Bunreacht na hÉireann: a study of the Irish text, Micheál Ó Cearúil. (Coiste Uile-Pháirtí an Oireachtais ar an mBunreacht/The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, £15). ISBN 0707664004

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

On 20 August 1936, Éamon de Valera received ‘A Plan for a basic constitutional law and an Initial Version of a Draft’ from a legal adviser in the Department of External Affairs, John Hearne. That document marked the genesis of Bunreacht na hÉireann. By October 1936 the ‘plan’ had grown to seventy-eight articles and other material and on 19 October Micheál Ó Gríobhtha from the Department of Education, a native Irish speaker from Clare, was given a room in Government Buildings and charged with the task of translating the various drafts which were coming on stream.
In November he was joined by Risteárd Ó Foghludha (better known by his pseudonym ‘Fiachra Éilgeach’). Ó Foghludha revised and edited Ó Gríobhtha’s work with what the advisory archivist of de Valera’s papers, Breandán Mac Giolla Choille, describes as ‘lámh an-trom’ (‘a very heavy hand’). A raft of drafts in English arrived on Ó Gríobhtha’s desk between November 1936 and April 1937 and the resultant translations were passed to Ó Foghludha for editing (and, apparently, back and forward between the two). That April Liam Ó Rinn and Tomás Page were brought in to re-edit the composite document which resulted from the labours of draftsmen and translators to bring it into line with the practice of Rannóg an Aistriúcháin (the translation section of the Oireachtas). In May a committee of eleven experts was brought together under the chairmanship of Eoin Mac Néill to revise the spelling of the Irish version. After five meetings it broke up in disagreement, only seven members signing the final report.

In the Dáil debate on the constitution in 1937 W.T. Cosgrave declared: ‘As a matter of fact the Irish text is a mere translation of the English’. A different story is told by Pádraig Ó Fiannachta and Tomás P. Ó Néill in de Valera’s authorised biography: ‘Na dréachtaí tosaigh…ba iad ba bhun do leagan Gaeilge a rinne Micheál…Ba é an leagan Gaeilge seo a bhí ag de Valera as sin amach mar bhonn saothair. Ba air a bunaíodh an leagan Béarla ina dhiaidh sin, i dtreo gur tiontú ón nGaeilge é an Béarla céanna.’ (‘The initial drafts…were the basis for the Irish version Micheál made…It was this Irish version which de Valera used from then onwards as a basis for work…It was on this that the English version was afterwards based, with the result that the English is a translation from the Irish.’)
The huge number of divergences between the two versions detailed by Micheál Ó Cearúil suggests that the Irish version is far from ‘a mere translation’ but to claim ‘gur tiontú ón nGaeilge é an  Béarla’ seems to exaggerate the function of the Irish version in the drafting process. Nevertheless the Irish text is more of a version or a ‘rendering’ than a translation in the narrow sense.
To the delight or chagrin of lawyers, the divergences have proved to be crucial on a number of occasions since 1938. As early as 1945 James Dillon warned: ‘some are praying to God that the ambiguities in the Irish phrases of the Constitution will not be invoked by some wily individual who will go into the court on foot of the Irish text and reject the English.’
In McGee V Attorney-General ([1974] IR 284)—in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of people to import contraceptives for their own use—judges took the view that ‘Ráthaíonn an Stát gan cur isteach lena dhlíthe ar chearta pearsanta aon saoránaigh, agus ráthaíonn fós na cearta sin a chosaint is a shuíomh lena dhlíthe sa mhéid gur féidir é’ (Article 40.3.1) implied a stronger obligation on the part of the State than ‘The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal right of the citizen’. Judge Griffin held that ‘gan cur isteach’ meant ‘not to interfere with’, a stricter injunction than the ‘to respect’ of the English version. In his judgement Judge Walsh held that the Irish ‘féidir’ raised the meaning of ‘practicable’ to ‘possible’. The constitutional lawyer and politician John Kelly criticised a judgement of the Supeme Court in The State (Ennis) V Farrell ([1966] IR 107) in the following terms:

the court put itself in the really unsustainable position of deciding a point on the ground that the Irish verb used to render an English phrase was in the future rather than in the present tense, while the English phrase was open to either a present or future construction, and that the future tense of the Irish must therefore prevail, although plenty of other examples showed that the present construction was the one that accorded with actual known practice.

Whatever about inconsistencies between the two versions of the constitution the translators of 1936-37 did a first-rate job at a time when there was no standardised spelling or grammar in general use and the technical vocabulary of the modern language was still deficient. As Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh remarked: ‘Tá mairg tréis teacht ar an nGaedhilg ó bheith amuigh fé spéir le fada agus an droch-shíon ann’ (‘Irish has become rusty from being long in the open under bad weather.’) Téarmaí Dlí, the glossary of legal terms, was not published until 1959. Nowadays translators into Irish have a shelfful of specialist dictionaries, computerised cross-referencing and the advice of experienced colleagues only an e-mail away.
Micheál Ó Cearúil has produced an impressive scholarly work analysing the Irish text of Bunreacht na hÉireann, word for word, detailing the history of the terminology. In an remarkable number of cases he traces terms back to Old Irish (ninth century and earlier) or Middle Irish (c. 900-1200). Taoiseach, tánaiste, aire and ceann comhairle are examples of old words revived in a modern context. A word like uachtarán which might appear to be a neologism is found in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster.
Ó Cearúil’s work draws attention to the richness and exactitude of medieval Irish legal terminology. Achomharc (‘appeal’) appears in an early form in the eighth-century Wurzburg Glosses. Éilliú which denotes ‘corruption’ in Article 15.10 is found in the Leabhar Breac (written c. 1400). Bínse (‘tribunal’) appears in the Annals of the Four Masters (seventeenth century).  Apart from the old literature Ó Cearúil compares the terminology of Bunreacht na hÉireann with the Free State constitution of 1922, itself a major linguistic achievement, and the earlier constitution of the revolutionary Dáil Éireann (1919). He displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Irish versions of legislation from 1922 to date and paints a fascinating picture of the development of Irish legal vocabulary in the twentieth century. The author provides direct literal translations of the Irish text of the constitution into English and of the English into Irish, suggested standardised Irish versions and, for good measure, gender-proofed renderings. Linguists will love this book. Lawyers might be well advised to acquaint themselves with its contents.

Mícheál Mac Aonghusa


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