Kuno Meyer, German scholar distinguished in the field of Celtic philology and literature, is born in Hamburg, Germany on December 20, 1858. He was considered first and foremost a lexicographer among Celtic scholars but is known by the general public in Ireland rather as the man who introduced them to Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry (1911). His brother was the distinguished classical scholar, Eduard Meyer.
Meyer studies in Hamburg at the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums. He spends two years in Edinburgh, Scotland, as a teenager (1874–1876) learning English. From 1879, he attends Leipzig University, where he is taught Celtic scholarship by Ernst Windisch. He receives his doctorate for his thesis Eine irische Version der Alexandersage, an Irish version of the Romance of Alexander, in 1884.
Meyer continues to publish on Old Irish and more general topics on the Celtic languages, as well as producing textbooks for German. In 1896, he founds and edits, jointly with Ludwig Christian Stern, the prestigious Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie. He also cofounds Archiv für celtische Lexicographie in 1898 with Whitley Stokes, producing three volumes from 1900 to 1907.
In 1903, Meyer founds the School of Irish Learning in Dublin, and the next year creates its journal Ériu of which he is the editor. Also in 1904, he becomes Todd Professor in the Celtic Languages at the Royal Irish Academy. In October 1911, he follows Heinrich Zimmer as Professor of Celtic Philology at Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. The following year, a volume of Miscellany is presented to him by pupils and friends in honour of his election, and he is made a freeman of both Dublin and Cork.
At the outbreak of World War I, Meyer leaves Europe for the United States, where he lectures at Columbia University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and elsewhere. A pro-German speech he gives in December 1914 to Clan na Gael on Long Island causes outrage in Britain and some factions among the Irish, and as a result, he is removed from the roll of freemen in Dublin and Cork and from his Honorary Professorship of Celtic at Liverpool. He also resigns as Director of the School of Irish Learning and editor of Ériu. Harvard University also had extended an invitation to Meyer to lecture on campus, but it subsequently cancels the invitation in the fall of 1914 on account of Meyer’s propagandist activity.
Meyer nevertheless accepts candidacy for the post of exchange professor at Harvard, at the recommendation of German professors there. However, when the April 1915 issue of The Harvard Advocate awards first prize to an anti-German satirical poem “Gott mit Uns” written by an undergraduate, Meyer sends the university and the press a letter of protest, rebuking the faculty members who served as judges for failure to exercise neutrality. Meyer also declines his candidacy from the exchange professorship in the letter. In a reply, President Abbott Lawrence Lowell says, in explaining Harvard’s policy, that freedom of speech includes pro-German and pro-Allied voices alike.
Meyer is injured in a railway collision in 1915 and meets 27-year-old Florence Lewis while he is recovering in a California hospital. They marry shortly afterwards. He returns to Germany in 1917 and dies in Leipzig on October 11, 1919.
Posthumously, in 1920, Meyer’s name is restored, both by Dublin and Cork, in their Rolls of Honorary Freemen. The restoration occurs on April 19, 1920 in Dublin, where Sinn Féin had won control of the City Council three months earlier, rescinding the decision taken in 1915 by the Irish Parliamentary Party. The restoration in Cork follows on May 14, 1920.