A sung and unsung Irish language hero of Donegal

An Irishman’s Diary: James Patrick Craig may be largely forgotten, but his songs live on

James Patrick Craig’s preference, revolutionary in its own way, was that rules and spelling should be founded on the language as it still lived, wherever that was. But since he spoke the Donegal version himself, he thought that the best place to start.  Photograph: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES

James Patrick Craig’s preference, revolutionary in its own way, was that rules and spelling should be founded on the language as it still lived, wherever that was. But since he spoke the Donegal version himself, he thought that the best place to start. Photograph: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES

 

The words “Irish grammar” may still strike dread into the hearts of former schoolchildren now of a certain age. So might the prospect of meeting an Irish grammarian on the street, never mind spending time in his or her company.

But that’s what some people in Donegal will do next week, voluntarily, when they commemorate a man they think is one of their county’s forgotten heroes: James Patrick Craig.

Prof Craig (1863-1934) was indeed a grammarian of what, during most of his life, had not yet become Ireland’s first official language. His early work was published in an era when, half a century after the Famine, Irish was in retreat almost everywhere.

On the other hand, it was also being consciously revived then, especially in Dublin, albeit often in a form that would have tortured the ears of native gaeilgeorí. Craig’s work encouraged this renewed enthusiasm for speaking it, however badly. And unlike most grammarians, he considered speech the key.

A gaeilgeoir from birth himself, he had no time for purists citing unread library books as the source of their authority. His preference, revolutionary in its own way, was that rules and spelling should be founded on the language as it still lived, wherever that was. But since he spoke the Donegal version himself, he thought that the best place to start.

The introduction to his Modern Irish Grammar, published with epochal timing in January 1900, gives a flavour of his spirited approach:

“If we wish to preserve our mother tongue, we must write it as it is spoken in the glen and on the hill-side. No doubt the past of our beautiful language may be purer and greater than the present, but that does not concern us; that is a matter for philologists. We have no time just now for studying its past greatness. We love what remains of it, corrupted, if you like, though it may be [...]We must start from here.”

Grammarian

Donegal-flavoured as it was, the work that follows would hardly seem foreign now to anyone who learned their grammar in Connemara or Co Kerry. It outlines such classic rules as “caol le caol agus leathan le leathan” (“slender with slender and broad with broad”), and most of it would have been common throughout Ireland, although one otherwise positive review suggested his simplified Ulster spellings sometimes went “a little too far”.

Quaint as it seems now, the gulf between Irish dialects was then considered a major obstacle to reviving the language nationally. More than 20 years later, a letter-writer to this newspaper, signed “Babel”, complained of insurmountable difficulties in trying to learn Irish in a form intelligible from one end of the island to the other.

The correspondent had returned to the Free State in retirement after many years in the Far East, “full of zeal” for the language, and fortified by a “grammar and dictionary, both published in Dublin”.

‘The Emigrant’

Unfortunately, the books proved wholly inadequate. “Babel” claimed his experience had confirmed the wisdom of a friend’s warning that there was no single Irish language, and that “a man from Kerry will have to talk English if he wants to exchange ideas with one from Donegal – just as a native of North China has to talk ‘pidgin English’ to one from South China”.

A subsequent letter writer disagreed that the differences were so great, although also arguing that a standard Irish could never be imposed, as “Babel” demanded, and would come about only “by a natural victory of one dialect over the others through some great writer’s influence”.

That didn’t happen, either. By the time of Craig’s death, the State’s official language project was already foundering. But some of his own innovations, especially the simplified spelling, had also been doomed by fierce antagonism of other revivalists. Although the obituaries lamented him as a “patriot” who had devoted “all the powers of a brilliant intellect” to the country he loved, he was quickly forgotten by the new Ireland and remains so today.

Craig was not just a grammarian and teacher, even if those were the things he was best known for in life. He also wrote poetry and short stories, and composed songs. Ernan O’Donnell, who for years sang one called An Deoraí (The Emigrant) without knowing who the writer was, describes it as a thing of “simple, breath-taking beauty”.

So when O’Donnell gives a talk on Craig’s life at the Glenties Heritage Museum (glenstiesheritagemuseum.com) on Saturday, August 18th, the commemoration will also include singing. Perhaps ironically, the main part of the event will be in English.

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