How Ireland lost its Odyssey: The remarkable story of George Thompson

As an Irishwoman, I’m fascinated by what Ireland remembers, conceals and reveals

George Thompson

Among many myths dear to us in Ireland is the idea that Irish literature is rooted in our oral tradition and underpinned by communal memory. Like all myths, it’s founded in truth and, as an Irish speaker who’s lived many years in the West Kerry Gaeltacht, I’ve written much to keep it alive and kicking. But there’s also plenty of evidence to debunk it.

So, draw down to the fire and I’ll tell you about how Ireland lost its Odyssey. It’s a story that ought not to be forgotten, a hero-tale that emerges shimmering from the mists of Hy-Brasil and may have ended up lost in a library.

George Thompson was an English scholar who, visiting the Blasket Islands in the 1920s, became fascinated by links between the islanders’ cultural heritage and that of Ancient Greece. His tutor in Irish was Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, and it was he who suggested that Ó Súilleabháin begin the work which would become Fiche Bliain ag Fás.

Through Thompson’s efforts the book was first published, in English and Irish, in 1933, with an introduction to the English edition by the novelist EM Forster, and thus he became instrumental in the process by which the last generation of islanders, in a paradoxical attempt to preserve their oral tradition by writing, produced a series of books that have since become classics of literature.


At this point in my story, you may roll your eyes and attempt to show me the scars you bear from having been forced to read Peig at school. I, however, will strike my lyre and ignore you.

In 1931 Thompson became professor of classical Greek in UCG, now NUI Galway, where he lectured through Irish. He believed that great poetry and literature “arose from the thought and imagination of the people”, and that the greatest possible number of citizens in a state should have an active, informed interest and involvement in their own social, economic and cultural progress.

So, he set himself two tasks: to bring university extension lectures to the people of the Connemara Gaeltacht, and to write textbooks on classical Greek and related subjects in the Irish language. His remarkable success in his second task has almost been forgotten. His first was actively opposed both by the Catholic Church and the Irish government, leading, in 1934, to his resignation and return to England. Put bluntly, he was hounded out.

Arising from his lifelong belief that education should be available to everyone, Thompson had developed a deep interest in Marxism. There have been unfounded suggestions that resistance to his vision for the people of Connemara arose from objections to this. It would be less shameful if that were so.

In fact, his efforts to give native Irish-speakers a louder voice in the cultural life of their country were defeated by a combination of snobbery and lack of vision in government, and parish priests’ refusal to allow local halls to be used for lectures by a non-Catholic.

Among the losses to Ireland arising from the loss of this fine, egalitarian scholar was Thompson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. Written in the Irish of the Blasket Islands, the manuscript was mislaid when he cleared his room in Galway after his resignation. It may have been thrown out after his departure. It was said that it could yet be found somewhere in the university’s library. Another country, proud of its native language and literary heritage, might actively have gone looking for it.

Having returned to England and a fellowship at King’s College Cambridge, Thompson continued to write about the relationship between the oral tradition he found on the Blaskets and the education systems of classical Greece. And, despite his treatment by the Catholic Church, and the state that affirmed the church’s position, in 1959 he began a literary association with An tAth Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, a native of the west Kerry Gaeltacht and a member of the Celtic studies staff at Maynooth College. They collaborated on several Irish language translations of sacred texts, beginning with The Confessions of St Augustine which appeared under the imprint of An Sagart, Maynooth, in 1967.

The association resumed in 1975, when Thompson, still dedicated to Ireland’s language and literature, was attempting to find a new publisher for Fiche Bliain ag Fás, then out of print since 1941.

Thompson died in 1987 and, while hardly acknowledged elsewhere in Ireland, his work is commemorated in Dún Chaoin’s Ionad an Bhlascaoid heritage centre, which looks out at the islands where he discovered living voices recounting stories handed down from an age of gods and semi-divine heroes. In his own old age, he still talked of how the beauty of ancient Greek prose and poetry transferred so easily into Irish, and of his thwarted vision of the Gaeltachtaí as centres for a uniquely Irish system of cultural education.

When plotting my latest novel, set in contemporary rural Ireland, I spent months thinking about intersections between communal and individual memory, and how easily marginalised voices can be lost when history hardens into myth.

Hanna, my middle-aged protagonist, is a local librarian gathering material for an exhibition intended to spark discussion of Ireland’s struggle for independence. The delicacy of the task increases when she finds that her own family has an untold, intensely personal, story from the period; and navigating this becomes complicated by her difficult relationship with her volatile mother, whose short-term memory is fading.

The genesis of the book arose partly from the fact that after emigrating to England in my twenties I’d come home 30 years later to find that women in Irish academia have reassessed the role of women in the establishment of the State. Having been baffled by the blank, woman-shaped space in the mythologized narrative offered to me at school, I was cheered to see that, apparently, we’ve moved on.

Yet, in writing about Hanna and her mother and, especially, about my younger characters, Aideen and Conor, focused not on the past but on their family farm and newborn baby, I realized that I’m fearful of history repeating itself.

The role of women who were active in Cumann na mBan or the Citizen Army is safe in the hands of female scholars who won’t let them be marginalised again. But I perceive a danger that, in cementing the presence of influential women in the national narrative, quieter voices may, once again, be lost.

Simply by being alive during the turbulent birth of the state, thousands of women who weren’t activists, combatants, or spies for Michael Collins, found themselves on the front line in a war they may not have supported, or even understood. Their stories, sacrifices and shifting loyalties contain as much drama and poetry as those of Helen of Troy or Penelope – or of silent Alcestis whose story, as told by Euripides, was also translated to Irish by George Thompson, and, unlike his Odyssey, remains to us, though it seems to have been forgotten.

As an Irishwoman, I’m fascinated by what Ireland remembers, conceals and reveals. So, while it has nothing to do with Ancient Greece or the Gaeltacht, I’m drawn, like Thompson, to the vernacular, and my novel focuses on everyday, untold stories and the unforeseen outcomes of repression.

The Year of Lost and Found by Felicity Hayes-McCoy is published by Hachette Ireland