seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of The Reverend Edward Hincks

edward-hincksThe Reverend Edward Hincks, Anglo-Irish clergyman best remembered as an Assyriologist and one of the decipherers of Mesopotamian cuneiform, is born in Cork, County Cork on August 19, 1792. He is one of the three men known as the “holy trinity of cuneiform,” with Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Jules Oppert.

Hincks is the eldest son of the Rev. Thomas Dix Hincks, a distinguished Protestant minister, orientalist and naturalist. He is an elder brother of Sir Francis Hincks, a prominent Canadian politician who is also sometime Governor of Barbados, and William Hincks, the first Professor of Natural History at Queen’s College, Cork and afterwards University College, Toronto.

Hincks is educated at home by his father and at Midleton College before entering Trinity College Dublin. He is elected a Scholar of the College in 1810, and in 1812 wins the Gold Medal and Bishop Law‘s Prize for Mathematics. He is elected a Fellow of the College in 1813 and four years later takes his M.A. In 1819, following the death of Thomas Meredith, he is presented to the Rectory of Ardtrea in County Tyrone. Though Ardtrea is a valuable and highly prized Rectory, it is also isolated for a young bachelor and he resigns the position in 1826, taking up the Rectory in nearby Killyleagh, County Down, an office he holds for the remainder of his life.

The undemanding nature of his clerical duties leave him with more than enough time to pursue his interest in ancient languages. His first love is for the hieroglyphic writing of ancient Egypt. His greatest achievement is the decipherment of the ancient language and writing of Babylon and Assyria: Akkadian cuneiform.

Hincks deduces correctly that cuneiform writing had been invented by one of the earliest civilisations of Mesopotamia, who then bequeathed it to later states such as Babylon, Assyria and Elam. In 1848 he is awarded the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy for his achievements.

By 1850 Hincks comes to a number of important conclusions regarding the nature of Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform. He also discovers that cuneiform characters are “polyphonic,” by which he means that a single sign can have several different readings depending on the context in which it occurs. However, not everyone is convinced by the claims being made by the Irishman and his distinguished colleagues. Some philologists even suggest that they are simply inventing multiple readings of the signs to suit their own translations.

In 1857 the versatile English Orientalist William Henry Fox Talbot suggests that an undeciphered cuneiform text be given to several different Assyriologists to translate. If, working independently of one another, they come up with reasonably similar translations, it will surely dispel the doubts surrounding their claims.

As it happens, Talbot, Hincks, Rawlinson and Oppert, are in London in 1857. Edwin Norris, secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, gives each of them a copy of a recently discovered inscription from the reign of the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser I. A jury of experts is impaneled to examine the resulting translations and assess their accuracy.

In all essential points the translations produced by the four scholars are found to be in close agreement with one another. There are of course some slight discrepancies. The inexperienced Talbot makes a number of mistakes, and Oppert’s translation contains a few doubtful passages due to his unfamiliarity with the English language. But Hincks’ and Rawlinson’s versions are virtually identical. The jury declares itself satisfied, and the decipherment of cuneiform is adjudged a fait accompli.

Hincks devotes the remaining years of his life to the study of cuneiform and makes further significant contributions to its decipherment. He dies at his rectory in Killyleagh on December 3, 1866 at the age of 74. He is survived by a wife and four daughters.


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Birth of Kuno Meyer, Scholar of Celtic Philology

kuno-meyerKuno 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 then takes up the post of lecturer in Teutonic languages at the new University College, Liverpool, the precursor of the University of Liverpool, which is established three years earlier.

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.


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Death of Philologist Eugene O’Curry

eugene-ocurryEugene O’Curry, philologist and antiquary, dies of a heart attack in Dublin on July 30, 1862.

O’Curry is born at Doonaha, near Carrigaholt, County Clare, the son of Eoghan Ó Comhraí, a farmer, and his wife Cáit. Eoghan has spent some time as a traveling peddler and has developed an interest in Irish folklore and music. Unusual for someone of his background, he is literate and is known to possess a number of Irish manuscripts. It is likely that Eoghan is primarily responsible for his son’s education.

Having spent some years working on his father’s farm and as a school teacher, O’Curry moves to Limerick in 1824 and spends seven years working there at a psychiatric hospital. He marries Anne Broughton, daughter of John Broughton of Killaderry near Broadford, County Limerick on October 3, 1824. He is a supporter of Catholic emancipation and in 1828 writes a poem congratulating Daniel O’Connell on his election as an MP.

During this period O’Curry is establishing a reputation for his knowledge of the Irish language and Irish history, and, by 1834, is in correspondence with the antiquary John O’Donovan. He is employed, from 1835 to 1842, on O’Donovan’s recommendation, in the topographical and historical section of Ordnance Survey Ireland. O’Donovan goes on to marry O’Curry’s sister-in-law, Mary Anne Broughton, in 1840. O’Curry spends much of the remainder of his life in Dublin and earns his living by translating and copying Irish manuscripts. The catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum (1849) is compiled by him for a fee of £100. He is responsible for the transcripts of Irish manuscripts from which O’Donovan edits the Annals of the Four Masters between 1848 and 1851.

In 1851 O’Curry is elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy and, on the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, he is appointed professor of Irish history and archaeology. He works with George Petrie on the Ancient Music of Ireland (1855). In 1852, he and O’Donovan propose the Dictionary of the Irish Language, which is eventually begun by the Royal Irish Academy in 1913 and finally completed in 1976.

O’Curry’s lectures are published by the university in 1860, and give a better knowledge of Irish medieval literature than can be obtained from any other one source. Three other volumes of lectures are published posthumously, under the title On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish (1873). His voluminous transcripts, notably eight huge volumes of early Irish law, testify to his unremitting industry. The Celtic Society, of the council of which he is a member, publishes two of his translations of medieval tales.

Eugene O’Curry dies of a heart attack at his home in Dublin on July 30, 1862, and is survived by two sons and two daughters. He is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. O’Curry Road in the Tenters area of Dublin 8 is named in his honour.