Sir James Ware on the Language of the Ancient Irish

(Extract from The Whole Works of Sir James Ware concerning Ireland, translated by Walter Harris, and published in Dublin in 1764)

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 1 (1880), edited by Charles A. Read

Some learned men are of opinion that the British was the ancient language of the Irish; and they labour to demonstrate this assertion from the vast abundance of British words which the Irish, even at this day, use, either entire or but little corrupted. I confess I am of the same opinion, but as I think that their most ancient language was British, introduced among them by their first colonies, who were from Britain, so I cannot but be of opinion that their proper language was partly refined and polished by the intermixture of other colonies, and that it was partly changed by the revolutions of time. According to Horace --

"Such words which now the present age decries,
Shall in the next with approbation rise;
Others, grown old in fame and high request,
In the succeeding age shall be supprest.
So much doth custom o'er our speech prevail,
The sole unquestioned judge and law of all."

The Greeks and Italians may serve us for examples of this assertion, and (which is not to be forgotten in this place) it is evident that, in some years after the arrival of the Saxons, the British language was in Britain itself, as it were, banished and thrust down into Cornwall and Wales, insomuch that in the other parts of the island scarce the least tract or footstep of the ancient language remains to this day.

Besides, as the Irish of old spoke the ancient British language, so also they borrowed their alphabet or letters from the ancient Britains, as it is possible the Saxons afterwards might have done from the Irish, when they flocked to their schools for the sake of education. Further, as, among other arguments, the first inhabitants of Ireland are thought to be colonies of Britains, from the affinity between their languages, so the Albanian Scots, especially those of the north, are for the same reason thought to be colonies of the Irish.

"It is from many arguments plain (says Johannes Major) that we derive our origin from the Irish. This we are taught by Bede, an Englishman, who would not be fond of lessening the offspring of his own country; this is evident from the language, for almost half Scotland speaks Irish at this day, and more did so some time past."

Besides the vulgar characters, the ancient Irish made use of various occult forms and artificial rules in writing called ogum, to which they committed their secret affairs. I have in my custody an ancient parchment book filled with such characters.