Spring 2012 Lead Article
The Jesuits and Irish Scholarship
Full text of article by Alan Titley, Spring 2012, vol.101, no.401
One of the most extraordinary things about the history of Ireland and of its literature is that most people, scholars included, hadn’t the least clue about the latter until the very end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Irish literature had been preserved in manuscripts or in the oral tradition, but very few printed books had been published in the language until the end of the nineteenth century. Most people of a learned bent had not heard of Aogán Ó Rathaille, or of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, or of Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, or of the great corpus of bardic poetry, the poetry of the learned classes between the thirteenth and the seventeenth centuries.
There was, of course, some knowledge of some of the songs of some of the poets some of the time, particularly in places where the language still thrived, or where the memory of it remained more than an echo. Piaras Feirtéir was still a folk hero in west Kerry, even if most of the stories that surrounded him amounted to little more than bravado, and bardic poetry was a romantic concept that fine poets such as James Clarence Mangan could mine for fancy antiquity. There was no authoritative dictionary to which somebody could go to retrieve either common or arcane meaning, so that the language was described as an imbroglio or as an omnium gatherum, and this was not meant as a compliment.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that a number of Jesuit scholars turned this situation around in a short number of years. Although all concerned deserve due recognition, the principal credit should go to three particularly gifted men whose contribution to Irish scholarship has been immense. They are Father Patrick Dineen (An tAthair Pádraig Ó Duinnín), Father Lambert McKenna (An tAthair Lámhbheartach Mac Cionnaith), and Father John McErlean (An tAthair Eoin Mac Fhir Léinn), whose name appropriately loosely translates as ‘the son of the learned man’.
They were not all of a type or all of a piece, which is often expected, although all three belonged to the same generation. Both McErlean and McKenna were born in 1870, and Dineen just ten years before them in 1860. They were all born in that period after the Famine in which the country was being thoroughly anglicised and reached maturity of some sort when the Irish cultural revival, in all senses of that word, gained momentum in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. They were a vital part of that revival, and it is not often realised today how great a revival it was. ‘Tórna’, or Tadhg Ó Donnchadha, who was Professor of Irish in Cork, stated that he doubted that there were more than fifty people in the country in 1880 who could read Irish in the Gaelic script. This is often interpreted as meaning that no more than fifty people could read Irish, which is, of course, absurd. Besides, Ó Donnchadha was also referring to the reading of manuscripts with their often arcane notation, more puzzling than text-speak is to the uninitiated today. A more salient fact is that, of the 70,000 or so Irish speakers in Co Donegal according to the census of 1871, only about 1,000 could read or write the language.
The writer and translator from northern Antrim, Séan Mac Maoláin, never realised until he was an adult that his father was a native speaker. Most of the informants whom the German Wilhelm Doegen interviewed for his project on Irish linguistics and phonology in the early 1930’s were illiterate, very often in English, most of them nearly always in Irish. Whatsoever Irish literature or poetry or story existed in any one place, it was not as a result of widespread literacy, or of a superfluity of bookshops. It appears that Irish had simply gone underground, and the Jesuits with whom we are concerned here lifted many of the sods to expose what was going on.
They were more than scholars – they also took part in Irish cultural activities, while writing copiously about the importance of the language itself for the cultural and spiritual health of the country. Interestingly, they also came from different corners of the country, giving the lie to the supposition that the Irish revival was primarily regional. Dineen was Kerry through and through, McKenna was a Dubliner, while McErlean came from the second city of the country, Belfast.
Father Patrick Dineen
It is easiest to refer to Patrick Dineen, because he was the most colourful character and because he put his personality into his work in a way which eluded the other two. He also had a greater effect upon the general public, largely because of his extraordinary dictionary. In addition, we know so much more about him because of the superb biography written by Proinsias Ó Conluain and Donncha Ó Céileachair. The great writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain advised Irish writers that they should bring his dictionary to bed with them, and Myles na gCopaleen used it as a source of wisdom and of fun - which are often the same thing. Where else would you find a word meaning ‘a dead man’s spittle,’ or ‘the loneliness felt at cock crow,’ or ‘a disease of the third eyelid or nictitating membrane in cattle or horses,’ or ‘the bottom of a football’, or ‘a fool who is not entirely incapable of being useful’? These quirky words and definitions are, of course, simply the scraping of the top, the crust, the first shavings, the scab on the outer skin, the layer above everything else. Father Dineen himself admitted that you would have to be a little deranged to attempt to compose a dictionary and there is a story which bears him out about William Buckland, one of the early editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, who used to eat flies and insects just to be sure that he had given the correct definition of a word.
Dineen had a reputation for oddity, and it is well that we refer to this first so as to put it aside. He was famously mean, not because he was a Kerryman, or a priest, or even a Jesuit, but probably because he had no experience of money. Even after he had gained his reputation as a scholar, he wrote an essay for a schools’ competition for the son of a friend and, when the essay inevitably won, pocketed the money himself! He rarely paid on bus or boat or tram or train. He would sit next to somebody, tell them who he was, and persuade them that it was their privilege to pay for him. Neither did he ever pay for a newspaper. He would ‘borrow’ one from the newspaper boy at the corner of the street, read it at his own pace, and return it when finished. He plastered jam as sauce on fish, long before anyone heard of ‘sweet and sour.’
He was an inveterate walker. He travelled from Portmarnock in North Dublin to Naas in Co Kildare entirely on foot, in order to give a lecture. On the other hand, he was extraordinarily generous with his time and with his knowledge, willingly sharing it with other scholars and members of the public. He bought sweets for children, before this became a suspicion thing to do, but, of course, he also took sweets from them when he wanted them himself! He had a wicked sense of punning, and never ceased this practice, even when it may have annoyed others of a more serious bent. This sense of fun about language, much of which he later reflected in his dictionary, probably derived from the fact that he was raised as an English speaker in what was a largely Irish-speaking area at the time. It seems that the language changed in his part of east Kerry in the years when he was a boy and, like most other areas of Munster after the Famine, it melted away within one generation. But he was certainly bilingual, because we have no record of him ‘learning’ the language when he turned to it as an adult of nearly forty years of age. He studied mathematics and English for his BA and MA degrees and his biographers tell us that, while he was teaching in Carlow, his interest in Irish was nil. In the lively debates on Irish culture which were part of the new renaissance, he sided with the party who argued that we should forget about Irish, and the sooner the better.
Yet, within two years, he had edited the poems of Aogán Ó Rathaille for the Irish Texts Society and the songs of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin for the Gaelic League. What happened to turn this indifferent half-Irish speaker into a great scholar who would shortly do heroic work as an editor, a lexicographer and a writer? The answer has something to do with the Jesuit order. He joined the Jesuits in 1880, took his final vows in 1894, and left the order in 1900. This brief chronology hides much of what we do not know. We do not know because he never spoke or wrote about his decision to give up being a Jesuit but not to become laicised and cease to practise as a priest, even though he never did this again. His silence has given rise to much speculation, not a little of it bizarre. There was a suggestion that he was asked by his Jesuit superiors to leave a certain word out of his dictionary, refused, and subsequently walked away out of high dudgeon. This could not be true as he had left the order even before he began work on his dictionary. Others said that it was because of money, although this is equally unlikely, as he would have had greater security within the Society of Jesus than outside it. Others again argue that, because of his very singular personality, the regular life of obedience would have grated on him. My own contention is that he became obsessed with Irish scholarship and that he wished to dedicate the rest of his life to it in a way that might not have found favour with the authorities of the religious order to which he belonged. Once having left the Jesuits, that is just what he proceeded to do.
Within three years of commencing his scholarly work, he had edited and published the writings of the main poets of Munster of the eighteenth century. As already mentioned, the poems of Aogán Ó Rathaille appeared in 1900, ‘to which are added miscellaneous pieces illustrating their subjects and language...with translation, notes and glossary.’ This in itself was an enterprise that would take other scholars more than ten years. But, as if this were not enough, the following year saw the publication of the songs of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin and, the year after that, Amhráin Sheáin Chláraigh Mhic Dhomhnaill, the poetical works of Seán Clárach, followed, a few months later, by the poems of Séafraidh Ó Donnchadha an Ghleanna. And each of these books contained copious notes on the lives of the poets, linguistic notes and glossaries. 1903 saw the publication of both Amhráin Thaidhg Ghaelaigh Uí Shúilleabháin and the poems of Piaras Feirtéir, produced with the same meticulous care. In other words, within a space of just three years, he had edited and presented the finest Irish poets of the eighteenth century. This can be seen as an even greater achievement when we realise that very little traditional poetry had appeared in book form up to that time and whatever had been published was not easily available. Thus, what Dineen had done was not only a work of prodigious energy and labour but also, for the literate public, only aware of these poets as names, a revelation.
But there is even more. During this time he also wrote a novel, Cormac Ua Conaill, which, it can be argued, was the first published novel in Irish in a single edition. An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire’s Séadna had been appearing in serial form. Cormac Ua Conaill is not a great novel nor maybe even a good one, but, precisely as a novel, it is a form of literature not lightly undertaken. Father Dineen also wrote three plays, a book of criticism on Irish prose, and a romantic treatise on Irish life, and, in addition to all that, he also translated Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. During this time, too, he was engaged in his first dictionary, which the Irish Texts Society had prevailed upon him to undertake – although, indeed, it appears that he did not require much persuasion. In three years, he wrote or edited the prodigious total of no less than fifteen books.
His dictionary was published in 1904. This is often referred to as ‘the short dictionary’, in comparison with the fuller revised edition of 1927, although the short dictionary contained more than 800 pages. He claimed it was ‘compiled from memory,’ mostly from the words and phrases which he had remembered hearing as a child. His reputation rests, however, on his 1927 Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla / An Irish-English Dictionary. Being a thesaurus of the words, phrases and idioms of the modern Irish language. In his introduction he says that ‘an effort has been made to net the chief living elements of the language,’ and adds that the materials were ‘drawn from the living language of Irish-speaking Ireland,’ as well as from its modern literature. Much has been made of the more quirky and arcane, and downright funny, interpretations scattered throughout the work, but a dictionary would be a dull place without the personality of its compiler and without the humour of its speakers. There have been other dictionaries since, more scientifically put together, with more consistency in spelling and more accuracy in their attestations, but Dineen’s remains a superb piece of scholarship as well as a work of art.
Father Lambert McKenna
Father Lambert McKenna’s English-Irish Phrase Dictionary, which was published in 1911, was in some ways the reverse of Father Dineen’s. The latter was a thesaurus of the living language, while McKenna’s was an attempt to ‘show in actual use the Irish equivalent of English words’. In his other writings, he showed his belief in what was called ‘an aigne Ghaelach’ or ‘the Irish (Gaelic) mind’ at the time, a belief which is difficult to pin down or to define. At its simplest, in linguistic terms, it meant that Irish had a certain way of putting things, and English had another, and the best method of ‘translation’ was to match them, or to find their correct equivalence.
This belief came from his deep study of Irish. He was born in Clontarf in Dublin, attended Belvedere College, where he was to serve as Principal (or Prefect of Studies) many years later, and studied classical Irish in UCD, where he got first place in his class in 1893. He taught in Mungret and in Clongowes, and spent his summers teaching Irish in Ring College in the Waterford Gaeltacht. It was while he was there that he started collecting material for what would become his phrase dictionary. He studied for the degree of M.Litt under the renowned Osborn Bergin, and it would be difficult to find a harder and more exacting task master. His research project was an edition of the poems of Aonghus Fionn Ó Dálaigh (fl. 1590) and, when it was published in 1919, it was the very first book ever on the work of a single bardic poet. It was revelatory also, because very few people had any real knowledge of the nature of this poetry. It is also true to say that he edited more bardic poetry, which is a most exacting undertaking, than any other scholar until the very recent work of Professor Damian McManus of TCD.
Along with lexicography, this poetry was his main scholarly passion. In 1922 he published Dán Dé, which has the subtitle ‘the poems of Donncha Mór Ó Dálaigh and the religious poems of the Yellow Book of Lecan'. There seems little doubt that the religious impulse was one of the attractions of this poetry, along with the perfection of the language. McKenna produced two further collections, Dioghlaim Dána and Aithdhioghlaim Dána, the first published by An Gúm in 1938 and the second by the Irish Texts Society in 1939. While it is not certain why he chose some poems rather than others for these collections, there was certainly an element of personal choice, and they remain two of the finest collections of their kind that we possess. They are also marked by the simplicity of their presentation. Very little ancillary material is given and there are no translations provided. The lack of information about the poets themselves is largely due to its not being available. Father McKenna says about Tadhg Dall ó hUiginn, one of those poets of whom a large body of his work has survived, ‘Any effort to trace Tadhg Óg’s career from the internal evidence of his poems would be almost useless.’ He also edited two of the large native family poem books, or duanairí, The Book of Magauran (1947) and The Book of O’Hara, (1951).
Apart from this scholarly work, Lambert McKenna was deeply involved in the Jesuits’ social and religious publications. He edited the Irish Monthly from 1922 until 1931 and their Irish language journal An Timire, as well as writing a series of pamphlets on work, labour and the trade unions. Maybe unusually for us today, he had a high regard for the writings of Karl Marx, and he wrote a booklet for the Irish Truth Society on The Social Principles of James Connolly in 1920. He contributed essays to Studies on Bolshevism, post-war socialism, revolutionary movements in Mexico and much else. In 1924 he published a biography of his fellow-Jesuit, Father James Cullen, the founder of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. It was never the case that great scholars were confined to their own patch. In addition to this he was deeply involved in developing the education policy of the new state, in particular with regard to the teaching of Irish, and he was instrumental in setting up the Primary Certificate Programme for national schools and the Preparatory Colleges for the training of teachers. But his scholarly work resumed in a serious fashion when he was asked to edit a new English-Irish Dictionary, which was designed to be a companion to Dineen’s great work. He began this in 1930 under the aegis of Ernest Blythe, and calculated that the work would take about four years. He had collected all of the material himself within eighteen months, but required assistants to put it together. The story of every dictionary is a complex and fascinating one, and this particular venture had its share of crises, disputes and false trails. But, remarkably, it did appear in 1935, all 1,500 plus pages of it, in dense print in two different type faces.
McKenna himself would have liked more time but the new De Valera government wished to make the work available as soon as possible. There is a note of regret in the editor’s introduction:
In certain respects this dictionary will be found much less complete than similar ones in other languages. This could hardly be helped. It is in the living Irish language that one has to seek for equivalents of English words, and that language, unfortunately, is in a state of arrested growth.
He also regrets that he was not in a position to use more of the language of the bardic poets, because ‘there are hundreds of passages in their works where their forms of thought present a closer parallel to modern writings on politics, history, literature, etc., than is afforded by most of the writings in Early Modern Irish prose'.This lack is to be regretted, but his dictionary remains a wonderful storehouse of phrases, words, idioms and turns of expression which can enrich the language. It is less useful as a conventional dictionary for the English speaker who wishes to find the commonest Irish word for a regular English expression.
Father John McErlean
If Father Dineen was a great walker, so was Father John McErlean, who taught with him in Clongowes in the latter years of the 19th century. They would often walk together to the library in Maynooth College, where McErlean was studying some of the Irish manuscripts which were lodged there, for an edition of the poetry of Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating). It appears that it was during these long walks that McErlean awoke in Dineen a passionate love of the language which he knew from childhood and of the poets who came from his native area. This seems the most likely explanation for the turn in Dineen’s mind, a conversion on the road to Maynooth.
McErlean was born in Belfast in 1870 and had an interest in the language from an early age. He collected words and phrases in Rathlin Island as early as 1888 and was an early member of the Gaelic League. The League published his edition of the poems of Keating in 1900. This was widely welcomed because while his Foras Feasa ar Éirinn was recognised amongst scholars and historians, his poetry had remained hidden. McErlean was also one of a team of scholars who contributed to Edmund Hogan’s Onomasticon Goedelicum: locum et tribuum Hiberniae et Scotiae which was described as ‘an index, with identifications, to the Gaelic names of places and tribes’. Hogan, who was also a member of the Society of Jesus, laboured for ten long years on this monumental work, even though he had commenced it when he was already seventy years of age.
Although McErlean, like McKenna contributed to Studies, and to a host of other publications, wrote several books, one of them with the intriguing title, Whither goest thou? or Was Fr Mathew right?, his main scholarly contribution to Irish studies consists in his three-volume edition of the poetry of the seventeenth century poet Dáibhí Ó Bruadair. These three volumes appeared between 1910 and 1917 for the Irish Texts Society, whose imprint always gave a guarantee of the highest standards. The volumes include a long and learned introduction, giving us as much information as was then available on the life of Ó Bruadair, an accurate line-by-line translation of every poem, a comprehensive vocabulary, and notes on the metrics of his work.
The scholar Brian Ó Cuív said of this work: ‘I would rate it as one of the most important contributions to an understanding of Irish history from the seventeenth century on’. This is undoubtedly true, as Ó Bruadair’s life spanned the disasters of the middle and end of the seventeenth century and he commented copiously and with verve on every aspect of it. But it is also revealing that Ó Cuív should emphasise the historical value of the poetry. A more important point is that Ó Bruadair wrote powerful lyrical and narrative poems, which were poems in the first place and only history after that. In his proem to his study of Daniel O’Connell, King of the Beggars, Seán O’Faoláin avers that Ó Bruadair had ‘a very queer brain'. While this reflects more on O’Faoláin than on his subject, he was trying to indicate that the world of the poet was a very different one to ours. If there is any truth in this, then McErlean had to wrestle with more than the language and with a style which was very personal and which may have included words of Ó’Bruadair’s own invention.
Even though McErlean's work is now more than a hundred years old in the case of one volume, and getting there with the other two, it is still the most authoritative statement on Ó Bruadair. Liam P. Ó Murchú of UCC has unearthed a few more of his poems and Dara Binéid has made a close examination of his political verse. But, apart from these, McErlean’s edition and examination of the man and of his work is both a monument to the Irish muse of the 17th centurey and a source of inspiration for scholars and writers in the future.
I have been able here merely to touch on the major contributions which three pre-eminent Jesuit scholars have made to Irish learning. There were many others, including An t-Athair Donncha Ó Murchadha (1833-1896), who translated and edited Beatha Aodha Rua Uí Dhomhnaill (1893); the aforementioned Father Edmund Hogan; Father Gustav Lehrmacher, who wrote the first comprehensive and learned review of Dineen’s dictionary; and Father Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire, who collected our native prayers in Ár bPaidreacha Dúchais (1990), as well as being an indefatigable editor of An Timire. The Society of Jesus played a major role in the promotion of Irish scholarship, and it would be difficult to imagine that scholarship without this invaluable contribution. This brief essay attempts to give it some recognition.
Alan Titley is Emeritus Professor of Modern Irish in University College, Cork.
(This is an abbreviated and a translated version of a lecture given in The National Library of Ireland, November 2011, under the title of ‘Na hÍosánaigh agus Léann na Gaeilge’).