The pulpit and the bar

One of the most active promoters of Irish in the early 19th century was the Rev. William Neilson, who published a textbook titled An Introduction to the Irish Language.

Nelson was born in 1774 in Rademon, Kilmore, Co. Down, where his father, the Rev. Moses Neilson, ministered to a mainly Irish speaking Presbyterian congregation. The Rev. Moses was fluent in Irish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He ran a famous school, Rademon Academy, which drew pupils from all denominations. He also collected ancient Irish tales and worked on an Irish grammar book. William seems to have grown up speaking Irish. He studied at Glasgow University, and at the age of 22 was appointed minister to the Presbyterian congregation of Dundalk. There he ran a school much like his father’s, open to all denominations.

His knowledge of Irish was essential for his new post. The congregation were descended from Scots Gaelic Settlers, and now were predominantly Irish speaking. All their ministers since 1700 had spoken either Scottish or Irish Gaelic.

During the rebellion of 1798, the Neilsons of Rademon were loyal to the crown. William spent much of that year working on a shortened version of an English-Irish dictionary originally published in 1732, but he failed to find a patron, so his version was never published.

He wrote an English grammar book and then a Greek one, both of which were widely used. He also enthusiastically collected Irish manuscripts.

In 1808 he published his best-known work, An Introduction to the Irish Language. At the request of the London Hibernian Society, he also wrote a 24 page book for beginners titled Céad Leabhar na Gaoidheilge (First Irish Book).

Financial support for Neilson’s Introduction came from a long list of subscribers, headed by two peers, both lord lieutenants of Ireland. The book was in three parts. The first two parts - a grammar, then phrases and dialogues - were printed in modern type, though using a dot about the letter to indicate séimhiú (softening) where a “h” would be used today.

The final part offered extracts from a long poem about Deirdre and the sons of Usnach, printed in the old Irish type, with English translations.

In his preface, Neilson mentions the historical and poetic value of the language, but stresses that his purpose is primarily practical: “It is, particularly, from the absolute necessity of understanding this language, in order to converse with the natives of a great part of Ireland, that the study of it is indispensable.

“If Irish be no longer the language of the court, or the senate, yet the pulpit and the bar require the use of it; and he that would communicate moral instruction, or investigate the claims of justice, must be versed in the native tongue, if he expects to be generally understood, or to succeed in his researches.
“In travelling, and the common occurrences of agriculture and rural traffic, a knowledge of Irish is also absolutely necessary.”

Neilson’s desire to be practical is evident in the lengthy dialogues, one of which drew on Patrick Lynch’s work for Bolg an tSolair, printed in 1795.

The dialogues give an insight into life at the time.

Here, for example, a doctor is dealing with patients:
- Seo chugainn bea, agus leanabh na hucht.
- Here comes a woman with her child in her arms.

- Go de so air do leanabh, a bhean mhacánta?
- What is the matter with your child, good woman?

- Och! a dheag ghradhm is air atá na tarraingte aidmheala.
- O Sir, it has terrible convulsions.

- A bhfeictear go gcuireann sé piasta trid?
- Does it seem to pass any worms?

- A mbíonn sé crinn le na fiaclaibh ina chodladh? no piocagh a shróin?
- Does it grind its teeth when asleep? Or pick its nose?

- Ní se gach cuid diobhta go minic.
- It does both very often.

- Tabhair asteach é; sgribhe me ní eigin dho air báll.
- Bring it in; I will prescribe for it presently.

In 1818 Neilson was appointed professor of Latin, greek, Hebrew, Irish and Oriental languages at the Belfast Academical Institution. Opened four years earlier by liberal Presbyterians, the Academical Institution was at the time both a boys’ school, open to students regardless of sect or class, and a college for training Presbyterian ministers.

Neilson gave a lecture in Irish three times a week. He was also active in various Belfast societies.
Neilson was elected to the Chair of Greek at Glasgow University in 1821. But before he could take up his appointment he died of rheumatic fever, aged on 46, leaving a widow and four children. Many thousands attended his funeral procession as it travelled from Belfast to Rademon.

Courtesy of the Irish Post