The Revival of the Irish Language


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In many another programme there will be set down—"Next month going to ——— educational establishment. I will read French or German, &c." To any man or woman conscious of possessing a high order of talent, and with a reasonable prospect of being able to devote to any of these languages the time necessary to become master of it we would say, "Go on by all means." But first ask yourself seriously this question, "Can I devote to the acquisition of this language the time requisite to learn it thoroughly and well?" And, "Of all my acquaintances who have given a daily portion of time for a year or two years to French or German how many have mastered either of these tongues so far as to be able to hold a discourse for half an hour in it with a person knowing it well? How many of them now take up a work by a good author in either language and read it for pleasure or improvement?" The answer certainly should be, "Very few, indeed." And what of the others? Their time and money have been thrown as completely away as if they had given them up to the squaring of the circle or to searching for the elixir of life. Now, would it not have been more pleasant for all these persons had they given this time to the learning of their own language. Even a little of it would afford them pleasure during their after life. To learn an Irish song would not take a great deal of time from a person who had set about it in earnest. To read Dr Joyce's "Names of Places" with intelligence would cost but little time or trouble to an earnest student, and surely it would be an enjoyment for a person to be able to understand the derivation and history of the townlands and hills and rivers and lakes around him?

But you should try to speak the language as much as possible; in no other way can you become complete masters of the idioms of the language; at any rate you cannot otherwise learn them without enormous effort. The most erudite of our non-Irish speaking scholars has edited the Calendar of Aengus, a large work in the preparation of which for the press he had passed nine years. In this work he has printed a long list of errata, to which he has since added another very long list in the Revue Celtique of Paris. How many more an Irish-speaking philologist will hereafter point out remains to be seen—numbers without number, in all probability. A German scholar—Dr Kuno Meyer—has so far mastered the twin dialects of Wales and Ireland that, we are told, he lectures at the University College, Liverpool, every Tuesday on the Welsh Mabinogion for the benefit of Welsh students, and on Wednesdays on the Middle Irish Heroic Tales for the benefit of those who possess a knowledge of modern Irish." This gentleman published a few months since at the Clarendon Press an Irish tale, "The Battle of Ventry Harbour," of which publication a short review was given in No. 22 of the Gaelic Journal. In this review, while full credit was allowed to Dr Meyer for learning and research, it was shown incontrovertibly that whenever in the tale an Irish idiom came in his way he invariably went astray in translating or explaining the words of his text, and that where his text was faulty he was not capable of correcting it. This tale is the production of the transition period, being a mixture of Modern and Middle Irish, the former preponderating. Had not the article in question appeared, this tract would have been universally held up as a work of great erudition; and in all probability similar errors will be pointed out in all works edited by those who do not speak Irish when they are examined hereafter by scholars who have a good colloquial knowledge of the language. As was said before, the modern Irish language is not very difficult to learn for those who set about the task in earnest. Edward O'Reilly and William Halliday had to learn Irish as a dead language, and so had many others. People are learning it as a dead language now, and rapidly, but there is one man who learned Irish as a dead language, and whose history throws so strong a light on some points connected with the language and on other things too, that every person in Ireland, and some outside Ireland, should know the outlines of his career while among us.

This man was Dr William Bedell. He was born in Essex in 1570, and after the usual university course he was ordained and laboured as a Protestant minister in England until his 57th year, except during eight years that he spent in Venice in the train of the English ambassador there. While on his mission he was chosen Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, and two years later, in 1629, he was consecrated Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh. In his sixtieth year—as Alfieri with Greek—he sat down to learn the language of the Irish people, and in this he succeeded so as not only to compose a complete grammar, but to attain a critical knowledge of it also. He then set about the translation of the Bible into Irish, being assisted by Mortogh O'Cionga, or King, who was ten years his senior, and by the Rev. Denis O'Sheridan, the great grandfather of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In has been remarked times out of mind that the persecutors under the Penal Laws in Ireland had no wish that the people should become Protestants—what they wanted was their estates, which they could not get if the people adopted the reformed creed. The persecutors were equally averse to the people being instructed in Irish—that is, to their being instructed at all. Bedell would have them instructed in Irish. "Bramhall, Bishop of Derry, stood forth in opposition, grounding his arguments on politics and maxims of State." By an Act of 1537, 28th year of Henry VIII, it was enacted that no person should be appointed to any spiritual promotion within this land except an English speaker, if any such could be found. But if not, after making proclamations in the nearest towns, and after five weeks' delay, "any honest man, albeit he cannot speak English, may be appointed;" but by the same Act such a person could be dismissed again quite easily. In the preamble to Queen Elizabeth's Act of Uniformity it is, said—"And for as much as in most places of this realm there cannot be found English ministers to serve in the churches .... We do, therefore, most humbly beseech your Majesty that it may be enacted that in every such church where the common minister hath not the use of the English tongue it shall be lawful to say and use all the common and open prayers in the Latin tongue." And this was accordingly enacted in 1559 or 1560.

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