Hidden Gems: Irish Language Holdings in Armagh Public Library


Charles Dillon, who gave the 2016 Rokeby Lecture on Irish language holdings in the Library, has very kindly provided a copy of the lecture for online publication.

Hidden Gems: Irish Language Holdings in Armagh Public Library

Charles Dillon, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin

Armagh Public Library is rightly celebrated for the richness of its holdings, and is visited by great numbers of people interested in the literary, historical, ecclesiastical, scientific and indeed architectural heritage of Ireland. My hope during my presentation tonight is that by casting light on some of the valuable material in the Irish language among the holdings of the Library, we might add to that list of interests that the Library can cater for.

Material in Irish is rich and varied, from early modern translations of prayer-books and scripture to mid-twentieth century Irish scientific textbooks, via Bedell’s famous Bible, large scholarly editions of early Irish texts made in the mid nineteenth century, copies of the Irish Annals and even an early edition, from 1915, of the short stories of Patrick Pearse.

What is striking, and is proof of this library’s ability to tell an important part of the story of the Irish language, is that the holdings here include some of the earliest printed works in Irish. It is with them that I propose to begin, and readers should consult the various works alluded to in order to gain a full sense of the challenges faced by these writers and of their literary and scholarly achievements.

With the arrival of the Gaelic translation of The Book of Common Order in 1567, carried out by the Scottish Presbyterian John Carswell (c.1522-1572), the Church in Ireland was spurred into the production of translation of texts central to its teachings, perhaps wary of a Gaelic-speaking presbyterianism in Scotland taking root among the populace of Ireland, which was of course to an overwhelming extent Irish speaking at this time. Elizabeth I, who is known to have had prepared for her an Irish phrasebook, took a great interest in the cause of printing in Irish, and by 1567 a grant of £66 (or 6k today) had been received by Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Armagh (1533/4-1605) and Hugh Brady, Bishop of Meath (c.1527-1584), for ‘the making of caracter‘ to allow for the printing of Irish text. The dominant narrative at the time was that every endeavour should be made to preach to the native Irish in their own language, and throughout the later Elizabethan period account is taken, in church appointments, of ability to preach in Irish – Hugh Brady himself, was described after his appointment to Meath in 1563 as ‘well able to preach in the Irish tongue‘; Christopher Browne of Templepatrick was recommended for appointment as bishop of Down due to his being ‘discreet and learned in the Irish language‘. It was natural that an effort be made to produce a translation of the Bible for the purposes of supporting these efforts, and the New Testament in Irish was published in 1603, very shortly before the death of Elizabeth, and although an early imprint it was presented to the court before her death, there is no evidence that she saw or acknowledged it. The final printed version contains a dedication to her successor, James I. The translation took place over a long period of time, and appears to have been stop-start in nature until taken over by Uilliam Ó Domhnaill, or William Daniel (1570-1628), a Kilkenny native who was among the first students in the newly-founded Trinity College in 1592. He was awarded a doctorate of divinity in 1602, principally for his work in completing the Irish translation of the New Testament, using as a source text the Greek version published by Erasmus in 1516, the Textus Receptus.

Ó Domhnuill continued with his translation activity, and in 1608 his translation of the Book of Common Prayer, Leabhar na nUrnaidhe gComhchoiteann was printed in Dublin by the printer John Francke (who according to the State papers was give £40 towards the costs of printing the Irish Book of Common Prayer). Ó Domhnuill has written a dedicatory epistle at the beginning of the book, to Lord Deputy Sir Arthur Chichester, asking him to receive the book;

and having embraced it, I humbly pray your honourable Lordship to send it abroad into the Country Churches, together with the elder brother the New Testament, to be fostered and fomented;

As to the impact of these translations into Irish of the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer, there are some important hints. As to their proliferation within the church itself, an ongoing scarcity of ministers with a sufficient capability in Irish was hampering their use and their success. However, note had been taken of these developments by Catholics, and the Franciscan friars in the Irish College in Louvain established a printing press with the aid of King Philip of Spain, and set about producing their own cathechetical material and works of translation – and frequent mention is made there of the previous work of the ‘heresies’ printed in Ireland which they seek to challenge in their own writings. Indeed William Ó Domhnuill is referenced by the Franciscan Aodh MacAingil, or Hugh McCaughwell (1571-1626), [1] who speaks in rather glowing terms, of this ‘great honourable man of the new faith’ and expresses regret at ‘one of his lineage falling into error’ (my translations) – a reference to his Gaelic surname, no doubt, and of course the fact that he was a product of the new Trinity College would have caused consternation among the Irish who were at that point founding seminaries across continental Europe for the preparation of priests. Despite this, however, as Nicholas Williams (of University College Dublin)[2] has shown through close comparison work between texts, McCaughwell used the New Testament of Ó Domhnuill when using a Biblical quotation in his own writings.

The translation of the Old Testament, which represents a significantly greater challenge than the New Testament, may not have been completed at all in the seventeenth century were it not for the drive and expertise of one Englishman, William Bedel of Essex in (1571-1642). Bedel finished his life as Bishop of Kilmore and translator of the Old Testament to Irish, a path which he may not have predicted for himself, but with hindsight there could have been no better training for the task than that which he received. Having been fired with the puritanical zeal of the newly-founded Emmanuel College, Cambridge (of which he was one of the first scholars enrolled and where he spent almost 20 years until the award of his doctorate necessitated his departure), he was appointed as chaplain to the English Ambassador to Venice, at a time there was hope a dispute with the papacy would lead to it becoming a Protestant state. While there, Bedel enhanced his skills in Hebrew and engaged in debates in scripture with Jewish scholars. He came to Ireland by way of Trinity College, after Archbishop Ussher had requested he be appointed Provost in 1627. His period in office in Trinity is marked by his willingness to bring the Irish language to the fore in college life, the better to prepare clergy to bring Protestantism to the Irish in their own vernacular. He instituted a regular Irish lecture, for Irish prayers in chapel, for service books in Irish and for the translation of the psalms as a precursor to the translation of the Old Testament in its entirety. His feelings on the Irish language are clear from a letter he wrote to the Master of Emmanuel College Cambridge in 1628;

 ‘- my first endeavour shall be to understand the toung of this Country which I see (although it be accounted otherwise) is a learned and exact language and full of difficulty.’

Work proper began on the translation of the Old Testament, after Bedel’s appointment to Kilmore in 1629, and his training in Hebrew and the honing of his skills while in Venice came to the fore. He employed a translator more skilled in Irish than he, one Muircheartach Ó Cionga, or Murtagh King (c.1562-c.1639), who in all likelihood had been schooled in the Gaelic tradition to a very high standard of skill in writing history and poetry, having come from a traditional learned family. King resided with Bedel, and the two, according to Clogie, the biographer of Bedel, discussed each day’s translation work in the evening, with the bishop having the translated text first read aloud to him, explained and then compared with the original Hebrew, with an Italian translation in Bedel’s possession, and with the English Authorised Version from which King was translating. The task was complete in ten years, but the outbreak of rebellion in 1641 and Bedel’s death a year later endangered the project and the manuscript of the translation was only saved by the intervention of Rev. Denis Sheridan, who took the work from the Bishop’s house, now in the hands of the insurgents, and caused it to be sent to London, where it was finally printed by Robert Boyle in 1685. Boyle received the work in a poor state, which alerts us to the precariousness of its situation after Bedel’s death, so vulnerable in only its manuscript form;

‘ a confused heap, pitifully defaced and broken, it was a work of very great labour to bring it into some order.’

Robert Boyle (1627-1691), the son of the Earl of Cork, was an avid supporter of the printing of Bibles in Irish and during the 1680s he succeeded in bringing both the Old and New Testaments to the press, thus making Ó Domhnuill’s New Testament available again in a reprint and making Bedel’s translation available for the first time in printed form.

The second part of my talk could best be generalised as a discussion of texts here in the library which owe their existence to this focus within the church of Ireland on presenting scripture to the Irish people in their native language. This focus was reignited and re-energised by the publication of the complete Bible by the early eighteenth century and various texts here point to a new, key aspect of texts translated in its wake – and that is portability and practical usability. It is easy to see that the Bible of such size would be not a practical text for a preacher who has to travel around and use it and read from it, notwithstanding its value and lack of durability. A smaller, pocket version of the NT was produced 1690, and here in the Library there is one of these editions and also a small bilingual catechism, from 1712, translated to Irish by Rev. John Richardson (1669-1747), Minister of Belturbet in Co. Cavan, which one can imagine was easily portable for use when the occasion arose.

Richardson, a native of County Tyrone, and later rector of Derryloran and later still rector of Belturbet, in many respects is the heir of O Domhnuill’s advocacy of the use of the Irish language to convert the Catholic population of Ireland. He was an aquaintance of Jonathan Swift, and through Swift’s acquaintance he was able to petition Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Ormond for the publication of prayer books, catechisms, and sermons in Irish, and to provide for the training of ministers capable of preaching in Irish. His ambitious plans are outlined in his A proposal for the conversion of the popish natives of Ireland to the establish’d religion, and this is among the many writings and sermons of Richardson here in the library, along with his catechism. This cathechism is also one of the first examples of bilingual printing, where the Irish and English texts appear alongside each other – in recognition, perhaps, of the difficulty of finding ministers fully versed in Irish who had not some need for recourse to the English version. Richardson’s ambitious plans were not taken on by the Church, so he turned to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge for assistance and this organisation helped fund the printing of his bilingual catechism which is on display. The publication is dedicated to Robert Nelson, who is closely associated with the founding of that Society.

Richardson also had made a 16-page offprint of the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, in the same bilingual, more portable format to serve as an aid to the minister who was in the field, or for those preachers or listeners less able in Irish and needed the English there them. Furthermore, individual books from the Old Testament were published as offprints, in a similar style so that portability could be afforded with the same practical aim. A closer examination of one of these ancillary publications, the Book of Proverbs, brings us into contact with one of the more colorful characters of the early nineteenth century, who was one of the pioneering preachers of the ‘Irish Society for Promoting the Education of the Native Irish through the Medium of their Own Language’. Thaddaeus/Thady Connellan or Tadhg Ó Coinnialláin (c.1780-1854), prepared for the print in 1815 an Irish edition of the Proverbs of Solomon, or Seanráite Sholaim, which was published in Dublin by the printers Graisberry and Campbell. It is an offprint, to some extent, as it uses Bedel’s Irish text, but is innovative in the sense that it is again a bilingual publication, which Connellan used to teach Irish and Scripture together. Connellan made a gift of books in 1820 to the Irish Society, and as the text of Solomon here in the library bears his name, this particular volume was probably from that gift.

Connellan, a native of Co Sligo was in all likelihood born a Catholic, and there is a suggestion that he was training for the priesthood when he came into contact with the Baptist Alfred Blest, under whose influence Connellan was put in charge of a school for training teachers of the scriptures in Irish. It is probably in this role that he saw and supplied the need for support materials for those who were attempting to bring their Irish up to scratch for the task, and there are slew of publications from him including an English-Irish dictionary from 1814, and an Irish-English Primer from the following year. Connellan himself became a teacher with the Irish Society, and travelled around Ireland teaching Scripture where he could – in this role he was described by Robert Peel, Chief Secretary to Ireland, in a letter to an MP friend in London:

‘There is a very extraordinary man here, whom I wish most heartily I could transport to you for two or three hours. He is employed, but without any suspicion of it, by a society in London, to promote the education of the poor and particularly the reading of the Bible. He is a Catholic by birth; a Catholic priest by education; and a convert, and I beleive a sincere one, from the Catholic faith. His name is Thady Connellan. His appearance and conversation are equally singular. He is a perfect master of the Irish language; travels on foot from place to place; is received with the greatest hospitality and kindness by the common people, and takes no pains to correct them in their erroneous impression that he is a true professor of their faith’.

Connellan made the rather unbelievable assertion that he has taught in less than a year and nine months, upwards of 5,400 individuals to read the proverbs of Solomon in the Irish language, most of whom had previously been unacquainted with reading in any language. He later went to England, and used his methods of introducing scripture among Irish catholic dockers and manual labourers there, before his death in 1854. A portrait of him by James Northcote hangs in the National Gallery in Dublin.

A similar spirit is to be discerned in the final character touched on in my talk today, although his background is much more in keeping with that of a mid-nineteenth century churchman. The specific volume in question here is An Leabhrán Glas, or Little Green Book, published in 1850, which is a primer of Irish church history, by Robert King (1815-1900). King made the contention throughout his work, that in the same way Roman catholicism was foreign to Ireland, so too was the English language, and that in language and religion there was a need for Ireland to recover from error a true sense of herself. A proper knowledge of Church history was desirable, and it is to this end that he first published his English ‘Little Red Book‘ dealing with history from the Creation to the Deluge and onwards – which he dedicates to the Masters and Senior Scholars of the National and other Schools, and states rather eloquently in his preface to the work –

That the subject of the present work is one in regard to which very gross ignorance has hitherto been generally prevalent, is a fact that no person of a reasonable disposition can for a moment hesitate to admit.

The little Red book closes with a mention of Bedell, reminding us of his contribution to translation and the esteem in which he was held:

‘He was English by birth, but greatly loved and honoured by the Irish, bad and good . . . who could not but admire and reverence the piety and goodness of this excellent servant of God’

His Leabharán Glas, or little green book, among the collections here, is not a translation of the English, but the title is obviously a nod to content being similar but in Irish, and it is indeed a shorter treatment of the same subject. King is rightly renowned as ‘the father of Irish church history’ largely due to his two volume history of the Irish church; the little red book and the little green book are two texts produced with the teacher and his pupil in mind.

Our journey has now come into the second half of the nineteenth century, and firmly into the age of more professional, established academic research fed by a European romantic interest in original and ancient cultural materials. This was the age of O’Donovan, Reeves, Plummer, O’Curry, and the growth of Celtic Studies into what we know today – and there is evidence of the interest here in such material too, with the presence of scholarly editions of medieval texts such as the 12th century Lebor na hUidhre/Book of the Dun Cow (the  original of which is in the Royal Irish Academy), published in 1870, and the Annals of Loch Cé. Dictionaries of Irish from the period are also here; we have the Irish-English dictionary of de Vere, from 1845, which was published with the express purpose of aiding readers of Bedell’s Old Testament. Also in the collection is Dewar and MacLeod’s Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic from 1845. As mentioned at the beginning of the talk, an unexpected character is also to be found here, one Patrick Henry Pearse with his collection of Short stories, entitled Íosagán, or the child Jesus, here in its 1915 edition. As it is accompanied by his ‘Direct method course in Irish Part 1’ it is probable that there was a later donor to the library who wished to learn Irish and was using Pearse’s course and his short stories as an aid.

But it is the works of Ó Domhnuill, Bedell, Richardson, Connellan and King that the Library and Armagh generally should celebrate and be proud of. The originals are here, along with later imprints and editions, of all the most important works which are evidence of the 450 year relationship of the reformed church with the Irish language, which is often hidden and has only recently been rediscovered, with more work of discovery and recognition remaining to be done. It is my hope that this brief exposition can serve as a contribution to that ongoing effort.

[1] ‘Mac Aingil’, ‘son of an angel’ appears to have been an epithet bestowed on Aodh Mac Cathmhaoil. Mac Cathmhaoil was tutor to the sons of Hugh O’Neill Earl of Tyrone (d. 1616) and was a key figure in the literary activity of the Irish College in Louvain. He later became catholic archbishop of Armagh.

[2] Williams’ ‘I bPrionta i Leabhar’ (An Clóchomhar, 1986) is an indispensable guide to the literary endeavours of Protestant reformers through the medium of Irish from Carswell until the early 18th century.