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A PLEA FOR THE SOUL OF THE IRISH
A LANGUAGE may be compared to a seed, for a seed is a potential flower, and every language is a potential literature; the beauty of the flower and the literature vary according to the quality of the seed and the language, and the influences they meet when they rise into the upper air. Rain, wind, storms, and frosts will destroy the flower, adverse circumstances may destroy a literature. A good deal, too, depends on the gardeners who await the flower and the language.
The Latin and Greek languages, as we know them to-day, are the husks and shucks of the seeds out of which grew tales of Troy and Carthage. It would seem that a language has a certain thing to say, just as a seed has a certain flower to produce, and once it has said its say a language remains silent or repeats itself. For ten centuries the Latin language was the language of every country in Europe. It was the language of the State, the Court, the Church, and the Library-thousands of volumes were written in this language. Not one of these remains for literary reasons; some half-dozen remain for theological reasons: so we are forced to conclude that no man of literary talent was born in Europe for nearly a thousand years, or that what remains of a language after it has said what it was created to say is a dried husk or shuck. And the second conclusion seems forced upon us when we consider that Dante began as a Latin writer, that he wrote several works in Latin, and that all these are without literary importance. Moreover, he began one of the greatest poems of the world in Latin, but found himself obliged to write it in Italian, which was then an obscure dialect, Latin, even in his hands, proving itself incapable of further literary expression. And the great English epic poet, John Milton, Dante's great rival, wrote in Latin to a considerable extent. Latin was not Milton's language in the same native sense that Latin was Dante's, but even in Milton's time Latin was spoken, and Milton's knowledge of the language was as complete as his knowledge of his own. Yet neither Milton's nor Dante's Latin poems would be considered for a moment as serious contributions to Latin literature by the poets of the Augustine age. Horace and
Catullus would smile politely and admire them as the works of barbarians, using the word barbarian in the Latin sense. But Milton wrote poems also in Italian, and I should not be surprised to hear that his Italian poems are nearer literature than his Latin. Our own Rossetti, too, wrote poems in Italian, and Mr. Swinburne has written French poems, and these poems in French and Italian, I think, will be admitted to approach nearer literature than any poems they have written in the dead languages. Many Englishmen have written French verse, and I know of one English writer at least who, though imperfectly acquainted with the French language, has written French verses that have passed the most critical French eyes without detection of any barbarism or anything that would show them to be different from the verses of a mediocre French poet. But to appreciate a language in its different stages of decay a knowledge of foreign languages is not necessary-we have only to compare seventeenthcentury English with nineteenth-century English. The nineteenthcentury writer may have more individual talent than the seventeenthcentury writer, but the language is not so beautiful; it is not so spontaneous, it is less like spring water and more like some carefully prepared beverage. Our fathers and mothers used to drink something called negus, and in nineteenth-century writings we detect cloves, lemon-peel, and sugar. The nineteenth century has produced some of the most beautiful poetry and prose in the world, because some writers of extraordinary literary talent lived in this century. Their works are efforts of individual genius, and owe very little to the language, which they had to re-make. The beautiful use and the fearful misuse of language which we find in Byron and Shelley respectively could not be exampled in any two seventeenth-century writers. At the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century every one wrote well, and every one wrote without style. There was no need for style then, any more than there is need for a filter when the water is taken straight from the well-head. Style becomes necessary when a language becomes corrupt, just as a filter becomes necessary when a stream has left the mountain and has passed through a town. The writers of our dramatic literature and the translators of the Bible knew nothing of style; they wrote the popular speech of their time, which was as beautiful as the architecture of their streets. Style began with Milton-Milton was the first stylist, and since Milton the necessity for style has become more and more pressing. A dozen years ago Walter Pater said that he wished to write in English as in a learned language, and since the death of Walter Pater-whom I shall always regard as England's last great writer-we have seen the language pass into the patty-pans of Stevenson and many various pint pots. And seeing that English is now spoken in every quarter of the globe, and has absorbed several continents, it would seem as if the language were going to become
the commercial language of the world, just as Latin has become the theological. It seems impossible to believe that the English language, which has already produced so long a literature, will be able to enwomb the many aspirations latent in Australia, America, and South Africa. It seems impossible that the unwieldy bulk of literature which will pile itself up in the English language in the next fifty years will not compel those who desire a work of art to isolate themselves in some less vulgar speech; it is imperative to believe that the poets of that time will find a refuge in the dialects and the small languages, and that the universal language will be left to the free and fearless use of bankers and popular novelists.
Literature has ever flourished in the virgin languages. In the middle of last century French threatened to become the language of Russia, and if it had been accepted by Russian writers as their literary medium do you think that Tolstoi and Tourgueneff would live with the same intense life in French as they do in Russian?
A story is told of how, thirty or forty years ago, three men, the last three who could speak literary Bohemian, met in a library and decided to revive the language of which they were the last literary representatives. A more audacious adventure was hardly ever undertaken, but it has succeeded, and the Bohemian language is to-day spoken and written by all the inhabitants of Bohemia. The Flemish language, which five-and-twenty years ago was rarely heard in the streets of Brussels, is now heard frequently, and it is not improbable that the next generation of Belgian writers will write in Flemish. In fact, it may be said that all over Europe the desire to preserve the small languages is manifesting itself, as if Nature were aware in its subconsciousness of the danger of uniformity which a great empire imposes, and in her own obscure way were remedying the evil. When we see Nature working in this way it is well to listen, for she alone knows the whole truth. In Ireland, just as in Bohemia, the nation became suddenly aware of what it was losing, and in five years 150 branches of the Gaelic League have sprung up. In five years it has become an honour to know the language which in my youth was considered a disgrace. In five years prejudice has melted away; those, whose minds are alive in Ireland to-day, desire the language, in the north, in the west, in the south, and in the east; and the question whether Irish children may learn their own language in the schools they pay for was debated for the first time in the last Session of the last Parliament. On both the English and the Irish side the debate was a disappointment. It was generally assumed, on the English side, that the English language was capable of expressing every thought that could enter the human mind, and that there was no reason why as great a literary heritage as Shakespeare's and Milton's might not await the next generation. On the Irish side, I think I can say that no speaker
spoke with either knowledge or conviction. The desire of the Irish language is, as I have said, no more than five years old, and in the last five years the Irish members have been engaged in bitter party politics, in internecine strife, and at the close of the last Parliament they had forgotten that, below the religious question and the Home Rule question, the fundamental desire of Ireland is to possess her own soul. It is only within the last five years that Ireland has come to see quite clearly that the saving of her soul is inseparable from the saving of her language.
We have always missed securing an Irish Secretary of psychological insight. We have had Irish Secretaries who have planned county boards and railways, and thought they were solving the problem by such petty expedients. Irish Secretary after Irish Secretary has missed his chance, but none missed the chance that Mr. Gerald Balfour missed in the last Parliament. It has been admitted by Conservatives as well as Liberals that Ireland has a right to govern herself on all points which do not conflict with the integrity of the Empire, with the rights of property, or religious equality. The language movement was therefore an enticing invitation to Mr. Gerald Balfour to leave English intolerance for Irish sympathy. He could have won all Ireland's sympathy by bowing to Ireland's wish while confessing his inability to understand it. I would have had him say: 'I think you are mistaken, I think no literature can ever come out of the Irish language, I believe it to be a fast decaying patois of no value in the world.' I would have had him say: Children will start ill equipped in the race for life if they learn the Irish language.' I would have had him repeat the entire contents of the article which The Times wrote on the letter I sent to it on the language question, and having said all these things I would have had him add: 'But you have a perfect right to learn the language if you please—you are not children. It is no affair of mine. So long as your desire does not conflict with integrity of the Empire, with the rights of property, and with religious toleration, you are perfectly free. The Irish language does not conflict with any of these; learn it.' I would have had him say: If the language is to be revived, education in that language must be made compulsory. I shall do this as soon as I possibly can. the meantime I will take a step which I think will prove efficacious. You see I am anxious to lose no time in conforming to your wishes. There are about 1,000 or 1,200 schools in Ireland in which a considerable proportion of the children speak Irish. To every one of these schools I shall make a grant of 2l. 10s. a year: 17. to go to the child who speaks most Irish in and out of school, this prize to be voted for by the children themselves; 17. to the teacher; and 10s. to the child who writes the best essay in Irish. The Irish soldiers have fought bravely for the Empire in South Africa, and I think the Empire can
afford three thousand a year to enable the Irish to learn their own language if they wish to do so.'
If Mr. Balfour had said these words instead of seeking excuses and hiding himself behind the Educational Commissioners, he would have crossed the gulf which separates the English from the Irish mind. He has left this crossing to be achieved by some successor— the next, or the next, or the next.
The language question will be raised again in the new Parliament, and perhaps by that time some further knowledge of that subject will have permeated. The Times newspaper by that time may awake to the fact that it is not wise to embitter Ireland still further by telling her that what she asks for is not good for her, and that England will give her something else instead; that it would be wrong for England to allow children to grow up ill-equipped in the race for life, etc. Perhaps The Times before then may not only reconsider its opinions on this question, but also inform itself regarding the present state of the Irish language. For in its article on the language movement it said that Irish had ceased to be a literary language for the last two hundred years. I will answer this statement by producing some poems written within the last ten years in the Irish language more distinctive than any poems written in the same period in the English language. These poems were written for an audience of as few people as the Sagas which were composed and recited around the fires of the Norse houses in the tenth century. But the size of an audience that a poet addresses cannot be taken as a measure of the value of his poetry. If we may infer anything from the size of the audience, it would seem that the best poetry is addressed to the smallest audiences. Homer's audiences were hardly larger than Douglas Hyde's. Man's reason leads him to think that a hundred millions all speaking the same language are more likely to produce a great poet than a few thousand people speaking an obscure and despised language, amid rocks and barren shores. But Nature's logic is different from our logic, and she seems to have decreed journalists to great nations, and poets to small ones. And as Nature has her way in the end, it would be well in this moment of popular Imperialism to consider her opinions regarding the value of small States and small languages. She has expressed herself on this subject more than once very forcibly-more forcibly lately in Norse than in Irish. He who would ponder this subject must remember that in Norway and Denmark there are not ten million people, and yet in these countries in the last thirty years has arisen a literature which will compare favourably in all its branches with the literatures which have arisen in the same period in all the great empires. Ibsen, addressing a theatrical audience of probably not more than one hundred thousand, has produced a dramatic literature which outweighs all modern dramatic literature ;