The Nation, 12 November, 1842.
The introductory lecture of the Rev. Mr. Coneys, on the study of Irish, in the Divinity School, T.C.D., on Thursday last, was badly attended. The Professor quoted Leibnitz, Boullét, Pictét, Johnson, Bushe, and many others, to prove the importance of Irish to the general student of language and history; and by all these, and by the canons of the Church, the opinions of Bishops and Archbishops, of Bedel and Ussher, and finally by the charge of James I, rating the Fellows and Visitors in set terms for having in this particular violated the trust on which Elizabeth’s grants were made – he urged the study of Irish. Now, with all respect, there are “reasons for roasting eggs.” It may be very disgraceful to the Church of Bedel and Ussher, and to the Corporation founded by Elizabeth, that “not more than four or five Clergymen of the Established Church minister in our native tongue;” but there needed no great names or old trust to make it the first business of a University calling itself national to make proficiency in the old national language imperative on its students. This Trinity College does not. It has a Professor ill-paid, and a voluntary and ill-attended Irish class (for Divinity students only), and there its labours end. Our columns have borne and shall again bear testimony to the merits and labours of some members of the College. We wish it well, and therefore we wish it to be national and popular. Unless it is both, its existence can neither be useful, honourable, nor secure.
We cannot leave the subject without repeating a story, quoted with a manner that won on us, by the Rev. Professor, from the late Caesar Otway’s Tour. “I entered,” he said, “a cabin, near Lord Bantry’s, at Glengariff, with a friend. The owner was poor, but very intelligent about business. It was Watch Saturday; and I asked him what it meant, and what were Good Friday and Easter Sunday the days before and after? He could not tell. ‘You don’t recollect,’ said my friend, ‘you are speaking to him in a foreign tongue.’ I asked him the same question in Irish. His countenance brightened up, and he told me of the death and burial of his Lord, of the Angels’ watch over His incorruptible body, of His ascension and glory. ‘The English,’ said my friend, ‘is the language of his commerce – the Irish, of his heart.’”
Thus would Ireland – if dull to the foreign tongue, and untractable to the foreigner’s sway – grow bright and eloquent, dutiful and devoted, at the sound of the Irish tongue and the Irishman’s bidding.
The Nation, 30 December, 1843.
Now, reader, don’t be alarmed, we are not going to ask you to call your wife “machree,” or your child “mavourneen,” instead of “my heart,” and “my dear,” as you do, or ought to do, now. We do not want you to learn names for those implements of agriculture and trade, those articles of furniture and dress, those relations of love, and life, and religion, other than your infancy lisped.
For you, if the mixed speech called English was laid with sweetness on your child’s tongue, English is the best speech of manhood. And yet, reader, in that case you are unfortunate. The hills, and lakes, and rivers, the forts and castles, the churches and parishes, the baronies and counties around you, have all Irish names – names which describe the nature of the scenery or ground, the name of founder, of chief, or priest, or the leading fact in the history of the place. To you these are names hard to pronounce, and without meaning.
And yet ‘twere well for you to know them. That knowledge would be a topography, and a history, and romance, walking by your side, and helping your discourse. Meath tells its flatness, Clonmel the abundant riches of its valley, Fermanagh is the land of the Lakes, Tyrone the county of Owen, Kilkenny the Church of St. Canice, Dunmore the great fort, Athenry the Ford of the Kings, Dunleary the Fort of the Sea; and the Phoenix Park, instead of taking its name from a fable, recognises as christener, the “sweet water” which yet springs near the East-gate.
All the names of our airs and songs are Irish, and we every day are as puzzled and ingeniously wrong about them as the man who, when asked for the air, “I am asleep, and don’t waken me,” called it “Tommy McCullagh made boots for me.”
The bulk of our history and poetry are written in Irish, and shall we, who learn Italian, and Latin, and Greek, to read Dante, Livy, and Homer in the original – shall we be content with ignorance or a translation of Irish?
As we urged before with a detail which we cannot now repeat, three-fourths of the people are of Celtic descent, notwithstanding the English names imposed on so many of them by act of parliament, policy, fashion, and meanness; and the Irish, the most pure of the Celtic dialects, must be fitted for their voice and car, best to speak, most sweet to sing, most strong to rouse, most suited to the genius of the people, even as Greek best suits the men descended from the conquerors of Marathon – the men who inherit Athenian mouths, and ears, and musical faculties, who breathe the air, and dwell on the sides of Hymettus. It were as absurd to expect the Irishman to be in full native health in India as to look for a full development of all his powers in oratory, music, and history, when using a tongue which leaves his country nameless, gives his fathers’ deeds in translated fragments, strains his organs, and cramps his musical powers.
But it will be said, ‘tis too late to revive Irish, it has no modern literature, modern science is as nameless in Irish, as Irish localities, airs, &c., are in English, and after all ‘tis impossible to succeed.
This sounds plausibly, but ‘tis very shallow. As to Irish not having a modern literature we say so much the better, if the present or coming generation have the energy to set about creating one. If they go to the work with strong passions, they will build a literature fast and firm enough, they will be greater and the parents of higher excellence than if they studied and repeated instead of originating songs, histories, and essays. The old Irish literature is ample to give impulse, and character, and costume to a new literature.
The want of modern scientific words in Irish is undeniable, and doubtless we should adopt the existing names into our language. The Germans have done the same thing, and no one calls German mongrel on that account. Most of these names are clumsy and extravagant, they are almost all derived from Greek or Latin, and cut as foreign a figure in French and English, as they would in Irish. Once Irish was recognised as a language to be learned as much as French or Italian, our dictionaries would fill up, and our vocabularies ramify, to suit all the wants of life and conversation.
These objections are ingenious refinements, however, rarely thought of till after the other and great objection has been answered.
The usual objection to attempting the revival of Irish is that it could not succeed.
If an attempt were made to introduce Irish, either through the national schools or the courts of law, into the eastern side of the island, it would certainly fail, and the reaction might extinguish it altogether. But no one contemplates this save as a dream of what may happen a hundred years hence. ‘Tis quite another thing to say, as we do, that the Irish language should be cherished, taught, and esteemed, and that it can be preserved and gradually extended.
What we seek is, that the people of the upper classes should have their children taught the language which explains our names or persons or places, our older history, and our music, and which is spoken in the majority of our counties rather than Italian, German, or French. It would be more useful in life, more serviceable to the taste and genius of young people, and a more flexible accomplishment for an Irish man or woman to speak, sing, and write Irish than French.
At present the middle classes think it a sign of vulgarity to speak Irish – the children are everywhere taught English and English alone in schools – and, what is worse, they are urged by rewards and punishments to speak it at home, for English is the language of their masters. Now, we think the example and exertions of the upper classes would be sufficient to set the opposite and better fashion of preferring Irish; and, even as a matter of taste, we think them bound to do so. And we ask it of the pride, the patriotism, and the hearts of our farmers and shopkeepers, will they try to drive out of their children’s minds the native language of almost every great man we had, from Brian Boru to O’Connell? – will they meanly sacrifice the language which names their hills, and towns, and music, to the tongue of the stranger?
Around half the People west of a line drawn from Derry to Waterford speak Irish habitually, and in some of the mountain tracts east of that line it is still common. Simply requiring the teachers of the National Schools in those Irish-speaking districts to know Irish, and supplying them with Irish translations of the school books would guard the language where it now exists, and prevent it from being swept away by the English tongue, as the red Americans have been by the English race from New York to New Orleans.
The example of the upper classes would extend and develop a modern Irish literature, and the hearty support they have given to the Archaeological Society makes us hope that they will have sense and spirit to do so.
But the establishment of a newspaper partly or wholly Irish would be the most rapid and sure way of serving the language. The Irish-speaking man would find, in his native tongue, the political news and general information he has now to seek in English; and the English-speaking man, having Irish frequently brought before him in so attractive a form would be tempted to learn its characters, and by and bye its meanings.
These newspapers in many languages are now to be found everywhere but here. In South America many of these papers are Spanish and English, or French; in North America, French and English; in Northern Italy, German and Italian; in Denmark and Holland, German is used in addition to the native tongue; in Alsace and Switzerland, French and German; in Poland, German, French, and Sclavonic; in Turkey, French and Turkish; in Hungary, Maggar, Sclavonic, and German; and the little Canton of Grison uses three languages in its press. With the exception of Hungary, the secondary language is, in all cases, spoken by fewer persons than the Irish-speaking people of Ireland, and while they everywhere tolerate and use our language as a medium of commerce, they cherish the other as the vehicle of history, the wings of song, the soil of their genius, and a mark and guard of nationality.