Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
Irish Manuscripts (Author: W. B. Yeats)

section 2

I hope and indeed I have no doubt that the Seanad will accept this report. I would like, however, to draw the special attention of one section in the Seanad to the nature of the report. Certain members of the Seanad have. I think, a great dislike to pray in a language they do not understand. There are other members of the Seanad who dislike having our Acts of Parliament expensively printed in two languages. That may be right or wrong; but this is an entirely different question. We are asking the Seanad to urge upon the Government to do a work for learning, a work for literature and a work for history which any Government in the world would consider its duty and its privilege. This country possesses a great mass of old mediaeval literature in the Irish language. There are great collections of manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy,


in the Library of Trinity College, at Maynooth, and in the Franciscan library. There are very large collections of manuscripts in other countries. There is a great collection in the British Museum, in the Bodleian, and in the Louvain. These manuscripts are a historical trust to this nation, but they should be interpreted, edited, indexed, and catalogued.

Much work has been done on them in the past — much by Irishmen, much by Germans, and to some extent we may say that the centre of Irish scholarship has in recent years been in Germany. But the German interest is only primarily a philological interest. If we are to exhaust the value of these manuscripts for literature and history we must do that work ourselves. They possess first of all their value to this country; then they possess their value to the world. They consist of stories, annals, and poetry. I think that all the famous stories have been translated and have been edited. We will learn nothing new of importance about Finn and Cuchulain and other old Irish heroes or Kings of the legendary period. The annals have to a great extent been edited and translated, but I understand, they have been badly edited and translated in many cases, and if they are to be of historical value that work has to be done over again. In the case of poetry there is probably still a large quantity of untranslated and of even unread poetry.

That poetry would be of two kinds: First of all, what is called the official poetry, not of great literary value but of great historical value — the work of the official Bards. But there is also much poetry which is personal expression — that kind of poetry which Dr. Kuno Meyer has translated in recent years. If we can judge the unread and unedited by the read and edited, they will be of supreme value. I should say that we had evidence given before us, that great scholars might work for 100 years on the old Irish manuscripts now in the possession of the Nation, and in the possession of other nations without having exhausted the subject. We are anxious that provision should be made for that work and that the work should be carried out. Already the traditional imagination in these old books has had a powerful effect upon the life, and


I may say upon the politics, of Ireland. People forget that the twenties, forties and fifties of the last century was the forming period of Irish nationality, and that the work was begun by O'Donovan, Petrie and men steeped in this old literature.

We owe it also to learning and the scholarship of the world that we should provide means for the doing of this great work. Twenty years ago, in Paris, I knew slightly the great French scholar, D'Arbois de Jubainville, who devoted his life to the study of our literature because he believed that only through that literature could he find light on the most important secular event in human history. Going back 1,000 or 1,200 years before Christ we find Dorian tribes descending on the Mediterranean civilization. They destroyed much and wandered much, and it has been held that we owe to their destruction, the story, of the Fall of Troy, and to their wandering, the Story of Odyssey. D'Arbois de Jubainville considered that only through Irish literature can you rediscover the civilization of these tribes before they entered the Mediterranean. That does not mean than our people were the Greeks or that our literature is as old as 1,200 years before Christ, but our legends and our books have preserved and gathered together the old literature and much of the history of a similar period. We ask you to urge upon the Government that they, shall place in the hands of the Royal Irish Academy sufficient funds. We heard much evidence and we came to the conclusion that the Royal Irish Academy itself contains within its limits practically all the great Irish scholars and that it is the proper body to carry out this work in a spirit of scholarship. The danger is that it may be carried out in some other spirit. It is most important that nothing should be taken into consideration except the interest of scholarship alone.

It should not be allowed to become a means by which some man will make a living until he gets some other occupation; the money should be used to help a man whose life-work is study and scholarship. It has been contended that the Royal Irish Academy is not a democratic body and that therefore we should not ask the Government to endow it in


this way. I have heard it contended that it is not a democratic body because by its rules it can only elect seven new members every year. Twenty years ago I should not have been able to invite you, with the same confidence, to ask the Royal Irish Academy to undertake this work, because twenty years ago it had not that rule. It could elect any person who professed himself interested in the subjects with which it dealt. That rule of electing only seven members a year was instituted in order to raise the position of the Academy by making it necessary to elect those only who were eminent in the studies of the Academy, and not merely interested in those studies. I think I am right in saying that since that rule was passed the Academy has risen more and more in the estimation of the learned, and in helping it to do its work we are helping a body which has advanced the learning of this country. I beg to move the adoption of the Report.