Londoner taught Greek as Gaeilge


A SPECIAL commemoration will take place in Dun Chaoin at the end of next month. Ceiliuradh an Bhlascaoid - The Great Blasket Commemoration - will bring a host of scholars together to pay tribute to the memory of George Derwent Thomson.

Thomson (1903-1987) was a Londoner by birth. But by the time of his death anyone who knew him in this State - and there were many - knew him as Seoirse Mac Tomais.

A distinguished Greek scholar, he went to the Great Blasket to learn Irish in August 1923. Another Englishman, Robin Flower (Blaith in was his name on the island) had been there before him and prompted him to go.

He formed a close friendship with Muiris O Suilleabh ain, a young island man of his own age. He went on to become a fluent Irish speaker and writer, and to encourage O Suilleabh ain's talent for storytelling.

And so he played a significant part as friend and adviser to the author of the classic Fiche Blian ag Fas(Twenty Years a-Growing, as it is known to us in English).

In 1931 Thomson was appointed lecturer in Greek at UCG, where he taught through Irish.

During his tenure he was able to renew his friendship with O Suilleabhain, who was then stationed in the Connemara Gaeltacht as a garda.

Thomson in his day was a leading Marxist intellectual in Britain. He wrote four scholarly works on Greek literature while in Galway.

In ill health and towards the end of his years, Thomson's thoughts turned once again to the island and before his death he penned the essay, An Blascaod a Bhi. He followed it with an English translation, The Island That Was. Before he was buried in 1987. a revised version - Island Home - was published.

Writing in the Evening Echo the Cork journalist, Walter McGrath, gave a moving account of an interview with Thomson at his Birmingham home in 1983.

The feeble scholar had to use a small microphone to have his voice heard. They spoke in Irish and Thomson had not lost any of his gra for the island on which he learnt a new language - one he espoused and came to love.

At that time Thomson was over 80. McGrath wrote that he was privileged to meet a scholar, the proud proclaimer "of his conviction for 60 years that the Irish language and literature rank fitly and honourably with his beloved Greek and the other great literatures of the world."

The commemoration will get under way on March 26th next, when Monsignor Padraig O Fiannachta performs the official opening. Thomson's daughter, Prof Margaret Alexiou of Harvard University, will address the gathering, as will Mairin Ui Chiobhain, Muiris O Suilleabhain's daughter.