Foclóirí agus foclóirithe na Gaeilge

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1Foclóirí agus foclóirithe na Gaeilge
Liam Mac Amhlaigh
(Cois Life, €15)
ISBN 9781901176834

This book is a brief easy guide to Irish lexicography and Irish lexicographers. It is scholarly, accurate and well written, and provides an overview of its subject from the middle of the seventeenth century to the present day. The author correctly states in his introduction that he does not seek to give us any new findings based on original research, but rather to gather and summarise the state of our knowledge. He is to be commended for this, for very often this kind of necessary scholarship is treated with less respect than a brief footnote in a weighty journal.
The study covers sixteen dictionaries in all, from Micheál Ó Cléirigh’s Foclóir nó Sanasan Nua, published in Louvain in 1643, to Niall Ó Dónaill’s fine dictionary of 1977. He discusses Irish–Irish, Latin–Irish, Irish–English and English–Irish dictionaries, most of which were published but some of which remain in manuscript form. Each chapter is carefully set out, giving us information on the lexicographer, the background of each work and its manner of composition, and Mac Amhlaigh does not shrink from evaluating each one in relation to its purpose or to other dictionaries, which often fed off one another. He also gives a brief selection of words from each work at the conclusion of the chapter, and many of these are illuminating, quirky or even still useful.
It quickly becomes apparent also that lexicographers are not the harmless drudges that they are often supposed to be: many of them lived lives of danger, of eccentricity and of excitement. Edward Lhuyd began his life as a love-child, it would appear, and spent five years travelling through the Celtic countries, often in great hardship and under suspicion. He was imprisoned in Brittany as a spy, and was accused of theft in Cornwall. Aodh Buidhe Mac Cruitín, whose English–Irish dictionary, which he compiled with Conchubhar Ó Beaglaoich, was published in Paris in 1732, also spent time in prison and later soldiered with the Irish Brigade in the service of France. Tadhg Ó Coinnialláin, who produced a dictionary for schools in the early years of the nineteenth century, took part in the 1798 Rising, and the demand for his work as well as his phrasebook was such as to make us surmise that literacy in Irish was not as confined as is often supposed.
Two of our authors were native Dubliners. Seán Ó Neachtain, born in Thomas Street, and Éadbhard Ó Raghallaigh, born in Harold’s Cross, give the lie to the lazy assumption that Irish was not a vital part of the life of the capital in the late eighteenth century. Mac Amhlaigh does not need to say a great deal about Fr Dinneen, the greatest lexicographer of them all, as his story is well known and his eccentricity part of biographical legend.
The reasons for the making of a dictionary are varied. Ó Cléirigh’s is the only Irish–Irish dictionary, which reveals how forceful English was becoming after that as a vehicle of explanation. Dictionaries were for a long time seen as repositories of what is ‘correct’, or, indeed, a compilation of difficult words. On the other hand, Seán Ó Briain’s Focalóir Gaoidhilge Sax-Bhéarla or Irish–English Dictionary, also published in Paris, in its second edition runs to nearly 600 pages of small print. It was thus the first truly comprehensive dictionary. Most of the words therein, however, came from the older literature and religious publications, and very little was drawn from contemporary speech or from current literature. He may have been one of the first to see the Irish language as a safeguard of the Catholic faith or a bulwark against heresy, or at least to express it so openly. This is not surprising, as he was the bishop of Cork.
Risteard Pluincéad complains in 1662 that the language is much corrupted, and that there are many Irish people who cannot speak it any more. Most of these would have been from the newly Anglicised upper classes, and indeed Ó Beaglaoich wants his 1732 dictionary to engender interest and respect for the language among the Irish nobility, such as they were.
This is a wonderful compendium of facts, of lore, of insight and of direction. Tadhg Ó Coinnialláin has eight words for ‘robber’ in 1814; Edmund Fournier d’Albe’s phrasebook has a word for poll-tax, which might come into use again quite soon; and Thomas de Vere Coney’s sgraideógach for ‘ugly’ has a wonderful onomatopoeic ring to it, ripe for recirculation. Mac Amhlaigh could, of course, have gone back in time to Cormac’s glossary, or forward to our terminological dictionaries, or to the work in progress on several new lexicographical projects. But his purpose was simpler and more direct. It is to show us what has been done and to guide us through it with a clear path and uncluttered knowledge. The publishers are to be commended on this attractive, scholarly and useful work.

Alan Titley is Professor of Irish at University College Cork.


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