In the course of a review of Douglas Hyde’s The Story of Early Gaelic Literature (1895), Frederick York Powell drew attention to the dearth of published texts in the Irish language:
Is it too much to hope for the establishment of an Irish Text Society? It should publish in handy, clear-printed form the unpublished texts of each division of the tongue, early, old, middle and modern Irish with versions, if possible, into plain English or Latin, as may be most convenient. There is matter enough unprinted to keep such a society going for a century.
Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, York Powell was known primarily for his work on Scandinavian literature, and was also an authority on Old English and Old French. In proposing the establishment of an Irish Text Society he almost certainly had in mind such models as the Early English Text Society (founded in 1864) and La Société des Anciens Textes Français (founded in 1875).
While he may have been the first person to use the term, York Powell was not the first to perceive the need for an Irish Texts Society. Bodies such as the Irish Archaeological Society (founded in 1840), the Celtic Society (founded in 1845)—amalgamated from 1862 as the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society—and the Ossianic Society (founded in 1853) had all been engaged in the editing and publication of texts in the Irish language. In 1880, the philologist Ernst Windisch issued the first volume of his Irische Texte in Leipzig, and when the Gaelic Union came into existence in that same year it also engaged in publishing Irish texts. In 1889, however, the nature of the material they published became the subject of a debate among eminent Celtic scholars in the columns of the London review, The Academy, under the heading ‘Old Irish and the Spoken Language’. The philologist Whitley Stokes made disparaging references to modern Irish and in response John Fleming of the Gaelic Union and editor of The Gaelic Journal criticised Stokes and certain non-native philologists for their lack of knowledge of the spoken language. The native scholars were, in turn, reproached for their failure to publish material in the modern tongue.
One of the final contributions came from Thomas Flannery (Tomás Ó Flannghaile). Born in County Mayo of Irish-speaking parents, Flannery had lived in England from the age of seven where he had learned to read and write Irish. He later taught English and Latin at a number of training colleges, as well as writing extensively on the Irish language and its literature. In his letter to The Academy Flannery wrote:
As to the ancient and medieval tracts occasionally published in Ireland and England, they are obviously meant for the student and the antiquary; it is unreasonable to expect the general public to go after them or read them. Let the publishers give us something of modern times, with some kind of human interest in it—let them give us cheap grammars, cheap dictionaries, history, biography, legends, stories, poems, sketches, books of religion and devotion etc..
The Gaelic League, which would, in time, provide at least some of the material Flannery sought, had not yet been founded. However, when the initiative to establish what was to be known as the Irish Texts Society (ITS) came in 1896, it did not come from the Gaelic League—nor, indeed, from any organisation based in Ireland—but from the London-based Irish Literary Society (ILS) which appointed a provisional sub-committee early in that year to consider the feasibility of such an enterprise. Thomas Flannery played an important part in its eventual establishment.
The ILS was founded in 1892 and had as its objectives to afford a centre of social and literary intercourse for persons of Irish nationality and to promote the study of the Irish language, history, literature, music and art. Organisations of this kind were not uncommon in the London of the late nineteenth century—and indeed, another ‘Irish Literary Society’ had existed prior to 1892.
Despite the overlap of personnel and the similarity of objectives, the ILS and its predecessor of the same name (formerly the Southwark Literary Club) were distinct organisations. According to its founder, Frank Fahy, a civil servant from Kinvarra, County Galway, it was the ‘need for self-education’ which led to the establishment of the Southwark Irish Literary Club in 1883. Its aims were ‘to cultivate and spread among adults a knowledge of Irish history, language, art and literature and to serve as a medium of social and intellectual intercourse for Irish people of both sexes’. When the Club moved from Southwark to Clapham early in 1890, it changed its name to the Irish Literary Society. Following relocation, however, the society went into decline. When a new organisation was formed in 1892, it assumed the name of what was by then the defunct Irish Literary Society and included a significant proportion of the original society’s former membership.
Following the pattern established by the Southwark Club, and in accordance with its own stated aims, the ILS organised regular lectures on topics related to Ireland. The new society also planned to issue a series of books known as ‘The Library of Ireland’. Differing views on what the Library should produce generated friction between W.B. Yeats, a founder member, and Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, its president. When the project was eventually launched, now known as ‘The New Irish Library’, the editor was Gavan Duffy, with Douglas Hyde as assistant-editor for the recently formed National Literary Society in Dublin, and T.W. Rolleston (and subsequently R. Barry O’Brien) as assistant-editor for the ILS. Hyde’s The Story of Early Gaelic Literature was published in 1895 as part of this series.
Two months after York Powell’s review of Hyde appeared, the ILS held a joint meeting with the Viking Club. In the course of introducing the lecturer, Dr George Sigerson, the chairman for the evening, Karl Blind, who had a particular interest in heroic literature, echoed York Powell’s recent words and called for something to be done for Irish literature ‘similar to what Simrock did in German for the Edda, for Beowulf and for the medieval heroic and other poetry of his country’. It is not clear if the subsequent discussion led directly to the establishment of the Irish Texts Society but according to the 1895-6 annual report of the ILS ‘preliminary steps have been taken to form an Irish Text Society for the publication of modern Irish works’. As a result a provisional sub-committee was appointed, with Thomas Flannery as its chairman. The fact that such an initiative should have come at this time from a London-based rather than from an Ireland-based organisation was undoubtedly due to the opportunity which the ILS afforded for interaction between individuals who were members of other societies like the Viking Club, the Folklore Society and the Early English Text Society, on the one hand and those who were active in the Irish revival movement, on the other hand.
The provisional sub-committee encountered difficulties in the initial months of its existence but by May 1897 it was in a position to address questions of finance, membership of the projected Society, the identification of suitable texts for editing, the appointment of editors and of a publisher. Less than a year later, on 26 April 1898, the inaugural general meeting of the Irish Texts Society was held at the rooms of the ILS in London. Douglas Hyde was unanimously elected president, and Frederick York Powell chairman of the executive council. Norma Borthwick and Eleanor Hull were appointed honorary secretaries and R.A.S. Macalister became honorary treasurer. The other members of the executive council included Goddard Orpen, Alfred Nutt, Thomas Flannery, J.G. O’Keeffe, Daniel Mescal, G.A. Greene and M. O’Sullivan. Eight vice-presidents were elected and the consultative council included many of the most distinguished scholars in the field of Celtic studies.
The Society’s first volume—Giolla an Fhiugha, edited by Douglas Hyde—appeared in the following year. The subsequent volumes, numbering fifty-nine in all, cover an extraordinary diverse range of material, and in all cases the scholarly edition of the text is accompanied by an English translation. Thanks to an enlightened re-publishing programme, all fifty-nine volumes will be in print this year, the centenary of the Society’s foundation. These do not include one of the Society’s best known publications, Dinneen’s Irish-English dictionary. The first edition appeared in 1904, an enlarged edition in 1927, and has been reprinted as recently as 1996. In addition, a ‘Subsidiary Series’ has been published since 1983. So far six titles have appeared, making available the most up-to-date scholarship and reinterpretations of the texts themselves.
When Frederick York Powell remarked in 1895 that there was ‘matter enough unprinted to keep such a society going for a century’, he could not possibility have foreseen the extent of the achievement which the catalogue of the ITS represents in 1998. That this should be the work of a voluntary body makes it all the more remarkable.
Pádraigín Riggs lectures in the Department of Modern Irish, NUI, Cork.