In 1629 William Bedell was made Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh (ET, January 2015). As a bishop, he grappled energetically with all the abuses that weighed down the Church of Ireland, abuses that made it hard to reach the people of Ireland with the gospel.
In an article about his work as a Bible translator, it is not possible to describe adequately the immense toil and struggle this involved. It constantly forced him away from the work he had become convinced was the most vital of all, translating the Old Testament into Irish, in order to complete the Irish Bible.
Bedell himself was not able to undertake the work of translation directly. He was not a native Irish speaker and found the language difficult. Nevertheless, he set to work to assemble a translation team and the work was begun.
Murtagh King, a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, was the main translator. He was an expert in bardic poetry and legal language. His defect as a translator of the Old Testament was his lack of Hebrew.
James Nangle was engaged on translating the Psalms. He seems to have been a Catholic when he was set to work on this project, but was converted while staying in the bishop’s house and translating the Psalter.
Also included in his team were a minister, Denis Sheridan; the bishop’s chaplain and future stepson-in-law, Alexander Clogie; and his son, Ambrose Bedell. The team met daily when the bishop was at home and their method was unique.
Murtagh King started by translating the 1611 English Authorised Version into Irish. He brought two copies of his finished pages to the daily meeting. Bishop Bedell then made a careful comparison of King’s Irish translation with the Hebrew, noting any difficulties onto the copies. One can imagine him using his great three-volume, Hebrew Old Testament to do this.
Ambrose Bedell then slowly read the English out aloud, while Bishop Bedell followed in one Irish copy and Alexander Clogie in the other. Clogie was a Scot, although whether a native Gaelic speaker or not is not clear. The Italian translation by Diodati was kept at hand and consulted where there were any difficulties.
The next stage also involved reading aloud. Bedell and Clogie read through the Irish verse by verse, alternating between each other. However, although they had the Irish in front of them, they translated into Latin as they went along, reading out the words in that language.
The final stage, when the team was satisfied, was a fair copy of the loose sheets. This was made by Denis Sheridan, a native Irish speaker. Always concerned with communicating the gospel, the bishop insisted on simple language wherever possible, and he was a stickler for accuracy.
The translation work was hampered in a number of directions, not least of which was the drain on the bishop’s time through his battles to rid the diocese of corruption and graft.
His superiors, Lord Wentworth (Lord Deputy of Ireland) and Archbishop Laud of Canterbury, were not keen on the translation work either. When the Old Testament was completed, they poured scorn on the whole undertaking. King, they argued, was an ignoramus, totally unable to make an accurate translation.
Their spite was such that King was arrested in Dublin and thrown into prison. Bedell went to Dublin to defend him in the church courts, but was unable to prevent him being imprisoned. He began to petition Lord Wentworth for his release.
More delay and difficulty continued to beset the work. In frustration, Bishop Bedell sent to Holland to have type for the printing cast at his own expense.
And then disaster struck. The Irish rose in revolt, killing, looting and burning. The suffering in Ireland was intense. As a consequence of his kindly attitude, Bishop Bedell was spared at first and his home became a shelter for refugees, his barns and outhouses filled with genteel and poor alike, all now destitute of clothing and grateful to feed on boiled wheat provided by the bishop from his stores.
The rebel leaders, not liking this situation, then imprisoned the bishop since he refused to send the refugees away. Together with his sons, Alexander Clogie and some others, he was held in Cloughoughter Castle, a single tower still standing in the water of Lough Oughter, in County Cavan.
Lacking clothing and any means of keeping warm (it was now mid-winter), they were greatly assisted by one of their number, a carpenter by trade, who had contrived to get hold of some tools, fit up boards to the windows to give shelter and mend the rotten floors to prevent them falling through.
The bishop (now 70 years old) never fully recovered from this ordeal. Released in an exchange of prisoners, he was allowed to go to the home of Denis Sheridan, which was crowded with refugees. Here he died of the Irish ague (typhus) on 7 February 1642.
His burial was hurried, as Clogie was afraid of provoking the watching Irish by using the Protestant burial service. However, the rebels fired a salute (they had not forgotten Bedell’s kindness), exclaiming as they did so, Resquiescat in pace ultimus Anglorum.
His holy life dedicated to bringing the pure gospel to the Irish had left its mark. ‘Oh that my soul were with Bedell!’ said a watching Irish priest.
But what happened to the Irish translation? All Bedell’s considerable library was in the hands of the Catholic bishop, Swiney, who had taken over his house. He seems to have been a drunken lout (‘Swiney by name and swiney by nature’, Clogie called him), with no interest in books.
Sheridan was able to rescue some of them, including the Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament, which is now in the library of Bedell’s old college, Emmanuel, Cambridge. The manuscript of the Irish translation also survived, but it was not to be published until much bloodstained water had passed under the bridge of Irish history.
The scientist Robert Boyle funded the publication of the complete Irish Bible in 1685. An Irishman who spoke the language himself, at least in his childhood, Boyle used much of his wealth in promoting projects to further the gospel.
Through his agency, Bedell’s work was completed and the Irish had the whole Bible in their own language at last.
Irish is close enough to Scottish Gaelic to be understood in the highlands and islands of Scotland, and Dr Johnson and Mr Boswell were to find Bedell’s work still in use there when they toured the Hebrides in 1773.
The author is married, with three grown up children, and lives in Snowdonia. She is secretary of the Christian Education for Deeside Exam Centre for Christian home educators, and has compiled a curriculum for Christian home education called The mothers’ companion.
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