Delivered in the Town Hall, Waterford, under the auspices of the Waterford Branch of the Gaelic League, Dec. 9th, 1902.
Ireland possesses many relics of antiquity, round towers, ancient crosses, beehive cells, forts, duns and the like. She possesses old books of rare value, in which her ancient laws and customs are recorded. These treasures are carefully guarded by zealous votaries of antiquity. Not an adverse breath of wind is allowed to blow on the ancient ornaments, or the ancient books. Men differing in creed and politics unite in honouring these remains of antiquity and in explaining their significance to the world. Our country is justly proud of these ancient treasures, and no care is too great to safeguard them from the decomposing touch of time. But there is one relic of antiquity more precious than all the others taken together, which a large proportion of Irishmen are willing to let perish without a struggle and which certainly is in danger of disappearing from amongst us — and that is the living Irish speech. This noble relic differs from the other relics I have enumerated in this, that it is at the same time a relic of antiquity and a living institution. If all the Irish books and manuscripts that exist were destroyed the living Irish language spoken in Waterford or in Kerry would of itself afford unmistakeable evidence of the antiquity of our race, would give historians and philologists a clue to fixing the place of that race in the map of early peoples. The living language is of itself, independently of any early or recent documents, a true and genuine relic of antiquity. It is as if the round towers, instead of being preserved as fossil ornaments, continued till this hour to fulfil the functions for which they were originally designed. It is as if the churches, whose ruins now loom in solemn loneliness at Glendalough or Clonmacnoise, existed to the present hour as the daily receptacles of throngs of devout worshippers, it is as if Tara contained palaces and banquetting halls in the full blaze of life and beauty instead of green raths and deserted mounds. It is more than this; round towers, Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, Tara itself are but as yesterday when compared with the venerable antiquity of the Irish language. That language was in full vigour in Ireland centuries before one stone was laid on another in Glendalough, and long even before kings and chiefs kept high festival at Tara. I have said it was a more precious inheritance than all our other monuments; it is a bold word, but I for one, had I to choose, as I hope I never shall have to choose between the ruins of Tara and the living Irish tongue, would not hesitate to say, perish Tara, but leave me the language of the Gael in its living state. If I were asked to choose between it and all the Irish MSS. that at present exist, I would not hesitate to consign the MSS. to destruction in order to save the living tongue. The enemies of the Irish language and the Irish people would pay great attention to the study and preservation of the Irish language were that language once safely relegated to MSS. and books, did it but cease to sound on the lips of living Irishmen and Irishwomen. What they cannot tolerate is the living witness to the antiquity and immemorial civilisation, to the distinctive character, to the greatness of the historic Irish race, that the living speech affords. Hide that language from the glare of the market place, from the public streets, from the modern press, bury it deep in MSS. and learned books, and then its false lovers will enshrine these MSS. and books in gold. They will give rich prizes for the study of them in Universities, they will never have done proclaiming their antiquity and importance. But seek to press it into public use, seek to restore it to its due place in domestic life, in literary life, in political life; seek to make it the living vehicle of Irish thought, seek to make it the instrument of living song, and these pretended friends appear in their true colours; they startle and rave and cry out: —
“Avaunt, and quit my sight, let the earth hide thee;
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold,
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes.
Which thou dost glare with.”
We claim a living tongue fit for all the uses of life; they would present us with a fossil and a relic, a dead and dumb mummy of the past.
But our living language even in its living state, is a time relic of antiquity — a nobler and more perfect relic than any ever enshrined in gold. The language spoken by the Irish-speaking man carries the mind back to an age so remote that, compared with it, the Roman Empire is but a thing of yesterday, for that language is the natural and gradual growth and development of the primitive language of the early inhabitants of this island. Irish is one of the oldest languages in Europe. It is difficult to fix its absolute or relative age. If I were to say that it is an older language than Greek, it would not be altogether safe to contradict me. No doubt, the existing written monuments of the early stages of the language are few, but they are enough to prove that the modern speech, has sprung by a gradual process of growth from the primitive tongue. There has been no violent transformation, no sudden despoiling of some learned language of half its wealth; the language spoken now in Munster is the identical language which Zeuss studied in his Grammatica Celtica, only that it is so many centuries older, and that it is more fully developed. Words have been borrowed from Latin, Anglo-Saxon and other sources, but their number and importance are inconsiderable, and they do not at all touch the natural syntax of Irish speech. There is scarce a language in Europe that has preserved its continuous identity so distinctly as Irish has. It is, therefore, a precious relic of antiquity — that is, in its living state — which all true Irishmen should rally round and guard as a priceless heirloom handed down to them by their ancestors from the remotest ages; an heirloom that tells of a distinct and isolated civilization, of a flourishing literature, of a refinement, of a highly developed legal system, of the arts of war and peace practised on the banks of the Shannon and the Boyne, before most of the nations of modern Europe had emerged from the polar night of barbarism in which they so long slept.
With this language living on their lips, it requires no learned argument, no very deep antiquarian research, no weighing of skulls or other anthropological devices to pronounce the people that inhabit the western and southern seaboard of our island the true descendants of the ancient race that left their mark on every country almost in Europe, from the Tiber to the Tagus, from the Hellespont to the Baltic, that slowly receded before the onset of Roman power chafing in their wrath as they went even as the northern waves chafe and dash themselves on the ice-bound shores of Norway, the same people that settled down, long before the dawn of our history, on the plains of Meath and Ossory, or amid the purple hills of Kerry. The Irish speaker carries about with him proofs — all but irrefragable — of the antiquity of his race, of its past triumphs, of its heroism, of its glory. He bears about with him a relic of antiquity which all the gold of the British Empire could not purchase. Let him go into a foreign country — as he too often does — he cannot take with him the Raths of Tara, or the Round Tower of Kildare — but he bears with him his native speech which is a truer passport to antiquity than these. Destroy this relic and you remove one of the most obvious means of distinguishing the Irish race from their neighbours. You destroy what is at once a proof and a remnant of the remotest antiquity. It is depressing to see the concern which some of our archaeologists show for the preservation of some window in an old ruined cloister, some earthern mound, or some druidical cromlech, while at the same time they are content to let the living speech of their race fade and languish and die. No doubt every relic of antiquity should be preserved; but even in relics of antiquity, a sense of proportion should be observed, and he, surely, but ill understands the true meaning of antiquity, who would deem a window or an arch a relic of the part more precious than the flood tide of a living vernacular speech.
The living Irish language, then, considered as a relic of the remotest antiquity, is a precious heirloom to the Irish people. But it is not as a relic of antiquity alone that it should be prized by Irishmen. It is a relic of antiquity, but a living relic. It is an ancient language, but it is suffering from none of the inconvenience of old age. Its bones are not marrowless, its blood is not cold; it is to-day as fresh and vigorous, as pliant, as subtle, as copious, as majestic, as sweet, as mellifluous as when it resounded in the halls of Tara, or waked the echoes round the palaces of Eamhain or Cruachan. It is, indeed, suffering; it is in straits and difficulties, it is low and weak, it exhibits symptoms which its enemies pronounce to be the effect of old age, but which its friends know to be the effect of confinement, of torture, of privation, of starvation, of exclusion from the light of day. Its enemies would prescribe the rest and quiet and withdrawal from publicity that becomes the feeble and aged. But we diagnose the case more accurately, we know the vigorous blood that is still coursing in its veins, we know that its step is still light on the mountain, we want to bring it forth from an unjust confinement: we want it to breathe the free air of heaven — to bound freely to the sound of native music, to sing its own songs, to tell its own stories by the happy fireside, to rejoice in the society of its friends, to weave new rhythms, to captivate our hearts with its matchless strains. We seek to fill its soul with gladness, with the joy of life, with the glory of a fresh and renovated existence. We seek to make its accents resound once more in town and city and in the broad plains and beside the silver streams of holy Ireland. For it is veritably a living speech— a speech long unused for purposes of literature and fresh and glowing with the energy of reserved and husbanded force. There are some who would not consider the poems of Eoghan Ruadh, or of Tadhg Gaedhealach great literature. What constitutes great literature is to some extent a matter of taste. But no one can deny that the living Irish speech, as it appears in these poems, is instinct with vital energy. The rush of the verse reminds us of the surging Atlantic as it breaks in upon our western coast; it reminds us of the headlong torrents that dash themselves to the plain from the Kerry mountains in the rainy season. You cannot speak of the language of which these poems are a specimen as intrinsically moribund. You may starve it out; you may thin the ranks of those who speak it, you may forbid its use in the light of day, but you are chaining, maltreating, starving, not a decrepit, bloodless, sightless thing, bowed down with age, but something full of life and youthful vigour — a language, I venture to say, more fresh and vigorous, more powerful than most of the languages of Europe. That language has been moulded into its present shape by the accumulated passion of a highly strung race. Its unsurpassed power of melody is the result of centuries of song. Its softness and tenderness are the outcome of generations of growing refinement; its richness and copiousness bear testimony to a people gifted with an eloquence but rarely granted to man. Though this language is no longer spoken on the plains of Limerick or Tipperary or Meath, it does not follow that the people who inhabit these plains have no part in it. Did not their ancestors for ages and ages help to mould it into its present shape? It is the common inheritance of the Irish people. Though now confined to a few small districts, it contains within itself the concentrated essence of all the mighty forces that have been acting in the field of Irish history — the combined resultant of all the best qualities of the entire Irish race. It is like an electric battery: all it requires is opportunity and apparatus to send a live thrill to the most distant climes and to the remotest ages. Let it but once become a dead and learned language, as it threatens to become, and all its energizing power is lost. Its written records, even those of a recent date, lose their vigour and force and freshness, and the songs of Eoghan Ruadh and those of O’Rahilly would lose more than half their meaning. Their splendid resonance would fall like a dull jingle on ears unaccustomed to the genuine ring of living Irish speech. They would have no power of fertilization did there not co-exist a body of readers to whom the language is as natural as the air they breathe. Poems, like those of Eoghan Ruadh and O’Rahilly, have a powerful dynamic force which can only produce its effect through the medium of the living tongue. We need real, genuine successors to these poets — men to hand on the torch of poetry and passion, of Irish feeling, of true Irish genius to future ages; but a succession to them is impossible without a live medium; instead of a real succession we should have only the cold, passionless, soulless imitation of students and faddists. Allow our speech to perish and not only will these great monuments of Irish genius lose more than half their meaning, but the long struggle of the Irish mind for self-expression will have little or no result in the production of our future literature. We cannot attune the English language at this time of the day, to all the tender emotions, all the majestic symphonies, all the vigorous outbursts of the historic Irish spirit. If we lose our natural medium of expression we shall lose many of the best fruits of our struggle for truth and justice; we shall be unable to set our thoughts with due force and distinctness before the world.
At the present moment the living Irish speech is threatened with extinction. In Munster, the only province which has maintained a high class literature with almost unbroken continuity down to our time, the area of vernacular Irish has reached the lowest point. Reduce it further and for national purposes, for purposes of literary use, it will cease to be worth serious consideration. If it is to be preserved it must be not only strengthened where it is now, but extended to the neighbouring districts where there are some remnants of it left, and where it has but just gone out. For a live language, circumstanced as Irish, is like the sea-tide. It never remains stationary; if it is not coming in, it is going out. If you desire to know whether it is holding its own, find out whether it is advancing. If it be not advancing, then it is not even holding its own — it is receding.
I shrink from asking the question — is the living Irish speech advancing in Munster? Is it acquiring new territory? Is it setting neighbouring districts ablaze with the energy of its living fire? To insure a permanent existence for the language, growth and extension are absolutely necessary. Growth and extension are easy in many districts where the language is still spoken, or can be spoken by the adult population, but has just gone out of use among the young. Growth and extension, too, are necessary for the kindling of true poetic passion, for the production of a genuine and racy literature. A literary production, whether it be poem, oration, or story, if it have the true ring of life in it, supposes a sympathetic audience of reasonable extent — an audience, too, of wide and varied view, of diverse pursuit, of learned leisure, of literary instinct. At the present moment the vernacular speech is confined, as a rule, to men who have no book-learning, who have no leisure for education or for literary effort, amongst whom literature has dwindled down to a few folk songs, and who have lost some of the finest traditional lore of their race. Speaking generally, such an audience is insufficient to stimulate a great writer to the production of a work of genius. It cannot be doubted, too, that in the process of receding within such narrow limits the language lost much of its literary sap — that it was forced to yield much that the poet, the historian, the romancer would prize. The language has, no doubt, somewhat deteriorated during the last century, but it is a deterioration that can be made good especially by the aid of the great poetic productions of the eighteenth century.
The growth and extension of the vernacular must take place gradually, and begin in those districts where the language is still in a moribund state. But a widespread study of the language throughout the entire island and amongst the Irish race in Britain and America and elsewhere is certain to act as a powerful stimulus to present and future writers. You cannot, indeed, at present plant vernacular Irish in Dublin or Belfast, in Liverpool or Chicago. But you lift Irish literature to a higher level by creating an enthusiastic Irish reading public in these cities — a public who enjoy Irish wit, who grow enamoured of the haunting melody of Irish song, who watch with an intelligent interest every new production in Irish that issues from the press. Energy and zeal and enthusiasm count for much in the matter of language and literature, and in some cases bid fair almost to compensate for the loss of the vernacular speech. I can bear testimony to the enthusiasm I have seen over and over again among Dublin students, old and young, male and female. I have witnessed amongst them a living ardour, a devouring thirst for a knowledge of the National tongue which made me feel ashamed of my own negligence and remissness. Dublin is very distant from any Irish-speaking district, yet in the heart of that great city — there is springing up a race of men and women who are drinking in eagerly the true traditional Irish spirit, who are seeking in the living Irish language the genuine expression of that spirit and who by their energy and enthusiasm are kindling a fire in the land which the most determined opposition only strengthens, and which, in time, will mount up to heaven an unconquerable and glorious blaze. Dublin is doing much, but it is from a border city like Waterford that the most effective work may be expected. A considerable fringe of Waterford County is Irish-speaking. Almost the entire county could, by zeal and energy, become Irish-speaking. The language tide is but just going out in the entire county. It is still capable of being turned. We should aim at turning it, and making it roll back in such a volume, with such force and momentum that it may submerge for ever the false and mischievous spirit that its ebbing has given rise to. It is in border-lands like Waterford that the real battle for the language has to be fought. Show me some conquered territory, show me a town or village, one small spot of land to which Irish speech has been restored, and I will admit that your movement is making progress. If you fail to show me that, whatever else you may boast of. I must declare that you are losing: in the strife, that the tide is ebbing never again to return.
The living Irish speech, then, is beyond question one of the most precious heirlooms of which any nation can boast. It is the most interesting linguistic relic of these northern latitudes. It is not a relic alone, but a living energising power full of potentiality, aglow with suppressed passion. In preserving this relic from the depredations of time, we are not embalming a mummy — we are not writing some splendid epitaph on a sarcophagus. No. We have only to give food, fresh air and exercise to a living being.
Let its accents once more be heard in our streets, in our assemblies, in our places of worship, around the hearth-fire, in the school-room; let it sound on the lips of the old and the young, of the learned and the unlearned. Let it become again the vehicle of song and story; let us but try to speak it, write it, sing it, and it will begin to quicken and live in those places where its enemies believed it dead beyond redemption. It will sprout again as the hawthorn by the wayside — so bare and desolate all the long winter — sprouts in the opening spring. It will spring up into flower, and fruit, and gladden the earth with its fragrance and its beauty. With our language it is a second spring. It is a revival when all around believed that age’s frost had chilled its blood and withered its features to unsightliness and distortion — it is a revival almost past hope. It is a revival so contrary to the natural renovation in the physical world that foreign nations look on in wonder at what is taking place amongst us. They look on arrested by a phenomenon unique in the history of nations — a phenomenon that seems to bear the impress of God’s hand, that is allied to the miraculous and the Divine: the phenomenon of a language which had, by the force of a relentless persecution, by the tyranny of enforced ignorance, been ousted from town after town, from village after village of the land until it was forced to take insecure refuge among crags and barren sea-boards, whose accents had fallen into such contempt that they became the emblems of slavery and degradation, whose written records were buried in such oblivion that the great poets who made it the vehicle of their passionate outbursts were lost to the memory of the nation — that this venerable language should suddenly burst forth from the glens and caverns of our highlands; that it should intrude itself into the fashionable streets of the city; that it should force its way into the council chambers, the mansions of the wealthy, the house of prayer; that its voice should ring not with the piping notes of age, but with all the thrilling music peculiar to youth; that it should be again held in honour by bards and sages; that its great poets should shake off the dust of centuries and rise resplendent as from the grave of the forgotten to irrigate the land with the rushing tide of their song. It is a phenomenon which no other nation in Christendom can present, and it is no idle phenomenon – no barren wonder.
That living language is the inheritance of the whole Irish race at home and in foreign climes. Of all the peoples of these modern times there is scarce a race of men more widely scattered over the globe than ours. The influence that we wield in the politics of the world — in the literature of the world, in the Church, in the senate — is very great. We have gone through a Red Sea of persecution and oppression. We have gone through physical and mental persecution for the sake of our ancient language. The effort made to destroy that language has all but succeeded. But now the Irish race not only in Ireland, but the world over, is making up its mind that that ancient language is to be restored to its due place in our national system. The energy, the self-discipline, the courage, the heroism which are being called forth by that resolve, and which will continue to be called forth, are certain to brace up powerfully the entire race, to deepen the national characteristics that distinguish us from other peoples, to wean us from all that is defiling and enervating in neighbour literatures, to incite us to drink in our own traditional spirit from the genuine monuments of our own literature, to teach us to look to our own country as our true mother, as the centre of our hopes, as the first object of our love. Were there no other benefit to be derived from the revival of our ancient language than this, it would repay the energy expended on it, but there can be no doubt that rich and permanent fruit of literature may be expected from it. I know that little or nothing of permanent value has been written in Irish since the revival of the language began seriously to engage the attention of the nation at large. But we are only in the commencement of the struggle. You cannot expect a ripe literature from a language while its very existence is trembling in the balance. We must first create an audience of sufficient extent and of sufficient diversity of tastes, to arouse the enthusiasm of great writers. In the process of creating such an audience the heart of the Irish race will be deeply stirred, and from out its depths there will spring a literature, fresh and vigorous, and charged with all the noblest qualities of our ancient and imperishable race.