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From Celtia, May-June 1903: address to the Oireachtas of the Gaelic League



On Thursday, May 14, Dr. Kuno Meyer delivered a lecture in the Large Concert Hall of the Rotunda. The lecturer chose as his subject, "The Necessity for Establishing a School of Irish Literature, Philology, and History." Dr. Douglas Hyde, President of the Gaelic League, occupied the chair, and there was a large attendance.
The President addressed the audience first in Irish, continuing in English, said that Dr. Kuno Meyer's lecture would not be in Irish, as some people feared. (Laughter.) The lecture would be delivered in English, and would be on the necessity of establishing a School of Irish Philology. History, and Literature here in Dublin. (Applause.) He then introduced the distinguished philologist, amidst loud applause.

Dr. Kuno Meyer then delivered his lecture, in the course of which he said The Gaelic revival, one of the most remarkable and unexpected national movements of our time, is an event of such recency that even the youngest amongst us can remember its beginnings. It is one of those almost elemental phenomena, the suddenness and force of which seems to carry everything before it, while it astonishes no one more, perhaps, that those who have started it. (Applause.) Nor can the calmest and most sceptical onlooker remain indifferent, for the object at stake is the salvation of a nationality at the eleventh hour. (Applause.) Will this object be attained? Or will the movement come to a standstill as suddenly as it has sprung up? No one, I venture to say, can foretell, and I least of all. Friends, both in England and in Ireland, often ask me as one who has watched the movement from its beginning, and one who, as an outsider, may be supposed to have kept his head cool, what I think of it all, and whether I regard it as likely to be lasting. I can only answer that it has taken me completely by surprise. (Applause.)
When I remember the apathy which existed but yesterday with regard to the Irish language and literature, to Irish art, and, indeed everything genuinely Irish, both among the people and the educated classes; when I call to mind that twenty years ago, when I first knew Ireland, under one of the most grotesque educational systems the world has ever seen - (applause) - children were thrashed for talking Irish within the hearing of the schoolmaster; or when I remember the pathetic endeavours of the men who then rallied to the rescue of an apparently dying language, the men who founded the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, and those who started the Gaelic Journal; when I recollect that we looked upon Hennessy, Standish Hayes O'Grady, and John Fleming as the last native Irish scholars whom the world would ever know - and then see what is going on around us now, I have to rub my eyes like one awaking from a dream to daylight and reality. (Applause.)

But, for all that, I would not venture to prophesy. Not long ago Principal Rhys, the eminent Welsh scholar, told me that some time during the seventies of the last century he had predicted that the Welsh language would linger on for a of his nationality and of his native language; and yet see how false his prediction has been. Some hidden fire still smouldered unnoticed among the ashes, a fresh breeze springs up, and almost in a moment the whole country from end to end is in a blaze. The Welsh language is now more firmly established than it has been for centuries. (Applause.) It is spoken and written by a young generation in a purity which has been unknown since the days of Goronwy and Lewis Morris in the eighteenth century. It is taught in the schools, recognised by the National University as ranking by the side of Greek and Latin; papers and periodicals abound; a national press is issuing the classics of the nation in splendid editions; a national library has been founded; the Eisteddfod - the Welsh Oireachtas flourishes. (Applause.) A similar development seems to be taking place in Ireland under our eyes. (Applause.) Wherever one goes now one finds men and women, young and old, able to speak and read and write Gaelic; it is taught in the schools; ancient customs are revived; papers are springing up; Irish literature is being printed; the interest in the history and traditions of the country and the race is widening and deepening - (applause) - scholars are encouraged in their work. And, over and above this, the lives of thousands have been transfigured, and a new zest and spirit has entered into a nation whose despondency, whose listless, hopeless attitude towards itself and its interest used to be the saddest feature in its character. (Applause.) But I need not dwell on this wonderful transformation, familiar as it is to you all. I believe that its beneficial effects will not be confined to Ireland. I do not mean to refer to the advantage which must inevitably accrue to the best interests of the Empire from a strengthening of the Irish nation - there is the history of many centuries to prove that the policy to keep it weak was disastrous - (applause) - I desire to speak of a much humbler sphere, which the Gaelic revival is sure to influence most favourably - Celtic scholarship at home and abroad. (Applause).

One of the discouraging phenomena to the foreign student hitherto was the curious indifference that in what should have been the home of Irish and Celtic studies prevailed among the learned as well as among the general public and the people at large. Another no less discouraging circumstance was the difficulty of acquiring, either through books, or by an easy intercourse with the people, the necessary knowledge of the spoken language in all its idiomatic force, and with all its dialectical varieties. Anyone who has followed the development of modern philology knows that its greatest achievements are derived from a minute study of the living languages, not from that of the more or less artificial language of literature. It would have been an irreparable loss to Celtic research for all time if the Irish language, which the German philologist, Schleicher, rightly called the Gothic of the Celtic family of speech - that is, the most primitive and original of all Celtic languages - had been suffered to die without having been studied exhaustively at the source, and on the spot, without having been chronicled down to the minutest details of sound, grammar, and idiom. There is no fear of that now. (Applause.) Ireland is in the fortunate position of having retained her dialects, while in other countries like England, they are now rapidly disappearing before a colourless and artificially polite standard, on the one hand, and the vulgar and debased speech of the great cities on the other. (Applause.) Let me here express the hope that nothing will be done to discourage the dialects as the spoken language of the home and everyday life. (Applause). They are the rich source from which the literary language will continue to draw its best inspiration. The literary language can take care of itself. It will develop with the taste, the culture, the learning of the individual writers. As the language spreads and grows, great writers will come to set the standard, to serve as models, as Keating has done now, for many generations.

Now, while this is the hopeful prospect of the movement, there yet remain two important and essential things to be done, and the sooner they are done the better. One is to broaden and strengthen the movement at the root, by rousing those districts in which Irish is still the mother tongue to a better realisation of their importance and responsibility. (Applause.) That, I understand, is already part of the programme of the Gaelic League. The second requirement will form the chief subject of my address to-day. It is the necessity of bringing the movement into direct and intimate relations with scholarship, to provide an avenue for every student of Irish to the higher regions of study and research, to crown the whole edifice by a revival of native scholarship, and thus to bring about a second golden age of Irish learning. (Applause.) The aims of the Gaelic revival and those of scholarship are not incompatible; it would be deplorable for either if they were. The scholar's task is to study and elucidate the same past in which the roots of the movement lie the same past, the chasm between which and a degenerate, modern Ireland you have succeeded in bridging over. This chasm threatened to sever for all eternity the Ireland of the past from an Ireland rapidly becoming wholly Anglicised. (Applause.) In 1851 Dr. O'Donovan, writing to a correspondent who had asked where the best speakers of Irish might be found, answered: "In the poorhouse." You have altered this. You have placed the best speakers of Irish in a seat of honour. (Applause.) But, remember, that you have also to fill a void - the gap which, through the death of O'Donovan and O'Curry, was cleft in native scholarship. The work which those two men achieved has never yet met with full recognition. (Hear, hear.) Apart from the work they did themselves, it was their knowledge and their original research which enabled scholars like Petrie, Todd, and Reeves to achieve great results in Irish archaeology, history, and literature.

When O'Donovan and O'Curry were dead, further progress was rendered difficult, and almost impossible. The work which they left behind them has been, in Ireland at least, almost at a complete standstill since then in what I may call academic and official scholarship. You have all heard of the severe criticism which scholars at home and abroad have directed against the five volumes published under the auspicies of the Brehon Law Commission. The fact is that the bulk of the five volumes of laws is merely work done by O'Donovan and O'Curry over forty years ago. O'Donovan died in 1861, O'Curry in 1862; the fifth volume was published in 1901. It seems that the Brehon Laws Commissioners consider their work ended now that the excerpts and translation prepared and left by O'Donovan and O'Curry have come to an end. I gather this, in the first place, from the fact that a glossary to the five volumes has been published, a glossary again based upon faulty impressions of O'Donovan and O'Curry's extracts, not upon the original MSS.; and, secondly, from the rumour which has come to my ears that the Commissioners entertained the idea of sending an Irish scholar abroad to search for unpublished manuscripts of Brehon Laws in the libraries of the Continent. This would have been a wildgoose chase, for the MSS. do not exist - for every scholar knows that if O'Donovan and O'Curry had lived they would have told them that, with the exception of a few fragments of a legal treatise at Copenhagen, which has already been published by Stokes, of which there is a copy in the Royal Irish Academy, there are no law tracts in any of the Continental libraries. When I tell you, further, that all the time there are the most valuable legal documents Iying unused and unpublished in the libraries of Trinity College, of the Royal Irish Academy, of the British Museum, and of the Bodleian, you will have some information as to the value of Royal Commissioners.

Am I not right, then in saying that Irish scholarship, academical and official, is extinct since the time of O'Donovan and O'Curry? The question seems to me of such great importance that I may mention that it is my intention to address an open letter to the Commissioners on the whole subject. (Applause.) I am not, of course, unaware of the fact that there are excellent and hardworking Irish scholars in Ireland, but these scholars are isolated. They are working single-handed, and in the positions in which they are placed have no chance of creating a School of Irish Philology or History. There is the crux of the whole matter. If O'Donovan and O'Curry had but left a school behind, and in every other country they would have been enabled to do so, we should not complain of the standstill of Irish scholarship in Ireland. (Applause.) But the fault was not theirs. They met with little encouragement, except from a few enthusiasts. There was not, and there is not now any proper organisation for the academic pursuit of these studies. There was, and there still is, little interest in research and higher scholarship. I know that O'Donovan held for a time a Professorship in Belfast, but he seems to have had no pupils. At least, so I gather from a letter of his which has come into my hands. In the letter, written in 1851, O'Donovan says: "I shall be in Belfast very soon again to deliver some lectures on the Celtic dialects. I do not believe that you or any other friends there will be able to procure me any pupils, and I am, therefore, afraid I cannot live among you." I venture to say that if he were to come to Belfast now he would not be left without pupils, but that hundreds would flock to his classes. It has not always been so in Ireland. As late as the 17th century there existed throughout the country bardic schools, in which the Irish language and Irish literature, supported by liberal contributions from chiefs, were taught and studied, just as law schools and medical schools were kept up and supported in a similar way.

These were the academies and universities of ancient Ireland. As you turn over the pages of the Four Masters you come again and again upon the obit of one of the professors of these schools. Now it is absolutely necessary, if there is to emanate from Ireland work of first-rate importance in history, philology, literature, archaeology, that there should be established a school in which the foundation for these studies would be laid by a study of the Irish language and literature. Without a knowledge of the Irish language in all its stages - old Irish, middle Irish, modern Irish - no real advance in our knowledge of the various subjects mentioned above is possible. because the source, the documents, are written in Irish. I need not here again dwell on the wealth and variety of Irish literature in all branches, or reiterate what I have said elsewhere, that no one is in a position to speak with authority of it as a whole. The facts are not yet before us. But let us consider for one moment the magnitude of the task that has yet to be accomplished. Let me begin with the language. To trace the history of the language from the oldest available records to modern times, to establish the laws which govern it, to follow its changes from period to period, from dialect to dialect, then, when all this has been done to date and locate every piece of prose or poetry with exactness - these are some of the tasks which await the student of Irish philology. As to literature, the amount and variety of the work to be done is even greater. Here is the oldest vernacular poetry and prose of Western Europe - (applause) - handed down in hundreds of manuscripts, very few of which have been edited, many of which have hardly been opened for centuries, while the majority have only been hastily glanced at.

What a task for generations of students! Who can say what revelations await us, what revolutions in our knowledge may be in store here? Every new publication comes as a surprise. The general reading public and the majority of the learned would almost refuse to credit the wealth, the age, the beauty, of this literature. Only the other day I sent a copy of a few old Irish nature poems to a well-known French scholar, who was delighted with them, but would not believe that I had not, in my translation, "hrod‚" - faked the most part of them. This is characteristic of the ignorance and credulity prevailing even in the circles of the learned. The truth is that my poor reading labours in vain to express the beauty of the Irish original. Scholars and the public will judge differently when once the Irish classics, from the earliest times down to the eighteenth century, will be before the world in critical editions. This is a task essentially for Irishmen to perform. The difficulties for a foreign student are often too great and numerous, quite apart from the language, and, to be surmounted, demand an intimate knowledge of native lore that few foreigners can hope to attain. When we next consider the purely historical documents, whether of Church history or secular history - first those bearing upon pagan times, then those dating from the golden age of Ireland before the Norse invasion, next those of the Viking age of the ninth and tenth centuries, then those of the renaissance during the eleventh century, and so on in unbroken tradition to the eighteenth century - you will realise that it is idle to attempt to write the general history of Ireland, or the history of any special period, before they have all been published and made the subject of critical study. It would take me too long to continue this sketch of the work awaiting the hand of the historian, archaeologist, and topographer.

I will say once more that, whatever the foreign student may achieve, he cannot hope to cope with its difficulties so successfully as the native student. It is a task which must be accomplished by Irishmen and Irishwomen essentially. Instead of further enlarging on this, let me illustrate what I have said by one single example, which must stand for hundreds that I might give. Among the priceless Stowe MSS. which were deposited by the British Government with the Royal Irish Academy in 1885, there is the "Book of Hy-Many." You may remember the pathetic indignation of O'Curry when he was denied access to the MSS, by their former owner, that churlish nobleman, Lord Ashburnham; O'Curry knew what their contents were, and ate his heart out. Now the MSS. have come back to Ireland; but there they have lain in the Academy unutilised, uncatalogued, for nearly twenty years, and yet what treasures they contain! There are to be found, among other things, the poems of MacLiag - the bard of Tadhg Mor O'Reilly - the follower of Brian na Boroimhe - all unedited. Imagine what might happen if it became known that an old English MS. existed containing poems by a bard attached to King Alfred, who had sung his battles, and the warriors who had fought under him. The news would spread like wildfire throughout the world of letters, and editions, learned and popular, would follow in rapid succession. (Applause.) Now, where are those Irish scholars to lift these and hundreds of similar treasures? They will not be found until a school of Irish philology has given them the necessary instruction and training, and has taught them the proper methods of study and research. (Applause.) The field is there, the materials are abundant, the laboratories, so to speak, are fully equipped, the workers alone are wanting. (Applause. )

This is a national concern. To provide such students with the necessary instruction, to initiate them into the study of the older stages of the language, is, in my opinion, a question of national importance. (Hear, hear.) How is it to be done? At present there is no provision of this kind. If we could rely on the foundation of a National University in the immediate future, of a Celtic University - (loud applause) - if I may so call it, the solution would be easy. In such a University there should be chairs for Irish Philology, for Irish History, and Archaeology, and a well-equipped library, and we might look forward then to a flourishing school of Irish research; but these things lie on the knees of the god's, and meanwhile valuable time is being lost. It is necessary also to train scholars who can take their places as teachers in that University when the time for it comes. (Applause.) Can we expect anything from Trinity College? (Laughter, and "No.") No, I think not. I see no sign of it. Trinity College is modelled upon the obsolescent system of the older English Universities, in which the instruction is given almost exclusively in certain recognised subjects, while the time of instruction is controlled by prescribed curricular examinations, so that the true object of learning is lost sight of. Such a system is concerned almost exclusively with the acquisition of knowledge which is already common property, instead of widening, increasing, and advancing knowledge and learning. The question next arises whether the Royal Irish Academy can be expected, or can be induced, to organise such a school. Not unless the Gaelic League were to storm it, reorganise it on scholarly lines and make it what it ought to be - the home and centre and the workshop of Irish studies and research. (Applause.) No; I think little or no support is to be looked for from these quarters. If it were really alive to the progress and to the needs of Celtic scholarship, if it were really the home and centre of Irish studies, no institution would be more suited to take up such a scheme. But it cannot be called so. It has founded no school, it trains no scholars, it has published no catalogues of its MSS.

When its President was approached some time ago to co-operate in inducing the government to make a grant for the cataloguing of Irish MSS., he declined to do so. (Shame). Since the days of O'Curry, it has, I believe, not bought a single MS. What, then, are we to do? At this point, perhaps, you will bear with me if I tell you an old story, which may be new to some of you. One day during the end of the eighth century, when Charlemagne sat upon the Throne, a British merchant ship landed upon the coast of France having two great Irish scholars and divines on board as passengers. While the merchants put forth their wares and were busy proclaiming them, these two Irishmen cried out to the people: "If there is anyone in search of wisdom and knowledge, let him come to us; we have some to dispose of." (Applause.) The rumour of their arrival spread throughout the land, and reached the ears of the Emperor. He sent for them, and asked them what they required for their merchandise. They declared they needed nothing but a suitable place to teach in, intelligent students to teach, and for themselves food and dress. Charles immediately placed one of them, Clement by name, at the head of the school at his own Court, and placed the other, whose name was Dungal, at Pavia. (Applause.) Such is the story told by the chronicler of St. Gall. I think its application to our case is evident. Secure but the necessary scholars, able and willing to teach; furnish a place for them to teach in, and provide them with earnest and intelligent students, and the thing is done. (Hear, hear.) The question of funds is not the first and only consideration in such matters. The determination to carry the scheme through, co-operation, organisation, are infinitely more important. (Hear, hear.) I venture, then, to suggest the following simple scheme.

Begin in the simplest, humblest way. I feel sure that men like Father Hogan, Father Dineen, Douglas Hyde, Prof. Strachan, Dr. Joyce, Mr. Coffey - to mention only a few whose names occur to me - will one and all give their help and their services, each in his own province of learning. (Applause.) As for myself, I am ready to begin to-morrow (applause) - if you provide me but with a room and a blackboard and the students. (Renewed applause.) Liverpool is but a few hours' pleasant sail from here, and I can come over often. Let the Gaelic League take the matter in hand. Hire a room or two somewhere in the centre of the city; furnish them with the nucleus of an Irish working library. As for the necessary money - and very little will be needed to start - use your organisation, approach the Corporation, the rich men and women in sympathy with the movement, open a subscription list to-night. (Applause.) Then we will found a periodical devoted to Irish research, and exchange it with the great libraries and academies of the world. Perhaps when you have achieved so much, the eyes of the Government will be opened, and they will bestow their money where they will get better value for it. (Applause.) Do not, I beseech you, regard my little scheme as Utopian. Its success depends upon one thing, and upon one thing only - the enthusiasm and application of the students. (Hear, hear.) But I must have gauged the Gaelic movement wrongly if we cannot depend on this. I believe there are hundreds of young men and women who have already acquired a scholarly knowledge of the modern language, eager to avail themselves of every opportunity of becoming better acquainted with the ancient language of their native land, of equipping themselves with the necessary knowledge for independent research in the vast mines of its literature, and of swelling the ranks of a small band of Celtic students. There I leave the matter for the present, in the ful1 conviction that I have not spoken in vain. (Loud applause.)

Dr. Douglas Hyde, on his own behalf, and on behalf of those present, wished to thank Dr. Kuno Meyer for his interesting and useful lecture, and for suggesting a scheme for establishing a school of Irish literature, philology, and history. Since the lecturer first became acquainted with the Gaelic movement, he had consistently championed it in quarters where it was most unpopular. They owed the lecturer a deep debt of gratitude. (Applause.)
The proceedings then ended.

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