The Revival of the Irish Language


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The Celts of France, Spain, and Britain were subdued by the arms and discipline of the Roman legions. The Celts of Ireland opposed their naked bodies to the arms, discipline, and unmatched valour of the Normans. "At the battle of Newark, in the reign of Henry VII, the Irish fought with astonishing bravery, but having their bodies uncovered according to their native custom, they were cut to pieces." And now the language that was spoken by these brave men in the greater part of Spain, throughout the most of ancient Gaul, including Belgium, and in all Great Britain and Ireland, is now heard from about one million of people in Ireland, about as many in Wales, 310,000 in Scotland, and a million and a quarter in Brittany, in France, so that about three millions and a half of people altogether now speak the language of the Celt.

And this language, as has been already stated, it is now classed with the other Aryan or Indo-European languages, that is to say, the Sanscrit, Persian, Afghan, Italian, French, Spanish, German, English, Irish, Russian, Polish, &c, are all derived from one primitive speech. All these tongues have a number of words almost identical to express the most common objects. The following list is extracted from Vol XII, p. 54, of the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, from which also some of the preceding facts, are taken:—"Father, mother, brother, sister wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, cow, dog, horse, cattle, ox, corn-mill, earth, sky, water, star, gold, silver, metal, house, door, household, clan, king, god, man, holiness, goodness, baseness, badness, law, right, war, hunting, wood, tree, various kinds of trees, flowers, birds, and beasts; weaving, wool, clothes, honey, flesh, food; and hundreds more. To which may be added the names of spring and summer, moon, sun, the numerals as far as one hundred." Many of the objects expressed by these names must be familiar to the most primitive people, and they must have had names for them before any colony had set out from the parent country, otherwise all the colonies would not have the same names for these objects. The grammatical construction, too, of all these languages is very much alike, so much so that scholars in general now admit that the people who speak these languages must have descended from the one parent stock.

Half a century ago the Irish language was looked upon, as it is still looked upon by the ignorant among ourselves, as a barbarous language, the only exceptions being among the few who had some knowledge of it; and these thought it was a Semitic language nearly related to the Hebrew and Phoenician tongues. In a play by Plautus there is a soliloquy in the Punic language, and some visionaries thought this speech was very good Irish, and many a young Irishian was nearly deprived of reason trying to persuade himself that he under-stood the language of Hanno or Hamilco. Other dreamers proclaimed that our first parents conversed in very good Celtic, and in this manner all the learned world were set laughing at the Irish people and the Irish language. Now the contest amongst the learned is whether the Irish is more nearly related to the Latin or to the German language; and the language of Erin is almost as highly esteemed as the Sanscrit by profound philologists. And scholars—foreign scholars too—men competent to edit a book in any language from China to Peru, are employed in elucidating some of the old manuscripts that we have left to the moth and worm for centuries.

And now, men and women of Ireland, are you going to leave all your manuscript material and manuscript treasures, some of the ripest scholars call them—to be edited by the natives of France and Italy and Germany? A good many of you are setting down in your programme an hour a day during the coming year for the studying of the language of Homer and Demosthenes. It is a noble language, no doubt, and well worthy your attention, but ask yourselves—each of you—"can I devote time enough to this study so as to know Greek well; so well that I can take any speech of Demosthenes, any book of the Iliad or Odyssey; any play of Euripides or Sophocles, and read any page taken at random in any of these authors with as much ease as I do a speech of Edmund Burke? If not, will not all the time I devote to Greek be literally thrown away. Of all my acquaintances how many have turned their knowledge of Greek to any account? How many of them a few years home from college ever take a Greek book in hands?" The same time and study that you devote to the Greek which you will so soon forget will enable you to read the Leabhar Breac or the Leabhar na Huidhre, and this certainly will afford you greater pleasure for ever after than you would derive from even a fair knowledge of Greek.

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