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

section 3

2 Mrs. STOPFORD GREEN: I beg to second. I would like to make two or three explanations about the matter. There, is, I think, a certain fear amongst some people that a learned body like the Academy will be contemptuous of modern Irish or at least neglectful of it. I do not think that there is the slightest fear of that. We have marked plainly that the language is one and indivisible from beginning to end. I remember one of the greatest scholars of the last generation saying to me: ‘There are three ages of Irish language; there is the language up to 1000, which is worthy of study and an honourable language; there is a language from 1000 to about 1600, which is an inferior and common language, not worth much interest, but which must be read, because it occasionally contains a word of the old language, or expressions which help one to understand it. There is a third language, from 1600 to the present day, and with that no sensible person has anything to do.’

I believe my friend was fast abandoning that theory, but I am quite sure that you will find no scholar whatever in Ireland who would have any sympathy with such a statement as that, and I do not in the slightest degree fear that modern Irish will be neglected. That is consoling, but I wish to give a warning also that the difficulty of editing a modern Irish text is as great as the difficulty of editing an ancient one. The work requires the same aptitude, the same scholarship and the same laborious toil. With regard to the preparing of the materials for scholars to work on, that is a most essential part of the work to begin immediately. The first thing is the preparation of the material for the coming scholars. In the first place it is of the greatest importance to have facsimiles made of the old manuscripts which exist in a single copy, which are far away from Ireland in many cases, and which must be here for the scholars to work on. Facsimiles are extremely difficult to make. With ordinary photography the manuscript comes up black and cannot be read. The most difficult and delicate process now is by the use of reflecting glasses, which is scientific and skilled work, and it is also very costly. But that for the preservation of the manuscript and for the work of scholars is absolutely necessary, however costly it may be. There is also a quantity of preparatory work to be done. Dictionaries, I believe, ought to be done, though not on such a great scale as in the case of that which is now being carried out. The transcribing of certain documents and the cataloguing of them so that scholars, when they come on, may know where to get what has already been printed and the catalogue it is to be found in. With regard to publication we hope that new workers, earnestly interested in Irish, will be encouraged by the hope of publication and the esteem and regard which they would get in bringing out new work. In one respect we have gone beyond our terms of reference, that is, in urging that work of survey and archæological research should be kept constantly going. Its importance cannot be exaggerated. The general history of Ireland depends on local history and local history depends on the examination and knowledge of the various sites. A single illustration will show what can be done. A few years ago three members of the Royal Academy visited Carrowkeel in Sligo, a site omitted by the old Ordnance Survey. They there discovered what had been missed by every Ordnance Survey officer; a very important site, the site of the most ancient village in Western Europe and in connection with it, burial mounds as important as Brugh-na-Boinne, a very important discovery that shows what can still be done.

With regard to the cost of this, we are asking for a considerable sum, and this is a kind of rough allocation which is not authoritative in any way, but which indicates what may be done. No less than £1,500 is required for photographing facsimiles for the reasons that I have given. The Dictionary is matter which goes on continually. A sum of £250 should be given for the publication of catalogues of manuscripts to guide the scholar. There should be an investigation into living dialects. £500 would not be too much to spend on that important issue. Folk-lore and songs would take £150. This is a perfectly rough calculation, but it gives some idea of the sum now. For the publishing and editing of the texts, £750, perhaps, is required. Further, that will lie with the great authority to whom we all bow, the Ministry. As for the general importance of the subject of this work, there will be, no doubt, considerable difference in this assembly. I might suggest a reason very briefly. There are probably many more reasons, but there is no need to weary you, if the first three are not sufficient. I would ask you to suppose that, as an Irish nation, it would be seemly for us to have a history which somebody in the country could read with pleasure. We know that the present situation is that up to 1150 there is no history written at all. From that time, all we know comes from the tomes and volumes that lie on our shelves. We have, I know, a mighty series of solid volumes by laborious, conscientious and patient writers, whom we read with esteem, but may I say, with all respect, not with corresponding exhilaration.

Knowing my own weakness, I challenge any member of the Seanad to tell us whether he ever got through those tomes of monotonous detail, those volumes of mediæval history, whether he has been able to see the wood from the trees, whether he has got any clear comprehension of Irish history at the end, and whether he does not think Ireland the most God-forsaken country in the civilised world. I do not blame the writers. It was their material that went wrong. It is very well to have piled up stacks of English State Papers, but some kind of an intermixture is needed if you want to read Irish State history. Where are what we call the Irish State Papers, the writing of our own people? They have been neglected, burned, buried, drowned, torn in pieces as badly as ever the Danes had done. They do not come at all into reckoning with the writers of history. The result is that Ireland has history that is no history at all. We cannot be a self-respecting nation until we have the Irish State Papers — in other words, until Irish writings are expounded and gathered together.

A scholar told me two days ago that he had discovered 30 important works by an important person which had been turned over and neglected. Therefore, what we absolutely need is a full aid to the Irish language in the editing, reading and bringing out of all those masses of Irish material so that we shall have the new story of her history. Professor MacNeill has been the first pioneer to point out the real road by giving us for the first time a true translation of the old Irish laws. The whole of Irish history will have to be re-written. The early part will not have to be re-written because it has not been written at all; it is only alluded to. I urge, therefore, that if we wish to encourage the self-respect of the Irish nation and the respect of other people for this nation there must be the most generous effort made to give us our history, and to give it to us on lines of full and adequate knowledge.

My second reason for urging the encouragement of the Irish language is one of simple pride. There was no country in mediæval Europe which was so intensely and passionately beloved by its people. The people of Ireland were not made one people by race. They were made one people by the land they loved. It was to them as a living being. They always called it by the name of a woman. Every rock, ruin and mound, every spot of it was known to them and beloved for its beauty, its homeliness in the homeland, and its heroic memories. That affection lasted long. Over one hundred years ago, when the Ordnance Survey was opened in Derry, the people were so impassioned by having their old boundaries, landmarks, fields and memorials of their ancestors known, that the Government thought it better to stop the whole work to the lasting loss of history. When, a few years ago, there were papers written in Arthur Griffith's journals about Irish sites of any importance it was the most touching sight I have seen to witness the quiet groups of local pilgrims visiting the long-forsaken memorials of their own people. I do not know if I should be trespassing too much to tell of a touching incident of the other day. There was an old woman of over 100 years. No one knew how much over 100 she was. She gave the slip to her friends one day and disappeared. She was lost for some time, but she finally returned with the story that she had been to Ireland. She went first from London to Dublin. Then she went to Galway and walked about 20 miles to her own home. She was picked up by a kindly farmer and sheltered for the night. When she returned she said: ‘I heard they were murdering each other in Ireland. I went over to see. Do not you people believe a word of it. I did not see a single murder when I was there.’ That good old woman had the honour of Ireland at heart.

Last, I plead for ourselves now alive. We owe it to ourselves. We now see the result in this country of the breaking of a great tradition. We are now divided into several parties, and groups contending with each other, and not one of them has reached a decent age. The most elderly, founded by foreign arms, boasts of a venerable antiquity going back to 1685. The younger groups go back about 100 years and later than that. About three or four of them were founded in the last part of the 18th century. All of them are with foreign ideas, having foreign arms to back them, foreign hopes and the old traditions that gathered and united the people together are broken. What we want is to restore to them that ancient tradition and that honourable faith, so that they may become a real nation.

Mr. McLYSAGHT: ‘Lasmuich desna paidreacha nách doigh le Seanadóir Yeats, is fada nár labhaireadh aon Gaedhilig annso? Déarfainn gur ocáid oireamhnach í seo chun í labhairt.’

‘Bhíos ag coinne go mbéidir go bhfuighmíd buidhean níos fearr nó níos oireamhnaighe ná an Royal Irish Academy d'fhaghailt le h-aghaidh na h-oibre seo; ach ní dóigh liom go bhfuil leigheas air mura gceapfaidhe cumann fé leith, pé'r domhan é de'n chuid is mó des na scoláirí Gaedhilge ar an Royal Irish Academy, agus is beag liom san.’

There is another point I want to make. I saw a serious criticism of the report of this body. It was written in English, I suppose naturally, seeing that our Report also is in English. It suggested that we ought to have made some provision for the National University whereby they would be enabled to publish the theses of students which are written there in Irish. That seems to indicate a lack of understanding as to the exact scope of our inquiry. Our Terms of Reference really prevented us from going outside the question of the manuscripts which are lying in the Royal Irish Academy and other places. On the other hand, people ought not to think that we are only dealing with ancient manuscripts. Senator Mrs. Green has pointed out that in our Report we deal with modern Irish. I am not sure that the ordinary man can realise what modern Irish is. When the Senator spoke of modern Irish she was really referring more to literature which started about 1600 or later on. Senators are aware that there was a prolific output of Irish up to the Union.

I suppose it was not until the Famine that the Irish language really began to decay. Personally, I was a little afraid that a learned body like the Royal Irish Academy would look a little coldly on the more modern Irish literature, but my objections have been largely removed by Senator Mrs. Green's argument. I am not an authority on Irish manuscripts, but I know of one in the Royal Irish Academy of which the date is as late as 1830. I hope such manuscripts will not be overlooked. This particular manuscript, only a few pages of which have been published, is one of the greatest possible interest. It is a document of human interest, and throws a light on the social life of Ireland about that time, from the point of view of Irish-speaking men, which no other document I have ever seen does. I mention that just to show that this is not what you might call a dry-as-dust subject. When this Motion is passed I hope the Government will not pigeon-hole it, but make this a small part of that general policy for the re-Gaelicising of the country which has been foreshadowed by the isolated action of individual Departments. I, for one, await hopefully evidence that the Government as a whole is actuated by the same spirit as one or two of their Departments.

Sir THOMAS ESMONDE: I think the Report of our Committee is an admirable document, and I would like to congratulate them upon it. They have dealt with a number of aspects of this most interesting question in a very practical way. I welcome the Report because I think it is the beginning of what we should have had in this country for many years—an Irish Record Commission; some official body that would take steps to translate and bring to our notice all the wealth of Irish literature and history that is isolated and scattered practically all over Europe. This is a very admirable beginning, and I cordially support the appeal for assistance from the public purse. Every self-respecting country has an interest in its own history and records, and in this country, with the assistance of the Government, we should have every possible light and information that is to be had in connection with our ancient history and language, and also with the various stages of civilisation through which the country has passed in the course of its long history.

I am particularly pleased with the recommendation that modern Irish as well as ancient Irish should be studied and, if possible, developed, because we know perfectly well that the difficulty of understanding much of the meaning of the very ancient Irish may be, to a certain extent, lessened by the study of modern Irish. Modern Irish is naturally the development of ancient Irish and it will teach us very much indeed. I am also glad that our Committee has gone beyond its terms of reference in its suggestions with regard to the excavation and investigation of our national monuments and antiquities. I have always been glad to express my appreciation of the latter-day policy of the Irish Board of Works and of the Irish Ordnance Survey. Both these institutions have given immense service in the cause of Irish archæology, and the latest sheets of the Ordnance Survey have reminded us of very many of our antiquities that we were in danger of forgetting. I am glad that our Committee has suggested that examination into our national monuments should be done scientifically. There is ever so much to be learned of the habits and customs of the people and their progress by the proper examination of these historical monuments. The strata, the different layers of soil and ashes, etc., which repose one on top of the other, may give us very great information as to what manner of people lived in these ancient habitations. I think the most valuable part of their report is that entrusting this portion of the work to the Royal Irish Academy. Personally, I do not think it could be entrusted to better hands. It is a very scientific body and has done an enormous service to Irish archæology and is capable of doing much greater service in the future. I cordially support that part of the report and congratulate the Committee on their work, particularly where they travelled outside the terms of reference.

Dr. SIGERSON: It seems somewhat strange to me that the Seanad should be asked to concur in the formation of a catalogue of manuscripts. Every learned society has a catalogue of its manuscripts. The Royal Irish Academy has one. Trinity College has one which was compiled by O'Reilly, author of the great dictionary. The British Museum has one which was compiled by Standish Hayes O'Grady, which is a model catalogue. In the library in Brussels there is also a catalogue of Irish manuscripts open to visitors. I read several Irish poems there. It does not seem as if this is a matter of great urgency. No doubt, a catalogue, complete and comprehensive, would be an admirable work, and would be useful to scholars at home and abroad, but as a rule, these scholars have knowledge of where manuscripts are deposited and of their contents. Would it not be better to produce something of wider and more general interest, something which lies unpublished, the work of authors who were assembled together in that great undertaking, the Ordnance Survey of Ireland? There you have men like Petrie, O'Donovan, O'Curry and some others. Their work was intense, meticulous and exact. They worked at it for years and you will find their recorded work in the bound but unwritten volumes of the Ordnance Survey stored in the Royal Irish Academy. When you open these you will find not mere catalogues of names or of descriptions but the intensive work of scholars who, in dealing with localities, sought for references amongst the living and in the records of the dead. You will find there, not merely transcripts of ancient Irish manuscripts but transcripts of Latin manuscripts, transcripts of historical references and maps referring to all localities. These are very valuable, to a certain extent invaluable, manuscripts which are left lying there unnoticed, except when some rare scholar comes, perhaps from the Continent, to examine them. I have known some of my friends to come and publish their researches in Continental places. What were the works of these men intended for? Formerly county histories of Ireland were published. Some of these are of great historical, value. It was intended that this Ordnance Survey would produce not only a survey of each county, but a complete record of its place in history. When the work was begun the one county selected was the County Derry. That history was printed but the intellectual generosity of the Government at that time dried up suddenly and no more histories were published. All the rest were placed under lock and key and await the research of foreigners. I would suggest that it is the more urgent work because you have already a summary of many great and intense works. That is a subject which will interest, not only the few distinguished scholars, but also the people at large by, for the first time, placing in their hands in each county, a record of their position in Irish history. If you desire the people to take an intelligent interest in history you cannot do anything better than give them an account of the proceedings of their forefathers, and, if possible, also supply some aids to the cultivation of music, and the popular lore of their country.

That looks after itself to some extent, but this great literary work requires the assistance of the State. Otherwise it might lie locked up for another score or two score, or even four score of years, as it has done since its origin.

Mrs. COSTELLO: I would like to point out that however important it is that the papers of the Ordnance Survey should be published, it is well to remember that they are all written in English. Therefore, they are all outside the terms of our reference.

Question: ‘That the Report be adopted’—put and agreed to.