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by Eleanor Knott (Folklore 20/3 (Sep. 1909) 356–360)

p. 356

There are some persons whose vitality and enthusiasm seem actually to increase with years; at however ripe an age death may step in and claim them, we should still feel that they had died young. Such a figure was that of Dr. Whitley Stokes, the great scholar whose death on April 13th of this year, at the age of 79, deprived Celtic learning of its chief and head. His very presence seemed to infuse intellectual energy into the atmosphere around him. In his neighbourhood the most unlearned began to feel that there must reside some secret, unsuspected magic even in such recondite studies as mediaeval Irish or Breton glosses. For, prodigious worker as he was, and abstruse as were the matters which had most attraction to his mind, his manner of attack upon them was as far removed as is possible from that of the pedant. He combined to a quite exceptional degree the laborious erudition of the trained philologist with the cultivated instinct of the man of letters. The same enthusiasm which led him, in younger days, to turn for relief and refreshment to the editing of Cornish plays and Irish tales and glossaries when immersed in the dry details of compiling commentaries on Hindu Law Books and old Indian statutes, or in what he himself liked to point to as the greatest undertaking of his life, the codifying of the Anglo-Indian Statutes, made him in later years an editor whose instinct was almost infallible for the best and most important specimens of Irish literature, whether from a philological or a literary point of view. It is curious to remember that Dr. Stokes' Celtic studies, which are those with which his name will always be

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most closely connected in the minds of European scholars, were pursued during many years while he was living in Madras, far from libraries and manuscripts, and farther still from any fellow-sympathy in such subjects. His Goidelica appeared first in Calcutta in 1866, and his Old-Welsh Glosses on Martianus Capella are dated from the "Screw Steamer 'Surat' between Aden and Bombay, 1872." Born in Dublin in 1830, he qualified as a barrister in 1855, and went out to India in 1862, occupying there a succession of important posts in the High Court and Legislative Council, and becoming law-member of the Council of the Governor-General in 1877. During this period, besides his great legal undertakings, he framed a scheme for collecting and cataloguing the Sanscrit manuscripts of India. But, during all this period, he was devoting large portions of his leisure to the prosecution of works of Celtic scholarship. He turned his attention particularly to those old Irish glosses, on the foundation of which the scientific study of Celtic grammar and philology must rest. The work of his life in this department was fitly crowned by the publication of two monumental works,—in 1894 of the Urkeltischer Sprachschatz in conjunction with Prof. Bezzenberger (being the second volume of Prof. Fick's Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Germanic Language), and in 1901–3 of the Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus (containing a complete collection both of the Biblical and non-Biblical glosses and scholia extant on the continent), in conjunction with Prof. Strachan, whose early death Celtic scholarship has been so recently called upon to lament.

But philology was only one of the branches of Celtic research which occupied Dr. Stokes' attention. There is, indeed, hardly any side of the wide field of Celtic studies which has not been illumined and opened up by his labours. Through him, more than through any other single worker, the whole mediaeval literature of Ireland, historical, hagiological, and romantic, has been laid open to the student, and, through his admirable translations, simple, lucid, and idiomatic, to the general reader also. Some of these works appeared separately, while others were contributed to Irische Texte, of which he was joint-editor with Prof. Windisch; to the Revue Celtique, in which his contributions have for many

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years formed one of the main features; to Ériu, and to the Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie, or were brought out in Anecdota Oxoniensia, the publications of the Royal Irish Academy, and elsewhere. All we can here attempt is to indicate a few of the more important of these publications, under the various heads into which they may be grouped. In history, he edited the oldest Irish annals which can be assigned to a special date and author, viz. the eleventh-century Annals of Tighernach, written partly in Irish and partly in Latin, of which several fragmentary copies remain. In hagiology, Three Middle-Irish Homilies, or the Lives of Ss. Patrick, Brigit, and Columba (1871), and the Corpus of material relating to St. Patrick, which was published in the Rolls Series, and named, from the fullest of these lives of the saint, The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick (1887).

Equally important from the point of view of early social history and folklore, was the publication of the collection of Irish saints' lives from the Book of Lismore. Connected with these are the martyrologies of Oengus the Culdee, and of Gorman, the former of which, in particular, sheds invaluable light upon the ecclesiastical and social conditions of the ancient Celtic church. In romance, there is no cycle to which his prolific pen has not made valuable contributions. The Battle of Moytura belongs to the most ancient legendary cycle of the early gods; such tales as the Tragical Death of the sons of Usnech, the Destruction of the Hostal of Da Derga, and of the Hostal of Da Choga, the Siege of Howth, and the Death of Cuchulainn, illustrate the heroic period of Ireland; the Battles of Crinna, of Allen, and of Carn Conaill, the Destruction of Dind Righ, and the tale of Boromha, the legendary-historic period.

He had a special affection for those tales of oversea voyages which connect themselves with visions of the unseen world both in Irish Pagan and Christian literature, and which furnish us with some of the most radiant dreams of the ancient Celts: Cormac's Adventure in the Land of Promise and the Voyage of Maelduin illustrate the pagan ideal, and those of Snedgus and Mac Riagla, the Sons of O'Corra, of Columcille's Clerics, and pieces like the First and Second Visions of Adamnan, the Vision of Fursa, the Two Sorrows of Heaven's Kingdom, the Ever-new Tongue,

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and Tidings of Doomsday reveal the ancient Christian fancy reflecting upon the same problems, and show how insensibly the pagan conception passed over into the Christian scheme of things. He also made additions to our knowledge of the mediaeval Irish student's acquaintance with classical and contemporary literature by his editions of the Irish Tale of Troy, the Gaelic Maundeville, and the Gaelic Marco Polo, etc.

We may truly say that by means of this one scholar's editions alone there might be constructed a very ample and correct picture of social life in ancient Ireland; while by his works alone, and especially, perhaps, by means of those most unpromising to the general student, such as the various topographical poems and prose pieces known as Dindshenchus, the old collection of proper names with their explanations known as Coir Anmann, the ancient glossary ascribed to Cormac, the Abbot-King of Cashel, who died in 908, or the metrical eulogy of St. Columba or Amra Coluimcille, and the poem-book called Saltair na Rann, and the Dialogue of the Sages, there is to be found a mass of material relating to the folklore traditions of Ireland such as cannot be equalled elsewhere.

The folklore side of his subject was one that had a special attraction for Dr. Stokes. He was a member of the Folk-Lore Society from 1882 until his death. His own editions are uniformly accompanied by the most voluminous notes illustrating the ancient customs and beliefs, and the mythology and folklore of Ireland by comparison with that of other countries. Among the ancient Irish traditions and customs to which he drew attention may be mentioned, (a) the existence of heathen baptism, (b) compulsory fasting of cattle, (c) the belief that human souls assume the form of birds in paradise, (d) the tradition that Our Lord was born through the head of the Virgin, and (e) the appeal of Adam and Eve to the River Jordan to call upon its beasts and fishes to "fast" with them upon God, in order to procure from Him forgiveness for their transgression.

To his Irish studies Dr. Stokes added a knowledge of Breton and of the now extinct Cornish tongue, and in early life he published a middle-Cornish poem on The Passion, a Cornish Mystery

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on The Creation of the World, and a Cornish drama on the Life of St. Meriasek, besides Middle-Breton Hours, a middle-English Play of the Sacrament, etc.

Dr. Stokes' magnificent physique made him a striking figure in any company, while his large courtesy, his kindness to students, whose efforts he was never too busy to read and criticise and to further by suggestions from his vast stores of knowledge, and his sense of humour and varied interests made him a host whose hospitalities can never be forgotten. If, among the Celtic specialists, blows that resounded like the smiting of the hammer of Thor were sometimes dealt out, the more obscure learner was safe from such terrors; he always found in Dr. Stokes a patient and kind adviser. Among the interests of his later years the School of Irish Learning in Dublin, designed to give sound grammatical and paleographical training to students of the Celtic languages, held a foremost place, and he aided and encouraged the undertaking in every way.

On his seventieth birthday, several of the leading Celtists of Europe paid honour to Dr. Whitley Stokes by combining to present him with a "Festschrift" to which each contributed a part, and which is preceded by a graceful and glowing expression of homage to the work and genius of the great Irish scholar whose labours it was designed to commemorate. Among the contributors are the names of Kuno Meyer, L. Chr. Stern, R. Thurneysen, F. Sommer, K. Brugmann, and E. Windisch. In the preface, in commenting on words printed by Hermann Ebel, in his second edition of the Grammatica Celtica of Zeuss, published in 1871,—"Post ipsum conditorem ac parentem grammaticae celticae haud facile quisquam invenietur, qui melius meritus sit de omnibus huius doctrinae partibus quam Whitleius Stokes,"—the writer, Dr. Windisch, adds, Das müssen wir heute, dreissig Jahre später, erst recht bekennen!


For a chronology of Whitley Stokes and Irish texts edited and translated by him, see here.

For a select bibliography of Whitley Stokes see here.
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