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Half the Picture

Michael Cronin

Ó Chéitinn go Raiftearaí: Mar a cumadh stair na hÉireann, by Vincent Morley, Coiscéim, €10

On May 29th, 1838 The Freeman’s Journal reported on a court case involving a man named Denis Bogue Sullivan. Sullivan is described as “an humble, aged, and decently dressed peasant”. When he opens his mouth, however, there is trouble. The court reporter tells us that he produced “a totally unintelligible smattering in the English tongue, thrown out here and there with great volubility, considerable emphasis, and, in these, a peculiarly rich Munster brogue”. In the absence of an interpreter the proceedings ground to a halt. The image of the hapless defendant stranded in a no-man’s-land of linguistic incomprehension resonates with the case advanced in Vincent Morley’s latest work, which is deeply critical of the sustained failure of historians of Ireland to engage with and correctly situate Irish-language sources. The result in Morley’s view is a fundamental misreading of the nature of the public sphere inhabited by the majority population for two centuries and more.

The conventional Habermasian notion of the public sphere adopted by Joep Leerssen and others is that of the urban middle class, stimulated by coffee beans and print to debate the emerging forms of deliberative political democracy. When judged against the coffee houses and cafés of London, Paris and Amsterdam a country with conspicuously few large urban centres and with a pitiably small number of print publications in what until the second half of the nineteenth century will be one of its major languages, Irish, can only be found wanting. So John Hutchinson, whose inability to read Irish-language sources did not stand in the way of his writing a book about the Gaelic revival, talks about “an unlettered peasantry” in his Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish nation state (1987). Joep Leerssen, for his part, in Remembrance and Imagination: Patterns in the historical and literary representations of Ireland in the nineteenth century (1996), claims that “the native tradition in the nineteenth century is almost silent, having at long last been pauperized into virtual illiteracy”. The centrality of print culture to the language of dismissal – “unlettered”, “illiteracy” – underscores the fundamental weakness of a historical prejudice that ignores both the vitality and inventiveness of oral culture and the remarkable tenacity of manuscript culture in Ireland up until the time of the Famine. Morley’s contention is that failure to take proper account of these two factors in the elaboration of an Irish-language public sphere in rural Ireland has led to a radical misunderstanding of the political and cultural experience of the majority of the island’s inhabitants from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Speaking, for example, about the early nineteenth century, Morley argues, taking issue with Leerssen: “Níorbh aon chultúr folaithe, balbh, neamhliteartha é seo a bhain le “hermetic underclass” diamhair a bhí ag saothrú an bháis i bpluais éigin i ngan fhios don saol Fódlach, ach cultúr bríomhar an mhóraimh mhóir de mhuintir na hÉireann, cultúr a bhí á fhógairt – agus á chanadh – i lár an aonaigh agus in [sic] dhá theanga.” [This was no hidden, inarticulate, unlettered culture, associated with a secluded “hermetic underclass”, which, unknown to Irish society, was dying in some obscure corner, but the vigorous culture of the great majority of the people of Ireland, a culture that was making itself known – and singing – in two languages in the middle of the market place.]

Keating is central to Morley’s thesis in that the historical template he sets out in his 1635 Foras Feasa ar Éirinn provides the basic framework for popular understandings of Irish history for two centuries and more. The particular synthesis of native scholarship and Counter-Reformation politico-religious argument proved formidably attractive to native copyists in the way that the Annals of the Four Masters did not. The language of the Annals, already largely archaic at the time of composition, and the dry logbook style of entries did little to enthuse the copyists. Foras Feasa, on the other hand, provided an intelligible narrative that went all the way from the Flood to events in recent historical memory. Morley is quick, however, to point out that Keating’s influence was less due to direct contact with his original writings than with the mediated products inspired by his narrative. He points out, for example, that the number of new manuscript copies of Foras Feasa begins to drop off quite dramatically after 1725. On the other hand, the afterlife of Keating’s work is assured by the setting of story to song. Probably one of the most important poems ever written in Ireland, Tuireamh na hÉireann, [Ireland’s Lament] composed in 1657 by Seán Ó Conaill, and included in the volume in its entirety, captures the main narrative events of Keating’s history in 496 lines. Poetic compression of story had two signal advantages. Firstly, it is less expensive, easier and faster to copy 496 lines than 140,000 words. Secondly, it is less onerous, cheaper and faster to remember 496 lines than 140,000 words. Another advantage of memory was safety. In a time of repression, better to commit treasonable words to memory than to paper. From the 1730s onwards, using the chronology of the late Breandán Ó Buachalla, it is possible to see a democratisation of Irish literary culture, where the aristocratic ethic of the older bardic class gives way to the more demotic idioms and song metres of poets and writers who came from the general population. Thus, the emphasis is increasingly on making memory memorable. So it is that the poets transmit a particular version of Irish history and identity that makes its way to the blind poet Raftery in the nineteenth century and to the writings of Pearse in the twentieth.

It is not just songlines, of course, that bring a political landscape into being. Thomas Crofton Croker, in his Researches in the South of Ireland (1824), points the finger at the scribes: “Modern manuscripts, in the Irish Character, may be met with in almost every village, and they are usually the produce of the leisure hours of the schoolmaster.” Reverend Francis Keane, a Protestant minister from County Clare, sketches out the continuum of transmission from script to mouth:

One individual borrows from his neighbour his Irish Manuscript and makes a copy of it; or if unable to write himself, procures one who can do so for him. Thus they keep up, among themselves, several copies of these Irish manuscripts, upon which they bestow great time and labour in transcribing. They find great pleasure and amusement in reading these Manuscripts, especially on Winter nights, on which occasion the neighbours of the surrounding districts flock together for the purpose of hearing them read.

What emerges from Morley’s account is the scale and intensity of this scribal economy in Ireland. In the Royal Irish Academy alone, there are eighty-nine surviving manuscript copies of Tuireamh na hÉireann. Recent work by Lesa Ní Mhunghaile contained in Irish and English: Essays on the Irish linguistic and cultural frontier, 1600-1900 (2012)), edited by James Kelly and Ciarán Mac Murchaidh, reaches similar conclusions as to what she sees as the centrality of the “scribal community” to the elaboration and interpretation of politics, culture and memory in Ireland. In particular, Ní Mhunghaile points to the importance of what she calls the the “Catholic middling sort”. This stratum consisted of comfortable tenant farmers, craftsmen, schoolteachers, publicans, shopkeepers and priests, who despite increasing levels of competence in English were strongly committed to an oral and manuscript-based literature in Irish. It is this “middling sort” who outside the large urban centres in Ireland develop and sponsor their own public sphere, which for most of the period under review eschews print as the primary mode of transmission of memory and worldview.

It is one of the more jaded truisms in a particular strain of historiography that tradition begets convention. In this view, tradition is oppressive, unchanging, at best worthy of distant respect and at worst a deceitful invention. In Ireland, where the morality play of postnational modernity is a must see for salon radicals with attitude, the ironic invocation of “eight hundred years of misery” is the timeless tribute that satire pays to ignorance. What Morley charts in Ó Chéitinn go Raiftearaí [From Keating to Raftery] is the strongly dynamic nature of historical narrative that undergoes subtle but significant permutations as political circumstances change. Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell, for example, are largely absent from the story Irish Catholics tell themselves for most of the eighteenth century, despite the fact that the O’Neill had mounted an unprecedented military campaign against the Crown presence in Ireland. As Morley notes, “cén fáth nár thuill Ó Néill agus Ó Domhnaill áit lárnach dóibh féin i scéal an náisiúin nuair a athchóiríodh é lena chur in oiriúint do chúinsí an 18ú céad?”. [Why did O’Neill and O’Donnell not earn a central place in the story of the nation, when that story was recast to make it suitable for eighteenth century circumstance?]

His argument is that the difficulty arose from the fact that O’Neill and O’Donnell rose up against the Crown and that for a population with strong Jacobite sympathies, challenging royal authority was always going to be problematic. It was only after the 1798 rebellion that a shift occurs in attitude and that the poets begin to bring the Earls back into the canon of remembrance. Another change in attitude over time can be detected in responses to Keating’s defence of the papal bull that legitimised the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. As a clergyman, Keating’s stance is hardly surprising as he was unlikely in Counter-Reformation Europe to openly contest papal authority even if it was in relation to events that took place several hundred years previously. Hugh MacCurtin or Aodh Buí Mac Cruitín in his Brief Discourse in Vindication of the Antiquity of Ireland (1717) is already sceptical of Keating’s defence. Describing how Donnchadha, Brian Boru’s son is said to have died on a pilgrimage to Rome, MacCurtin adds:

By this Means the Crown of Irland fell into the Pope’s Hands; but of any Power given to him to bestow it to others, I cou’d never find the least Authority for it, but the Writings of such as wou’d feign Reasons to strengthen the Donation of Adrian the Fourth to Henry the Second of England.

MacCurtin is deeply in thrall to Keating, as is evident from poems like “A Bhanba is feasach dom scéala” [Ireland, I am well informed of your story] but it is an admiration that has its limits. As there is no radical improvement in the lot of the majority population for most of the century, sympathy for the initial papal imprimatur of conquest is vanishingly thin. What is evident is that though there is continuity in an overarching framework of historical themes, the inclusion or exclusion of specific events or themes is part of a process of dynamic renewal. This movement continues into the nineteenth century with the emergence of English-language publications such as the Irish Magazine, which were sympathetic to the cause of the Catholic majority but replaced the Counter-Reformation rhetoric of earlier centuries with the republican idealism of the United Irishmen.

In his long polemical preface to Foras Feasa, Keating contests the arguments of the apologists of the English conquest of Ireland from Giraldus Cambrensis to Fynes Moryson on the basis that they were ill-placed to judge a people or a culture whose language or literature they could not understand, “chonnairc mé agus tuigim prímh-leabhair an tseanchusa, agus ní fhacadar-san iad, agus dá bhfacdís, ní tuigfidh leó iad”. [I have seen and I understand the chief historical books, and they have not seen them, and if they had seen them, they would not have understood them.]

Morley advances an argument that is not dissimilar when he bemoans the fact that failure to engage with Irish-language manuscript sources and their contexts leads to Anglocentric representations of Irish life and culture that marginalise the experience of the majority. There are, however, two other major questions that are raised by Morley’s important book; the first is to do with what might be dubbed “teleological fundamentalism” and the second relates to the disconcerting linguistic apartheid of Irish public intellectual life.

If Hegel’s contention was that the owl of Minerva flew at dusk, the twilight view has done little to further the understanding of Irish-language culture. As Breandán Ó Buachalla in Aisling Ghéar (1996) would claim with respect to the work of the Franciscan scholars in Louvain, this was not a heroic death-rattle for a dying civilisation but a modern historical enterprise that saw intellectual renewal as vital to the fortunes of any contemporary modern language. In Jacobean terms, they were over-reachers rather than undertakers. The difficulty is that the post-Famine telos of catastrophic language decline is constantly projected back over Irish history. In this view, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards all aspects of Irish-language culture assume the form of a bleak dress rehearsal for ultimate annihilation. Irish-language culture is not a “moribund tradition” (Leerssen, Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael [1996]) at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The demand for manuscript copies of Tuireamh na hÉireann is greater than ever before. New poems and reworkings of cultural and historical materials are being produced in unprecedented numbers by writers such as Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin, Diarmaid na Bolgaí Ó Sé, Seán Ó Braonáin, Peatsaí Ó Callanáin, Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin and Eoghan Ó Comhraí. The songs continued to be sung in as large a number as ever. The most toxic effect of teleological fundamentalism is to erase the lived experience of millions of Irish speakers from the cultural and historical record of the country. The irony, of course, as Morley never ceases to point out, is that the records are there, but nobody much is bothering to look.

The second question that arises from Ó Chéitinn go Raiftearaí is not so much who will read the records as who will read the book about the records? Morley’s new work ranks alongside Máirín Nic Eoin’s Trén bhFearann Breac’: An Díláithriú Cultúir agus Nualitríocht na Gaeilge (2005) [Through the Speckled Terrain: Cultural Displacement and Modern Literature in Irish] and Brian Ó Conchubhair’s Fin de Siècle na Gaeilge: Darwin, An Athbheochan agus Smaointeoireacht na hEorpa (2009) [The Irish Fin de Siècle: Darwin, the Revival and European Thought] as one of those books that is hugely significant in re-evaluating core aspects of Irish political, cultural and historical experience. Yet it is largely in vain that one looks to the reference sections of many English-language works on Ireland for evidence of these or other works of Irish-language scholarship. That ninety years after independence there should be so few public intellectuals in Ireland who can operate comfortably in both national languages is as limiting as it is dispiriting. There is a kind of dual silencing in operation. Firstly, the sources are not heard because they are in the wrong language and secondly, the books on the sources are ignored because they are in the wrong language. If Irish-language scholars and writers consistently list English-language sources, it is only rarely that the compliment is returned.

In evidence to the Select Committee on Juries (Ireland) in 1873, a Mr CH Hempill made the following remark:

I am sorry to say that there are many instances of apparently very respectable men in Kerry, who, when they come to be examined as witnesses, cannot either speak or understand English even now, strange as it might appear. At my quarter sessions I am obliged to have an interpreter in the outlying districts to take the evidence. […] In Dingle, in the county of Kerry, which is one of my quarter sessions’ towns, and at Cahirciveen, almost every second case requires the intervention of an interpreter.

It seems, at times, as if this notion of mistaken linguistic respectability has taken such deep root that benevolent indifference is the most that can be expected by Irish-language scholars in Irish intellectual life. Denis Bogue Sullivan can continue to speak but who is listening?


Michael Cronin teaches in Dublin City University. His most recent publication is 'Translation in the Digital Age' (Routledge 2013).