The Publication of the Ancient Irish Laws—The Delay

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

By 'An Ulsterman'

When* it became known that the lost secret of the language of the ancient Irish laws, for more than two hundred years despaired of, had been regained through the intellectual skill of Eugene O'Curry, there was naturally a feeling of curiosity and interest excited among scholars. It was felt that something should be done in order that a tangible proof might be ready for those whose incredulity required a test, as well as to make manifest to all the possibility of advancing in a long forgotten path. Acting on these ideas, and desiring likewise to encourage the discoverer in his study, the Royal Irish Academy, which has done much to sustain the honour of scholarship in Ireland, set apart a sum of fifty pounds. This sum was placed at the disposal of the Council to be spent on the transcription and translation of whatever book or tract of the ancient laws it should think most suitable. The selection was nominally left in the hands of the Rev. Drs. Todd and Graves, who had introduced the motion in a generous and enlightened spirit, and they of course took O'Curry's opinion upon the subject.

The law-tract chosen by O'Curry was that known as "The Book of Acaill," the date of which has been traced back to the third century. Its author was an Irish Charlemagne, Cormac the son of Art, who had retired from the active duties of sovereignty because he had accidentally received a wound in the eye at Tara; for no king with a personal blemish could rule in Erinn at Acaill, whence he could see the royal hill where his son reigned in his stead, he solaced his enforced leisure with the composition of the work which bears its name. He is famous, indeed, in national annals not less for his great law reforms than for his achievements as a warrior, his chivalric virtues, and the splendour of his reign. In the Book of Ballymote, a compilation of the fourteenth century, there is an extract preserved from a more ancient compilation of the twelfth century, now ranking amongst the "lost books of Erinn," where Cormac is described when going to preside at the great parliament of Tara which he had convoked:

"The manner in which fairs and great assemblies were attended by the men of Erinn at this time was: each king wore his kingly robe upon him, and his golden helmet on his head, for they never put their kingly diadems on, but in the field of battle only. Magnificently did Cormac come to this assembly, for no man his equal in beauty had preceded him, excepting Conaire Mor, the son of Edersgel, or Conor, son of Cathbad, or Aengus, son of the Daghda. Splendid, indeed, was Cormac's appearance in that assembly. His hair was slightly curled and of golden colour; a scarlet shield with engraved devices with golden hooks and clasps of silver; a wide folding purple cloak on him, with a gem-set gold brooch over his breast; a gold torque around his neck; a white collared shirt embroidered with gold upon him; a girdle with golden buckles and studded with precious stones around him; two golden net-work sandals with golden buckles upon him; two spears with golden sockets and many red bronze rivets, in his hand. While he stood in the full glow of beauty without defect or blemish, you would think that it was a shower of pearls that were set in his mouth; his lips were rubies; his symmetrical body was white as snow; his eyes were like the sloe; his brows and eyelashes were like the sheen of the blue-black lance. This then was the shape and form in which Cormac went to this great assembly of the men of Erinn. And authors say that this was the noblest convocation ever held in Erinn before the Christian Faith; for the laws and enactments instituted in that meeting were those which shall prevail in Ireland for ever." **

At that great convocation, there was a complete revision of the laws and of the manner in which they had been carried into execution; a new code was promulgated, and new regulations were drawn up and adopted.

It will be seen from this that the Book of Acaill had a special interest for scholars, both on account of its royal authorship and because of its great antiquity. In all copies extant, there are found annexed to it a preface in which an account of its origin is given and a law treatise by Cennfaelad the Learned, who flourished some three centuries and a-half after Cormac's decease. Thus in the early part of the seventh century it was venerated as a treatise of great authority and antiquity. For O'Curry to prove himself able to decipher and translate this, was to show that he was able to decipher and translate all. The difficulty of such an attempt need not be insisted on. It is sufficient to state that he lived not at a period when Irish scholarship was dead, but when it had reached its highest vitality in recent times, and yet that he alone was found ready to make the endeavour, so hopeless did it appear.

In accordance with the prescribed regulations, O'Curry proceeded at once to make a transcription from the ancient manuscript in Trinity College library, to write out fully the cramped contractions of the original, and to translate in a general way the Book of Acaill. The difficulty he encountered, he overcame. Having placed the result of his labour in the hands of the gentlemen at whose motion the Academy ordered it, they saw that he had indeed given proof of all that he had promised, and shown in the most unmistakeable manner that, for the translation of the hitherto undecipherable laws of Ancient Ireland, the hour had come and the man.

On this being made certain, O'Curry was requested to make some notes by way of a report on the condition and extent of the Brehon laws, as those laws are commonly but somewhat inaccurately termed—the word Brehon meaning simply a judge. In the summer of 1851, a correspondence was opened, in consequence, with distinguished scholars in England and on the Continent. All of them, as was to be expected, expressed in strong terms their opinion touching the importance of having laws so ancient and so characteristic published without loss of time at the public expense. Armed with these communications, and encouraged by some Irish and English noblemen, Dr. Graves printed and circulated in London a pamphlet entitled: "Suggestions with a view to the Transcription and Publication of the MSS. of the Brehon laws, now in the libraries of the British Museum, the University of Oxford, the Royal Irish Academy, and Trinity College, Dublin. London, Mackintosh, 1851." The proofs he then gave of the importance of the subject and of the interest which it had excited amongst the most eminent scholars of Europe could not be resisted.

The Government placed at the disposal of Doctors Todd and Graves the sum of £200, in order that more precise and ample details concerning the existing copies of the laws and the nature of their contents might be obtained. In August of the same year, O'Curry, thus enabled, proceeded to Oxford, and from thence to London, returning after an absence of two months to Ireland with a complete and accurate digest of various law books and tracts to be found in the Bodleian library and the British Museum. He was immediately directed, in conjunction with Dr. John ODonovan, a distinguished Irish scholar, to draw up an analytic catalogue of all the law manuscripts known to them, including his analyses of those in London and Oxford. This work was completed before the termination of the parliamentary session of 1852. It was therefore possible to lay a full report of their proceedings before the Lords of the Treasury, and it was of so satisfactory a character that their Lordships made a grant of £5,000 for the preparation and publication of the whole body of the ancient laws of Ireland.

A Commission, with the Very Rev. Dr. Graves, Senior Fellow of Trinity College, as Secretary, was subsequently appointed. On this Commission, the liberal members were in a minority.

Its first act in connection with the translation of the Irish laws was to offer a slight and an affront to Eugene O'Curry. Such a statement will appear incredible. It will be thought impossible that the scholar to whose intellectual achievement the very origin of the Commission was due, could be so treated by the Commissioners, or rather by a few in their name. It is nevertheless the painful fact. By a resolution of the Commissioners, held in the Lord Chancellor's chambers, in the Four Courts, Dr. O'Donovan was appointed sole editor of the ancient Irish laws, and he, who alone and unaided had after the despair of two centuries discovered their meaning, was nominated as Dr. O'Donovan's assistant, in some general and undefined manner.

It is unnecessary to characterize such a proceeding. To the mind of any man gifted with a sense of honour, it carries with it its own condemnation. Naturally people on hearing of a slight so flagrant, and yet apparently so gratuitous, seek for some possible, even though improbable, cause. Hence, it has been asked: Was it because O'Donovan was connected as a graduate, causa honoris, with Trinity College, whilst Eugene O'Curry was not? Was it because O'Curry took no care to veil his stubborn Catholicism at a time when tender consciences were affrighted by the great Papal aggression in England? But all such conjectures shoot wide of the mark. The discoverer of the language of the ancient Irish laws, was not made an editor of these Irish laws because—he did not know Greek and Latin.

This may be cited as an additional instance of the advantage of being taught the classics. There is no doubt about the fact. O'Curry, when the resolution was communicated to him by Dr. Graves, at once refused to act under it. He declared that he neither wished to be placed above any one, nor would he submit to be placed below any one, in the editing of these laws. From the action he had taken in the matter, he could not understand why he should be made a subordinate and directed to assume the position of an assistant to one who, however erudite in other matters, had never read a page of those laws nor collected a word or phrase to explain them before. He had no objection to the appointment of any number of editors, but, whether few or many, he felt it due to himself that he should rank as one amongst them. It was then that the Secretary to the Commission lucidly pointed out to him that he was not a classical scholar, and consequently should not hope to be placed on an equality with a gentleman who had the advantage of being one.

The theory was an ingenious one, and if it were only universally admitted it would, undoubtedly, produce some curious and extraordinary results. The offspring of a Faraday's intellect should then be fathered on some graduate of Oxford, those of Franklin affiliated to a pre-adamite of Harvard, whilst Hugh Miller's original observations could be accredited to a full-fledged Bachelor of Arts of Edinburgh. If the discoverer of the language of the ancient Irish laws had only consented to father his discovery on a graduate of Trinity College, there would have been, at least, a commencement made in reducing this theory to practice.

But it was not to be. O'Curry obdurately replied that, although he was not a classical scholar, the laws were not written in Greek nor in Latin, but in old Irish which had baffled the best classical scholars of Trinity College for generations. He added also that he had given more time and attention to the study and comprehension of their language, than any or all of the men who had lived in Ireland for the last two hundred years. In fine, he refused decisively to acknowledge the superiority of claims based on some acquaintance with the classics. On his refusal to accept a subordinate's post, the Commission delayed further action; it may have been with the benevolent intention of giving him time to reconsider the Secretary's theory; or it may have been, seeing there was a military element in it, with the strategic view of compelling the enemy to a surrender—for this great scholar was poor. But we would rather believe there is nothing in this supposition. At all events nothing came of the delay, on whatever grounds made, except the surrender of the Commissioners.

At the very close of the year, they, or all that were active amongst them, held a meeting in the Secretary's chambers, Trinity College, Dr. O'Donovan and Eugene O'Curry being present in attendance. At this meeting the Secretary communicated to the Commission Dr. O'Donovan's wish that the resolution which had appointed him sole editor should be rescinded, inasmuch as he felt the responsibility too great for him, and his desire that Mr. O'Curry should be appointed co-editor: in other words that they should be appointed joint editors. This was accordingly done, and the first delay, caused by the strange theory of the Commissioners, having come to an end, preparations were at once made for the work of transcription.

The transcription of the ancient Irish laws was begun on the 3rd of March, 1853. It was carried on with earnestness and vigour in Dublin, in London, and in Oxford, until the end of September, 1855, when an accurate and intelligible copy had been made of all the requisite manuscripts. In all, O'Curry's transcripts extend to 2,906 pages, and O'Donovan's to 2,491 pages. A certain number of copies were taken of these transcripts by the anastatic process.

Next commenced the work of translation, than which nothing of a similar nature could well be conceived more onerous, more difficult, or more time-devouring. The language was terse and technical, Each word, in many places, was a definition in itself, and imperatively required an exact and authoritative rendering into another language, which had not always a corresponding term. When it is considered that the tracts to be thus treated were the compilations of different periods; that hardly a clue to the customs of the times in which they were composed remained except what should be caught up in them; that a knowledge of their dialect had likewise long-perished, and had only been lately recovered—some conception may be had of the herculean task undertaken. The explanatory dictionary and glosses of O'Curry (then Professor in the Catholic University), compiled with so much labour and care, served as a key to those ancient law treasures. To that comprehensive and authoritative work, O'Donovan had naturally to make frequent reference, for distinguished Irish scholar as he was, he had had no previous acquaintance with this subject. To O'Curry, self-trained by special study, the ancient phrases had put off their strangeness and presented themselves in a considerable degree with familiar aspect. In this way during five years the work of translation went on, till in 1860, as much of it had been done as to induce the Commissioners to go to press with a volume. Altogether Professor O'Curry's preliminary translation fills thirteen volumes, and that of O'Donovan twelve volumes.

Anticipating that in the succeeding year, the translation would be ready to go to press, the Commissioners in their reply to an order of the House of Commons, dated 2nd August, 1859, wrote: "Inquiries have been made in different quarters for the purpose of procuring such assistance as may be necessary in accomplishing the work, which must soon commence, of editing the laws. As yet the Commissioners have not succeeded in securing the services of an editor competent in all respects to superintend the preparation of the English text. The editor charged with this office ought to possess an extensive acquaintance with legal archaeology, and it would be desirable that he should be in close communication with the gentlemen who have been hitherto employed in the work of translation. The Commissioners will take active steps to obtain the services of a competent editor with the least possible delay."

What "active steps" the Commissioners took remain, and may perhaps for ever remain, unknown. Their feet never strayed where scholars who had given irrefragable proof of their suitableness for the position might be found. Within the limits of the official preserves they may have exhibited "active steps" enough. On a day in 1860, Dr. Graves informed Professor O'Curry and Dr. O'Donovan that the appointment was to be given that day to W. Neilson Hancock, LL.D. To say that they were astonished is little. His ability was not to be denied, but he was considered wanting in that particular fitness which some knowledge of the meaning of the Irish law-terms, whose accurate rendering he should guarantee, would have given him. It is stated in a preface to the Senchus Mor, published in 1865 under his care, that when the preliminary translations of Dr. O'Donovan and Professor O'Curry had been made, he was appointed "to prepare the first part of the Senchus Mor for publication, in conjunction with Dr. O'Donovan." Now, seeing that Professor O'Curry and Dr. O'Donovan had been appointed co-editors, this must be regarded as, at least, an inaccuracy; unless, indeed, it could be proved that the Commissioners undid behind O'Curry's back what to his face they appeared to enact. If, in the appointment of Dr. Hancock, that resolution touching the joint editorship were thus revoked—if that consideration extorted for the rightful claim of the discoverer of the language of the ancient laws, before the translation, were thus withdrawn the instant he had laid open the treasury, it is well that the public should be frankly informed of it. The extract we quote would mean this, they should know, and would mean even more.

Certain it is that for some time the work of editing went on under the supervision of the three editors, but in a manner that did not appear to promise well in Professor O'Curry's eyes. The new assistant editor assumed the right to lay down a very peculiar plan of editing, and to require that his highly original scheme should be implicitly adopted. Professor O'Curry worked on, under protest, until be found that by the cumbrous and circuitous plan insisted on, delays were multiplied needlessly, and the difficulties in the way of progress made intolerable. He proposed that the plan of editing usually adopted in all like cases should be followed, and when that was refused, he found himself forced to withdraw from further co-operation. When sixty pages of translation and eight of original Irish had been printed off, the progress of the work was therefore suspended by order of the Secretary, until the translation should be wholly completed, which was expected to occur at the close of 1861.

Some time after this order, in the early part of 1861, a written proposal was laid by Dr. Hancock before Professor O'Curry, whereby he was asked to bind himself to supervise the printing of his own translations, without any co-operation from his colleague, Dr. O'Donovan. Professor O'Curry declined the proposal, pointing out that the Commissioners had appointed them joint-editors; that he had received no intimation whatever that that appointment had been revoked; that so far from alluding to any such project, the official Secretary had informed him that the printing was suspended until the translation should be completed. No more was said upon the subject. About the 1st of August, however, the Secretary advised him to procure the aid of some competent legal assistant, and to proceed separately with the printing of the Book of Acaill, already mentioned, as soon as all the translations should have been concluded, say in the December following. To this Professor O'Curry assented with reluctance. On the 10th of November, Dr. O'Donovan became ill with rheumatic fever; shortly after, Professor O'Curry, having finished his translation, and there being no fear then of a fatal termination of his colleague's sickness, addressed the Secretary again on the propriety and advantage of a joint editorship. He was, however, again advised to procure an assistant, as the Commissioners had made up their minds upon it.

Dr. O'Donovan did not regain his health. On the contrary, on the 12th of December, that ripe and accomplished scholar passed away from earth. About a week before this sad event, Professor O'Curry became aware of the fact that Drs. Hancock and O'Donovan had been printing a volume of the ancient Laws (the Senchus Mor), and that about 170 pages were in type. This surprised him much, for he had understood that there would be no printing until the translations were concluded. He immediately communicated with the gentleman he had fixed upon for his colleague, when he had been advised officially to procure an assistant. He explained to him how matters stood, and that gentleman, the most competent in the kingdom for the purpose, immediately offered to give him all the assistance in his power. In a few days after, O'Donovan died. There was an end, therefore, to the progress of the work in which, apart from his colleague, he had been induced to join.

That it was surreptitious, manifest proof may be deduced from the volume itself. It is stated in the preface (p. xxxviii), that "the manuscripts of the Senchus Mor were translated by Dr. O'Donovan;" but this immediately follows, "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." Now at p. xxxiii, there is a description of the manuscripts H. 3. 18. They are said to contain portions relating to the Senchus Mor, together with a number of other tracts, now divided into two volumes octavo, and are stated by Professor O'Curry, it appears, to be made up of various fragments of laws, glosses, poems, pedigrees, etc. chiefly written on vellum." And the author of this Preface, which is signed by Dr. Hancock, says: "the tract relating to the Senchus Mor, contained in the first volume of the manuscripts, was transcribed by Professor O'Curry, and is in the Commissioners' transcripts, c. 756, 892;" that is to say, the transcript alone occupies 136 pages. We are further told that "it contains the introduction, and a very copious gloss of the terms which occur in the Senchus Mor."

Here, then, we have definite statements. Professor O'Curry not only transcribed but he also translated the introduction to this volume, called the Senchus Mor. What does this mean? Its signification may be discovered on referring to the body of the work itself. Irish and English we find it to consist of 304 pages; of these that introduction, confessed to have been transcribed and translated by O'Curry, occupies 62 pages. Over one-fifth of the volume, therefore, was the work of his hands. But even this is not all; we have seen it admitted that "some portions," besides, were also translated by him. On opening the volume at the end of the introduction, and glancing at the succeeding pages, where the "Four Kinds of Distress" are set down, we find the initial of O'Curry's name on page after page, uninterruptedly, for twelve pages. Two pages of O'Donovan's work follow; then two pages and two half pages of O'Curry's succeed. His initial is likewise set opposite various important passages scattered throughout the remainder of the work. Thus, taking as exact the statement with regard to the introduction, to Professor O'Curry must be accredited the translation of the first 74 pages continuously: that is, of the first fourth of the volume.

Yet although 170 pages had been seen in print by the Commissioners before O'Donovan's death, not one single passage had been shown to Professor O'Curry who had avowedly transcribed and translated almost one half of them. He was kept in total ignorance of the whole affair. This singular fact can be plainly inferred from the preface. We are told (p. xliii) that in the progress of the work predicted difficulties became manifest, many words and phrases had been left untranslated, and the sense of many of the passages remained obscure. Dr. O'Donovan, apparently, could not remove the difficulties, translate the untranslated words, and elucidate the obscure passages. Now as the introduction, printed first, was the work of Professor O'Curry, why was not he, the transcriber and translator, consulted? In the preface there is no hint whatever thrown out to the effect that he was consulted. On the contrary, it is stated that the legal editor, Dr. Hancock, and his assistant, noted the difficult or unsatisfactory passages, and that "for the translation, the glosses explanatory of particular terms or phrases were studied, and different parts of the laws compared," and that the proof-sheets were revised "by Professor O'Mahony" (of Trinity College) "and by myself, 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."

Thus in editing O'Curry's work they came upon words which had been left untranslated, and passages which to them seemed difficult or obscure. They could not clear away the obstacles by their own unaided powers, and strange to say, they consulted everyone—but the translator. "On a few of the sheets observations were made by the Rev. James Henthorn Todd, D D. one of the Commissioners," and "the entire translation was read in proof by the Very Rev. Charles Graves, D.D. another of the Commissioners, and had the benefit of his numerous valuable suggestions." But the counsel of him who had laid open its hidden richness was not sought. Indirectly, it is indeed clear, they tried to make use of what light they might discover reflected from his translation of other portions of the Brehon laws. "My assistant, Mr. Busteed, and myself" made hard study we are told of "the glosses explanatory of particular terms and phrases," and we know that one of the manuscripts H. 3. 18, translated by Professor O'Curry, was "a very copious gloss of the terms which occur in the Senchus Mor." But they never went directly to him. They had his translation, they had also in the translated gloss a key furnished by him, but they lacked the master-mind and the master-hand, and could not even wield successfully the instruments he had made.

If on the mind of the most credulous there should remain a lingering belief that the work, after all this, was not surreptitious, let it fall before this extract from the preface. "After the death of Dr. ODonovan, the Commissioners proposed to submit the proof-sheets to Professor O'Curry, in order to have the benefit of his suggestions also, but his sudden death prevented this from being carried out." Here is an avowal that to the man who had translated at least one-fourth of the work, almost one-half of what was then in type—who had translated the copious gloss explanatory of its technical terms—the proof-sheets had never been shown! As to the statement that after Dr. O'Donovan's decease they were prevented from showing them to Professor O'Curry by his sudden death, it is a most strange one. For nearly nine months he was there present, alive and well, after the death of his colleague; yet they confess (not quite accurately, however,) that they never approached him with a proof-sheet, and plead his sudden death as the cause. The pretext will not impose on anyone.

No, these gentlemen do themselves an injustice by pretending that they could not show him his proof-sheets, because they thought him dead all those three quarters of a year when he moved amongst them, acting and speaking as though he were apparently alive. No one will believe them so simple. They ought at once to have confessed, without false modesty, that they had too high a sense of honour and too keen a perception of decency to have declared their work to his face, and asked him to be a consenting party to his own wrong. If they could be conceived for the moment forgetful of such fine feelings, he would not have been forgetful.

They were not so oblivious. But was nothing to be done? Professor O'Curry had completed his translations in November, and when, on 12th December, Dr O'Donovan died, there was no reason why he should not go on with the editing himself On this account, apparently, he was favoured with a visit about a month after his translations were completed—for what is a month?—by the legal editor and his assistant. They came to Professor O'Curry in the first week of the new year, with a proposition to him to join with them in printing the long-abandoned Book of Acaill. They never mentioned the Senchus Mor. His sudden death, it must not be forgotten, prevented them from mentioning that. Professor O'Curry immediately pointed out to them that he could not accede to their proposal, because, after he had been more than once officially directed to secure the assistance of another colleague, he had done so. That engagement he would not break.

In consequence of the alteration in their projects from the causes shown, the acting members of the Commission held a conference with Professor O'Curry in the commencement of February. Their ostensible errand was to consult as to what should be done with reference to the future printing of the ancient laws, and to know under what conditions he would undertake to edit any one or more volumes of the work. Seeing that he had already assented, at the instance of Dr. Graves, to edit the Book of Acaill, and had, on his reiterated advice, secured the assistance of a colleague, this errand may appear somewhat superfluous. Professor O'Curry replied in a manner which left room for no misunderstanding. He was quite willing, quite ready, and quite prepared to edit any volume committed to his care, on his own responsibility, he said. There should be no legal editor appointed over him by the Commissioners, but he would have of course a competent legal editor to assist him. In accordance with the reiterated directions of Dr. Graves, the official secretary, he had already secured the co-operation of such a gentleman, whose name when communicated to the Commissioners would amply guarantee his qualification for the post.

It does not appear that this view of what he considered his duty, frank and straightforward as it seems, gave complete satisfaction. In spite of what has been alleged touching his sudden death, he was shown the printed portion of the Senchus Mor, perhaps in the expectation that he would take it up, and proceed with it. He, however, contented himself with pointing out grave errors in the translation, and expressing his intention to persevere in his appointed task. Officialism has a tendency to think itself omnipotent within its own sphere, and to fancy that its desires should be obeyed without demur, as those of an over-ruling destiny. Undoubtedly it is because of this pervading spirit of officialism obtaining the mastery over individual feelings, that corporations will commit acts to which their members would personally and separately object. On such a theory only can we account for the manner in which the discoverer of the ancient laws of Ireland was treated by a Commission, composed without a doubt of gentlemen honourable and estimable in their individual capacities. To O'Curry alone it was due that, after two hundred years of unavailing effort, it became possible for such a body to be formed, to preside over the transcription and translation of those laws. As the price of incessant labour, and the reward of innumerable vigils, he had alone and unaided discovered the way and the key to their long-forgotten treasures. Yet, so did the spirit of officialism prevail over personal sentiments of justice and courtesy, he was subjected to a gratuitous slight in the outset, and in the end vexed with contradictory projects, and doomed to see the cherished hope of life become a mortal pain, because he could not stoop to what he deemed unworthy.


* This sequel to the "Translation of the Ancient Irish Laws" has not been before published.

** Lectures on the MSS. Materials of Irish History, by Eugene O'Curry, M.R.I.A. Professor of Irish History and Archaeology in the Catholic University of Ireland. Dublin and London, Duffy.