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Ernest Blythe and the Irish Language

Cormac Ó Gráda writes: David Fitzpatrick, an old friend and a brilliant historian, sadly passed away on February 20th after a long illness. He was too unwell last November to attend the launch of his most recent (but happily not last) book, Ernest Blythe in Ulster, in Trinity’s Long Room Hub. Launching the book, Roy Foster described David as “definitively, the most original and influential Irish historian of his generation”. Few would disagree. David the scholar was fastidious, tough, inspirational, provocative; contrarian betimes, but invariably relevant and brilliant. He was one of a kind; truly, his like will not be seen again. David asked me to add a short reflection on Ernest Blythe and the Irish language at the launch. Here, in memory of David, is roughly what I had to say:

From an early age Ernest Blythe was passionate about the language both culturally and linguistically. He liked to play with Irish words and started off with his own name. Happily, the “Blaghd” in “de Blaghd” sounds exactly like “Blythe”, however incongruous the added Norman “de”. An alternative suggested by a Gaelic League friend, Stiofán Ó hAnnracháin, while Blythe was in Kerry ‑ Mac Meidhrigh or “Jolly man”, as in “hail to thee blythe spirit” ‑ would have been more appropriate linguistically, although perhaps not otherwise.

Blythe, as David notes, had “limited talent as a versifier”. That did not prevent him from publishing a booklet of poems in Irish, Fraoch agus Fothannáin (Heather and Thistles), in 1938, a few years after he had quit the political stage. He dedicated the book to one Máire Ní Anluain, “pé áit ina bhfuil sí” (wherever she is).

Who was this Máire Ní Anluain? Blythe writes in the first volume of his trilogy of memoirs, Trasna na Bóinne ‑ which David was rightly appreciative of ‑ that it was Máire Ní Anluain, a servant girl from the Carlingford area, who first sparked his interest in things Irish and in the Irish language in particular. She spent three seasons on the Blythe farm in south Antrim, regaling young Ernie with fantastic stories ‑ in the literal sense ‑ of Fionn and the Fianna and of Redmond O’Hanlon, the seventeenth century South Armagh rapparee.

Beyond that, we know little about Máire Ní Anluain. Was she the twenty-seven-year old Mary O’Hanlon recorded in the 1901 census in Tulloghomeath, a townland near the village of Omeath in Co Louth. That Mary is missing ‑ or perhaps hidden, having married in the meantime ‑ in 1911. If she is indeed the same Mary O’Hanlon, she would have been living in a two-room thatched cottage where everybody spoke Irish, or at least knew Irish, in 1901. Mary’s father was a “farmer and dealer”. Or was she the Mary A O’Hanlon from the same townland, daughter of an illiterate farmer and aged twenty in 1901, who was recorded as having no Irish in 1901 but as being Irish-speaking a decade later? Those of us who are Gaeilgeoirí would like to know a bit more about “Máire Ní Anluain”, because, in a way, we owe her one.

In the 1890s, when whichever Mary worked for the Blythes as a servant girl, Irish was on its last legs in Omeath. There is a sad side to this from Blythe’s perspective, because both Marys were probably related by marriage to Annie O’Hanlon, the last native speaker of Irish in the Omeath area. She died aged eighty in 1960. So when Eoghan MacNeill, a fellow Antrim man who would later become Blythe’s partner in government, set up Coláiste Bhríde as an Irish college in Omeath in 1912, it was too late. In 1926 the college would move to Rann na Feirste in the Donegal Gaeltacht, where it is still going strong.

Blythe’s grá for Irish was steadfast and highly unusual for somebody from his background. In 1911, at age twenty-two, not only was he the sole Irish speaker in his home townland of Magheraliskmisk, he was also the only Gaeilgeoir in the whole electoral division of Magheragall. In this heavily Church of Ireland area in south Antrim, even the McCarthys and the Dohertys were Protestant.

The late Nollaig Ó Gadhra, in a fine appreciation of Blythe’s work on behalf of the language [in Éire-Ireland, 1976], noted ‑ quite rightly ‑ that “most of the modest successes of the Irish revival owe their existence, at some stage along the line, to Earnán de Blaghd”. Blythe’s projects included Coláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square (now located in Cabra), na Coláistí Ullmhúcháin or Preparatory Colleges for primary teachers (intended to ensure a supply of teachers proficient in Irish), Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe (Galway’s Irish-language theatre), and compulsory Irish in schools. So it is understandable why an older generation of Irish language enthusiasts, like Ó Gadhra, who would not have shared Blythe’s political outlook, mourned his passing. “Grásta ó Dhia ar Earnán” (let God’s grace be with Ernest) was the broadcaster and writer Breandán Ó hEithir’s valedictory salute.

The three-part memoir published by Sáirséal agus Dill between 1959 and 1974 ‑ they also published his inspired and farsighted Briseadh na Teorann in 1955 ‑ was a vehicle for Blythe’s fluent but sometimes eccentric brand of Irish. In the case of Trasna na Bóinne, the publishers added a glossary of the complex terms used by Blythe, many of them of his own making. And so he called Presbyterians “Cruifearaigh”, not “Presibitéirigh”; divorce was “easáimhniú” rather than “colscaradh”; a Liberal was a “Scaoiliúnach” rather than a “Liobrálach”; partition was “fochra”, not “críochdheighilt”. And so on ‑ and on. All the above would certainly pass the Myles na Gopaleen test that the best Irish must be “dothuigthe”, or incomprehensible.

The second volume of Blythe’s memoirs created more problems for the publishers. It required careful and extensive editing, at which Blythe, an old man at the time, bristled. In April 1970 Sáirséal agus Dill decided to return his script, despite the amount of time and money they had already spent on it. Whereupon Blythe gave in –“Tá géillte agam duit agus ní cloisfear aon chlamhsán uaim amach anseo. Ach d’iarrfainn ort do dhícheall a dhéanamh faoi scéal na dtéarmaí” (I give up and you will hear no more complaints from me from now on. But I would ask you to do your best on the question of the terms). The publishers relented and Slán le hUltaibh appeared in September 1970, to be followed by Gaeil Dhá Múscailt in 1974. Earnán could die happy, a year later.

Grásta ó Dhia ar David Fitzpatrick.

14/3/2019