An Irishman's Diary


NOT MUCH GOOD can be said to have emerged from the first World War. But if little else, it at least provided an unparalleled research opportunity for a young German linguist called Wilhelm Doegen, writes FRANK MCNALLY

A non-teaching professor with the Berlin State Library, Doegen had a passion for recording languages and dialects, especially endangered ones. And by the middle of the war, in 1916, he realised that the prison camps of Germany were a potential treasure trove for a scholar with recording equipment.

“Captive audience” would not be the correct term, since he would require the inmates to do all the talking (and in some cases singing). But with voices drawn from every corner of a British empire on which the sun had not yet set, the prison camps were certainly a linguist’s dream.

So with permission from the authorities, Doegen went to work in the camps with his shellac cylinders, capturing the words of soldiers whose origins ranged from the Bog of Allen to Bengal. It wasn’t their stories he was after. As often as not, they merely recited texts he gave them. But the resulting archive, now priceless, extends to 250 languages and dialects: many since extinct.

Fast forward a decade, and the new Irish Free State decided to hire Dr Doegen’s services. This time, his task would be to capture the voices and accents of Ireland’s Gaeltachtaí, which although fast shrinking even then, still extended sporadically throughout most of Ulster, Connacht, and Munster.

He arrived here in 1928 and over the next three years, with the help of an assistant, Karl Tempel, recorded 137 native Irish speakers in such places as East Cork, Tipperary, Sligo, Roscommon, Cavan, Armagh, and Tyrone.

As with the prison camp project, the emphasis was less on folklore than on the voices themselves. Many of those recorded were story-tellers. But Doegen was interested primarily in how they sounded, so an important part of the research was simply asking speakers to recite the days of the week or count from one to 30, for comparative purposes. Prayers and recitations also featured; as, repeatedly, did the parable of the prodigal son.

The results, crackly but fascinating, are now available online courtesy of the Digital Humanities Observatory (, an initiative of the Royal Irish Academy, to which the original project was delegated by the Department of Education.

Especially in the eastern counties, where Irish was on its last legs even in the 1920s, the archive restores a little of something that is otherwise lost completely. And in general, since most of the speakers were elderly, the collection can be considered an invaluable link back to the language as it was spoken at the time of the Famine.

Of the 216 recordings (some speakers feature repeatedly), the greatest number – 80 – came from Ulster: albeit with the inclusion of Co Louth, considered part of the northern province for linguistic purposes. Seventy-seven were from Connacht, and 59 from Munster, a number which was further reduced by accident. The shellac records were brittle, unfortunately, and four of the Munster samples were broken en route to Berlin.

Doegen’s long and productive life began, by a happy chance, on St Patrick’s Day 1877. But it is probably a more meaningful coincidence that 1877 was the year Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. After studying in Oxford, the young German would make good use of Edison’s creation: his early records including both Kaiser Wilhelm and President Hindenburg.

His high-flying academic career did not long outlast the Irish sojourn. He earned the suspicion of the Nazis and was suspended from official duties, re-emerging as an English lecturer only after the second World War. He died aged 90, in 1967.

Forty years later, his work continues to reverberate. In his native Germany, the war recordings inspired an award-winning 2007 film, The Halfmoon Files. Last month, copies of all the material were finally acquired by the British Library. And as for his Irish work, the DHO database of voices is only a start.

Crucially, the original research also included biographical detail on each speaker. The hope now is that their relatives and others will gradually supply context for the recordings and greatly expand the website.

A regrettable feature of the project, for some of us anyway, is that of the 80 recordings made in greater Ulster, none are from Monaghan. Fermanagh and Down also failed to register. But Monaghan, especially its southernmost barony of Farney, where the diarist grew up, was one of the last bastions of Irish speaking in the eastern half of Ireland well into the 20th century.

A particular stronghold, ironically, was Inniskeen. I say ironically because that area’s most famous son, Patrick Kavanagh, would later become a scourge of the language movement. He did classes himself as a young man: mainly – it seems – in the hope of meeting women. But by the 1940s, he was comparing the revival movement to the custom of “leaving food beside the corpse” at wakes.

“However much we have loved the creature when it was alive we must be realists and accept that it is dead when it is dead,” he wrote in 1948.

This was premature, strictly speaking, even in his own parish. The last native Irish speaker in south Monaghan, Dan Tuite, was from Kednaminsha: the very townland where Kavanagh went to school. He was still

very much alive in the year the poet was writing, and he lingered for a decade thereafter, before expiring in 1957 and taking a regional dialect with him.