gaeilge 1600 – 1650” An Clóchomhar, 1987.

Ó FACHTNA A, (ed.) “An Bheatha Dhiadha nó An tSlighe Ríodhgha”, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1967.

O’RAHILLY TF, (ed.) “Sgáthán an Chrábhaidh, otherwise known as Desiderius, by Fláithrí Ó Maolchonaire / Florence Conry”, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1955.

Ó SÚILLEABHÁIN P, (ed.) “Buaidh na Naomhchroiche, Bonaventúr Ó Conchúir a d’aistrigh”, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1972.

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1  Catholic Encyclopaedia, vol. VI, 35.

2  An edition including Parts 4 and 5 appeared in 1609, and two more revised editions were published in 1616 and 1619. (Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, Vol. V,  1063 – 1066.

3  Information on all these translations can be found in the British Library Public Catalogue (

4  Proclamations II, Charles I. [1625-1649] London, 1637

5  A reliable recent edition is ed. Lajeunie, Étienne-Marie, Éditions du Seuil, 1962.

6  For general history of Irish in Prague, see Parez, J, ‘The Irish Francisans in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Prague’, in Irish Migrants in Europe after Kinsale, Vol. II, ed. O’Connor and Lyons 2003.

7  The historian Kenny dubbed this project in its entirety the Thesaurus Antiquitatum Hibernicarum (“Sources for the Early History of Ireland”, New York 1929).

8 Buaidh na Naomhchroiche, ed. Ó Súilleabháin, Pádraig: Dublin, 1972.

9 An Bheatha Dhiadha, ed. Ó Fachtna, Anlselm: Dublin, 1967.

10  The Vineyard of Nabuteus.

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Charles Dillon, « An Bheatha Chrábhaidh: A ‘Popular’ Translation »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. III - n°1 | 2005, 2-10.

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Charles Dillon

Dr. (Belfast, Ireland)
A native of Co. Tyrone, schooled in Armagh and Degrees from University of Ulster (BA Hons. Irish Studies 1997, PhD 2002).  His thesis is a diplomatic edition of the seventeenth century South-Ulster Irish text An Bheatha Chrábhaidh, and includes discussion of the translation style, linguistic analysis and background information on the translator, a Cavan Franciscan.  Lectures (since 2003) in Modern Irish, Classical Irish, Translation Studies, Literary History in the Department of Irish and Celtic Studies, Queen’s University Belfast.

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