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THE RECENT FUSS ABOUT THE
THERE is nothing more interesting, more amusing, and perhaps more melancholy than the recent fuss about the reviving of the Celtic speech of Ireland. The public discussion of it arose somewhat accidentally, in connection with the inquiry concerning the working of intermediate education in Ireland. A very few independent men gave it as their opinion that it was not practical or sensible to appoint courses, examinations and prizes in Irish for boys and girls seeking a general education to fit them for practical life. The number of candidates who speak it as a mother tongue is infinitesimal; to such candidates it is most important that they should study other languages; as regards those who take it up merely as an examination subject it was urged that the knowledge of it was not very serviceable, and it was asserted that the papers usually set were puerile and the books appointed not literary and otherwise objectionable. But even if this were not so, it was urged on the ground of economy of time that such knowledge was, to the crowd, useless, and that there was not sufficient time for the learning of far more important subjects.
The men who spoke out their opinions in this direction were but a handful; the storm of opposition which their evidence before the Commission excited was such that a large number of discreet persons who sympathised with them, and had said so in private, either observed a prudent silence or declared themselves, for popularity's sake, on the other side. And, in any case, the great body of protest and of indignant vindication of the dignity and importance of Irish as a subject for Irish study was such that few will blame the Commissioners if they retain the subject in the programme of intermediate examinations. In fact, the only effect produced by the objectors seems to be that they have galvanised into life the well-nigh extinct study of the spoken tongue, and have set a number of people to establish a regular propaganda of the so-called native tongue of the country. That it is not so, and has not been so for a long time, is considered of no importance. The few thousands who were till recently
ashamed of it as a mark of ignorance are now likely to dream that they have a nobler heritage than the millions in Ireland who know not a word of it and who have never even heard it spoken, and so we may possibly (though not probably) have a serious recrudescence of Irish speaking, which will have even worse effects than the maintenance and cultivation of Welsh in Wales. And the indignation which any such statement excites among Welshmen is exactly parallel to the indignation produced in Ireland by the recent criticism of the Celtic craze. But indignation is not argument; violent charges. against men of character because they despise the study of Irish in schools are not good reasons for convincing independent observers; so much so that if a calm critic were to decide the matter by the respective temperatures of the combatants-not a bad test in most controversies he would conclude that the cool and sceptical few have possibly a good case against the heated crowd who are pelting them with every missile that comes to hand. As a specimen of these missiles I may mention the letter received from an indignant Irish editor enclosing from his paper a violent attack upon my views (I cannot call it a refutation) by a hysterical student of Irish, and telling me, for my satisfaction,' that while this article had obtained wide circulation, he had taken care to suppress my arguments, to which the article was a reply.
It was said just now that this recrudescence of Irish might possibly do even more harm than the maintenance of Welsh, though that is bad enough when we find a sympathetic Welsh orator declaring upon a Dublin platform with pride that whenever he spoke English he felt he was speaking a foreign language. No doubt his hearers felt so too: I can answer for it that his readers did. When such a person begins to descant upon the vast superiority of his native tongue, we feel that his personal conviction loses all weight as a general argument. But that the outery for Irish in our schools is more dangerous than such movements elsewhere will perhaps appear obvious when we have briefly analysed the various classes into which the agitators may be distributed.
First in dignity and importance, though very few in number, are the genuine enthusiasts, who think that by preserving and disseminating the use of Irish they will preserve that distinct national flavour which makes Ireland-indeed, which makes any country-interesting. Within my own acquaintance I know at least two such people-one an ex-Rebel, just as conscientious in his former as in his latter state, a man of letters and of high education, whose opinion cannot but command respect from all who know him. The other is a Western landlady, who promotes Irish among her tenantry and dependents, and who told me with pride that they were beginning to appreciate it as no mere spoken idiom, but a speech that can be printed and studied in books, so that she hopes for a large development of interest in the
subject throughout her district in the West. She is a woman of a large heart, who has lived in the world, and in the midst of her enthusiasm has retained that strong sense of humour which will protect her from the absurdities into which the advocates of her project continually stray.
If we had only to deal with such people as these genuine and cultivated enthusiasts, none of us would have a word to say against their arguments. No one, moreover, has a word to say against the philological study of the language by scholars and for scholarly purposes. As a matter of fact, Trinity College, Dublin, to which some of the critics of the movement belong, not only contains the best theoretical students of Irish in the country, but maintains a chair to promote the use of modern Irish.
The second class are politicians and political ladies, chiefly English, who see in this movement a cheap and harmless boon wherewith to humour the people to whom they have refused Home Rule. Let anything or everything sentimental be conceded, let the people be humoured with every toy, provided they attain no separate Parliament. It is, perhaps, the most signal instance of the stupidity of the ruling nation that they should expect a clever people to owe them any gratitude for this contemptuous civility. If they had the smallest insight they would know that these sentimental concessions will be accepted with scorn, and taken for admissions of incompetence; such things will all be used to strengthen and consolidate the larger and deeper claims which England and some of the Irish have determined to refuse. Not a single Irish malcontent was ever conciliated by such childish pretences of concession.
The third class are those Welshmen who, having made Welsh the vehicle of their religion, and so kept it alive, have persuaded themselves that the use of a barbarous jargon which hardly a civilised man understands is a high title to national importance and the distinctness of their province from England. In this, as we shall see in the sequel, they are by no means unique, but express a tendency showing itself with dangerous force in many parts of Europe. To any one who recognises that the Welsh are in a lower state of civilisation than the Irish and Scotch, and therefore have contributed far less to the greatness of the Empire, it will seem obvious that some part, at least, of such inferiority may be ascribed to want of a proper knowledge of English-the Imperial language— among the peasants of Wales. In any case the association of religion with the language of the people distinguishes the case of Wales from that of Ireland, where religion in two foreign languages, first Latin and then English, was thrust upon the people. The former succeeded, the latter failed, because the former, backed by the strong organisation of the Roman Church, had conquered the mass of the people.
But in earlier days the Roman clergy in Ireland were by no means advocates of Irish, though I may reckon them as the fourth class of those who go with the stream, and come forward now to demand the recognition of Irish in popular education. There is no evidence in the history of Maynooth College that any attention— even as much as in Trinity College-has been paid to Irish, though it is not unlikely that the present movement will compel some recognition of it there. But in former years the Roman clergy frequently set themselves in opposition to Irish, and very rightly compelled the peasants under their charge to learn English at school as a necessary preparation not only for emigration but for a fuller life at home. Perhaps the most interesting passage in this history was the attempt of the once well-known 'Irish Society' to convert the people by sending among them Scripture readers versed in the Irish tongue. The Roman priesthood, more particularly in the County Meath, felt this attack so dangerous, and were so unable to meet it, owing to their own ignorance of Irish, that they set themselves to insist upon the use of English among their flocks.
Now we hear a very different story. To discourage Irish is to brave unpopularity, and so we have many wild pronouncements in its favour, all of which can hardly be genuine. One Prelate went so far as to say that of all the languages he knew (even including Greek) none was so powerful and expressive as his mother tongue. But for his exalted position, we might have ventured to ask him how many languages he really knew, how far Greek could be fairly included, and whether he did not mean that Demosthenes addressing the peasants of the North-Western wilds would have no chance against the Prelate speaking to his fellow-natives in their common mother tongue. In this last sense his statement was no doubt strictly true.
But the learned Prelate does not stand alone in these absurd laudations of Irish as a language. There is another class of enthusiasts, whose profession it is to teach Irish, who expect either to live by it or to gain notoriety by leading the new movement, and of these many have lashed themselves into the firm belief that Irish is not only the noblest tongue in the world, but has a literature second to There is no hope of mending, or even of moderating, these self-developed enthusiasts, whose trade is to shout, whose only argument is to attribute sordid motives to their opponents in addition to charging them with lack of patriotism and with ignorance. The former charge does not even depend upon the definition of patriotism, both the assailants and assailed agreeing that a patriot is a man who loves his country and desires its permanent good. I, for example, may protest that I am Irish of the Irish, that I have lived all my days since boyhood in Ireland, striving to help young Irishmen to get on in the world—yet because I have the firm
conviction that it is unpractical and mischievous to make Irish children spend their time studying this no longer literary language, and express this opinion publicly, I am at once set down as an enemy of my country, or at any rate as no Irishman.
I ask, is this reasonable? Are we to have no liberty of saying what we think regarding the proper education of our fellow-countrymen? And even supposing we are mistaken, even if we have judged the matter wrongly and have under-estimated the value of this study, are we therefore to be spoken of as renegades or aliens in sentiment? How easy would it be to retort the calumny and charge with treachery to their country those who seek to starve and provincialise the intellects of the youth of Ireland by urging them to pursue obsolete and unprofitable studies as a privilege of their nationality!
We come now to the charge of ignorance-that is to say, that those who speak slightingly of Irish are ignorant of the language and its literature, and have therefore no right to offer an opinion. This, at least, does seem a reasonable objection. But is it founded upon facts? The two Irish scholars known to me as men of learning and of high cultivation in other respects-as men who have thoroughly mastered other languages-appear among the witnesses in the recent Blue-book who are against the study of Irish in schools. As I know perfectly well that the education and the judgment of these men far exceed those of the fervent advocates on the other side, what can I do but follow them? They tell me that there is no body of literature in the so-called classical Irish, which they have studied for years, and that nothing valuable is to be learned from it except philological facts, and perhaps some folk-lore, neither the former nor the latter being fit for school purposes.
The reply of the other side at once showed its weakness. First they said that these scholars were ignorant of the spoken dialect, and could not talk with a native in the West. Not only was this irrelevant, but it was open to a ruinous retort from the ignorant man. He said to them, 'Well, then, as you do know this modern tongue, which you say has a literature equal to the Greek, will you please translate some of it into English, that we too may enjoy it and know how elevating it might be to the youth of Ireland?' But then we are told, to our surprise, that the modern speech is a mere semi-grammatical colloquial idiom, but that in older books lies the real splendour of this literature. Yet it was from a knowledge of these very older books that the scholars formed their adverse opinion! And when we press the speakers and teachers of modern Irish to give us at least some specimens of this great national heritage, we discover that they are unable to translate it, the medieval written tongue differing widely from the spoken language of to-day.
But the challenge of the ignorant man is not to be evaded, and until the advocates of Irish literature have shown us by copious trans