IRISHMAN’S DIARY: STABAT MATER

Stabat Mater: Gracewing Publications

Stabat Mater: Gracewing Publications

An Irishman’s Diary on ‘Crazy Jim’ and a famous hymn

‘Stabat Mater Dolorosa’ by Wesley Boyd  The Irish Times Monday 18th May 2015

Known locally as Crazy Jim, he had a habit of crawling on all fours, saddled and bridled like a donkey, around the main square of his native Todi, a hilltop town in Umbria. Yet he was one of the finest Italian poets of the Middle Ages and is considered to be the most likely author of the great Christian hymn, Stabat Mater Dolorosa. Other contenders for the authorship include at least three popes and three saints.

New light on the origin of the work is promised in a book by the distinguished Irish journalist, Desmond Fisher – finished just a few weeks before his death at the age of 95 in Dublin at the end of last year. Desmond, a Derry man, whose journalistic posts included editor of the Catholic Herald, London editor of the Irish Press and deputy head of news at RTÉ, spent the many years of his retirement researching the subject. His book, Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn, was published by Gracewing this month.

Stabat Mater Back Cover: with endorsements by John Horgan and Joe Carroll

Stabat Mater Back Cover: with endorsements by John Horgan and Joe Carroll

There are many roads to be following when exploring this haunting hymn to the Virgin Mary. Over the centuries it has been set to music by various composers, including Pergolesi, Haydn, Dvorak, Rossini and Vivaldi. (There was a memorable performance of Pergolesi’s arrangement in the old slate quarry on Valentia Island in 2004, directed by the Cork artist Dorothy Cross, and performed by the Opera Theatre Company from Dublin.) It was banned by the Council of Trent in 1545 but restored to the canon nearly three centuries later by Pope Benedict XIII to mark the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15th. But interesting as the history of the hymn itself is it is less fascinating than that of its putative author, Jacopone Benedetti, Crazy Jim himself.

He was born into an aristocratic family in Todi around 1230, a time of war, plague and turbulence. He was sent to Bologna to study law and returned to Todi to pursue his career as an advocate, some say unscrupulously. After years of dissolute philandering at the age of 37 he married Vanna, the daughter of a local count. He did little to moderate his way of life but Vanna remained faithful. Then tragedy struck. There was a feast day in Todi and the local gentry assembled on a raised platform to watch the parade. The platform collapsed and Vanna was crushed to death. Jacopone tried to revive his young wife and he discovered that under her fine robes she was wearing a shift of coarse, hairy cloth. Shocked by her death and stunned by the revelation that she had been secretly doing penance for his misdeeds, Jacopone changed his lifestyle.

He gave up his comfortable career as a lawyer and took to to the streets and roadways of Umbria as a mendicant wanderer dressed in shabby robes.

After a decade on the roads he became a lay brother in the Franciscan Order in his native town but continued in his eccentric behaviour.

Invited to a wedding in his brother’s house he turned up naked, tarred and feathered from head to toe. Jacopone had a poem for it: “A wise and courteous choice he’d make/Who’d be a fool for the dear Lord’s sake.”

Within the Franciscans there was a minority group who wished to follow a more austere and frugal way of life. They were dubbed the Spirituals and not unsurprisingly Jacopone, always attracted by extremes, joined their company. They petitioned the new pope, Celestine V, for permission to establish their own order.

Celestine favoured their cause but under the strain of having to deal with warring Christian states and church intrigues and scandals he resigned in 1294 after only five months in office. He was succeeded by Boniface VIII who promptly locked up Celestine and ordered the recalcitrant friars to return to the jurisdiction of their regular superiors. There was a history of enmity between Boniface and Jacopone, dating from the time when Boniface got a plum ecclesiastical job in Todi in 1260 from the bishop of the town who happened to be his uncle Peter.

The poet’s support for the Spirituals was condemned by Boniface and he imprisoned his old adversary. While in prison he wrote some of his greatest poems. In the jubilee year of 1300 Boniface sanctioned the release of many prisoners but left Jacopone in the dungeon. It was not until Boniface died three years later that he regained his liberty.

Jacopone was now over 70, broken in body and spirit. After more wanderings he found refuge in the Convent of the Poor Clares near his native Todi. There he died on Christmas Day 1306 as midnight Mass was being celebrated in the chapel. He is buried in the Franciscan church, Tempio San Fortunato, in Todi. The inscription on his tomb says “…. having gone mad with love of Christ, by a new artifice deceived the world and took Heaven by storm”.

There are many translations of Stabat Mater. The latest is by Desmond Fisher. I hope Crazy Jim likes it.

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AN IRISHMAN’S DIARY

Frank McNally in the Irish Times takes up my complaint about an Iarnród Éireann competition which was confined to residents of the Republic of Ireland.

An Irishman’s Diary.

The blog Frank is referring to “No Northerners Need Apply” was published by me on April 16th 2012 and brought an almost immediate riposte from their well-organised PR department. A media person I met recently in Belfast told me he had read the blog and had enjoyed the article, so I will attach it here:

Euro2012 Poland-Ukraine

The headline looks appealing: win an InterRail trip for two to Euro 2012. Come on you boys in green! Iarnród Éireann is offering Ireland soccer fans the chance to win a trip to the European football championship, travelling overland from Ireland to Poland. The prize includes tickets for two to Ireland’s three Group games against Croatia, Spain and Italy, courtesy of North Dublin Schoolboys & Schoolgirls League and spending money of €1,000. The winner will be accommodated at a campsite at Poznan. Interested? Then all you have to do is to submit a sample blog post about a journey you have taken or a sporting event you have attended. Looks great. But I always believe in looking at the small print (terms and conditions). It seems that if you are an Ireland soccer fan from the six counties of Northern Ireland, then too bad, you can’t apply! Rule 3: “Applicants must be 18 years of age or over, and must be resident in the Republic of Ireland”. So if you are an Ireland fan from Newry, Portadown, Lurgan, Lisburn or Belfast, or perhaps a Derry City supporter following the club in the airtricity League, then sorry, you can’t apply, unless you happen to live in Donegal, Cavan. Monaghan or anywhere else in the Republic. This is a clear case of discrimination, where marketing people have not acknowledged the fact that hundreds of Ireland supporters are resident in some cases a few hundred yards across the border along the railway line between Dublin and Belfast. Yet they are not allowed to enter this competition. If you feel excluded then perhaps you should contact competitions@irishrail.ie and complain. But you need to do so immediately as the closing date for the competition is April 27th. Although I raised this matter with @IrishRail on twitter this morning I have not had any response. Sure I’m only a Northern Ireland resident and of course I would never use Iarnród Éireann or ever think about supporting Ireland as I did at Euro 1988 in Germany……

I can see the Republic of Ireland from here (Co.Tyrone) but I can’t enter an Irish Rail compeition!

UPDATE: As the comments below show, the blog attracted a response within hours from Iarnród Éireann defending the terms and conditions for the competition. The issue was also taken up by other outlets including Slugger and BBC NI News website. After the response from the rail company, the following thought occurred. Their marketing experts in designing a competition for RoI residents ONLY did not take into account natives of counties along the border such as Monaghan who might follow their airtricity premier league team as well as the national side, but who happened to reside across the border eg in Aughnacloy, Ballygawley, Middletown or Roslea. I was therefore glad to see that a Monaghan and border region perspective was added by Frank McNally in An Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times.