IRISH LOVE OF LEARNING
By REV. P.S. DINNEEN, M.A., R.U.I.
“The distinguishing property of man,” says Cicero, “is to search for and follow after truth. Therefore, when disengaged from our necessary cares and concerns, we desire to see, to hear, and to learn, and we esteem knowledge of things obscure or wonderful as indispensable to our happiness.” (De Officiis I., 4).
I claim for the Irish race that throughout their history they have cut down their bodily necessities to the quick, in order to devote time and energy to the pursuit of knowledge; that they have engaged in intellectual pursuits, not infrequently of a high order, on a low basis of material comfort; that they have persevered in the quest of learning under unparalleled hardships and difficulties, even in the dark night of “a nation’s eclipse”, when a school was an unlawful assembly and school-teaching a crime. I claim, moreover, that, when circumstances were favorable, no people have shown a more adventurous spirit or a more chivalrous devotion in the advancement and spread of learning.
Love of learning implies more than a natural aptitude for acquiring information. It connotes a zest for knowledge that is recondite and attainable only at the expense of ease, of leisure, of the comforts and luxuries of life, and a zeal for the cultivation of the mental faculties. It is of the soul and not of the body; it refines, elevates, adorns. It is allied to sensibility, to keenness of vision, to the close observation of mental phenomena. Its possessor becomes a citizen of the known world. His mind broadens; he compares, contrasts, conciliates; he brings together the new and the old, the near and the distant, the permanent and the transitory, and weaves from them all the web of systematized human thought.
I am not here concerned with the extent of Ireland’s contribution to the sum of human learning, nor with the career of her greatest scholars; I am merely describing the love of learning which is characteristic of the race, and which it seems best to present in a brief study of distinct types drawn from various periods of Irish history.
In the pre-Christian period the Druid was the chief representative of the learning of the race. He was the adviser of kings and princes, and the instructor of their children. His knowledge was of the recondite order and beyond the reach of ordinary persons. The esteem in which he was held by all classes of the people proves their love for the learning for which he stood.
Patrick came: and with him came a wider horizon of learning and greater facilities for the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge. Monastic schools sprang up in all directions–at Clonard, Armagh, Clonmacnois, Bangor, Lismore, Kildare, Innisfallen. These schools were celebrated throughout Europe in the earlier middle ages, and from the fifth to the ninth century Ireland led the nations of Europe in learning and deserved the title of the “Island of Saints and Scholars.” Our type is the student in one of these monastic schools. He goes out from his parents and settles down to study in the environs of the monastery. He is not rich; he resides in a hut; his time is divided between study, prayer, and manual labor. He becomes a monk, only to increase in devotion to learning and to accentuate his privations. He copies and illuminates manuscripts. He memorizes the Psalms. He glosses the Vulgate Scriptures with vernacular notes. He receives ordination, and, realizing that there are benighted countries ten times as large as his native land beyond the seas, and, burning with zeal for the spread of the Gospel and the advancement of learning, sails for Britain, or passes into Gaul, or reaches the slopes of the Apennines, or the outskirts of the Black Forest. The rest of his life is devoted to the foundation of monasteries to which schools are attached, to the building of churches, and to the diffusion around him of every known branch of knowledge. He may have taken books from Ireland over seas, and, of these, relics are now to be found among the treasures of the ancient libraries of Europe. Columcille, Columbanus, Adamnan, Gall, Virgilius occur to the mind in dwelling on this type.
The hereditary seanchaidhe, who treasured up the traditional lore of the clan and its chief, was held in high honor and enjoyed extraordinary privileges. He held a freehold. He was high in the graces of the chief, and officiated at his inauguration.
An important type is the Irish ecclesiastical student abroad in the penal days. School teaching, unless at the sacrifice of Faith, was a crime in Ireland, and the training required for the priesthood had to be obtained on the continent. The Irish out of their poverty established colleges in Rome (1628), Salamanca (1593), Seville (1612), Alcala (1590), Lisbon (1593), Louvain (1634), Antwerp (1629), Douai (1577), Lille (1610), Bordeaux (1603), Toulouse (1659), Paris (1605), and elsewhere. As late as 1795 these colleges contained 478 students, and some of them are still in existence. The young student in going abroad risked everything. He often returned watched by spies, with his life in danger. Yet the supply never failed; the colleges flourished; and those who returned diffused around them not only learning but the urbanity and refinement which were a striking fruit and mark of their studies abroad.
Another type is the Irish scribe. In the days of Ireland’s fame and prosperity and of the flood-tide of her native language, he was a skilled craftsman, and the extant specimens of his work are unsurpassed of their kind. But I prefer to look at him at a later period, when he became our sole substitute for the printer and when his diligence preserved for us all that remains of a fading literature. He was miserably poor. He toiled through the day at the spade or the plough, or guided the shuttle through the loom. At night, by the flare of the turf-fire or the fitful light of a splinter of bogwood, he made his copy of poem or tract or tale, which but for him would have perished. The copies are often ill-spelt and ill-written, but with all their faults they are as noble a monument to national love of learning as any nation can boast of.
In our gallery of types we must not forget the character whom English writers contemptuously called the “hedge-schoolmaster.” The hedge-school in its most elemental state was an open-air daily assemblage of youths in pursuit of knowledge. Inasmuch as the law had refused learning a fitting temple in which to abide and be honored, she was led by her votaries into the open, and there, beside the fragrant hedge, if you will, with the green sward for benches, and the canopy of heaven for dome, she was honored in Ireland, even as she had been honored ages before in Greece, in Palestine, and by our primordial Celtic ancestors themselves. The hedge-schoolmaster conducted the rites, and the air resounded with the sonorous hexameters of Virgil and the musical odes of Horace.
In the Irish-speaking portions of the country the hedge-schoolmaster was often also a poet who wrote mellifluous songs in Irish, which were sung throughout the entire district and sometimes earned him enduring fame. Eoghan Ruadh O’Sullivan and Andrew MacGrath, called An Mangaire Sugach or “the Jolly Pedlar,” are well-known instances of this type.
The poor scholar is another type that under varying forms and under various circumstances has ever trod the stage of Irish history. From an ancient Irish manuscript (See O’Curry, Manners and Customs, II, 79, 80) we learn that Adamnan, the biographer of St. Columcille, and some other youths studied at Clonard and were supported by the neighborhood. The poor scholar more than any other type embodies the love of learning of the Irish race. In the schools which preceded the National, he appeared in a most interesting stage of development. He came from a distance, attracted by the reputation of a good teacher and the regularity of a well-conducted school. He came, avowedly poor. His only claim on the generosity of his teacher and of the public was a marked aptitude for learning and an ardent desire for study and cultivation of mind. He did not look for luxuries. He was satisfied, if his bodily wants were reasonably supplied, even with the inconveniences of frequent change of abode. A welcome was extended to him on all sides. His hosts and patrons honored his thirst for knowledge and tenacity of purpose. He was expected to help the students in the house where he found entertainment, and it may not have been unpleasing to him on occasion to display his talents before his host. When school was over, it was not unusual to find him surrounded by a group of school-companions, each pressing his claim to entertain him for the night.
Despite the hospitality of his patrons, the poor scholar often felt the bitterness of his dependent state, but he bore it with equanimity, his hand ever eagerly stretched out for the prize of learning. What did learning bring him? Why was he so eager to bear for its sake
“all the thousand aches That patient merit of the unworthy takes”?
Sometimes he became a priest; sometimes his life was purposeless and void. But he was ever urged onward by the fascination of learning and of the cultivation of the nobler part of his nature.
As might have been expected, the Irish who have emigrated to the American and Australian continents have given touching proof of their devotion to the cause of learning. I have space only for a few pathetic examples.
An Irish workman in the United States, seeing my name in connection with an Irish Dictionary, wrote to me a few years ago to ask how he might procure one, as, he said, an Italian in the works had asked him the meaning of Erin go bragh, and he felt ashamed to be unable to explain it.
A man who, at the age of three, had emigrated from Clare in the famine time, wrote to me recently from Australia in the Irish language and character.
An old man named John O’Regan of New Zealand, who had been twelve years in exile in the United States and forty-eight on the Australian continent, with failing eyesight, in a letter that took him from January to June of the year 1906 to write, endeavored to set down scraps of Irish lore which he had carried with him from the old country and which had clung to his memory to the last.
“In my digging life in the quarries,” he says, “books were not a part of our swag (prayerbook excepted). In 1871, when I had a long seat of work before me, I sent for McCurtin’s Dictionary to Melbourne. It is old and wanting in the introductory part, but for all was splendid and I loved it as my life.” (See Gaelic Journal, Dec., 1906.)
Joyce: A Social History of Ancient Ireland (2 vols., 2d ed., Dublin, 1913); Healy: Ireland’s Ancient Schools and Scholars (Dublin, 1890), Maynooth College Centenary History (Dublin, 1895); O’Curry: Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, (3 vols., Dublin and London, 1873), Manuscript Materials of Irish History, reissue (Dublin, 1873); Carleton: Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, especially vol. 3, The Poor Scholar; Montalembert: The Monks of the West, authorized translation, (7 vols., London, 1861); Meyer: Learning in Ireland in the Fifth Century (Dublin, 1913); Dinneen: Poems of Eoghan Ruadh O’Sullivan, Introduction (Dublin, 1902), The Maigue Poets, Introduction (Dublin, 1906); Boyle: The Irish College in Paris 1578-1901, with a brief sketch of the other Irish Colleges in France (Dublin, 1901); Irish Ecclesiastical Record, new series, vol. VIII, 307, 465; 3rd series, vol. VII, 350, 437, 641.