Seanad Éireann - Volume 1 - 19 April, 1923


AN CATHAOIRLEACH: The next motion stands in the name of Senator Yeats. It is out of order in two respects as he did not nominate according to the Standing Orders the names of the Standing Committee and did not mention the number to form a quorum. He can mention them later on.

Mr. YEATS: In the old days in Ireland when we began our imaginative movement which, for good or evil, had a little share in bringing about recent events, we all looked forward to the time when there would be adequate editions of the old literature of Ireland. That literature is of very great importance. The late d'Arbois de Jubainville, a very great Frenchman of science, whom I knew, spent his life in its study on the ground that through that literature you got to know what the world was immediately before Homer. In addition to that there is lyric poetry, great lyric poetry in Irish, lyric literature that was matured in the time of Chaucer. The work I hope the Seanad will enable the various scholars to do will be a work of science, that is to say a study of a language which is of great importance to culture, and a study of this old literature. It is not a work of propaganda. I am not in any way denying the importance of propaganda, but personally I do not get any pleasure when I see my name spelt [993] in a way that makes it look very strange to me at the top of this resolution. It seems to me that that is a course entirely warranted by recent science. It is the propagandist way of saying “I am getting better and better.” What I propose to you is a work which I think any Government in the world would feel justified in undertaking. Much of this work has already been done by certain bodies, done with very limited resources, by the Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College, the School of Irish Learning and the Irish Texts Society. The greater portion of the Saga literature has already been adequately translated and adequately edited, but there still remains great quantities of old Bardic poetry which should be translated. There is also great need for critical additions of the Annals, the Annals of Boyle, Innisfallen and Connaught, and above all, perhaps there is need for a dictionary of the old language. I have been in consultation during the last week with the principal Gaelic scholars, or most of them. Mr. Best, Professor MacNeill, Dr. Douglas Hyde, and Mr. Gwynn. I think they are unanimous on the importance of the dictionary. Then, too, as a preliminary work, a proper catalogue is required of the work of the Royal Irish Academy. A very large rough catalogue does exist, but a condensed catalogue is necessary. Trinity College scholars have just published their catalogue, and the British Museum is about to publish its catalogue of Irish Manuscripts there.

The proposal I make will not require a very large sum of money. At the beginning, at any rate, it will be quite a small sum annually, which will be used to keep at their work certain young scholars. I understand that Professor Bergin of the National University has two or three scholars of very great promise. At the moment two of these are studying in Germany with travelling scholarships, I understand Professor O'Rahilly and Professor Gwynn, in Trinity College, have a few more. In ordinary circumstances these scholars would have to accept, let us say, School Inspectorships, or something of that kind, and would be lost to Irish Scholarship. It is most desirable that a little money should be found in order that [994] they should be set to do the work I have described, probably cataloguing in the first place, and dictionary making, and later on, or simultaneously, editing all the old Bardic poetry and bringing out critical editions of the Annals. When I read this resolution, you will find that I have made slight additions to it at the suggestion of certain scholars, chiefly Mr. Best. I may be a little out of order in doing that, but I hope you will permit it. I have added a clause which would permit a certain portion of the money being expended in training scholars in phonetics, so that they would be able to take down what of Irish literature still remains in the living tongue. It is quite possible that that is the most important work of all, because that old literature in songs and stories is dying out. It only exists, I understand, in its perfection where the people still think in Irish. As they become thoroughly bilingual even, it dies away, so that it is work that can be done to-day, and done next year and the year after, but very soon it will be a work which cannot be done at all. That is why, perhaps, it is most pressing.

I feel it strange that I, who am a non-Gaelic scholar, should be left to bring this proposal before the Seanad. I may say, to give a little weight to my words, that the greater portion of my own writings have been founded upon the old literature of Ireland. I have had to read it in translations, but it has been the chief illumination of my imagination all my life. The movement I am connected with, the whole poetic movement of modern Ireland, has drawn a great portion of its inspiration from the old Bardic literature. I think it is of great importance to set before our own people a task which they will feel naturally inclined to undertake. It is a great thing, when you find people wanting to learn anything, that you should encourage them to learn that, and not something else that they do not want to learn.

It is a moment, too, when we will have to build up again the idealism of Ireland. We have had the old form of wild, wasteful historic idealism. The country got into that position, but, like a spendthrift coming into possession of his inheritance, it has wasted that idealism in a year of civil war. We have to build up again in [995] its place an idealism of labour and of thought and it is not asking much that the few hundreds a year necessary should be spent to begin what may grow to be a very important work of national scholarship, a work for which all the scholars of the world will be grateful, a work which will enhance the reputation of this country. I, therefore, propose the amendment in its amended form: “That a Committee of the Seanad be appointed to submit to the Government a scheme for the editing, indexing, and publishing of manuscripts in the Irish language now lying in the Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College and elsewhere; for the scientific investigation of the living dialects; for the compiling and publishing of an adequate dictionary of the older language; that the Committee have power to invite the assistance of persons not members of the Seanad, and to take evidence on the subject, the Committee to consist of four members of the Seanad.” I am now able to add the names of four members, Senator MacLysaght, Senator Mrs. Green, Senator Mrs. Costello, and myself. I find it a little difficult to suggest a quorum because those members will add to their numbers persons——

AN CATHAOIRLEACH: I think you ought to be a little careful about that. You see, your resolution does not ask that; it only says that you will be at liberty to invite assistance. We have made no provision for having a Committee of this Seanad on which there will be strangers. You are asking the Seanad to appoint a Committee which is not only to include Senators but outsiders, but that is not what your motion says.

Mr. YEATS: You are quite right. It was really a question of getting assistance. The quorum ought to be two, I should think.

E. Mac GIOLLA IASACHTA: Seasuighim leis an rún so. Cé go bhfuil roinnt Gaedhilge agam, níl aon eolas agam ar an g-ceist seo. Nach mar a chéile agus atá ag an gnáth-duine ar Piers Plowman nó ar sgeul Chaucer i mBeurla? Is dóca go bhfuil daoine annso a bhfuil níos mó eolais aca ná mar atá agam ar an Sean Gaedhlig agus fágfaidh mé an cainnt fútha soin anois.

[996] Mrs. STOPFORD GREEN: I support very sincerely the resolution that has been made. I have for many years been in very close touch with the workers in Irish work, and I have seen the extraordinary devotion, the labour and the self-sacrifice of those people who have been little known and little recognised outside a very small circle. But their work has been admirable and they have laid foundations on which later workers can build. It is necessary now to try to reap of their harvest. We have now collected in Dublin a mass of material worthy of a small staff of very skilled, highly-trained and conscientious workers. There is, besides that, a groups of scholars who are of the first reputation, and who would be esteemed and honoured in any European country. We have in Dr. McNeill the most illuminating interpreter that we have yet had of Irish material, especially what relates to old Irish history, the most important revealer of the character of that history since the time of O'Donovan and O'Curry. Then, we have people who are eager to know really what is the rock from whence they were hewn. The dignity of Irish history and literature has suffered a good deal from the enthusiasts who have taken it up; their enthusiasm has been splendid, but their skill, through no fault of their own, and their training have been insufficient, and they have left in the minds of a great many of us a kind of picture of a dark, thunderous could with streaks and flashes of lightning in the shape of saints and scholars across it, but no coherent idea of what the country was, how it was governed and what its dignity and importance is. Now, I believe the new work is getting rid of that dark splendour; it is laying a foundation which can little be realised by the ordinary reader of the basis of Irish history, and, not being an Irish scholar, my interest lies chiefly in the historical side which Dr. McNeill has revealed. When that comes to be adequately put forward to the world it will be one of the most interesting histories of local development and of early institutions that could be imagined; it will give back to Ireland the dignity that she has so long missed. It will be the real basis for an honourable pride in the country, felt by every member of the country I am sure alike, and it will be the spiritual tie that is necessary to bind the nation together in a feeling of real [997] tradition and of history of which it might be rightly proud, and so I think that if we encourage and allow these scholars to do their work that there will be no intelligent person living in Ireland who will not have a new sense of a lively spiritual patriotism all joined in the words of the great scholar, “The mother who has nursed us is she, and when you have looked at her she is not unlovely.”

Mr. GUINNESS: I have pleasure in supporting the motion brought forward by Senator Yeats. It is a curious fact that a great deal of the work done for Ireland in connection with Irish has been done by foreign scholars, such as Kuno Meyer. It does not seem creditable that work of that description, translating and editing of manuscripts and old literature, should be left to scholars of another country. England and Ireland, I think, have been wanting very much in not taking up, and in not according Government support to the preservation and publication of historical documents. A certain amount has been done, but nothing like as much as has been done on the Continent or in America. We are now starting a new State, a new country altogether, and I certainly think that for the small amount of money involved that it would be right and proper that the Legislature should be asked to support financially, for that is really what is at the bottom of Senator Yeats' motion, the work of translating and editing such documents as are now lying in these various academies and colleges, and which are quite unknown to the general public.

Colonel MOORE: Not many people here know that Ireland is the only country in the world which can show a continuous [998] succession of literature from the year 500 or 600 up to the present. Some years ago Dr. Kuno Meyer gave me a little book which contained a series of poems. I think the first began in the year 600, before the Saxons had come into or settled themselves in England, and before they had any literature, and before the French had begun their literature. Ireland is the only country, not speaking of Greece and Rome, which has a succession of literature from early times up to the present and it is only quite lately that we have fallen back as English crept in, and that Irish literature has fallen away. Some people suppose the Irish language centuries out of use. Almost in my own time the majority of the people of Ireland were speaking Irish. Ten or twenty years before my time, three-fourths of the people of Ireland were talking Irish. It is for us now that we have got an opportunity to re-establish it, and gather together the old remains of literature.

Motion put, and agreed to.