Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Matthew Russell SJ: priest, editor, poet.

The image below shows the front cover of the poetry collection Vespers and Compline : a Soggarth’s Sacred Verses.  It was published in 1900 by Burns & Oates in London. “Soggarth” was a variant spelling of “sagart” , the Irish word for priest. The priest in question was Matthew Russell SJ, poet, pastor, and editor of the Irish Monthly from 1873 to his death in 1912. The book is one of five collections of poems and prayers composed by Fr Russell which we hold in the library.

In the metres and rhyme of his devotional verse, Fr Russell was able to capture his own faith, address that of his readers, and express his sense of Jesuit culture.  I’ll give two examples. The first comes from the book Madonna: Verses on Our Lady and the Saints, and is a poem called “Memorare”. Here the poet offers a new translation of the traditional Marian prayer as his first verse, and then adds two further verses of his own.  He engages with his readers not only in the poem, but by means of a footnote. He is concerned that readers might not know by heart the original “Memorare”, so in the footnote he prints the Latin version and an English translation then in use. It is against this background that his readers could experience the new poem, and its sentiments of personal Marian devotion.

On the second point concerning Fr Russell’s celebration of Jesuit culture, I found some interesting examples in the books Altar Flowers: a book of prayers in verse (3rd ed. 1912) and A Soggarth’s Last Verses (1911). These includes poems celebrating Jesuit saints Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, a translation from French of “The Seven Thoughts of a True Jesuit”, a couplet summarizing the five points of the Ignatian examen, and an affectionate image of the industrious Jesuit community at Dublin’s Saint Francis Xavier Church, in the autobiographical poem “The Elevens of a Long Lifetime”:

Emmanuel at 44
Was my first of books galore.
Xavier’s holy Dublin hive
was my home at 55. 

Fr Matthew died while spending a second period attached to St Francis Xavier Church (1903 - 1912).  His reputation rests largely on his influence and achievements as editor of The Irish Monthly, in which he published numerous contemporary novelists, poets and essayists including Oscar Wilde, Aubrey de Vere, Rosa Mulholland and Hilaire Belloc. 

But it satisfied him also to find a readership for his own literary efforts: the verses and prayers which he had penned, “accidentally” as he said, during his life as a Jesuit priest. One of his readers was Fr Stephen Brown, our founder, who in an account of his own spiritual reading published in The Irish Rosary in 1946, referred to Fr Matthew as “a writer who helped me greatly in early days”.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Douglas Hyde and Gaelic Literature

Eighty years ago, on 1st July 1937, Bunracht na hÉireann was enacted by the Irish people.  In the following year, under this new constitution, Douglas Hyde was elected unopposed as the first president of Ireland.

The Central Catholic Library holds a rich collection of works by Hyde, reflecting the importance he had for the founder Stephen Brown. Brown belonged to the first generation that benefited fully from Hyde’s pioneering work on Irish language and literature. Linguist, poet, translator and scholar, Hyde restored to national memory the annals, romances, folktales and mythological cycles lost because of the historical circumstances which had effected Irish language and culture .Stephen Brown collected for the library Hyde’s poems in both English and Irish. He also acquired works such as Hyde’s Study of Early Gaelic Literature, published in London in 1894 by T. Fisher Unwin (who would be the future publishers of Tolkien). 

As well as writing in Irish, Hyde translated into English tales such as the “Three Sorrows, or Pities, of Irish storytelling”. These three Gaelic tragedies comprise Déirdre, (based on love), the Children of Lir, (based on jealousy), and the Children of Tuireann, (based on murder). Hyde's translation was published in one volume in 1895 (again by T. Fisher Unwin). However the stories were reprinted by Dublin’s Talbot Press in three individual volumes, (1939, 1940 and 1941), following Hyde’s election to the presidency.  Our copies of these three translations are each inscribed in Irish by Hyde.

The passage below comes from  Hyde’s translation of The Children of Lir. It captures the moment when the four children of King Lir are transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother, Queen Aoife.

Cover design by Una Hyde
Then spreading wide their strong white wings, the swans
Rose off the water in the sight of all,
Beating the air beneath them, till at length
The men of Erin saw them but as specks
High overhead...
Then for the north they started, flying straight ;
And all men watched them till they passed from sight
And vanished utterly ; and then there fell
A great distress and sadness over all,
So that the men of Erin made a law
From that day forth that none should kill a swan.”