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THE PROSPECTS OF THE IRISH LANGUAGE
THERE is an interesting article in the October number of
the New IRELAND REVIEW, on the fortunes of the Czech language in Bohemia, describing how not very long ago it had fallen into neglect, and was disused by the higher classes, till some patriotic men, by resolute efforts, succeeded in reviving it, so that it recovered all, or more than all the ground it had lost, and drove out the intrusive language, German, which had threatened to supersede it. The only case mentioned is that of Bohemia, and we simply read the account of a single encounter in the struggle between Teutonic and Slavonian speech; but it need hardly be said that the writer is thinking of a case nearer home, the circumstances of which more or less resemble those described, and that he anticipates a similar revival of the Irish language, the ill fortune of which fills him with regret.
I sympathise with the regret, but I do not share the anticipation; and I crave indulgence on the part of the readers of the REVIEW, if I venture to set forth my reasons for thinking that there is a fatal difference between the two cases. My remarks,
may add, apply at least as well to one or two other cases in which similar grounds for hope have been discovered. Both German and Russian, it has been remarked, after being encroached upon by French, finally rallied their strength, and expelled the alien tongue (see Mr. T. O. Russell
Teanga thioramhail," pp. 29, 30); and a similar thought appears in the aspiration sometimes expressed, that in Ireland some Dante may arise and be the father of a new literature in the language of the people. We may also trace the same notion in the opinion expressed by Mr. George Moore, that whereas Dr. Douglas Hyde has written in English and Irish, his use of the former language may be compared with the case of Milton writing in Latin.
It may be that at first sight the expectation above mentioned appears to some extent plausible. Take the case of Ireland and Bohemia; in both a native language, let us say,
once prevailed exclusively, in both a foreign idiom intruded itself and gained a position of advantage, becoming the language of the richer classes, of public business, and of most literature. Yet in the one case the native language recovered itself and expelled tbe intruder; why should it not do so in the other? The agency required is in fact, we are told, ready to hand : in Bohemia the Church espoused the national cause, and aided the movement, and in Ireland, the same Church, animated with the same spirit, may succeed in producing a similar result.
There is to me something postively pathetic in this sanguine reasoning. No comparison, it is said, runs on all fours; still I should say, it is perfectly true that the example of the countries referred to is both relevant and instructive; but the conclusion to be drawn from them is not the one which Father Finlay suggests, but the one which he opposes.
I feel almost as if I must take my life in my hands in putting the case as it strikes me; however, murder will out, and my honest opinion is as follows. There were, no doubt, in Bohemia two rival idioms, one the language of the country, and the other the language of literary affectation; the former was Czech, and the latter was German, and the former won the day. Similarly in Ireland there are two rival idioms, one the language of the country, and the other the language of literary affectation; but the former is English and the latter is Irish, and the former will win the day.
Of course any one who should read as far as this is likely here to protest against this view as unjust and absurd. It is Gaelic, it may be said, and not English that in Ireland is the language of the country, just as it is Czech in Bohemia; English was brought in like German by an alien race. My reply is to ask what is meant by the expression “ language of the country." The fact is that the words may be used in two senses, in the one they mean the historical language, and in that the expression applies to Gaelic and Czech alike; but in the other what is meant is the language which is actually spoken by the bulk of the inhabitants, and in that sense the expression again applies to Czech, but not to Gaelic. Look at the words used by Father Finlay : Czech, he says (p. 69) was the speech of the poor and the uneducated, of the navvy and the street porter, of the mere peasants. How many of the
poor and uneducated in Ireland can speak three words of Gaelic? Not one in ten. And to compare the position of
? . German in Germany, as it was in the eighteenth century, with that of Gaelic in Ireland as it is now, as Mr. T. O. Russell has done, is simply ludicrous. Of course, as said before, it is the historical language; but which of the two attributes of the “language of the country” is the more capable of aiding to effect the purpose of driving out an alien tongue—the fact that it is the historic idiom, or the fact that it is in common use ? To ask this question is to answer it.
It will, however, be said that I am neglecting one important factor in the matter, namely, the national feeling; and the Gaelic leaguer would, I suppose, put his case thus :—"The Czech language carried the day against the language of affectation, because it was supported by the feeling of nationality; the English languge will not carry the day against what you are pleased to call the language of affectation in the Irish case, because the feeling of nationality is on the side of the Irish language.” I feel inclined to say that the real feeling of the Irish is not quite so easily got at as many imagine; however I will assume that there is a widespread sympathy with the language movement; and I fully admit that this is an important point. But the
But the persons whose views I am disputing themselves pay little or no heed to the existence of other powerful factors in the Bohemian case, which are wanting in the Irish case, or indeed, to some extent are on the opposite side. The Czech movement was aided by national feeling ; ; but it was also aided by what may be called, vis inertia, by the reluctance which men feel to have their habits interfered with, by the indisposition of the general run of mankind to think about words when their natural bent is to think about things, or to learn any other language besides the one which they acquired unconsciously in their childhood, and which has always been the language of their business, their loves, their quarrels, their amusement and their family life. All this is in Ireland on the side of English; and what is to me particularly strange, and rather, as I should say, the mark of a weak case, is that the writers whom I referred to do not minimize, attenuate, dispute, or discuss the consideration I have just mentioned; they simply pass it by without a word of notice !
There was another auxiliary circumstance in the Bohemian case the like of which does not exist for Ireland. Czech is nearly akin to Polish ; it is akin, though more remotely, to Russian; it can consequently derive considerable literary assistance from those languages, and be supplied, if necessary, with a ready set of names for a number of objects and conceptions for which a terminology would be difficult to improvise. The Gaelic language has a good deal of way to make up in this matter; it has no kindred tongue from which to borrow words, and it is singularly inapt at adopting any from languages entirely foreign; the very spelling raises a difficulty. However, this is a trifle compared with other matters.
Much assistance, however, we are told, was derived in Bohemia from the Church and the clergy. Is this a topic of encouragement or the reverse ? How many priests in Ireland can preach in Gaelic, and in how many churches would they be intelligible if they did ? One well-known member of the Irish priesthood has endeavoured to promote the cause by popular literature; but I think I have read in the Gaelic column of a widely read newspaper that in his opinion giving instruction in Irish is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it.
This leads to another side of the question. I have been arguing that the movement is not likely to succeed; but let us look at the facts. It has been proceeding now for some years. Has anything been effected? There is abundant information that classes are attended in different parts of the country. On various occasions speeches are delivered; the speaker, we constantly learn, begins in Gaelic but continues in English ; notices are put up in Gaelic, where they are about as useful as they would be on Hampstead Heath ; there is, in short, a great disposition to enjoy the supposition that the language is known, but how many people get as far as the boy who wins a prize for French, or could hold an easy conversation with a peasant in the south-west? Meantime, with the peasantry themselves, the language is continually declining.
It was pointed out the other day in the Freeman's Journal (for. October 3) that the number of children under ten who know it in parts of the country where the parents can speak it, is so small in proportion to the number of these parents themselves that evidently the latter do not habitually speak Irish in their own homes. Hereon it is naïvely remarked in the journal
mentioned that “a crusade to have Irish spoken in the homes of those who know Irish would be more effective in preserving and ultimately spreading the language than any number of Gaelic classes engaged in studying Irish primers through English.” Provided—it should have added—the crusaders can see their way to securing deferential attention ; but I doubt if elderly Irish peasants are easily crusaded out of their habits. The remark itself is a specimen of that terrible want of what some call a sense of humour, and others call a sense of reality, which is not the least striking feature of the whole movement.
The fact is that the promoters of the enterprise considerably overrate the progress made, and enormously underrate the difficulty to be encountered in the business of revolutionizing the language of a country. Suppose, however, they succeeded to the utmost extent which, as I take it, they can themselves or most of them anticipate, would it be worth while? This, it may be said, is a question on which one who was born in England is not likely to be impartial or unprejudiced or wellinformed; and, no doubt, as human nature is, he is not likely to be quite uninfluenced by the fact that the language in question has been constantly made the badge and vehicle of rancour and insult against his own country. But I would ask this question : Does any one seriously anticipate there ever will be widely spread such a knowledge of Gaelic as possessed by John O'Donovan, or as is now possessed by Dr. Ilyde? There is a letter of the former in which he says that he knows English six times as well as he does Irish ; and with regard to Dr. Hyde-with the utmost respect for his remarkable proficiency in Gaelic, and with all deference to Mr. George Moore—I do suppose he would himself be the first to admit that his knowledge of English is very much the greater. What is the object, assuming it to be possible, of keeping up in general use two languages for intercourse among the same people, where one of them is known much better than the other? The less known form of speech is sure to be modelled on the better known, and the latter-day Irish will be the pale ghost of the old tongue, meagre in vocabulary and Anglified in construction, and with about as little of the spirit and genius of the language of the O'Neills and O'Donnells of the old days as if it were newspaper Saxon. And what literature was ever written by a man who sat down to write literature ?