PUL’s letters to Pádraig Breathnach

Extracts from Canon Peter O’Leary’s Letters.

Castlelyons, January, 1910.

Those songs which you have put into those little books constitute one of the most valuable things we now possess for the benefit of the language. They are full up of most beautiful idiomatic turns of expression which there is no possibility of finding anywhere else. When people are making effortss, as many people now are, at conversing in Irish they will find those little books of yours exceedingly helpful. I tried to put as many of those idiomatic turns as I could into my books, but I find in those songs a lot of them which I had completely forgotten or never heard at all. If all the songs were in one book that book would be most valuable in the sense I speak of. Perhaps you are only thinking of the value of the music. The value of the idioms is, I think, greater.

It is probable also that some people are making little of your work and discouraging you. They are shortsighted people, and there are a lot of them around us. They do not see the value of the Irish language to the race whose ancestors have been using it in the past. They do not see what the loss of the language would be to that race. Already, even though our people have not advanced very far in the recovery of the language, the nation’s backbone has grown strong to a degree which is a surprise to a person taking the trouble to watch the process.

I saw a remark somewhere lately to this effect:—

“The language of the nation was an effectual barrier against infidelity when that language was in vigorous existence. But that barrier does not exist now because the language is not spoken at all.”

That is a terrible mistake. They very efforts which a considerable section of the nation is now making to recover the use of the language are forming themselves into a barrier against infidelity, even stronger than the barrier which the language formed when it was spoken all over the country. And why? Because neither the people nor the language were respected then, either at home or abroad. No one had a particle of respect then for ourselves nor for our language, and we ourselves had no respect for ourselves or for our language. The present movement has changed all that. A large portion of use have now a very high degree of respect both for ourselves and for the language. I remember a long time ago hearing a remark from a student in Maynooth which I was a student there. The remark came at the end of a discussion about national self-respect:—

“Every nation in existence,” said he, “has nothing to point to and to be proud of. We have not a single thing to be proud of.”

If he lives still he can now point to the Irish language and to the movement for its preservation, and he can say, “Yes, we have something now to be proud of, something which no other nation possesses now, our own Irish speech, and it is more beautiful than the speech of any other nation”. There is nothing in the world so wholesome for a nation a national self-respect. Everything which gives strength to the movement adds to that rousing. That rousing of national self-respect is the strongest of all barriers against not only foreign infidelity, but against all sorts of foreign literary dirt and filth. Those songs which you have been collecting are one of the strongest forces in the rousing.

February 20th, 1910.

I have read the book (No. 2) over carefully. The songs are splendid, and they are exactly the people’s own speech, the very thing we want.

September 12th, 1910.

There is a vast difference between the “poems” composed by our present-day Irish writers and the poems composed by the dead poets of the last century or two. There is more poetry in Cíll Chais than in the very best of the works of your living poets, or than in all of them together. Take the two first verses of An rabhais ag an gCarraig. There is a touch in those two verses which beats Horaces to rags! The dolefulness is exquisite satire. I have never seen a nice laugh at a love-sick spoony than there is in the words: Agus níl sí dhá chloí mar atáir. It is inimitable. The more doleful it is the more exquisite. The old folk songs whose authorship is utterly unknown are the best.

Ar bruach na Laoi is a very fine song. It is possible that the words le díth mo mhearathaill may not be easily understood. This díth means the inconvenience of the “want” of being able to take care of himself which has mearathall caused to him. It does not mean the want of mearathall, but the want caused by it.

In Cíll Chais we have the words an t-aifreann doimhinn. Doimhinn is the word, not bínn. It means “sublime”. It is a splendid expression as applied to the Most Holy Sacrifice.

The reason why I have gone so carefully over this little book is because the real old songs in it are gems of the first water. I say the old songs. The old songs are poetry of the highest type. They flowed, by a natural force from the very heart of the poet. Then they are full of natural touches, apparently simple, but producing an effect which no degree of educational skill could produce. In fact they are exactly the touches which educated skill is calculated to prevent rather than to produce.

Jimmymo mhíle stór is full of such touches. And mind they are not that apotheosis of trifles which English poetry is full of. They are simple, natural touches; but, taken as a whole, they are the expression of a terrible force.

Then take an t-úll. The line cúrsaí spóirt agus cómhrá dí. Could anything be more true! Could anything be at all more natural! Then the beautiful apple turned out to be a Práitín síl! And then go raibh sé ’na sheó acu ar sráid Neidín.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this combination of simplicity and power is Cíll Chais. If I begin to read that song and give my mind its head, do you know what happens? Before I have got through the piece the tears are gushing from my eyes! It is the most powerful thing I have ever read. Where is the living one of our would-be Irish poets who could bring a tear from my eye? Well you see that it is no wonder that I am most anxious that these songs should go into the hands of our children perfectly free from blemishes. You are doing a splendid work! Try and do it as splendid work out to be done.

October 29th, 1912.

I have just gone over the songs in MS. I have a marked a few little things, especially a point about sequence of tenses. The Ciarraíoch mallaithe is good (No. 5). The Irish is of a superior description. The fun is a pleasaing departure from the usual spéirbhean. It is well worth printing.

November, 1912.

I have never heard such a vocative case as a chumainn. A chumann is what I have always heard. It is very likely that the phrase has always been addressed to a woman, and that there was no possibility of saying, a chumainn. There is no such vocative as a stóir. It has ever and always been a stór whether addressed to a man or to a woman.

I have said, A phobal in my sermons as a vocative. I heard a preacher once say a phobail. I was quite sure he meant a vocative plural! I was about ten years old and there was a visitation and there were a number of congregations present. I thought that was the reason why he said a phobail. I understood afterwards that the reason he said it was because he had learned most of his Irish out of books.

The phrase a phobail used as a vocative singular has for me, or for any native speaker I have ever known, the significance that the word pobal in that phrase is the name of some individual person or thing.

November 13th, 1912.

I have to say again that your book of songs will be a treasure, not only as far as the music goes, but also as far as genuine Irish speech goes. These little books of yours are most valuable as repositories of idiomatic turns of expressions in the Irish language. We are face to face now with a most mischievous business. People are writing “Irish” books and they are only inventing the Irish which they write! They are endeavouring to force their books upon the schools. Your little book will be of infinitely more value than any of those would-be “classical” productions.

December, 1912.

The song beginning Ar maidin inné is really grand. It is one of the best of its kind that I have seen. In fact it has a Horatian look. Then Duan na Saoirse—it is a splendid song. The difference between those old songs and the very best of our new songs is that those old songs breathe the very spirit and mind of the people of their time, whereas the new songs breather the more or less anglicised spirit of the present day. There is another difference. Very few of the writers of th new songs have a single ray of the true spirit of poetry in them, whereas those old fellows were born poets. Those old songs were composed by born poets for a public which was a complete master of every phrase of the speech used. The members of that public were keen and expert critics of the propriety of every turn of expression used, and of the
beauty of every picture presented by the fancy or imagination of the poet. Hence when a new song came all admired it, but each admirer knew well, simple as the thing was, that he himself could not have produced it. What a sinking of the heart those old critics would experience if they heard some of the songs which are produced now!!

Stick to the old songs. Perhaps by degrees the taste of the old honey may come to be experienced again by the force of repeating the words.

February, 1913.

In reading those songs through many things have come into my mind. In the first place the hard things that have been said about our poor Spéirbhean are all wrong. If all the songs about the Spéirbhean were collected in one book we would have one of the most beautiful books in any language. You would have in it the same idea expressed in hundreds of different ways, and all most beautiful and most interesting and essentially Irish. Take this idea—a craobhfholt mar ór buí ’na thóirsibh, i.e., “in torches”. What an uncommon simile, and how beautiful! I don’t think I ever heard a head of hair compared to “flaming gold”. Here it is. I tell you the Spéirbhean poetry has been very much wronged! This book of yours will be a storehours of beautiful turns of expression. Séadna represents only one person. This book will give us a peep into the Irish minds of all the best men during a good many years, and in that peep we will see Irish uncontaminated by English.

February 17th, 1913.

I am looking over the little books which you sent me some days ago. I am examining them closely. As I told you, the book which they will make when put together will be one of the most valuable in the movement. They are full up of the idioms which were in the mouths of Irish speakers during the last two centuries in this country and which would be utterly lost but for your having collected those songs. The real value of the book will be seen when, in the near future under Home Rule, the rising generation of the people will be looking in earnest for genuine Irish forms of speech. Then the Irish which is being at present written by sticklers for “classical” Irish will be flung aside with contempt, and those songs will be scrutinised in order to get at the true stuff.

March 27th, 1913.

You have no idea of the value of those songs as fountains of idiomatic turns of expression. They will begin to be drawn upon as soon as people being to converse in Irish, and some are beginning to do that already. Whenever I am in doubt about an idiom it is back to some one of those old songs I go for the correct form. In fact correctness is not to be found elsewhere. It is in those old songs that the only true Irish is to be found. The Irish in all those songs is grand. It is splendid even where the passing of the songs through many mouths has cut up the sense. It has cut up the sense, but it has left the fragments sound. They are perfect as fragments. You may break up a piece of gold, but it is gold still. This book of yours will be real gold.

April 5th, 1913.

I have been speaking to several priests recently, and all admit that those songs of yours are storehouses of true Irish idioms. If the songs were all in one little volume it would be a regular reference book regarding idiomatic constructions.

April 15th, 1913.

There is one thing which I had in my mind when I was writing to you. I am not sure whether I put it down in black and white. It is this. The songs have a double value. They give us the genuine Irish speech in a purer form than any form in which it is given elsewhere. The idioms are crystallised in these songs. No person can change or corrupt them. The old music is also crystallised. The music clings to the forms of speech and the forms of speech cling to the music. Take the phrase: A dhuine bí ciúin go fóill… Just see how the words of that phrase and their sense get entwined around each other, and how they flow through the heart and soul of the singer and of the listener, producing an effect which can be felt but which there is no possibility of describing.

We have in those songs not only “music wedded to immortal verse”, but “immortal music wedded to immortal verse”.

May 15th, 1913.

I have already told you about the usefulness of these songs as a repository of genuine Irish words which are almost gone out of use, and which must be brought into use again soon. One word is the word íoghartha. The word has been a great puzzle in the phrase íoghar na spéire. The puzzle is cleared away here as it is plain that íoghartha is “of a bright red colour”. So that íoghar na spéire means “the bright red colour of the sky”.

The other words is táinte phóg, “crowds of kisses”.

I have often been anxiously looking out for a good Irish word for “a crowd”, and have failed to find one to my satisfaction. I knew the word táin, but was not quite sure it would do for a “crowd” in general. I see now that it is just the word. As táinte phóg is good Irish, táinteanything is good. And there could be no better authority for an Irish usage than Eóghan Rua. (These words are found in song Do Rinneadh Aisling Aerach, Cuid a 7.)

Peadar Ua Laoghaire.

Caisleán Ua Liatháin,

Co. Chorcaí.


Ciarraíoch: “Kerryman”.
cómhrá dí: “the fellowship of drink; a convivial conversation over a drink”.
craobhfholt: “flowing hair”.
cumann: “association, society”, or “love, companionship; sweetheart”. A chumann!, “my darling!”
doimhinn: “deep”, domhain in the CO. Pronounced /dəiŋʹ/.
íoghar na spéire: this word is normally found in PUL’s works as fiaradh na spéire, and in the CO as fíor na spéire, meaning “horizon”, where fíor is derived from an early spelling fíoghar. I am unclear if PUL’s
argument that this means, or is derived from a meaning of, “bright red colour of the sky” is correct. Several words appear cofused as fíoghar appears in PUL’s Irish in the meaning of “figure” as figiúir.
íoghartha: a word meaning “figurative, shapely”, spelt fíoghartha in PSD and fíortha in FGB. PUl has figiúrtha in this meaning. I am unclear as to the value of PUL’s opinion that íoghartha essentially means “of a bright red colour”.
mearathall: “confusion”, or mearbhall. Pronounced /mʹarəhəl/ in WM Irish.
Neidín (an Neidín): Kenmare, Co. Kerry. Kenmare derives from Ceann Mara, on the northern side of the base. Neidín means “little nest”.
práitín síl: “little seed potato”.
seó: “show, spectable”. Na sheó acu ar sráid Neidín, “the laughing stock of Kenmare”.
spéirbhean: “fair lady”.
stór: “store, treasure”. A stór!, “my darling!”
táin: “cattle raid”, and by extension, “cattle, flock, drove; wealth”. Táinte, “droves of, millions of, myriads of, large numbers of”. PUL quotes táinte phóg here, but PSD has táinte póg, without lenition in his dictionary.
tóirse: “torch”. PUL quotes a dative plural na thóirsibh, with a short ending; tóirsíbh would be possible too from the plural tóirsí.


About dj1969

at the conservative end of the libertarian spectrum
This entry was posted in Contents. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to PUL’s letters to Pádraig Breathnach

  1. Just randomly came across this here, but regarding íoghar na spéire and íoghartha, Dinneen mentions in the lemma oiġear (»ice; scars or redness of the skin from wind, cold, friction, etc.; heat of the blood; irritation, windgall; act of irritating, angering; chilblain«) that the word is often spelt íoġar when it means »rosy colour, in Munster poetry; cf. daṫ-íoġair, rosy«, which fits with PUL’s statement, apart from the exact nuance of the red (rosy vs. bright red).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s