Life is a journey and we all need a little luck sometimes as we desire success and well being. The giving of an Irish blessing is to bestow something from your heart, your emotions and positive energy synthesized in a written verse as well as a request for divine intervention, a prayer and a connection to God. However corny or campy at times they may be, blessings demonstrate faith and our compulsion for spiritual hope.
Irish blessings date back to ancient Celtic times, a folk and druidic tradition that became interpreted for the new Christian era. Many have been translated from the old Irish and it’s been suggested that St. Patrick wrote the most well-known and eminent blessing, albeit a factual stretch. However, as it fits with what is known about his writing style, he may have adopted and translated what was already a Celtic verse. It is one of the most regarded and iconic Irish verses and sentiments. It eloquently embodies what Irish blessings are all about and has been used and displayed with various gifts, decor items and ceramics.
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
The more exact translation for the first line succeeds, not rise, which has a poetic flair, true, but was a misinterpretation between two similar old Irish words. The line has been compared to something like “bon voyage” in French, or maybe “safe travels” but that is perhaps a bit too literal, oversimplified. The author’s tact is metaphoric. Life is much like traveling a road and how one experiences the path ahead–strife or fortune–determines happiness and a good life. Wind, sunshine, and rain each signify part of the journey. Wind symbolizes the Holy Spirit at one’s back, a guiding force forward, and the sunshine upon you is considered to be a reference to God’s Mercy as stated in Luke 1:78. The warmth of heaven comes to you in the rising sun and without rain, nothing can grow. It is the wish that God and the heavens will be guardians for a prosperous life.
Before Christianity came to Ireland, the ancient Celtic cultures looked to their surroundings for spiritual inspiration and mystical practice. Their connection to nature is undeniable and continued to be a potent influence. Numerous blessings symbolically employ nature as a theme, a sort-of leitmotif of these Irish verses. Today, Ireland is still renowned for its countryside’s scenic greenery earning it the nickname “The Emerald Island” as well as its rugged picturesque coastlines. Lush meadows, rocky cliffs, hilltops of heather make for eye-popping vistas. Ireland has several UNESCO World Heritage sites including Killarney National Park with herds of wild deer and the curiously unique Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland where a distinctive mass of polygon-shaped rock shafts of basalt juts out and into water. The Rings of Kerry consists of green meadows and glacial lakes. One of the popular sites is the iconic Cliffs of Moher along the Atlantic Ocean coast in Co. Clare. It is the longest and most enduring nature walks in Ireland. With such sublime beauty, divine connections came through the natural world and created a means to contemplate upon life itself. St. Patrick did often invoke nature in his writings.
Momentous milestones tend to be a time of hopefulness, reflectiveness, and a coming together with loved ones. Weddings are one of most common events for the giving of blessing whether the toast or a printed piece. “May the road rise to meet you” is an apt and obvious option to express a happy future for newlywed couples. Traditionally, the groom’s father recites a blessing for the new union. This is custom also dates back to the Celtic era. The father or the elder male as the patriarch provided his “blessing” and approval for unions, marriage or otherwise.
Another customary marriage blessing wish for rain upon the bride’s head, “Happy is the bride that rain fell upon,” which seems counter today’s ideal of a beautiful sunny summer day for the ceremony and festivities. As rain is often connected to growth, perhaps this notion expresses a life of abundance. In the classic favorite film The Quiet Man (1952) starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, the wedding celebration scene would not be complete without a proper Irish blessing for the newlyweds. Rumor has it the last line of the blessing was censored. After a wish for health and prosperity, it ended with a declaration for peace and national freedom, which was deemed too controversial at the time. The more recent romantic comedy Leap Year (2010) with Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, partly centers around traditions of Irish betrothment and, naturally, could not be without a rightful blessing for the wedding scene.
With the holidays upon us, blessings come to mind. The season’s good tidings strive to be joy-filled, with love and a desire for peace and happiness as well as for the upcoming new year. And, of course, the culture of gift-giving is a significant part of the season. Blessings are bequeathed by several modes. Printed and framed, on plaques, or ceramics such as commemorative plates, blessings are not merely meant as a token on a special day, but to be ruminated upon year-round. Aspirations need a little inspiration and, of course, for our decorative homes, accompanied by Celtic or shamrock motifs. Beyond the poetic, they become mementos in physical form. St. Patrick’s day too is another celebration where blessings are presented and is a testament to Irish nationhood. Love, laughter, and enduring life of plenty is optimistically hoped for. In America, wall-hangings with “Bless this House” (sometimes with home) adorned the walls of many middle-class family dwellings. The practice was likely initiated by Irish immigrants and derives from a Catholic prayer meant to sanctify the home and all its inhabitants. The wall-hanging reduces the prayer to its essential intention.
What would life’s odyssey be without a sense of humor. Blessings have been reinterpreted into comical, often cheeky, quips. The tendency is still words of wisdom that involve notions and commentary on modern life, love and social topics. Point-blank, sarcastic, and witty, truly Irish, they inject humor into the everyday frustrations and distress of existence–ethos and pathos. Topically, death is so often pondered in creative concept and these popular culture and whimsical blessings are no different. “May the Good Lord take a liking to you — but, not too soon,” and “May you be half an hour in Heaven before the Devil knows your dead,” both encapsulate the fascination for one’s ending and the unknown with a lighthearted one-liner, not to mention the suggestion of a little mischievousness in one’s passing. Many contemporary blessings assert laughter as a key part of a good life.
Higher ideals frequently are distilled through banal channels. Greetings cards, a particularly American cultural phenomenon, are a clear regeneration of the Irish blessing. Given on holidays, birthdays and other special occasions, the written sentiments aim to convey what we don’t know how to and provide visually appealing imagery, illustrations, decorative details or even cartoon humor, and interestingly, we sign our name at the bottom affirming this comes the heart. Customary etiquette requires a greeting card to accompany a gift or can be presented in lieu of one. Greeting card companies even produce cardholders for the all blessings received. Nowadays, our digital revolution provides technological methods, including animated images or beautiful photography that do not require physical storage for the keepsake. Irish blessings too can be sent via an online service and could include a spectacular image of the Irish landscape, and some a suspiciously photoshopped stock image. I wonder what St. Patrick and Celtic people would think—a detached interaction that cannot ever replace the resplendent visceral synergy of the authentic.
The human condition is a complex experience and we are impassioned beings. Poetry, whether formed through a prayer, musical lyrics, a jest, or otherwise are outlets for how we connect to one another and to the world around as well as grapple with the inexplicable or alien. The heritage and wisdom of the Irish blessing is indeed a transcendent gift.
Initially published on December 18th 2019