Winter Conferrings 2004
Devere Hall, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC, 16 Noll 2004
Professor Pádraig Ó Riann, Director of the Locus Placenames project and former Professor of Early & Medieval Irish, UCC
2004 has been a bountiful year in my field of study in terms of its anniversaries. We began with the 1300 anniversary of the death of Adomnán abbot of Iona in 704, followed on with the centenary of the launch of the first learned journal of Irish studies, Ériu, in 1904, and completed our celebrations with the centenary of the publication, again in 1904, of Dinneen?s Foclóir Gaeilge agus Béarla, Dinneen?s Irish-English Dictionary. For all that he achieved as abbot and author, few of you will have heard before today of Adomnán of Iona; yet in medieval times his writings on the Life of Colum Cille and, especially on the Holy Places of Palestine, which, ironically, he knew only from hearsay, were read and copied all over Europe. Even fewer of you will ever have dipped into a volume of the learned journal Ériu, but the names of its founder Kuno Meyer, and of one of one of its very first contributors, Osborn Bergin, should be known to those among you who are citizens of Cork. Kuno Meyer has the distinction of being perhaps the only freeman of this great city of Cork, to have his name expunged from the roll of freemen within three years of his election. Osborn Bergin, who lived on College Road, and started his professional career in UCC (then Queen?s College), before going on to become a great scholar of Irish, also wrote verse in the Irish language, and one of his songs, called Maidin i mBéarra and sung to the air of Danny Boy, is still often heard. (Dont worry, I?m not going to try to sing it).
But I think that I can safely say that nearly all of you here today ? graduates, parents, and members of staff ? will have heard of Dinneen?s Dictionary. Indeed, many of you will have a copy of this volume on a book shelf at home. But how many of you will be aware of the incongruity of it all? If you check the spelling of the dictionary, you?ll find that it is hopelessly out of date, and the same applies to its typeface, the Cló Gaelach, which has not been used in the schools since the late 1940s. Yet this book has sold more copies than any other book relating to the Irish language in existence. What?s more, it continues to sell more copies annually than any other Irish book.
This may say something about the Irish; but I prefer to think that it says a good deal more about the dictionary, which can be as entertaining as it is enlightening. Seán Ó Riada valued it highly as bedtime reading, and Myles na Goppaleen used to ridicule regularly the meanings of words provided by Dinneen, whom he called the comic lexicographer. Clearly, there is much more to this work than a book dealing in alphabetical order with the words of a language; it is as much about the author as it is about the Irish language, and this goes some way towards explaining not only the historic and continuing attraction of the work, but also the reputation enjoyed by Dinneen himselfin life and in death.Do you know of any other 20th-century Irish writer who was asked to throw in the ball at an All-Ireland final. And how many Irish writers, besides Dinneen, received a State funeral? So well known was he that, to mark his centenary, the National Library of Ireland has agreed to place a commemorative plaque on the desk that he used (and that no one else dared to sit at) during the many years that he worked on the dictionary. No other user of the National Library has been honoured in this way.
You may well ask what bearing has all of this on the honour, hard-earned and well-deserved, conferred on each of you graduates here today? Simply this: Dinneen was also a University graduate, of the Catholic University, which later merged with the Queen?s Colleges to give the National University. However, his subjects did not include Irish; he graduated in Mathematics and English, and could count the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins among his teachers. He went on to teach these two subjects, and displayed not the slightest interest in Irish until much later, when he discovered, quite by accident, that Irish manuscripts had survived, containing, among a great deal of other material, copies of songs by Kerry poets that he had heard his mother sing. From there he went on to edit several volumes of Irish texts, prose and verse, most of them today still standard editions, and began the great enterprise of his dictionary, perhaps the most influential work in the whole history of modern Irish.
The kind of accident that generates career change is no less common today than it was in Dinneen?s time. Whatever the subject of your degree, you need to be prepared for change, for as Dinneen?s case shows, together with hundreds of others that might be called to mind, a University degree is a beginning only, to be developed, built upon, and used to bringabout personal success, material and intellectual. And who knows, though it?s a thought that none of you would wish to dwell upon at this stage of your young lives, there may be talk some day of a commemorative plaque in the Boole Library for one or other of you.