IRISH LANGUAGE AND LETTERS
By DOUGLAS HYDE, LL.D., M.R.I.A.
The Celtic languages consist of two divisions, (a) the Gaelic or Irish division, and (b) the Kymric or Welsh division. Between them they comprise (a) Irish, Scotch-Gaelic, and Manx, and (b) Welsh, Armorican, and Cornish. All these languages are still alive except Cornish, which died out about a hundred years ago.
Of all these languages Irish is the best preserved, and it is possible to follow its written literature back into the past for some thirteen hundred years; while much of the most interesting matter has come down to us from pagan times. It has left behind it the longest, the most luminous, and the most consecutive literary track of any of the vernacular languages of Europe, except Greek alone.
For centuries the Irish and their language were regarded by the English as something strange and foreign to Europe. It was not recognized that they had any relationship with the Greeks or Romans, the French, the Germans, or the English. The once well-known statesman, Lord Lyndhurst, in the British parliament denounced the Irish as aliens in religion, in blood, and in language. Bopp, in his great Comparative Grammar, refused them recognition as Indo-Europeans, and Pott in 1856 also denied their European connection. It was left for the great Bavarian scholar, John Caspar Zeuss, to prove to the world in his epoch-making “Grammatica Celtica” (published in Latin in 1853) that the Celts were really Indo-Europeans, and that their language was of the highest possible value and interest. From that day to the present it is safe to say that the value set upon the Irish language and literature has been steadily growing amongst the scholars of the world, and that in the domain of philology Old Irish now ranks close to Sanscrit for its truly marvellous and complicated scheme of word-forms and inflections, and its whole verbal system.
The exact place which the Celtic languages (of which Irish is philologically far the most important) hold in the Indo-European group has often been discussed. It is now generally agreed upon that, although both the Celtic and Teutonic languages may claim a certain kinship with each other as being both of them Indo-European, still the Celtic is much more nearly related to the Greek and the Latin groups, especially to the Latin.
All the Indo-European languages are more or less related to one another. We Irish must acknowledge a relationship, or rather a very distant connecting tie, with English. But, to trace this home, Irish must be followed back to the very oldest form of its words, and English must be followed back to Anglo-Saxon and when possible to Gothic. The hard mutes (p, t, c) of Celtic (and, for that matter, of Sanscrit, Zend, Greek, Latin, Slavonic, and Lithuanian) will be represented in Gothic by the corresponding soft mutes (b, d, g), and the soft mutes in Celtic by the corresponding, hard mutes in Gothic. Thus we find the Irish dia (god) in the Anglo-Saxon tiw, the god of war, whose name is perpetuated for all time in Tiwes-däg, now “Tuesday”, and we find the Irish déad in the Anglo-Saxon “toth”, now “tooth”, and so on. But of all the Indo-European languages Old Irish possesses by far the nearest affinity to Latin, and this is shown in a great many ways, not in the vocabulary merely, but in the grammar, which for philologists is of far more importance,–as, for example, the b-future, the passive in-r, the genitive singular and nominative plural of “o stems”, etc. Thus the Old Irish for “man”, nom. fer, gen. fir, dat. fiur, acc. fer n–, plur. nom. fir, gen. fer n–, is derived from the older forms viros, viri, viro, viron, nom. plur. viri, gen. plur. viron, which everyone who knows Latin can see at a glance correspond very closely to the Latin inflections, vir, viri, viro, virum, nom. plur. viri, etc.
So much for the language. When did this language begin to be used in literature? This question depends upon another–When did the Irish begin to have a knowledge of letters; when did they begin to commit their literature to writing; and whence did they borrow their knowledge of this art?
The oldest alphabet used in Ireland of which remains exist appears to have been the Ogam, which is found in numbers of stone inscriptions dating from about the third century of our era on. About 300 such inscriptions have already been found, most of them in the southwest of Ireland, but some also in Scotland and Wales, and even in Devon and Cornwall. Wherever the Irish Gael planted a colony, he seems to have brought his Ogam writing with him.
The Irishman who first invented the Ogam character was probably a pagan who obtained a knowledge of Roman letters. He brought back to Ireland his invention, or, as is most likely, invented it on Irish soil. Indeed, the fact that no certain trace of Ogam writing has been found upon the European continent indicates that the alphabet was invented in Ireland itself. An inscription at Killeen Cormac, Co. Kildare, survives which seems to show that the Roman alphabet was known in Ireland in pagan times. Ogam is an alphabet suitable enough for chiselling upon stones, but too cumbrous for the purposes of literature. For this the Roman alphabet must have been used. The Ogam script consists of a number of short lines straight or slanting, and drawn either below, above, or through one long stem-line. This stem-line is generally the sharp angle between two faces or sides of a long upright rectangular stone. Thus four cuts to the right of the long line stand for S; to the left of it they mean C; passing through it, half on one side and half on the other, they mean Z. The device was rude, but it was applied with considerable skill, and it was undoubtedly framed with much ingenuity. The vowels occurring most often are also the easiest to cut, being scarcely more than notches on the edge of the stone. The inscription generally contains the name of the dead warrior over whom the memorial was raised; it usually begins on the left corner of the stone facing the reader and is to be read upwards, and it is often continued down on the right hand angular line as well.
The language of the Ogam inscriptions is very ancient and nearly the same forms occur as in what we know of Old Gaulish. The language, in fact, seems to have been an antique survival even when it was first engraved, in the third or fourth century. The word-forms are probably far older than those used in the spoken language of the time. This is a very important conclusion, and it must have a far-reaching bearing upon the history of the earliest epic literature. Because if forms of language much more ancient than any that were then current were employed on pillar-stones in the third or fourth century, it follows that this obsolescent language must have survived either in a written or a regularly recited form. This immediately raises the probability that the substance of Irish epic literature (which was written down on parchment in the sixth or seventh century) really dates from a period much more remote, and that all that is purely pagan in it was preserved for us in the same antique language as the Ogam inscriptions before it was translated into what we now call “Old Irish.”
The following is the Ogam alphabet as preserved on some 300 ancient pillars and stones, in the probably ninth-century treatise in the Book of Ballymote, and elsewhere:
There are a great many allusions to this Ogam writing in the ancient epics, especially in those that are purely pagan in form and conception, and there can be no doubt that the knowledge of letters must have reached Ireland before the island became Christianized. With the introduction of Christianity and of Roman letters, the old Ogam inscriptions, which were no doubt looked upon as flavoring of paganism, quickly fell into disuse and disappeared, but some inscriptions at least are as late as the year 600 or even 800. In the thoroughly pagan poem, The Voyage of Bran, which such authorities as Zimmer and Kuno Meyer both consider to have been committed to parchment in the seventh century, we find it stated that Bran wrote the fifty or sixty quatrains of the poem in Ogam. Cuchulainn constantly used Ogam writing, which he cut upon wands and trees and standing stones for Queen Medb’s army to read, and these were always brought to his friend Fergus to decipher. Cormac, king of Cashel, in his glossary tells us that the pagan Irish used to inscribe the wand they kept for measuring corpses and graves with Ogam characters, and that it was a source of horror to anyone even to take it in his hand. St. Patrick in his Confession, the authenticity of which no one doubts, describes how he dreamt that a man from Ireland came to him with innumerable letters.
In Irish legend Ogma, one of the Tuatha De Danann who was skilled in dialects and poetry, seems to be credited with the invention of the Ogam alphabet, and he probably was the equivalent of the Gaulish god Ogmios, the god of eloquence, so interestingly described by Lucian.
We may take it then that the Irish pagans knew sufficient letters to hand down to Irish Christians the substance of their pagan epics, sagas, and poems. We may take it for granted also that the greater Irish epics (purely pagan in character, utterly untouched in substance by that Christianity which so early conquered the country) really represent the thoughts, manners, feelings, and customs of pagan Ireland.
The effect of this conclusion must be startling indeed to those who know the ancient world only through the medium of Greek and Roman literature. To the Greek and to his admiring master, the Roman, all outside races were simply barbarians, at once despised, misinterpreted, and misunderstood.
We have no possible means of reconstructing the ancient world as it was lived in by the ancestors of some of the leading races in Europe, the Gauls, Spaniards, Britons, and the people of all those countries which trace themselves back to a Celtic ancestry, because these races have left no literature or records behind them, and the Greeks and Romans, who tell us about them, saw everything through the false medium of their own prejudices. But now since the discovery and publication of the Irish sagas and epics, the descendants of these great races no longer find it necessary to view their own past through the colored and distorting glasses of the Greek or the Roman, since there has now opened for them, where they least expected to find it, a window through which they can look steadily at the life of their race, or of one of its leading offshoots, in one of its strongholds, and reconstruct for themselves with tolerable accuracy the life of their own ancestors. It is impossible to overrate the importance of this for the history of Europe, because neither Teutons nor Slavs have preserved pictures of their own heroic past, dating from pagan times. It is only the Celts, and of these the Irish, who have handed down such pictures drawn with all the fond intimacy of romance, and descriptions which exhibit the life of western Europeans at an even earlier culture-stage in the evolution of humanity than do the poems of Homer.
This conclusion, to which a study of the literature invites us, falls in exactly with that arrived at from purely archaeological sources. Professor Ridgeway of Cambridge University, working on archaeological lines, expresses himself as follows: “From this survey of the material remains of the la Tern period found actually in Ireland, and from the striking correspondence between this culture and that depicted in the Táin Bó Cúalnge, and from the circumstance that the race who are represented in the epic as possessing this form of culture resemble in their physique the tall, fair-haired, grey-eyed Celts of Britain and the continent, we are justified in inferring (1) that there was an invasion (or invasions) of such peoples from Gaul in the centuries immediately before Christ, as is ascribed by the Irish traditions, and (2) that the poems themselves originally took shape when the la Tène culture was still flourishing in Ireland. But as this could hardly have continued much later than A.D. 100, we may place the first shaping of the poems not much later than that date and possibly a century earlier.”
This conclusion would make the earliest putting together of the Irish epics almost contemporaneous with Augustus Cæsar.
So much for the history and growth of Irish letters.
Brash: Ogam inscribed Monuments of the Gaedhil (1879); MacAlister: Studies in Irish Epigraphy, vol. 1 (1897), vol. 2 (1902), vol. 3 (1907); Rhys: in Proceedings of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries (Edinburgh, 1892); Ridgeway: Date of the First Shaping of the Cuchulain Saga (1905), in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. II; Joyce: Social History of Ancient Ireland, vol. I, Chap. 2; Preface to fac-simile edition of the Book of Ballymote.