Existing Remains of Irish Law (2)

Laurence Ginnell

But this extraordinary condition of things has not come about spontaneously, as a reader of Mr. Standish O'Grady's Heroic Period might infer. Mr. O'Grady, in common with all who study the subject, laments the fact that Irishmen of the present day devote so little attention to the extraordinary wealth of historic treasures they possess. But the implied assertion is only half a truth, and the candour that prompts telling half a truth when bitter to Irishmen will justify telling the remaining half though it should be bitter to Englishmen; in addition to which we, as real inquirers, are entitled to the whole truth. Ours is the bitterness of loss, theirs the bitterness of guilt. If to be made wince be a wholesome discipline for us, it cannot be unwholesome for our neighbours. Our alleged indifference, then, so far as it exists, is neither native nor natural to us, but is a plant of English culture and a necessary result of the species of English rule that Ireland has experienced.

Both Danes and Normans, the former especially, destroyed our manuscripts in the course of warlike operations; but to modern Englishmen from Elizabeth's time downwards—Ireland's darkest age—to men who came not frankly to plunder as the Danes did, but to govern us and set us a bright example, some of them with Bibles in their hands and Scripture on their lips; to these men the distinction is due of having, in times of so-called peace and in cold blood, burned and destroyed our books, hanged or hunted their owners as vermin, made it criminal to teach or learn the language in which they were written, or indeed to teach or learn at all;—the alternative or rather twofold object of this enlightened statesmanship being to drive the Celts out of their native land or reduce them to savagery in it. Both policies have had a large measure of success; neither has completely succeeded. The Irishmen who, when their own fortunes and hopes, like those of their country, were utterly ruined, risked liberty and life itself during that perilous age for the preservation of those precious monuments of the past, must be not charged with indifference, but credited with devotedness almost equalling that of the original writers. As few ancient nations have been more fruitful in original literary effort, so few modern nations have shown more attachment to literary treasures than the Irish; and in no other case that I am aware of has that natural and creditable attachment been subjected to such a terrible strain.

On this very subject let me quote from Dr. Sullivan, the learned editor of O'Curry's Lectures on the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. Dr. Sullivan says, "During the first part of the eighteenth century the possession of an Irish book made the owner a suspected person, and was often the cause of his ruin. In some parts of the country the tradition of the danger incurred by having Irish manuscripts lived down to within my own memory; and I have seen Irish manuscripts which had been buried until the writing had almost faded, and the margins rotted away, to avoid the danger their discovery would entail at the visit of the local yeomanry." Was not that a pretty state of things? What Dr. Sullivan saw was of course but a single isolated instance after the real danger had passed away; but from it we may judge how much was destroyed under Elizabeth, under Cromwell, under William the Third, and throughout the whole of that dark age; and the calculation is materially assisted by the lurid stories heard by some of us at our fathers' firesides.