From The Dublin University Review, November 1886.
In the June number of this REVIEW there were published some editorial remarks to the effect that it would be wholly undesirable to make use of the Irish language any longer, either in newspapers or conversation, and it is apparently the wish of the writer that we should cease to employ it for the future as a means of communicating our thoughts either in speech or writing. This was coupled with a complaint, perhaps a just one, of the indefiniteness of the aims of those who wish to preserve the language.
Rousseau at the beginning of his Emile lays it down as a rule that the first question of a young child should be taught to ask about what it does not understand, is ‘a quoi cela est-il bon?” and in truth every one, as the world runs now-a-days, must be prepared with answer to this horrible cui bono. And yet it is frequently more easy to ask the question than to answer it. When in a restless mood one flings oneself down at the piano and runs his fingers over the keys, it is easy to ask him cui bono, it is hard to answer it. He feels his whole soul go out to the music, he cannot leave off, it satisfies him. And yet even he if forced to put his feelings into words would be able, though it would be irksome to him, to explain why he did it. And so too we, when we are asked why it is we sing Irish songs, write Irish verses, or speak the Irish language, find ourselves compelled, though unwillingly, to give cold categorical reasons for that which we had considered merely natural, and hence it is that I cannot avoid saying a few words in deprecation of the editorial censure, and explaining why it is I do not share the wish to see my language dead and decently buried – to ‘leave it to the universities,’ as they call it. We know what that means. We have seen our very numerous, very ancient and very interesting MSS. handed over to the safe keeping of the colleges already. There they lie in their companies:
‘No one wakes them, they are keeping
Royal state and semblance still,’
the mildew on their pages, the dust upon their covers, in the utmost repose and dignity, where we are requested to leave them, ‘to the universities,’ – where their placid rest may be disturbed only once or twice in a generation.
Now if we allow our living language to die out, it is almost a certainty that we condemn our literary records to remain in obscurity. All our great scholars, nearly all those who have done anything for the elucidation of our MSS., O’Connor of Ballingar, O’Donovan, O’Curry, Petrie, Hennessy, all these spoke the language naturally from their cradle, and had it not been so they would never have been able to accomplish the work they did, a work which first made it possible for a Jubainville or a Windisch to prosecute their Celtic studies with any success.
There is no use in arguing the advantage of making Irish the language of our newspapers and clubs, because that is and ever shall be an impossibility; but for several reasons we wish to arrest the language in its downward path, and if we cannot spread it (as I do not believe we very much can), we will at least prevent it from dying out, and make sure that those who speak it now, will also transmit it unmodified to their descendants.
Here again comes in your materialistic cui bono, and I must candidly and honestly confess, that what I advocate brings with it no substantial or material advantages at all. It will neither make money nor help to make money; but I hope that this confession will not put us out of court with an Irish audience, as I know it would with an Anglo-Saxon one. It is not particularly easy to state my case, but my first feeling is like this.
To be told that the language which I spoke from my cradle, the language my father and grandfather and all my ancestors in an unbroken line leading up into the remote twilight of antiquity have spoken, the language which has entwined itself with every fibre of my being, helped to mould my habits of conduct and forms of thoughts, to be calmly told by an Irish Journal that the sooner I give up this language the better, that the sooner I ‘leave it to the universities’ the better, that we will improve our English speaking by giving up our Irish, to be told this by a representative Irish Journal is naturally and justly painful.
I do not think the Saxon language has greater claims upon the western peasantry or on myself, than the Irish language has, or that we should be told to give up the tongue of our fathers that we may better speak the language of strangers. I – and there are hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who feel on this subject as I do – have always liked my Celtic countrymen and disliked the English nation; it is a national trait of character and I cannot well help it; am I then to quietly fall in with the wishes of those milk-and-water, would-be cosmopolitan, pseudo-international patriots who would make out of our country a lesser England lying to the west of Great Britain? I should be sorry to see them succeed. Englishmen have very noble and excellent qualities which I should like to see imitated here, but I should not like to imitate them in everything. I like our own habits and character better, they are more consonant to my nature; I like our own turn of thought, our own characteristics, and above all I like our own language and do not wish to see the effacing hand of cosmopolitanism prevail against it. I cannot conceive a more acute pain in the power of sentiment to inflict than that which I should feel if, after a life passed in England or the Colonies or India, I were to come back to my native mountains and find that the indifference or the actual discouragement of our leaders had succeeded in destroying the language of my childhood, and with it the tales, the traditions, the legends, the imaginations, with which my cradle had been surrounded.
I do not think it would be for the advantage of our race to let our language die. I have had some experience of my Celtic countrymen, and I must unhesitatingly affirm that those who continue to speak their own language are in every way the intellectual and generally the moral superiors of those who have allowed it to die out. When a locality allows Irish to die out of it the people lose nearly all those distinctive characteristics which make them so lovable and so courteous. I have verified this over and over again, and feel sure that I am asserting the truth. The reason of it is transparently obvious. When they lose the language they lose also the traditional unwritten literature which, inculcating and eulogising what is courteous, high-minded, and noble, supplied continuously an incentive to the practice of those qualities.
The saying is fathered upon old Fletcher of Saltoun, ‘Give me the making of the ballads and let who will make the laws.’ It is a foolish saying, but there lies at the bottom of it a germ of truth; it means that no laws can quite stamp out the spirit of liberty, while ballads of freedom are on every tongue: –
For those keep a record of those the true hearted
Who fell with the cause they had vowed to maintain;
They show us bright shadows of glories departed,
Of the love that grew cold and the hope that was vain.
The page may be lost and the pen long forsaken,
And the weeds may grow wild o’er the brave heart and hand,
But ye are still left, when all else has been taken,
Like streams in the desert, sweet songs of our land.
It is exactly so with us. When Irish is the vernacular language of the peasantry there live enshrined in it memories and imaginations, deeds of daring and of tragic catastrophe, an heroic cycle of legend and poem, a vast and varied store of apothegms, sententious proverbs, and weighty sentences, which contain the very best and truest thoughts, not of the rude forefathers of the hamlet, but of the kings, sages, bards, and shanachies of the bygone ages. Such a stream of collected thought as is everywhere found where the Irish language remains spoken, must exercise an influence on those who come into contact with it, as all the peasantry do, and such an influence must be an advantageous one. I, for one would be very slow to barter away this great and certain advantage for the hypothetical gain which it is alleged would then accrue to the ‘free circulation of thought,’
‘Shooting in pulses of fire, ceaseless, to vivify all.’
I, for one, do not believe that the Third National Reading-book, or the perusal of the Weekly News, which is amongst four-fifths of our peasantry what the ‘free circulation of thought’ amounts to, are at all an adequate compensation for what we lose by laying aside our language. If by ceasing to speak Irish our peasantry could learn to appreciate Shakespeare and Milton, to study Wordsworth or Tennyson, then I would certainly say adieu to it. But this is not the case. They lay aside a language which for all ordinary purposes of every day life is much more forcible than any with which I am acquainted, and they replace it by another which they learn badly and speak with an atrocious accent, interlarding it with barbarisms and vulgarity.
The language of the western Gael is the language best suited to his surroundings. It corresponds best to his topography, his nomenclature and his organs of speech, and the use of it guarantees the remembrance of his own weird and beautiful traditions. Around the blazing bog fire of a winter’s night Dermod O’Duibhne of the love spot, Finn with his coat of hairy skin, Conán the Thersites of the Fenians, the old blinded giant Esheen (Ossian), the speckled bull with the moveable horn, the enchanted cat of Rath-croghan, and all the other wild and poetic offspring of the bardic imagination pass in review before us. Every hill, every lios, every crag and gnarled tree and lonely valley has its own strange and graceful legend attached to it, the product of the Hibernian Celt in its truest and purest type, not to be improved upon by change, and of infinite worth in moulding the race type, of immeasurable value in forming its character.
The native Irish deal in sententious proverbs perhaps more than any other nation in Europe; their repertoire of apothegms is enormous. It is a characteristic which is lost with their change of language and consequently has not been observed or noticed. Let their language die and not one of their proverbs will remain. Of the hundreds of stereotyped sayings and acute aphorisms which I have heard aptly introduced upon occasions where Irish was spoken, I cannot say that I have heard five survive in an English dress when the language has been lost. And if this is the case with aphorisms and sayings, much more does it hold good of the songs, the legends and the heroic cycle of stories. I believe for example that the character of the people has deteriorated in the east of the County Leitrim and in the County Longford, where Irish died out a generation or two ago. There Dermod of the love spot is unknown, Finn MacCool is barely remembered as ‘a giant,’ Ossian is never heard of, the ancient memories have ceased to cling to the various objects of nature; the halo of romance, the exquisite and dreamy film which hangs over the Mayo mountains has been blown away by the brutal blast of the most realistic materialism, and people when they gather into one another’s houses in the evening for a cailee (céilidhe – a night visit) can talk of nothing but the latest scandal or the price Tim Rooney got for his calf, or the calving of Paddy Sweeney’s cow.
I have no doubt whatever that when a language like the Irish, Welsh or Breton, is replaced by another whose whole spirit and tone is at variance with, and hostile to, its departed rival, the race whose language is thus taken from them does not recover the change for at least a hundred years. I have found a much nearer re-approachment between the natives of Western Leinster where Irish has not been spoken for a great while, and the natives of Mayo, than between the natives of Mayo and their neighbours 80 miles away where Irish has only recently died out.
Those who have not experienced it can have no conception of the way in which the death of the native language acts on the thoughts and habits of the people, and though Dublin philosophers and international doctrinaires may talk grandiloquently about the impossibility of the ordinary peasant or artisan speaking two languages equally correctly, and though they may preach to us the benefit it would be to humanity and to the Irish themselves were they to consent to lay their language on the shelf, and to adopt a new one, we whose misfortune or fortune it is to live amongst the western or inland mountains refuse to be won over by such persuasive plausibilities, or to believe, contrary to the evidence of our senses that the race has improved in any one way, morally, intellectually or socially by dropping its old tongue.
We are told that the keeping alive a language spoken by so small a number of the community is a barrier to progress and to the free play of thought, but for one idea, probably a vulgar Philistine idea, which would permeate us were we to adopt English exclusively, we would, as I have shown, lose multitudes of memories endeared to us by the traditions of five hundred years, lose all that beautifies humanity, all that makes us love our race, all that makes our life most worth living.
I believe it is at bottom some such thought that prompts gentlemen to attempt the preservation of the Irish, Welsh and Scoto-Gaelic languages. I should be sorry were they not to succeed, and sorry for the reasons I have stated. I do not wish that those who take a patriotic interest in our language should be accused of being prejudiced visionaries who in the teeth of existing circumstances would attempt to force upon the people an impossible status quo.
I do not believe in resuscitating a great national language by twopenny-halfpenny bounties. If the Irish people are resolved to let the national language die, by all means let them; I believe the instinct of a nation is always juster than that of an individual. But this at least no one can deny, that hitherto the Irish nation has had no choice in the matter. What between the Anglo-Irish gentry who came upon us in a flood after the confiscations of 1648, and again after 1691, whose great object it was to stamp out both the language and the institutions of the nation, with their bards and shanachies and ollamhs and professors; what with the brutalized sensual unsympathetic gentry of the last century, the racing blasting drunkard squireens who usurped the places of the O’Connors, the O’Briens, the O’Donnells, the O’Cahans, and the MacCarthys, our old and truly cultured national nobility who cherished hereditary poets and historians; what with the purblind cringing pedagogues of the present century whose habit it was to beat and threaten their pupils for talking Irish; what with the high-handed action of the authorities who with a cool contempt of existing circumstances surely unequalled in an European country, continued to appoint English-speaking magistrates, petty session clerks and local officials among a people to whom they cannot make themselves intelligible; what with the hostility of the Board of Education who do not recognize the language of those baronies where no English is spoken even to the extent of publishing school books in it; what with all this and our long slavery as a nation, we assert that the Irish language has had no chance of showing its capabilities, or those who speak it of taking their own part and making their voice heard.
Our emancipation as a nation is at hand, a few short years will surely see the dreams of centuries fulfilled, and then it will be the duty – can any one deny it? – of our rulers to see that our language is treated as the language of any other country of Europe would be treated in like circumstances; to see that those who learn no other language shall be taught to read the one they do know, and that as much encouragement be given to it by the Government as is given to English.
I believe there is a very strong and real feeling against leaving our national language ‘to the Universities’; artificial restraints have prevented it from growing here, but in America at least it is very powerful. A great part of the integrity of Irish nationality in the new world is due to the cultivation of Ireland’s old language, which, proh pudor! has found a more congenial soil in the squares of New York than in the streets of Dublin.
So strong is the feeling in America in favour of an attempt to preserve what many people there feel to be the purest and most seductive thing that Irish nationality can present them with, that even the New York Herald, the leading newspaper in America, opened its columns the other day to a portion of a speech spoken in Irish by some prominent patriot in New York, which it not only printed in Irish as delivered, but also in the native type. Have we lived to see it? Are they less materialistic over there beyond the seas than we are at home? Does the New York Herald actually do for us what United Ireland obstinately refuses to do?
There is just one other objection to be noticed, we are told that in learning English we are learning a superior language to that we are invited to leave off. It is so; but unless we learn it in a superior way we get no good by the change. My settled opinion is that the Western and Southern peasantry have a far better clearer and more flexible medium for expressing their thoughts than the Leinster and Ulster men have. For all the ordinary purposes of everyday peasant life Irish is I believe enormously superior to English, at least to the English spoken in Ireland.
When we see the Dutch for the benefit of humanity at large consent to merge their language in the German, when we see the Belgians throw aside their own and adopt French, when the Welsh are found willing to lay aside their Cymraig and become anglicised, then we, though we have a language which in the antiquity and extent of its written records is vastly superior to any of these, may also consent to fall in with the kind suggestions of our friends and to leave aside our Gaedheilg for ever.
In conclusion we may say this, that while our social and commercial relations make it a necessity for every man, woman and child in this kingdom to learn English sooner or later, reverence for our past history, regard for the memory of our ancestors, our national honour, and the fear of becoming materialized and losing our best and highest characteristics call upon us imperatively to assist the Irish speaking population at the present crisis and to establish for all time a bi-lingual population in those parts of Ireland where Irish is now spoken, from whom all those who in the distant future may wish to investigate the history or the antiquities of our nation, may draw as from a fountain that vernacular knowledge which for such purpose is indispensably necessary.
AN CHRAOIBHÍN AOIBHINN.