Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ostentatious Pecksniffianism, I say!

Getting to it a bit late in the week this time ... that needs to change if my course load isn't going to bury me entirely, to be lost forever under a pile of hard-to-find videos (Masculinity in Film), hard-to-articulate, half-written theories (Modern Philosophy), and hard-to-put-down literature (Irish, old and new). Anyway, here's the week's blog challenge from the Man of Irish Letter and Lore:
As late as 1899 Robert Atkinson, the Professor of Comparative Philology at Trinity College, Dublin, said that stories such as those you've read this week and Irish folklore in general was "at bottom abominable", and that in ancient Irish literature it would be difficult to find a book "in which there is not some passage so silly or so indecent as to give you a shock from which you would not recover for the rest of your life."
What do you think might have been behind such a judgement, given that creative writers found the same books to be remarkable and stimulating? 

Um ... I don't know?


I'll need to do better than that. There are no classmates sitting in this room, and therefore no one eager to show how much research she did on the topic before coming to class (there is always at least one Hermione Granger in class at Marylhurst - usually, there are several), and here in my office, late on a Saturday afternoon, there is no past master ready to discuss all the other things he knows about the topic. There's me. There's only me. Wondering about Robert Atkinson. Was the man being ironic? Is that actually a funny thing to say, what he said?

Apparently not.

Since I have to be my own Hermione for this one, I did a bit of reading. It turns out that Atkinson was no idiot! He was not, apparently, clowning around. And he knew exactly what he was saying, and to whom he was saying it. He made this poke-in-the-eye statement at the end of the 19th century, as an enormous wave of Irish language interest was taking the academic world by storm. He "outraged the Irish language movement with his disdainful dismissal of the entire corpus of early Irish literature" which he made during official testimony being given before the Vice-Regal Commission on Intermediate Education. He was not being funny, and he was not being overheard. He was being a pill. And when the reporters got hold of his statement, they included it in an article with the title, "Trinity's Attack on the Irish Language." They were not amused (O'Leary, 223).

In his 1994 Prose Literature of the Gaelic Revival, 1881-1921 Ideology and Innovation, Philip O'Leary calls this blasting from Atkinson a Pecksniffian charge, which was given and taken in completely earnest and serious intent. That's right. He called it Pecksniffian. (Go ahead. Say it out loud.) So I had to look that up! (Well, first I called across the hall, and asked The Great Husband, "What is Pecksniffian?!" He only said, "It's not good...." So then I looked it up.)

Wait. What? How is Atkinson being Pecksniffian? He has the credentials to talk about this stuff!  In fact, "in 1884 he became Todd professor of Celtic languages in the Irish academy. In Celtic studies Atkinson was a pioneer. He edited : The Passions and Homilies from the Leabhar Breac (1887); Three Shafts of Death (Tri Bior-gaoithe an Bhais, 1890), and also wrote introductions for many of the facsimiles issued by the Irish academy" ( So ... he did not loathe all of Irish language. And his comments created a firestorm of rebuttal at the time. Surely he knew that this would be so. Surely he planned what he would say, in advance, on purpose. So what was the man on about? Why was he being so scathing in his testimony? What was behind such a judgement?

The only thing I can figure out is that the man was an Englishman in New York Dublin. He was not Irish. He was opposed and criticized in his day for his lack of facility with the Irish language ("Atkinson of T.C.D. // doesn't know the verb to be" ~ O'Leary quoting a critic, p. 224, in a footnote), and maybe he'd had about enough hostility from the uppity Irish. Maybe he just needed to be an Englishman. Aloud. In all of his own, personal, educated, over-bumptious ostentation. Besides, they warmed to him eventually. He got some very nice tributes after his demise. One person said, "There's many a person who criticized the work of Atkinson who doesn't do his own work half as meticulously as Atkinson did his." (That's another footnote in O'Leary) What was perhaps behind his excoriation of the wild and wonderful, crazy, raw, windblown tales of cows and women and childbirth and fearless magic? Well, maybe those things can be translated just fine - but they're just not proper for the young. They're just not proper.

If, "Manners maketh man" as someone said
Then he's the hero of the day
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile
Be yourself no matter what they say

No comments:

Post a Comment