Irish Language preserved

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

Olderfleet Castle, Larne

Olderfleet Castle, Larne

Chapter XXXII.

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Glimpses of Social Life in the Seventeenth Century—Literature and Literary Men—Keating—the Four Masters—Colgan—Ward—Usher—Ware—Lynch—Trade—Commerce depressed by the English—Fairs—Waterford Rugs—Exportation of Cattle forbidden—State of Trade in the Principal Towns—Population—Numbers employed in different Trades—Learned Professions—Physicians—Establishment of their College in Dublin—Shopkeepers—Booksellers—Coffee-houses—Clubs—Newspapers—Fashionable Churches—Post-houses and Post-offices established—Customhouse—Exchange—Amusements—Plays at the Castle—The First Theatre set up in Werburgh-street—Domestics Manners and Dress—Food—A Country Dinner Party in Ulster.

[A.D. 1600—1700.]

Letter N

otwithstanding the persecutions to which the Irish had been subjected for so many centuries, they preserved their love of literature, and the cultivated tastes for which the Celt has been distinguished in all ages.. Indeed, if this taste had not existed, the people would have sunk into the most degraded barbarism; for education was absolutely forbidden, and the object of the governing powers seems to have been to reduce the nation, both intellectually and morally, as thoroughly as possible. In such times, and under such circumstances, it is not a little remarkable to find men devoting themselves to literature with all the zest of a freshman anticipating collegiate distinctions, while surrounded by difficulties which would certainly have dismayed, if they did not altogether crush, the intellects of the present age. I have already spoken of the mass of untranslated national literature existing in this country and in continental libraries. These treasures of mental labour are by no means confined to one period of our history; but it could scarcely be expected that metaphysical studies or the fine arts could flourish at a period when men's minds were more occupied with the philosophy of war than with the science of Descartes, and were more inclined to patronize a new invention in the art of gunnery, than the chef d'oeuvre of a limner or sculptor.

The Irish language was the general medium of conversation in this century. No amount of Acts of Parliament had been able to repress its use, and even the higher classes of English settlers appear to have adopted it by preference. Military proclamations were issued in this language;[8] or if the Saxon tongue were used, it was translated for the general benefit into the vernacular. During the Commonwealth, however, the English tongue made some way; and it is remarkable that the English-speaking Irish of the lower classes, in the present day, have preserved the idioms and the accentuation used about this period. Many of the expressions which provoke the mirth of the modern Englishman, and which he considers an evidence of the vulgarity of the uneducated Irish, may be found in the works of his countrymen, of which he is most justly proud.

The language of Cromwell's officers and men, from whom the Celt had such abundant opportunities of learning English, was (less the cant of Puritanism) the language of Shakspeare, of Raleigh, and of Spenser. The conservative tendencies of the Hibernian preserved the dialect intact, while causes, too numerous for present detail, so modified it across the Channel, that each succeeding century condemned as vulgarism what had been the highest fashion with their predecessors. Even as Homeric expressions lingered for centuries after the blind bard's obit had been on record, so the expressions of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakspeare, may still be discovered in provincial dialects in many parts of the British Isles. I do not intend to quote Tate and Brady as models of versification and of syntax; but if the best poets of the age did not receive the commission to translate the Psalms into verse, it was a poor compliment to religion. We find the pronunciation of their rhymes corresponding with the very pronunciation which is now condemned as peculiarly Irish. Newton also rhymes way and sea, while one can scarcely read a page of Pope [9] without finding examples of pronunciation now supposed to be pure Hibernicism. In the Authorized Protestant version of the Bible, learn is used in the sense of to teach, precisely as it is used in Ireland at the present day: "If thy children shall keep my covenant and my testimonies that I shall learn them" and their use of the term forninst is undoubtedly derived from an English source, for we find it in Fairfax's Tasso. [1]

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[8] Language.—A proclamation in Irish, issued by Tyrone in 1601, is still extant, with a contemporary English translation.—(See Ulster Arch. Jour. vol. vi. p. 57.

[9] Pope.—He rhymes spirit and merit; fit and yet; civil and devil; obey and tea.

[1]Tasso.—

"The land fornenst the Greekish shore he held." Chaucer, too, uses faute for fault in the Canterbury Tales.


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