The Translation of the Ancient Irish Laws

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

For nearly two centuries the translation of the ancient legal manuscripts of Ireland was to Irish antiquaries what the discovery of the philosopher's stone was to the alchemists—a problem the solution of which they earnestly but vainly desired. "I have had an opportunity of conversing with some of the most learned Irish scholars in our island," wrote Charles O'Conor of Balanagar, in the last century, "and they freely confessed to me that to them both the text and gloss were equally unintelligible." The key for expounding both, he adds, was, so late as the reign of Charles I., possessed by the MacEgans, who kept their law school in Tipperary, but since that time it seemed to have been lost. His supposition is not quite correct, for Duald Mac Firbis, the compiler of the Chronicum Scotorum, who received part of his education in their school, knew it.

In the introduction to his Book of Genealogies he records that he had compiled an explanatory Dictionary of the Brehon Laws; but after his murder by one of the roystering scions of the ascendancy gentry it appears to have been lost. Nothing more was heard of it until the late Eugene O'Curry discovered a fragment in the library of the University of Dublin. Even O'Flaherty, says Dr. Ledwich, "who had been instructed by Mac Firbis, could scarcely explain one page of the ancient laws;" "the great Lhwyd," he continues, "tells the Royal Society he consulted the best Irish scholars upon this subject, but in vain." No ordinary Irish scholar, with the assistance of the existing Irish dictionaries, could, in Dr. Ledwich's time, understand the language of the ancient laws. O'Reilly, who compiled another dictionary, and whose Essay on the Ancient Institutes of Ireland was honoured by a gold medal from the Royal Irish Academy in 1824, makes a similar admission. "Both text and gloss," he says, "are, it is confessed, obsolete, and to the person who is acquainted only with the vulgar dialect of the modern Irish, must be unintelligible." From the murder of Mac Firbis, in 1670, until the eve of the appointment of a Commission in 1852, to direct, superintend, and carry into effect the transcription and translation of the ancient laws of Ireland, the Brehon laws appear to have remained an insoluble problem for Irish scholars and antiquaries.

The Commissioners were authorized to select "such documents and writings containing the said ancient laws as they should deem it necessary to transcribe and translate; and from time to time to employ fit and proper persons to transcribe and translate the same." From this it would appear that the lost key had been found, and the once insoluble problem had become capable of receiving a satisfactory solution. It would be of interest to know how, after so many years had elapsed, after so many vain attempts had been made, after a man who had been instructed in the ancient legendary lore had given up the task on attempting a page, so happy a change had occurred, and who it was to whom learning was indebted for it. For a full explanation of a point so important, and in many ways so curious and instructive, we should naturally look to the preface to the first volume published under the sanction of the Commission. That work is known as the Senchus Mor, published in 1865; and to the preface the name of Dr. W. N. Hancock, formerly Professor of Jurisprudence in Queen's College, Belfast, is appended. The late Dr. O'Donovan, and the late Professor O'Curry, it is stated, were the Irish scholars employed by the Commissioners to transcribe and translate the ancient laws. The former made a preliminary translation which fills twelve volumes, and the latter made one which is contained in thirteen volumes. When this was done (we are not told how; the Commissioners employed Dr. Hancock "to prepare the first part of the Senchus Mor for publication, in conjunction with Dr. O'Donovan." After the death of this distinguished Irish scholar, Dr. Hancock had the assistance of Mr. O'Mahony. Professor of Irish in Trinity College, who, curiously enough, had not been selected by the Commissioners as one of the translators. This omission was, in a sense, repaired when he was associated with Dr. Hancock and Dr. Hancock's assistant to revise the translation of the deceased scholar, O'Donovan.

We are not told in the preface in what way the lost key to the obsolete language was found, or who it was that discovered it. We are simply informed that these two Irish scholars, O'Donovan and O'Curry, were employed to make a translation; and forthwith they are set down as having made one. There is something strange, not to say mysterious, in this; for generally speaking speedy solutions of difficult problems are not to be had to order. The Commissioners apparently were guided by an "unerring instinct" which did not forsake them as time went on, but rather showed itself more clearly in their later appointments. For, although we are not at all informed as to how O'Donovan and O'Curry managed to accomplish what they did achieve—to make a translation despaired of for nigh two centuries—we are carefully told in what they failed, and how their failure was remedied, and by whom. The difficulties predicted by former scholars "became manifest in the progress of the work," says Dr. Hancock, "and in the preliminary translation of the Senchus Mor manuscripts, which was made for the Commissioners by the late Dr. O'Donovan and Professor O'Curry, many words and phrases were left untranslated, and the sense of many of the passages remained obscure."—But they were not destined to continue so for long. "The entire of the translation in this state was read over by my assistant, Mr. Busteed, and myself, and the difficult and unsatisfactory passages carefully noted;" and then what had apparently proved too much for the two Irish scholars was triumphantly accomplished by the two gentlemen who were not Irish scholars. Almost all the difficult passages and untranslated words were explained and rendered into English. Pains are taken to show how Dr. Hancock and his assistant accomplished their feat. "For the translation of such passages, the glosses explanatory of particular terms or phrases were studied," we are told, "and different parts of the laws compared, and suggestions were made to Dr. O'Donovan; and upon consultation with him the entire translation was revised, and meanings assigned to the great majority of the untranslated words and phrases." The happy art with which the difficulties were got over is remarkable; and a reader of the preface can scarcely fail to contrast it with the obtuseness of the scholars whose names are mentioned, as well as with the perplexity of those who preceded them. For nearly two centuries Irish scholars had despaired of accomplishing a translation of the antiquated language; but an official lawyer and his assistant, taken at random and utterly unskilled in the subject, were able promptly to suggest satisfactory solutions for nearly all the most obscure terms, and correct translations for the great majority of the most difficult passages and most obsolete phrases.

It appears that Dr. Todd, one of the Commissioners, made observations on a few of the sheets; whilst Dean Graves, another of the Commissioners, gave the entire translation the benefit of his "numerous valuable suggestions." The proof sheets were all, however, finally considered by Professor O'Mahony and by Dr. Hancock, "with such aid as could be derived from a reference to other portions of the Brehon laws, translated by Dr. O'Donovan and Professor O'Curry." It might be asked why the surviving translator was not appealed to, instead of his translation of other portions of the work; but we are told that after Dr. O'Donovan's death, the Commissioners "proposed to submit" the proof sheets to Professor O'Curry, in order to have the benefit "of his suggestions also." "His sudden death," adds Dr. Hancock, "prevented this being carried out."

Professor O'Curry survived his colleague for nearly three-quarters of a year; and to urge the plea of his sudden death as a reason for not having submitted the proof sheets to him, is to convict the Commissioners of the delay which kept back the publication of the work.

These statements with regard to the translation, must be borne in mind when we refer back to this other passage in the same preface. "The manuscripts of the Senchus Mor were translated by Dr. O'Donovan; some portions were translated also by Professor O'Curry; and the Manuscript H. 3.18. was translated by Professor O'Curry before Dr. O'Donovan executed his translation of it." This is somewhat bewildering.

We may, indeed, reconcile it with the other statements by supposing that what are called "translations" here were only very imperfect versions, and that Dr. Hancock even here means that the two Irish scholars skipped all the hard words and passages which he and his assistant so promptly noted and translated. But this will not explain a mystery that crops up in the relations of the Commissioners with Professor O'Curry. We are told that, "after the death of Dr. O'Donovan, the Commissioners proposed to submit the proof sheets to Professor O'Curry, in order to have the benefit of his suggestions also." Why was not this done before the death of Dr. O'Donovan? From this passage it might be supposed that O'Curry was an indifferent spectator, just able to offer "suggestions," whilst it is stated in the previous quotation that he actually had translated "some portions," and rendered "the manuscript H. 3. 18" into English "before Dr. O'Donovan executed his translation of it." On reference to the body of the work, we find large and important portions of it marked by his initials; and yet what is it that we are compelled to infer from Dr. Hancock's statements? It seems incredible, but it is manifest, that Professor O'Curry was not asked to assist in the publication of a volume portions of which were his own work, and that, moreover, the proof-sheets were not sent to him—not even the proof-sheets of those passages of which he himself had been the translator! If the preparation of the volume for publication was carried on surreptitiously without his knowledge, this is intelligible, and it becomes easy to perceive the reason why after the death of Dr. O'Donovan it was "proposed" so ineffectually to submit them to him for "his suggestions also;" but otherwise it is difficult to understand why, in so grave a work, the proof-sheets should be withheld from a translator, and how those who were concerned in the proceeding can excuse themselves from severe blame.

Even apart from these aggravating circumstances, it would have been in the highest degree reprehensible not to seek, in such an important work, all the aid that could be given by so great an Irish scholar as O'Curry. Although his name is made to occupy a subordinate position throughout, it is none the less to him that we owe the translation of these laws, for so many years despaired of. It was in 1835 that, having obtained an engagement on the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, he was first enabled to devote his attention specially to a study of MSS. in the Irish language. The duty allotted to him was the examination of the Irish MSS. contained in the libraries of Trinity College, Dublin, the Royal Irish Academy, &c., in order that he should transcribe and translate such passages as he found to throw light upon the topography and local and family history of Ireland. From the beginning of 1836 to the end of 1842 the chief part of his time was devoted to this occupation, and during these six years he used his opportunity so well as to make himself thoroughly acquainted with the scope and contents of every Irish manuscript worth consulting in Dublin. His heart was in his work, and the collection of curious and important extracts which he made for historical and topographical purposes delighted and surprised the conductors of the section of the Survey to which he was attached. During these years also, being daily familiarized with the contents of the Irish MSS., he began to turn his attention to the "Brehon Laws," and soon gave up almost all his spare time to their study. In those days all hope of a scholar rising up in Ireland capable of reading and translating them had long been abandoned; but this did not dissuade O'Curry from examining them. He determined to see for himself wherein their great difficulty lay, and with this view he began by accurately copying in fac simile a few of the commentaries. These, written in natural though difficult and somewhat obsolete phraseology, he found himself soon able to master. Next he turned his attention to the more difficult places, where the maxims of the law were given in the ancient and very obscure language of the Berla Féine, or Fenian dialect. On patient analysis he found this part of the manuscript to consist generally of three portions:—first, the obscure maxim; secondly, an interlined gloss; and thirdly, a commentary in which the maxim or maxims were further explained and applied to the case in point. In the hands of a capable and persevering scholar, here were means of unravelling the difficulties of the most ancient text, and Eugene O'Curry was both capable and persevering. Having first devoted a considerable portion of his time to these studies, in order to make sure of his bearings, his next step was to form a collection of the ancient, obscure, technical words or phrases with their glosses and commentaries. This he did in his leisure hours and for his own satisfaction and private use; and when it was completed he broke up the whole, where necessary, and threw it into dictionary order. The difficult words and phrases were arranged in proper sequence for consultation, and appended to each were the explanatory gloss or comment, and a reference to the book, its class and page, in which they were to be found. To this great law collection he continued assiduously to add whatever words, phrases, or paragraphs he came across in the oldest, most difficult, and obsolete pieces, prose or poetry, that he could find in other manuscripts. Their explanatory context, whenever it existed, was in all cases appended. In this manner it came to pass that he at length found himself the possessor of a vast collection of words, glosses, explanations, and examples, of an extent and character such as no Irish scholar had previously been known to have made. There was no longer any need to deplore the lost Dictionary of MacFirbis: the persevering industry and scientific mind of O'Curry had supplied its place by one, in all probability, much more satisfactory and complete.

The result soon was made manifest. When the Ordnance Survey was suspended in 1842, and the Irish Archaeological Society was established for the publication of Ancient Irish tracts with English translations, it was quickly found that none could be brought out in a satisfactory manner if O'Curry had not accomplished his great work, and been at leisure to apply it. Occasional and apt references, for illustrative purposes, to the ancient Laws, soon made it known that one Irish scholar had, at length, appeared who could translate and was familiar with them; and hence the project for their complete transcription and translation came into being, and got shape, form, and vitality. With O'Curry, Dr. O'Donovan was associated as co-editor; but, learned as he undoubtedly was, he had not had the special training possessed by his colleague, nor the assistance of any such collection as he had made. Hence it happened that, when he was over-persuaded to prove unfaithful to his Irish co-editor, and to undertake to edit a volume separately, "in conjunction" with Dr. Hancock, he could not fill up the untranslated passages. Unable to have recourse any longer to the special treasury of his colleague, he was obliged to undergo the humiliation of being counselled and prompted by amateurs; and thus it is that a volume which might and should have attained to a correctness almost perfect, has been made in parts untrustworthy and inaccurate.