Liam S. Gogan

The following is part of an article written by Liam S. Gogan
regarding Fr. Dinneen

Some readers will have noticed in this and other Irish papers a letter recently published from the hand of Muiris Ó Conaill, the secretary of the Irish Texts Society (ITS) in London asking for lists of words not recorded in the last edition of "Dinneen" and have perhaps asked themselves what it is all about. Whenever dictionary making is mentioned in this country the name Dinneen will always be remembered, pretty much as Samuel Johnson in Britain and other English speaking lands, or Littré among the French. There have of course been other Irish dictionaries going back to that old bishop warrior Cormac Ó Cuileannáin, the 8th century King of Cashel, who perished in battle. If Dr Patrick Dinneen S.J. did not get into some kind of trouble of that kind it is certainly through no fault of his own, for throughout the recent Irish wars he was out and about, associating with all kinds not regarded as officially respectable by Dublin Castle, while at the same time working like a Trojan at the compilation of his second edition.

Unlike other dictionaries this is perhaps the one compiled with a national purpose and has that additional merit and quality. Some notion struck the historical Irish nation in the last decade of the 19th century that the time had come for it to put off the garb of English speech and the executive of the newly created Gaelic League realised that a rather important necessity was a decent dictionary.

Unexpectedly enough the late Eoin Mac Néill, one of the founders, thought we could do without a dictionary, but in this he was over-ruled and the work was assigned to the late Osborn Bergin who thus initiated the work. However, he did not have the broad appreciations necessary for such a job and his delays, however excusable, led the League to transfer the task to a scholar of greater and more athletic mental ability.

Dr Dinneen came of a family of Kerry farmers and was probably at some stage a native speaker. He had joined the Jesuit Order but was destined never to complete his career in that capacity. He had (I am informed) at one stage become a mathematician of repute. Perhaps it was this science which developed in him that degree of abstraction which led to his leaving the cloister and living, as we put it, in the world. Those who stood by his graveside as his Order intoned their impressive requiem will have realised the truth of the saying ‘once a Jesuit always a Jesuit'. His last days were lightened by the constant attention of the other very notable members of the Order. As chance would have it I was lecturing the London Gaelic League on the dearth of intellectual leadership in Irish affairs, while the great old scholar, who had himself often given a turn to Irish affairs, was passing away. The occasion was thus somewhat apt.

He next turned himself to Greek and in the course of the long rambles, sometimes reaching thirty miles in the day which he indulged in at this time, he committed the whole of Homer's Iliad to memory, a fact which some of our amateur Graecists in Trinity and National might do well to ponder… Next English Spenser attracted his attention and he became a leading authority on the subject. It was this highly trained intellect which had handed to it the task of moulding into dictionary form the wayward vocables of a very battered language. Bergin handed over the few sheets he had compiled but years afterwards he complained bitterly ‘ that Dinneen had stolen his dictionary'… At the same time the actual publication was committed to the Irish Texts Society, one of the finest text-publishing societies in the world. Very fortunately it's headquarters are in London where local genius is unable to get at it to ‘reform' it!

In a surprisingly short space of time the first edition appeared, in 1904 and if the language movement made a great surge forward, especially in the development of a new literature of really solid merit much of the credit goes to this small treasure house of the raw material of Irish. It had it's dross of course. If the printers turned ‘wild naven' (some kind of root) into ‘wild raven' it was just too bad! If the editor, in deference to the national weakness for inspectors borrowed ‘cigire' from O'Reilly's dictionary, a mistake for chigire, one who sees, time has justified the mistake by making it one of the most dreaded terms in our Gaelic vocabulary. It was on my insistence it remained in the new edition with my note ‘a spurious word, now in common use'. Every language possesses these monsters.

In 1916, largely inspired by Gaelicism, Pearse raised the flag of a desperate, but largely successful revolt. Much of the city perished in the flames including the firm of Sealey, Bryers and Walker and with it the plates of the ‘old dictionary', which like so much else in the Irish complex had become, or been made, no longer valid. Thus the second edition arose rather after the manner of the Phoenix out of the flames, in this case the flames of liberty. Some years elapsed before the ITS, facing a bigger demand than ever for the dictionary, commissioned Dr. Dinneen to prepare a new edition and it is a testimony to his heroic soul that, although now no longer young, he took on a task which one of the editors of the great Oxford Dictionary has described as that of a galley slave, a mental galley slave of course. His method was to have the ‘old dictionary' set out on standard slips on which he wrote his new material or added new slips as occasion arose.

His problem was now quite a new one, for while in the 1900's there was little Irish in print, by 1920 an enormous quantity had seen the light of day. Scholars native and foreign had been busy and various journals had poured a flood of ‘new' words into the lexicographical basket. In addition important local lists were on hand. Already, when I saw the dictionary for the first time in the raw, it was truly imposing but the arrangement was chaotic. In the meantime the ITS was anxious to get the work in print.

In 1921 I accepted reinstatement in my old post in the Irish Antiquities Division of the National Museum.. The enforced restraint had its positive side when a very worried and disheartened editor came to tell me that he was ‘going to the printer'. The net result was the opening of a new campaign in which we closely collaborated until four years later the ITS was able to hand the new edition to its clamant and hungry public. The user of the dictionary will note how much closer knit the work is from, say, D onwards. It is I am glad to say generally regarded as an efficient and reliable work despite many drawbacks but is now itself largely passing into out-of-datedness and so in need of new word lists. To the energetic and able Munster writers of the early days we have now many works from Connaught and Ulster writers so its scope has to be extended: hence the proposed new supplement in compiling which every reader of Irish alive today should collaborate.

It is amusing to consider the hostility this work created amongst the patriots of the new era.. More serious was the refusal of the ITS to adhere to the editor's request to put my name on the title page (his own suggestion). Shortly afterwards the Society invited me to prepare an English-Irish dictionary for them. While I was certainly in a position to turn out a fairly good piece of work, for the Irish language had little hidden from me at that stage. I declined with some emphasis. The Irish personality is indeed an uninvestigatable entity!

No monument has been erected to the memory of this great and indomitable worker, Jesuit, journalist, Graecist, mathematician, poet, English scholar, political student in this weird Gaelic state of ours. Perhaps his dictionary…

[The piece ends here, obviously not completed by the author]