Dr. Sheehan’s Gabha na Coille.
Letter from Canon Peter O’Leary to the Editor of The Freeman’s Journal.
Castlelyons, Co. Cork.
March 16th, 1915.
I have just seen the latest little book by the Rev Dr Sheehan, named Gabha na Coille. Every little book of Dr Sheehan’s composing is an extraordinary piece of workmanship. There is always a preface; and the preface is not the least extraordinary part of the workmanship. In the preface there is always an assumption of rule over the Irish language, by which an attempt is made to justify the practical enforcement of these little writings as the standard of Irish and Irish literature for the youth of the country.
Throughout the civilised world literature grows out of the life of a people, out of the free play of their minds, and out of the free use of their own speech.
Here in Ireland, though there were few Irish books printed in the last three centuries, the life of the people went on, the language went on with that life, and it went on with a good deal of oral cultivation.
I was born into that speech in 1839. I have lived in it and with it all my life. As a child I knew the old songs and stories. I have read it from my boyhood. For years I have been writing it.
Irish is my native speech and I am a native speaker of Irish. But I find that on questions touching the forms of the language, questions of a nature to be decided by native usage and native knowledge, my testimony is set aside, for although I am a native speaker I am not illiterate and I am not dead.
It seems that it is only dead native speakers or illiterate native speakers whose speech is to be trusted, and of illiterate native speakers those only are to be trusted whose speaking and manner of speaking are under the direction of Dr Sheehan. Dr Sheehan is to be the censor and the ultimate judge of correct Irish speech. Over and over again this claim of domination over the speech is made in the prefaces to Dr Sheehan’s books. In describing the making up of pieces in Cnó Coilleadh Craobhaighe Dr Sheehan says
they were composed by native speakers under the direction of Pádraig Ó Cadhla or myself. We suggested the several themes and their treatment, and exercised a censorship over the Irish with a view to excluding anglicised turns of expression.
In his preface to Arthrach an Óir Dr Sheehan says (writing in Irish):
Patrick O’Dore of Ring gave me these stories. . . . . . I myself helped him to compose them, but even if I did, it is not my language but his own that is in them. When we first composed them, we left them unwritten for a year, so that there should be no trace of my language upon them.
What is the purpose of these “compositions”?
Year by year they are forced on young students by being placed in the courses of the Intermediate Board.
Dr Sheehan is Professor of Greek at Maynooth. How would the Chairman of the Intermediate Board like to see Dr Sheehan’s Greek scholarship applied to the annual production of an imitation, let us say, of a comedy of Aristophanes? And the Chairman of the Intermediate Board, although a Greek scholar, is not a Greek. I am an Irishman, and can I be expected to countenance in Irish what Dr Starkie would not tolerate in Greek?
The fact is that in matters concerning the Irish language, an inversion of the natural order of things is taken as a matter of course, and has been the law followed since Father O’Growney left The Gaelic Journal. Father O’Growney was a learner who treated the language with respect; who worked for it, and served it, and died for it. When he had gone to America, learners with a taste for domineering tried to lord it over the language and to make it serve them. They blighted the language movement. They necessarily introduced confusion into the administration of any educational system that had the misfortune of their presence or assistance.
In the preface to Dr Sheehan’s latest little book there is a very good example of this inversion of order. Dr Sheehan takes four ordinary Irish sentences and holds them up as examples of obscure and unintelligible construction, and explains and accounts for them incorrectly.
I will take the first of these sentences chuaigh dá gcuid fíona, because it happens to have been used by me in my translation of the Gospel from the Missal published in 1902. It occurs in the Gospel according to St. John, ch. ii, v. 3, in the narrative of the marriage in Cana of Galilee. There is nothing obscure in the phrase. It means “their wine failed,” or “ran short.” The literal English of it is, “there ‘went from’ their supply of wine”; i.e., it became small; it diminished. The Irish form chuaigh de, “there went from it,” is indigenous Irish. It have been listening to it during seventy years and have heard it constantly out of the mouths of Irish speakers, many of whom had never spoken a word of English. It runs through all the moods and tenses.
Tá ag dul dá gcuid fíona=there is going from their supply of wine; i.e., their wine is failing.
Bíonn ag dul dá gcuid fíona=there wine does be failing.
Téann dá gcuid fíona=their wine (usually) fails.
Do chuaigh dá gcuid fíona=their wine failed.
Bhí ag dul dá gcuid fíona=their wine was failing.
Bhíodh ag dul dá gcuid fíona=their wine used to be failing.
Do théadh dá gcuid fíona=their wine used to fail (on certain occasions).
I remember an old song which I used to hear sung by children over seventy years ago:—
Má théann dem ghadharaibh
Béarfad Bran agus Fly liom,
Lily mheidhreach agus
If there goes from my dogs (if I run short of dogs),
I will take Bran and Fly with me,
Lily, the merry, and
Finder, the white.
If a person was getting old, so as to be losing his wits, people said tá ag dul dá chiall=“there is going from (something being lost from) his wits”.
If a man were running a race, and that he collapsed in the middle of the race, people said chuaigh dá neart=“there went from his strength”; i.e., “his strength failed”.
If there were water in a vessel, and that it was growing less on account of the evaporation, people would say tá ag dul de=“there is going from it”; i.e., “it is diminishing”.
And so on. In fact the people’s speech is full of it.
The little book of the Gospel from the Missal, in which I used the phrase chuaigh dá gcuid fíona has been in circulation for some thirteen years. If Dr Sheehan had wanted to know the meaning of the expression I could have explained it to him at any time during those thirteen years if he had asked me. Instead of doing that, he makes a guess that chuaigh dá gcuid fíona seems to have been suggested by the literal English rendering of do chuaigh díom a dhéanamh. But that is quite another form of expression, which is so entirely different from the first, both in meaning and in structure, that no native Irish speaker could possibly see any approach to identity between the two. Here are some examples of that other form:—
Do chuaigh díom é ’ dhéanamh=it went from me to do it; i.e., it was beyond my power to do it.
Or let us use a pronoun of the third person, and say, do chuaigh de é ’ dhéanamh=“to do it went from him”; i.e., to do it went beyond him, beyond his strength.
Let us suppose the pronoun in de to be neuter, representing a motor for example, and a certain hill was too stiff and the motor was not able to get up to the top of it. Then it would be said of the motor, do chuaigh de é ’ dhéanamh=“it (the motor) failed to do it”; or “it failed it (the motor) to do it.”
Now we have the words in the right order for the two forms in that one sentence, and we can divide it into two sentences, namely—
1. do chuaigh de é ’ dhéanamh.
2. do chuaigh de.
The meaning of the first sentence is “it failed to do it”; i.e., it did not succeed.
The meaning of the second sentence is “it failed”; i.e., it diminished, or, became small.
The first implies no decrease in the strength of the motor, but only that the opposing force was too great for it.
The second sentence says nothing about an opposing force. It merely states that something got small; that some part of it went from it.
In the first sentence é ’ dhéanamh is the nominative case to do chuaigh. In the second sentence there is no nominative case at all.
The literal English of the second sentence is “there went from it,” i.e., “some of it disappeared”. There are many ways of expressing the loss; it “became small”, or “diminished”, or “exhausted”; it “failed”, “ran short”, “got low”, etc., etc.
If a person knowing Latin will look into the matter he will perceive a striking resemblence between deficiente vino and chuaidh dá gcuid fíona.
I think it is a strange thing for people who cannot see the difference between chuaigh dá gcuid fíona and do chuaigh díom é ’ dhéanamh to attempt to explain Irish language difficulties.
But it has been so from the beginning. People who never heard a word of Irish spoken go and learn a little Irish, and then, the moment they think they understand a little of the language, they proceed to explain all about it to those who have been speaking it all their lives. They would not dare to do that with regard to French, or with regard to any other language which was foreign to them. It is a sad thing to see the Irish language at the mercy of such people.
PETER O’LEARY, P.P.
Note: published in The Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, March 17th, 1915, page 7. The Dr Sheehan referred to is Michael Sheehan (also known as Mícheál Ó Síothcháin, a native of Waterford city; 1870-1945), vice-president of Maynooth College from 1919, and Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, from 1922. Dr Sheehan was noted for his collection of material on Waterford Irish, including Shean-Chaint na nDéise. His book, Cnó Coilleadh Craobhaighe, was subtitled “The Irish of the People”, possibly provoking PUL’s annoyance that Dr Sheehan did not allow the Irish of the People to stand as it should.