*Press play below to hear an tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire reading an extract from “An Craos-Deamhan”. (There is also a transcript of the Irish audio and an English translation to help you follow along.)
Tamall mór ó shin, tamall an-mhór ó shin, na céadta bliain sarar chuir éinne de mhuintir Shasana cos ar thalamh na hÉireann ach cos go raibh laincis iarainn uirthi, bhí rí álainn uasal ar an [Mumhain?] agus Cathal dob ainm dó, Cathal mac Finghuine. Ní raibh [fear] in Éirinn ba bhréatha ná é. Bhí sé corraíocht agus sé troithe ar airde ach bhí sé chomh dea-chumtha san gur dhóigh leat dá bhfeicfeá ina aonar é ná raibh sé ach na sé troithe ar fad. Bhí sé chomh láidir sin ná raibh aon fhear ar uaislibh Mumhan bhí ábalta ar a chlaíomh do chasadh ná ar a shleá do bheartú chun gnímh ná ar a thua do láimhseáil. I gcor iomrascála ní raibh aon fhear ar uaislibh Mumhan d’fhéadfadh a chosa do bhogadh ón dtalamh, agus fós ag rith, nó ag léimt nó ag […] nó ag rince bhí sé chomh héadrom ar a chosaibh le cú nó le fia. Bhí sé […] i gcath […] i gcomhairle, maith i gcuideachtain. Do bhí a rítheaghlach faoi rath agus séan […]
A long time ago, a very long time ago, hundreds of years before anyone of the people of England set foot on the ground of Ireland, except a foot on which was an iron fetter, there was a noble wonderful king over [Munster?] and Cathal was his name. Cathal Mac Finghuine. There was not a [man?] in Ireland who was finer than him. He was more than six foot tall, but so well-shaped he was that if you had seen him alone he would not have been [seemed] six foot at all. He was so strong that there was not a man of the nobles of Munster who was able to turn his sword not brandish his spear at a feat (of arms) nor to handle his axe. At wrestling there was not a man of the nobles of Munster who could move his feet from the ground and even at running or at jumping or at […] or at dancing he was as light on his feet as a dog or a deer. He was […] in battle […] in council, good in company. His royal household was blessed with abundance and luck.
*Press play below to hear an tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire reading an extract from “Aesop a Tháinig go hÉirinn”.
Tháinig grá aige cat d’óigfhear. D’iarr an caitín ar Vénus í a chur i riocht mná óige. Do chuir, agus do pósadh í féin agus an t-óigfhear. Ansan, dob áil le Venus a dhéanamh amach ar athraigh aigne an chait fé mar athraigh a gné. Bhí an lánú ag caitheamh a gcoda lá agus do chuir Vénus luch ar an urlár. Chonaic an bhean an luch. Ní túisce a chonaic ná mar a léim sí ón mbord, do briseadh na miasa, agus do rugadh ar an luch. ‘Éirím asat,’ arsa Vénus, ‘ní dhéanfadh Éire dhíot ach cat,’ agus do chuir sí ina riocht féin arís í. Is maith atá scartha agatsa léi, ar sise leis an bhfear. ‘Briseann an dúchas trí shúilibh an chait. Seachainse, a mhic ó, agus ná pós cat i riocht mná óige, dá bhreáthacht í, nó bain[fidh sí] an chluas díot go leagfar an bord agus go mbrisfear na miasa lá éigin.’
A cat fell in love with a young man. The little cat asked Venus to transform her into the shape of a young woman. She did so and she [the cat] and the young man were married to each other. Then Venus wanted to find out whether the cat had changed in character as she had changed in kind. The married couple were having their meal one day, when Venus put a mouse on the floor. The woman saw the mouse. No sooner had she seen it than she jumped (up) on the table. The table was thrown down, the dishes were broken, but the mouse was taken. “I will relinquish you,” said Venus, “(the whole of) Ireland would not make of you (anything) but a cat,” and she put her back in her own shape again. “It is good for you that you are separate from her,” she said to the man. “Nature breaks through the eyes of the cat. Beware, my boy, oh, and do not marry a cat in the shape of a young woman, however beautiful she may be, or she will cut off the ear off you, that the table will be knocked down and the dishes will be broken someday.”
*Published on this website by kind permission of the Austrian Academy of Sciences Press. Ph 690–691, OEAW PHA CD 14/1: 4–5, in: Gerda Lechleitner & Ulla Remmer (eds.). 2003. The Collections of Rudolf Trebitsch: Celtic Recordings – Ireland, Wales, Brittany, Isle of Man, and Scotland (1907–09). (Sound Documents from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences: The Complete Historical Collections 1899–1950, Series 5/2). Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.
Now that you’ve heard an tAthair Peadar’s voice, read on to discover how he came to be recorded in 1907.
PART I: I DUB THEE THE NESTOR OF IRISH LITERATURE
Before delving into the background of the 1907 recordings, a word first on the man who compared an tAthair Peadar to Nestor (a character from Homer’s Iliad), thus giving the info board in Castlelyons churchyard its theme. It’s not every day you get compared to an ancient Greek hero which is why an tAthair Peadar must have been pleased when he opened a book given to him as a present and saw inscribed on fly leave:
To Canon Peter O’Leary,
The Nestor of Irish Literature,
With affectionate regards
If, as suggested on the infoboard, it was “Nestor” in his guise as “clear-voiced orator” from whom “flowed speech sweeter than honey” that reminded Kuno of an tAthair Peadar, then this may have been a case of aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile. For it seems that Kuno was equally mellifluous, if the following reminiscence is any indication:
Meyer was the poet scholar, the artist scholar …. How well I remember his figure at a reading stand … as he read in his beautiful voice and his perfect English his translation of old Irish poetry, all done as naturally as if he had written the poems himself.
A German professor and an Irish priest made for unlikely friends but the two were close enough for locals to remember Meyer (hard to miss with his handlebars moustache) visiting an tAthair Peadar in Castlelyons many times. They also had a lot more in common than just having a good speaking voice: for instance, the two were alike in championing Irish at a time when the norm was to look down on it as a backward language. Small wonder if native speakers came to see their mother tongue as unfit for polite society when they were beaten at school for letting slip the language that they spoke at home. And the disdain went all the way to the top as a Trinity professor showed when, in 1899, he asserted before a public commission that the Irish language had no place in schools because “Irish literature where it was not religious was silly, and that where it was not silly it was indecent”.
It was into this atmosphere of generalised disdain that Kuno Meyer waded when asked to testify before the same commission. Brought in as “an expert against which the Gaelic League could not cavil” he ended up flummoxing “those Trinity college people” (as Douglas Hyde gleefully put it) when his report turned out “a complete and absolute vindication of all that the Gaelic League … had done”. But those who knew him would not have been surprised to hear of his mounting an eloquent defence of Irish, not when, in the eyes of a fellow Celticist, he had “a profound belief in the dignity and importance of Celtic studies, especially Irish, the oldest of all West-European vernaculars”.
An tAthair Peadar was similarly ahead of his time in insisting on the “dignity” of Irish, as clear from how the Dictionary of Irish Biography sums up his legacy: “There is general agreement among Irish scholars that he brought the language of the people (caint na ndaoine) into modern literature with superb clarity, precision, and style.” Indeed, pushing back against the notion of Gaeltacht Irish as the language of poor uneducated country bumpkins, an tAthair Peadar’s challenge to the status quo was that bit more radical again, as clear from some advice he gave Peadar Ó hAnnracháin. Ó hAnnracháin had been telling him about some proverbs that his father—a poor farmer and native Irish speaker back in Skibbereen—often used, when the small, whited-haired priest turned to him and said:
“I have but one bit of advice for you now.”
“What’s that, father?” I asked.
“Anytime you find yourself stumped about Irish, leave the answer of your question to those people who gave you those proverbs, or to others like them, and you won’t go far wrong. For, it is they who are the professors. They have knowledge that no academic in the country has and won’t for a long time yet, if ever they do.”
To be fair, it is easy to see why academics would have had a hard time accepting caint na ndaoine or “colloquial Irish” as the literary standard with all that implies of a loose, informal way of speaking. Still less that they should think of themselves as the students and uneducated labourers (like O hAnnracháin’s father) as the professors when it came to deciding the finer points of Irish grammar.
Kuno Meyer and an tAthair Peadar were alike then in promoting Irish at a time when it was more usual to look down on it. Indeed, so inseparable were they in the public imagination that it seemed only natural that, in Douglas Hyde’s view, they be awarded the Freedom of Dublin together in 1912. Cork followed suit later that year and it seems telling of how much it meant to an tAthair Peadar to be awarded the Freedom of Cork City that he chose to finish his autobiography with a vivid description of it:
Never had I expected to see what I saw that day. When myself and Kuno Meyer came out of the train in Cork … The Lord Mayor was there, with a carriage to convey us to City Hall. Before us, behind us and at both sides of the carriage was a military escort, armed and arrayed as their prototypes would have been in the days of Cuchulainn … We went through the city … All along the route the people, young and old, were crowded together on both sides of us, cheering and clapping their hands in welcome. When we entered the great hall … it was … so full that no more could enter. Then we spoke to them and they spoke to us, and we were both amazed at the excellence with which the boys conversed with us in Irish.
I think it would be well for me to stop here and say, as the storytellers did in Ireland long ago: So that is my tale up till now.
“Honouring Distinguished Irish Scholars” the headline trumpeted in the next day’s edition of The Cork Examiner over a photo of the pair in stately procession down Grand Parade.
Hands crossed on his cane, retreating turtle-like under the brim of his hat, Kuno Meyer looks the more reserved of the two. Sitting beside him, an tAthair Peadar looks positively boyish by contrast, never mind his seventy-three years, as he sits up enthusiastically to beam out at the crowd. Seeing him like this, borne along in a carriage, flanked by warriors bearing spears and shields, it is easy to imagine him as a latter-day Nestor (that is, a venerable general returning in triumph from the Trojan War).
Yet his stooped shoulders and wizen cheeks (not to mention the decrepit look of the German gentleman sitting next to him) were a reminder that these two were getting too old for this. Time to pass on the torch to a new generation and hope that they had the grit and determination necessary to continue the uphill battle that was the fight to save the Irish language. Two old codgers, they could at least hope that the green shoots seen in Cork City Hall, in the form of the boys who amazed with the excellence of their Irish, were a sign that the language revival movement was taking root. Only time would tell whether this was a fight that could be won in the long run but for now those who would had feared the passing of “the oldest of all West-European vernaculars” could at least be grateful that the Irish language had two honeyed voices to speak up for it at a time when it was in danger of falling silent forever.
PART II: THE DAY AN AUSTRIAN ANTHROPOLOGIST CAME TO CASTLELYONS
Kuno Meyer was not an tAthair Peadar’s only German-speaking visitor: there was also Rudolf Trebitsch, the Austrian anthropologist who came over 1000 miles from Vienna to visit him in Castlelyons. Dr Trebitsch worked at the Phonogrammarchiv in the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, the first sound archive of its kind anywhere in the world. Indeed, in seeking to perserve for the posterity the voices of vanishing cultures, the Phonogrammarchiv was so ahead of its time that it had to push the limits of sound recording technology to do so. This meant modifying Edison’s original design so that the phonograph etched sound onto wax plates rather than the wax cylinders normally used (as these were prone to decay on playback).
The result was the Wiener Archivphonograph or “The Viennese Archival Phonograph”, a device that had undergone many modifications by the time Trebitsch brought one to Ireland in 1907 so that we cannot be sure whether it was a Type III or a Type IV that he used to record an tAthair Peadar in Castlelyons. In any case, he could at least be grateful that the Archiv engineers had managed to reduce the hefty 35kg weight of the Type I to the more manageable 15kg weight of later models.
His research interest lay in what he called aussterbenden Völkern Europas, “the dying peoples of Europe” by which he meant speakers of endangered languages. Recording among the Inuit of Greenland in 1906, he set his sights on Ireland the following year where the outlook for Irish was grim, describing it in his notes as a language “very much on the decline, and perhaps even on the verge of extinction.” As heir to a fortune, he was rich enough to be able to fund his own research trips and also had an interest in the moving picture business: writing film scripts under the pseudonym Hans Dietrolf with titles like Gefangen – im eigenen Netz! (“Trapped – in your own net!”) and Donaurauschen (“Danube Rushing”). All this suggests a cosmopolitan outlook and indeed, to look at him in the photo below—sleek and well-groomed, wearing a summery suit more at home on the Continent than in rainy Ireland—he does seem to have an air of the man of the world about him.
One wonders what the locals thought to see him pull up at Castlelyons Parochial House in his motorcar, only to heft out some strange contraption. Strange indeed when the idea of having one’s voice recorded was still so new as to seem the stuff of science fiction for most people. Hence Maturin Buléon’s astonishment when Trebitsch recorded him in Brittany in 1908, the 40-year-old marvelling at “this strange type of chimney”, able “to put down almost at the same time, speech and a voice from every people in the world. ‘Speak,’ a foreign gentleman tells me, ‘and I will take your voice with me’.”
Something almost biblical in the talk of “speech and a voice from every people in the world” and, thinking of Trebitsch setting out for the far corners of Europe, it would have been easy to imagine him as another Noah, with the phonograph his Ark, into which he gathered representative samples of dying languages before the rising tide of global languages like English drowned them out for forever.
Arriving in Dublin on 22nd July 1907, he went straight to the Royal Irish Academy where he met with his first setback when Osborn Bergin (lamenter of the seven grammatical errors on an tAthair Peadar’s coffin) “could in no way be induced to speak into my instrument”. Alas, this would prove far from the only hitch on his Irish trip as, as related in his report to the Academy in Vienna, though he had been advised to choose for recording “only people born before 1845 – i.e. those over 62 years old” (on the grounds that fluency among the general population had gone into drastic decline since the Famine), this proved all but impossible as: “While I did occasionally find speakers born in Ireland before 1845 – a country where people get very old – their clumsiness, lack of teeth or other signs of old age prevented me from choosing them for the phonograph.”
But all was not lost as, acting on a tip-off about a priest with impeccable Irish, he left Dublin on 26th July bound for Castlelyons. Judging by his field notes, he seems to have enjoyed his jaunt to this east Cork village:
Now off to Fermoy, Co. Cork, and from there 1 ½ hours’ drive to Castle Lyons, where on 26 July 1907 I recorded Peter O’Leary, a clergyman and a well-known Irish writer. Since it was impossible to find any lodgings in the village for the night, the whole work had to be completed within a couple of hours before I returned to Fermoy in my car. Peter O’Leary had been recommended to me by Professor Henrich Zimmer, who agreed with all the experts in Ireland that he was one of the best speakers of Irish. Peter O’Leary is aged 67 and has never left Ireland; his mother tongue is Irish.
It would have been easy to find the process intimidating. Firstly, there was the need to be concise in what one said as each wax plate had a maximum recording time of just two minutes. Then there was the added pressure that comes from knowing that one had better get it right first time as the wax plates were expensive and so “the foreign gentleman” was unlikely to welcome retakes.
Not to mention the reflexive clenching of the vocal cords that comes from being told that you are having your voice recorded for posterity. With this in mind, how could you speak into the phonograph funnel and not feel like you were staring into eternity? Lesser men might have gotten stage fright but not an tAthair Peadar. He was nothing daunted, at least if Trebitsch’s notes are anything to go by:
None of the above-mentioned signs of old age that would have disturbed or even made impossible a recording could be detected in his case – all the more as he gives the impression of someone not much older than fifty. Discs 690 and 691 were made in such a way that the speaker, apart from a few glances at the relevant book, freely recited his text in front of the phonograph.
In any event, Trebitsch recorded him twice: first, reciting from An Craos Deamhan (his retelling of the medieval Irish tale Aislinge Meic Conglinne) and then reciting from Aesop a Tháinig go hÉirinn (his retelling of Aesop’s Fables).
Hearing him speak from 1907, what’s striking is how similar his Irish sounds to the Irish of any newsreader on TG4 today. But the Gaeltacht blas of those newsreaders only sounds cultured to our ears now because he helped give it prestige. Factor in Patrick Pearse’s claim that it was reading an tAthair Peadar’s novel Séadna that taught many of the first writers of modern Irish how to write fluently in the language and it does not seem like too much of a stretch to suppose that some of his vocal imprint echoes yet in the Irish we speak today. Which only makes it fitting then that visitors to Castlelyons churchyard can make him seem to live again—if only for a while—by playing a clip of his voice through scanning the QR code on the info board next his grave.
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