Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Douglas Hyde and Gaelic Literature

Eighty years ago, on 1st July 1937, Bunracht na h√Čireann 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 D√©irdre, (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.”