There is much to be said in favour of a Preface to an Autobiography coming from someone else instead of the Author. It may be well, also, to have English as the language of the Preface to a Life that is published in Irish at the present time. But whatever is held on either of these points, the Life of Father O’Leary, one would desire to see, is an Irish Life by himself.
Another can do sufficient justice to his books and to his work as a priest. Only himself can lay bare the history of a mind that has enriched Irish literature for all time and been a guiding light to the Gaelic Revival in the right direction. Only himself can put into words the clear perception he had of the inwardness of the great public events which have taken place in the Ireland of his day.
In those events he bore a man’s part, and, with his mastery of the English language, an Autobiography from him in English could not fail to glow with warm interest. Yet, Irish, not English, is the language in which he can find exact expression for the thoughts of his mind and the feelings of his heart, and give the last touch to the picture he wishes to leave us of himself and his surroundings. Father O’Leary’s Irish pictures are living ones. He himself is not the only person who will live in his pages; and his scenic descriptions familiarize us with the whole countryside wherever he moves.
There are good Irishmen to whom the prospect of an Irish-speaking Ireland does not appeal. To have Irish spoken all over Ireland, in their view, would be an utter impossibility, or a move backward, if [ vi ]the thing were possible; and the effort at its accomplishment should therefore be classed as a waste of precious time, or a foolish enterprise, holding no promise of a return for the energies expended upon it. They admire Irish literature, they encourage Irish scholarship and study, and they would go some length towards preserving a Gaelic reservation, if that could be done, where the spoken language of their fathers might remain on the lips of the people, at least without dying in a hurry.
Now good men do not seal their minds against all argument in things of this kind, and it is a great service to the spoken language to show in a convincing way the claims it has for general use among the population. What if the true view be that the English of English-speaking Ireland would be much better if English-speaking Ireland were Irish-speaking also, that the Irish of the Irish-speaking area would not suffer if its English were much improved, and that the general use of both languages in our homes is possible, and, indeed, necessary, if we are to make the most of our minds and opportunities? If that be not a just conception, the outlook for spoken Irish does not appear to cover a long distance. But that it is the true view I take to be the opinion of Canon O’Leary, and certainly he himself is a living demonstration of this conviction so far as any one man can be.
A child of pure Irish stock, reared in an Irish-speaking home, far from school, but blessed with a well-educated mother, who spoke Irish and English correctly, and gave her boy the chance of reading good English books and learning a little French at the fireside, carves his way and becomes a thorough clergyman, a keen social and educational worker, a [ vii ]Land League priest, and the Father O’Leary of the Gaelic Revival. He was bilingual from the cradle. Not his knowledge of Irish, much less his knowledge of English, has made him what he is, but his knowledge of both, and his long acquaintance with the classics of Greece and Rome. Irish is the dominant factor. The rest served as helps to draw out Irish in dignified literature from a cultivated mind. But he could have been famous in English also, had he turned to it with Irish as an aid.
It takes more than language to make a man, not to say a priest; and the best blood in Ireland runs in the veins of the children whose fathers, centuries ago, were driven from the plains. One may say, also, of our young people who grow up in stubborn soil, that the scenes that lie under their eyes when they climb the mountains are some compensation for the privations that often fall to their lot. Their greatest want is, or rather was, no books and little schooling. But by what looks like a special Providence, Father O’Leary had books and education from the start, and the difficulty about schools only brought out the strength and individuality that were in him.
His Life will be a valuable addition to the history of our times. For one thing, we need the view of a clear Irish mind, from within a farmer’s home, on the agrarian conditions which led up to the Land War. Father O’Leary can tell of the grinding toil, entailed on the farmer’s family by high rent, and of the constant menace there was to peace and happiness from the dread of unscrupulous devices to raise the rent still higher. That part of the produce that fetched a good price had to be sold to meet the landlord’s demands, and only the rougher portion remained for home con[ viii ]sumption. Potatoes and milk were better sustenance for the human system than the imported foods that are now in use. But when the potato failed there was nothing to take its place. Father O’Leary saw the victims of the great Famine with his own eyes, and he can tell awful tales of the scenes he witnessed in that appalling disaster. An inhuman land system and bad government were responsible for the shipment from Ireland of the grain that should have been kept at home to support the population and prevent one of the most lamentable of national tragedies. It was the same tyranny that drove the people into secret combination and produced the informer, who transported his victims when he did not bring them to the scaffold, that provoked the Fenian revolutionary movement, and led up to the open agitation of the Land League.
A grim tale in parts it must be that Canon O’Leary has to narrate. But he may be trusted to illumine his pages with many a touch of Irish humour, and to gladden the reader with a true description of noble deeds he has known to be done. The distorted creatures, who are sometimes staged as if they were types, will not appear on his pages, but genuine men and women of true Irish mould, whom he knew and as he knew them. He has done what God gave him to do in helping to reverse the doom on country and language that, like his latest work, begins with Kinsale.
August 3, 1915.