Opinions of the Press.
“The Times,” London, 4th October, 1882.
A new movement is proceeding for the revival of Irish national spirit in a very extensive and permanent fashion. Some years since a few gentlemen combined to encourage the preservation and cultivation of the Irish language. They intended to pursue their object by issuing cheap Gaelic publications, and by distributing prizes among teachers and pupils. Very soon they felt the need of an organ to explain their views, and a couple of years ago prospectuses were circulated. Calls upon the leisure of the most active associate compelled a postponement of the scheme. Now the members of the Union have resolved both to constitute themselves a regular society, with affiliated bodies throughout the country, and also to establish, without further delay, a monthly magazine, partly English and partly Irish, though with a gradual increase in the proportion of the latter. The contents of the paper are to be poetry and prose, which may itself be poetical, with any other variety of literary genius which “several literary gentlemen who will be among the contributors” may infuse. The annual subscription is five shillings, with special terms when parcels are taken of six or more copies. While Archbishop Croke of Cashel is the patron, a security against the identification of “a national and patriotic endeavour” with distinctions of creed and party is afforded by the presidency of the O’Conor Don. With much self-restraint the committee has even refrained from the national colour. Its handbook positively has a blue cover. Whether the programme is to be fulfilled and The Gaelic Union Journal to appear depends henceforth wholly on the amount of countenance the design receives from without. Before the 10th of October the Honorary Secretary must have sufficient answers to his invitations to enable the first number to be published on the 1st of November, “the great feast of Samhain among the ancient Irish.” The projectors, who bestow all their labour gratuitously, very reasonably refuse to be put off with cheap expressions of good-will. With all their economy, they are already somewhat in debt; “it is support the society requires, not sympathy alone.” Before launching into print it insists upon having “such a number of names enrolled as will allow of considerable possible defections.” Our sincere admiration of so remarkable an exhibition of caution is only qualified by an apprehension that it is scarcely consistent with the fire and vivacity of national enthusiasm necessary to enlist popular Irish co-operation.
All, Saxons or Celts, will concur with the Gaelic Union in wishing that the Irish language may be preserved. No historical relics can approach in dignity and value an indigenous tongue. All the ancient monuments over which Sir John Lubbock has been watching are worth little in comparison with a distinct variety of human speech. Irish in particular is in want of care. Englishmen who explored the remoter districts of Ireland half a century back often found themselves where they could neither understand nor be understood. An experience still possible for them in Wales, and for Frenchmen in Brittany, has almost ceased to be possible in Ireland. Schools and the habit of wandering, and, perhaps, an addition of intellectual indolence, have made Irishmen no longer bilingual. Without attention and vigilance Irish might perish as Cornish has perished. Irish antiquarians have to exert their utmost zeal to maintain the philological tradition and vitality of a very important type of Gaelic. They would be grateful to any association like the Gaelic Union which seconded their learned efforts. 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. Without interdicting English it would prefer to find Irish spoken when the company was simply Irish. Sensible and prudent people, as the promoters of the Gaelic Union have shown themselves in the preliminaries of their undertaking, are not likely to believe they will ever succeed in banishing English. They hope to restore Irish for use in the inner circle to which they would reserve liberty for [ 30 ]Irish nationality to retire, without excluding itself from full participation in the advantages of membership in the larger community of the British Empire. But a language as a national instrument cannot be kept in life because us 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 have survived. As soon as its employment is advocated from the fear that the weapon may grow rusty through disuse it is doomed. The British connexion, though it has not conciliated the affections of Irishmen, 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 by English. A population may be taught to speak a foreign tongue, as Walloons have been taught to speak French. The foreign tongue is learnt because the population has dealings with those to whom it is native, and for its own convenience wishes to be understood. Had Irishmen continued to speak Irish, a majority of them would have learnt English also, as a majority of Welshmen learn English and of Bretons French. Were Irishmen now to learn Irish, it could be for communication solely among themselves, and communication of what? 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, notwithstanding its name and history, as English was to the men of Connaught in the days of Queen Elizabeth.
In deprecating the artificial cultivation of Irish as the national language, we are actuated by no dread or jealousy of its power to raise up fresh obstacles to political amalgamation. Irishmen, as we have had occasion at other times to observe, inclosed within the prison of a tongue unintelligible outside, would have much less strength to agitate against the British connexion than when, as now. the agitators discourse in phrases half the world can interpret. Irish partnership in the English language has supplied Nationalists and Home Rulers and Land Leaguers and Fenians with nine-tenths of their political leverage. The English objection to the scheme of the Union for the preservation of the Irish language is not so much that it ought not to succeed as that it will not succeed. 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 an unremunerative outlay of brain power. But the predetermined futility of the enterprise will not the less induce a sense of disappointment and vexation. Many creatures, vegetable and animal, are most interesting as specimens which are neither desirable nor possible subjects of cultivation. A language which has lost its hold on contemporary civilization resembles them. Living languages are susceptible of development and refinement. In order to live they must contain in themselves the power of assimilating nutriment. The power cannot be engrafted upon them if they have lost it. Irrefutable facts lead to the conclusion that Irish has suffered this fate. It is a pity that admirers of its very real antiquarian riches should waste on the vain effort to force back on their countrymen 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 Jersey Observer,” St. Helier’s, Jersey,
October 4th, 1882.
THE GAELIC UNION,
For the preservation and cultivation of the Irish language, was established some years since, to encourage the preservation of this great branch of the Celtic language, the Gwyddelian or Gaelic, and to which belong; also the Irish and Manx, or that spoken in the Isle of Man, and in Brittany. We have on our library table the rules of this patriotic association, forwarded by the Honorary Secretary, the Rev. John Nolan, O.D.C., to whom we offer our hearty thanks and best wishes for the success of this laudable undertaking. Ireland is very dear to us, and it will ever be.
The Gaelic Union Association are preparing to issue a Journal, which will appear monthly, partly English, partly Irish, which will be entirely devoted to the one object—the furtherance of the Gaelic movement.
At an early day we will revert to this interesting question, giving full particulars to our readers.