Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge/Imleabhar 1/Uimhir 1/Correspondence

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Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, Imleabhar I, Uimh. 1
[ 25 ]



To the Editor of the "Gaelic Journal."

Sir,—While all agree that the article on the Gaelic Union Circular in the Times of the 4th ult. is a production of very great vigour and ability, very many complain of the tone of some passages in it. I do not. I think the article very fair, nay, very favourable, as things appear from the writer's point of view. He would be very glad that an “indigenous tongue—a distinct variety of human speech,” such as is the Irish language, should be preserved. But as seen from his stand-point he believes that all things forebode its destruction, and that the attempts of us who are striving to preserve it are idle and Quixotic. But I believe that our objects are feasible, and that I can show this to the writer of the article, and to the thousands who [ 26 ]think with him. And what are these objects? To banish the English certainly is not one of them. It is the language of commerce, science, art, and so on; let it remain such. The promoters of the Gaelic Union—many of them—are admirers of the English language and of its noble literature. With the language of Shakespeare and Newton we are well satisfied—nor yet would we require a single definition in the works of Salmon or Casey to be translated into Irish. We are striving to keep the Irish tongue alive where it is still spoken as long as we can; we wish to have all the local words in the language taken down while those who know these words are still alive. We also wish all the songs or fragments of songs, poems, proverbs, folklore, traditions, manners, customs, to be written as soon as possible, before the old Irish-speaking people leave us; we wish to create an interest in the language that people may learn it in order to take down these things. There are, moreover, in the Royal Irish Academy, in Trinity College, &c., piles of Irish manuscripts—manuscript treasures as they are thought by the ripest scholars of Germany, France, Italy, and other countries. These scholars think the Irish manuscripts worth translating into the languages of their respective countries; and in order to fit themselves for the task of translating them they learn Irish, of course as a dead language. Hut there are so many idioms in Irish—they are almost innumerable—and the shades of difference between the meanings of many of these idioms are so nice, that it is a life-long labour to a foreigner to master them, if he can ever master them at all. Those who speak the language in early life have no difficulty in understanding the meaning of these idioms—even the illiterate never commit mistakes in the application of them. It is only Irish-speaking scholars, then, that can rightly understand, translate, and explain these idioms, and we wish the language to be preserved alive until the last page of our manuscript materials is secured for the scholars of the world; and we wish the Irish to be taught to Irish-speaking children from infancy in the schools, and the English language through it as a medium, that so these little Celts may be brought up as rational beings, and that the gifted among them may learn the new science of comparative philology, and in this way be prepared to give our manuscripts to the world of letters. No one will say that the people of Ireland are not as capable of learning philology as their Aryan kinsmen of the Continent; and surely with equal culture they can understand their own language better than any other people in the world. All along the sea-board and in the islands, from the Foyle to Waterford Harbour, the people speak Irish: we wish, then, especially for the reasons given above, that the children should be taught Irish at first in the schools, at home, everywhere. But would not this be sacrificing the children? The localities specified above are the poorest in Ireland; the children in these localities are soonest taken from school—would it not be better, then, to have the children taught as they are now, i.e., English at first, and during all the time they remain at school? Let us see.

In one portion of a school district in Donegal there were, four or five years since, 30,000 exclusively Irish-speaking people. No attempt had ever been made in a single instance in this district to turn to any account the pupils’ knowledge of Irish. The children seeing turf at home and in the bog since infancy could not say what turf is, or what is a bog. It is the Inspector of the district that tells this in a Blue-book. It must be allowed that these children did not gain much by being taught in English during their time at school. In February, 1880, the correspondent of a Dublin daily paper thus describes the state of education in a portion of Kerry:—“In all the vast district lying to the west of Dingle scarcely a word of English is spoken. ... In Coumeenole not a single individual in the village could speak a word of English, and the young children, though they attend school, and are able to read the third and fourth books tolerably well, feel wholly at a loss to comprehend any question addressed to them in English.” It may be said that these children were incorrigibly stupid. No such thing: had the Inspector or the correspondent been able to question them in Irish, he would have got intelligent answers. Fifty years ago, the Right Rev. Dr. Abram, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, said of such Irish-speaking children:—“The little country children presented to me for Confirmation who had been taught the Christian Doctrine in their native language, as far surpassed, in the knowledge of their religion, the children taught in the English language, as the rational being surpasses in solid sense the chattering jay.” Dr. Abram had been President of St. John’s College, Waterford, and Professor in the College, too, and no more strict and methodical educationist could be found, nor any person less prone to exaggeration. It may be added that the children of the very highest classes only, or the children in the larger towns, were at that time taught the English Catechism, whereas all the poorer children, servants, and such, one-half of whom never entered a school door, were taught in Irish. Had these latter been questioned in English, a moiety of them, I am sure, would fail in telling what turf is or what is a bog.

As regards the Irish language, then, Ireland may be divided into two districts—the first comprising all the localities in which the language is still spoken, and the other, all those where the language has died out. The former district may be roughly taken as the sea-board and islands already described. In this district the greater portion of the people are more or less bilingual, though in many parts of it they are exclusively Irish-speaking, or nearly so, as, for instance, the thirty thousand in Donegal already mentioned, the people to the west of Dingle, in Kerry, and the great majority of the inhabitants of Connemara. Perhaps the best idea of what kind the exclusively Irish-speaking people are, may be formed from the “Report of the Medical Commission of the Mansion House Committee,” by George Sigerson, M.D.[1] Speaking of Camus, a locality in the west of the County Galway, Mr. Tuke, as quoted at p. 31 of the Report, says:—

“There you see, peering above the rocks, little dark heads of men, women and children, attracted by the unwonted sight, come out of their cabins to reconnoitre. As you walk among them on landing, they watch you with curious eyes: they do not beg, and cannot answer your inquiries, for most of them do not understand, and few can talk English,” &c.

On this passage Dr. Sigerson remarks: “The reference which Mr. Tuke makes to the prevalence of the Irish language here, may also be applied to other districts. Indeed, in almost all the localities we visited, a knowledge of the Gaelic language must be requisite for the full performance of their duties, by all who, like clergymen, physicians and others, have to deal closely with the people. Medical terms are not, for instance, well understood, even by those peasants who speak English, and mistaken answers have been given (e.g., tending to confound typhoid with typhus), as was ascertained by questioning the speakers in their native tongue. Then they express themselves with correctness, and often with remarkable grace.”

[ 27 ]Not much more literate than these little Celts were some of the parents of the children in the mountainous parts of the County of Waterford fifty years ago, when Dr. Abram found the little mountaineers such a» he describes them; and such the dark-headed children of Camus would be found by an examiner like Dr. Abram, who knew how to question them in their native tongue. In the three localities enumerated there are at least 100,000 souls, and there are many other similar localities along the sea-board district.

Now it is to the promoters of the Gaelic Union incomprehensible how educationists should persist in teaching these poor children of the Irish-speaking districts after the irrational fashion they are following. Had the little group at Camus, for instance, been a colony from the banks of the Seine, lately introduced into Ireland to carry on some industrial manufacture, would the children among them, in the first instance, be taught through the English language as a medium and by a teacher ignorant of any other language? No one in Ireland would recommend such a course. But the Irish-speaking children of Camus, and of such other localities, are as ignorant of the English language as so many French children; why then not treat them as French children in like circumstances would be treated?

The Times goes on to say: “The Gaelic Union, however, is not at all satisfied to devote itself to an archæological inquiry. Its purpose is to recall the common employment of Irish as a medium of communication .... But a language as a national instrument cannot be kept in life because its heirs, many or few, desire to preserve it. If it be requisite for the general purposes of national existence, it will survive as Welsh and Breton has survived. . . . The British connexion .... has reconstructed Irish existence and nationality on a model to which the ancient Irish language is alien. Gaelic does not express modern Irish wants and ideas. They are expressed in English. .... Had Irishmen continued to speak Irish, a majority of them would have learnt English also, as a majority of Welshmen learn English, and a majority of Bretons French. . . . Had there been purely Irish thoughts for which Irish was the sole vehicle, the language would never have become obsolete. As it is, the resumed use of Irish would be simply for the translation of thoughts from the English, in which they are born, into a dialect as foreign to Irishmen . . . as English was to the men of Connaught in the days of Queen Elizabeth. ... To lavish ardour in bribing teachers and school-children to learn a language which can teach them nothing, and by which they can teach nothing, is like endowing a day labourer with a machine to test gold. ....... Irishmen are shrewd enough not to be tempted in large numbers to the unremunerative outlay of brain power. .... Many creatures .... are most interesting as specimens which are neither desirable nor possible subjects of cultivation . . . . It is a pity that admirers of its very real antiquarian riches (i.e., of the Irish language) should waste on the vain effort to force back upon their countryman a piece of furniture they had already turned out of doors, labour which might be fruitfully spent in fitting it for safe and honourable deposit among the treasures of the National Museum.”

The writer appears to think that the Irish language is actually dead, and that nothing remains but to lay it out decently, and to fit it for a respectable place in the National Museum, where archaeological inquiries can be held over “its very real antiquarian riches.” These antiquarian riches, if printed, would fill, on the authority of the late Professor O’Curry, over 30,000 quarto pages of letter-press; they are now in manuscript, unpublished, unedited, untranslated, laid out in the Royal Irish Academy, in Trinity College, Dublin, &c., &c. And how many scholars in the world now really capable of editing these manuscript riches? Could the number be counted on the fingers of two hands? There are, I know, two natives of Ireland among them, Mr. Whitley Stokes and Mr. W. M. Hennessy. We have had in Ireland for nearly a century archæological and antiquarian societies, and valuable work they have done in editing and publishing many of our manuscripts; but those who have done this work have almost all left us, and to this pass we have now come, that if the elucidation of these antiquarian riches be left to archaeological inquirers, the people of the globe in 2882 may expect to see the last page of them issue from the press, but not in a very correct shape, for when the Irish language is in its winding sheet, no one can understand its idioms. Those who would preserve the Irish language are altogether concerned about the people in the Irish-speaking districts. They will, of course, gladly encourage and help all who desire to study the language of the country, but they would prefer seeing the little dark-headed children of Camus taught Irish at first in the schools, and next taught English through it as a medium, to seeing ten times as many in the non-Irish localities learn it as a dead language. That the Breton and the Welsh have survived is not clue to any fitness of things in either language; the Breton is still the spoken language of Bretagne, though the French Government have used every means to extinguish it, even to the forbidding of its being taught in the schools. A gentleman from Scotland who had made a tour in the province about four years since, in a paper published in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, explained the reasons why it is still alive. The Bretons are as devoted to their priests as any people on earth, and their priests love the old language of their country, and hence its preservation.

As to the language of Wales and its people, “the whole country was in a most deplorable state with regard to the acquisition of religious knowledge” previous to the year 1730, when the Rev. Griffith Jones, of Llandower, made the first attempt of any importance, on an extensive scale, to erect schools for the instruction of the people to read their native language. He, in allusion to the endeavours of those who would banish Welsh by teaching English, asks in one of his letters:—“Should all our Welsh books, and our excellent version of the Holy Bible, and Welsh preaching ... be taken away to bring us to a disuse of our tongue? So they are in a manner in some places, and yet the people are no more better scholars than they are better Christians for it.” This good man lived for thirty years after this date, and during these years he laboured unceasingly to preserve his native tongue, and, as a matter of course, he was able to bring many others to his own way of thinking, and to engage them zealously in his work. Among these was a pious lady of fortune, Mrs. Bean, who survived him several years, and by will left ten thousand pounds, the interest of which was to be applied for ever to the use of the schools founded by him. The will was disputed by her niece, who got the case into Chancery, where it continued for thirty years; but it was at last declared valid, and the accumulated interest was then applied to the support of circulating charity schools throughout the whole principality. The number of Mr. Jones schools, it may be mentioned, amounted to two hundred and twenty during his lifetime; yet there were many mountainous districts without any schools, and to one of these districts [ 28 ]the Rev. Mr. Charles, of Bala, on whom the mantle of Mr. Jones had fallen, was appointed.

This excellent clergyman tried every means to have the people of these districts instructed in Welsh. He asked for subscriptions, employed teachers, trained them himself, wrote catechisms and other elementary works in that language. His zeal and unselfishness soon brought him subscriptions, and enabled him to found more schools. On introducing one to any place, he previously visited the place, called upon the influential inhabitants, and upon the parents of the future scholars, he spoke kindly to the children, showed the parents the blessings of education for their children, promised to assist them with books if they were too poor to buy them; the teacher was to take no entrance money; not to encroach on the people, nor intrude upon them unless specially invited into their houses. Surely it was no wonder that the language of Wales should revive. The people after a time became so interested in it that the necessity of these day schools was superseded by the increase of Sunday schools, and these have brought Welsh to have a flourishing literature of its own.

The term “revive” above has been used designedly, for the same baleful influences had been at work in Wales that proved so disastrous in Ireland. The Rev. Mr. Charles says: “At first the strong prejudice which universally prevailed against teaching them to read Welsh first, and the idea assumed that they could not learn English so well previously instructed in the Welsh language—this, I say, proved a great stumbling-block in the way of parents to send children to the Welsh schools, together with another conceit they had, that if they could read English they would soon learn of themselves to read Welsh; but now these idle and groundless conceits are universally scouted. This change has been produced not so much by disputing as by the evident salutary effects of the Schools, the great delight with which the children attended them, and the progress they made in the acquisition of knowledge. The school continues usually at one time in the same place six or nine months, &c.” This is the way that the language of Wales was saved from becoming obsolete.

These extracts awaken thoughts of a painful nature. On the same year that saw the Rev. Griffith Jones entering on his life-long mission for the instruction of the Welsh in their own language, an Irishman, equally patriotic. Hugh MacCurtin, a native of Clare, had prepared for publication an English-Irish dictionary, which, with the brief Irish grammar appended to it, contains 700 pages. But it was in exile in Paris he compiled this work. It was published there through the friendly exertions of a patriotic priest, the Rev. Conor O’Begley. MacCurtin was an ardent lover of his native language, which he said is “copious and elegant in expression .... though it has been declining these five hundred years past, whereas all the modern tongues of Europe have been polishing and refining all that time.” In an introductory Irish poem he calls on the “nobles of Ireland, the heirs of affectionate generations, to forsake their lethargy and [help him] to urge on the earnest publication of their books.” He complains of this long fit of torpor which had come upon them all, “even on their wives and children,” causing them to “forget the ancient tongue of their ancestors, the enlightened discourses of their fathers.” He had in preparation an Irish-English dictionary; it never saw the light, any more than the other works he had compiled for publication.

Of the nobles of Erin, the Venerable Charles O’Connor, of Belenagar, only gave heed to his appeal, and Irish was then a proscribed tongue; it was but a few years before that Dean Swift said: “It would be a noble achievement to abolish the Irish language ... so far at least as to oblige all the natives to speak only English on every occasion of business, in shops, markets, fairs” ... and this he believed might be done in half an age . . . and at a cost of six thousand pounds a-year, or three hundred thousand pounds in all. Fashion naturally was equally against the proscribed tongue. “I have heard many gentlemen among us talk much of the great convenience to those who live in this country that they should speak Irish. It may possibly be so; but I think they should be such as never intend to visit England, upon pain of being ridiculous.” (Hardy’s Life of Lord Charlemont.) The proscription fell into abeyance, but the cursed fashion flourished. Those who intended to visit England were heard to speak disparagingly of the Irish tongue; their underlings took up the same tone; from these it went down to the tenants and cottiers. The natural parental affection of the Irish peasant gave way to his desire for his child’s welfare. He directed the brutal hedge school abecederian to put a tally under his child’s neck, and should the child speak a word of the only language he could articulate there was a notch inserted in the tally, and very often the child’s back was cut with the cat-o’-nine-tails.

No wonder the fitness of things made the Irish die out altogether in the greater part of the central plain of Ireland. And what have the inhabitants of this central plain gained by the extirpation of their native tongue from amongst them? Have they become more intelligent? Have their children become more intelligent? It is well known to all that in the National Schools of Ireland there is a system of results’ payments—that is, a pupil that passes in any branch of school learning earns a fee for the teacher. The test questions are the same for all schools, and, of course, the most intelligent child earns most results’ fees. In the English-speaking plain the children have never yet heard a word of Irish; their fathers heard none; the grandfathers may have heard a few words when children. Outside the plain and in the islands the majority of the people are bilingual: some are, as was said, exclusively Irish; and some are trying to forget Irish and to learn English. These latter children are, says the highest living authority, the most stupid children he ever met; they consequently can earn scarcely any results’ fees. The exclusively Irish-speaking, though intelligent, can earn but very little, because the Inspectors, as a rule, being ignorant of the language, cannot draw out the intelligence of the pupils. These two classes of Irish-speaking children reduce the amount of average results’ fees earned by the pupils who are bilingual. In the English-speaking counties the teachers are as good as in the other counties, and all the appliances are more favourable. In which, then, are the highest results’ fees earned by the pupils? Underneath is a contrasted table of the average amounts earned in some of the best districts of both classes—it tells its own tale.


English-speaking Counties.

Carlow, Queen’s Co. Wicklow, Kildare, Down,
6/3 5/6 5/4 4/9 5/8

Irish-speaking Counties.

Clare, Kerry, Waterford, Cork, Donegal,
7/1 6/6 6/4 6/8 5/7

English-speaking Counties.

Antrim, Dublin,
5/10 4/8

Irish-speaking Counties.

Sligo, Leitrim,
7/- 6/7
[ 29 ]Why are the Irish-speaking pupils so much in advance? And would it be generous or fair to put an end to the intelligence that enables them to be thus in advance?

As for this marked superior intelligence in the children, the fact is patent; it would be, perhaps, just now invidious to account for it. That the children who are trying to forget Irish and learn English should be the dullest, as Sir Patrick Keenan says, is easily understood. In the memorial on Irish-teaching in schools, unanimously agreed to by the National Teachers in their Congress in 1874, it is stated that: “The parents in Irish-speaking districts have not English enough to convey their ideas, except such as relate to the mechanical business of their occupation. Hence they are not able in any degree to cultivate or inform the minds of their children (though often very intelligent themselves), who consequently grow up dull and stupid if they have been suffered to lose the Irish language, or to drop out of the constant practice of it.”

It may be added here that Clare, where the highest results’ fees in Ireland have been earned, is the most bilingual county in Ireland, i.e., the county where the teachers, pupils, and parents speak and understand both languages best, and that to this fact, their superior intelligence has been attributed by those most competent to form a correct judgment on the subject. It may also be stated that, as a rule, the best Irish speaker amongst the pupils is the best and most intelligent of them.

How many Irish-speaking children in the schools of Ireland I cannot say. Certainly there are more than were in all Wales when the Rev. Griffith Jones began his mission. It will not injure a single pupil of all these to learn to read Irish, and to those who speak Irish only, to induce them to try to forget it will be certain to render them dull and stupid. It takes a long time to forget Irish. In Donegal they were Hying to do so for a quarter of a century, when Sir Patrick Keenan found them “the most stupid children he had ever met;” and after another quarter of a century, these children cannot tell what turf is and what is a bog. How many keen Celtic intellects have been left fallow in that half century! At any rate, as Dr. Johnson said on a like occasion: “The efficacy of ignorance has long been tried . . . Let knowledge therefore take its turn.” As to bribing teachers and children to learn Irish, it is a practice of old standing. Nineteen centuries ago the pupils were bribed with crustula just as they are in this present year with higher premiums. In the next issue of the Journal will be given the opinions of the most philosophical educationists on the question “How should bilingual children be educated?”

I am, Sir,

Yours faithfully,


  1. Browne and Nolan: Dublin, 1881.