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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1841 to 1843 > Irish

A few weeks after the Propaganda academy, I met his Eminence at the levee of the newly created Cardinal Cadolini, ex-Secretary of the Sacred Congregation. Recognizing me at once as " the Maynooth Professor," he addressed me laughingly in Irish : Cjoŋur t'a t'v "How are you?" It has repeatedly been stated that he knew Irish ; and that language is actually enumerated in more than one published list of the languages which he spoke. Had it not been for his own candour on the occasion in question, I myself should have carried away the same impression from our interview. But on my declaring my inability to enter into an Irish conversation, he at once confessed that, had I been able to go farther, I should have found himself at fault; as, although he knew so much as enabled him to initiate a conversation, and to make his way through a book, he had not formally studied the Irish language. Nevertheless that he was acquainted with its general characteristics, and the leading principles of its inflections and grammatical structure, its analogies with Gselic, as well as their leading points of difference, and its general relations with the common Celtic family, I was enabled to ascertain in a subsequent interview, in which I was accompanied by an accomplished Irish scholar, the late Rev. Dr. Murphy of Kinsale. Dr. Murphy was much struck with the accuracy and soundness of his views.

One of the observations which he made during this interview was afterwards the occasion of no little amusement to us. During an audience which Dr. Murphy, accompanied by Dr, Cullen, then Rector of the Irish College, had had a few days before with the Pope, Gregory XVI., a new work of Sir William Betham, Etruria Celtica—in which an attempt is made to establish the identity of the Irish and Etrurian languages, and in which the celebrated Eugubian inscriptions are explained as Irish,—had been presented to the Pope. His holiness, who was much interested in Etruscan antiquities, on hearing from Dr. Cullen the nature and object of the work, had expressed great amusement at this latest discovery in a matter which had already been explained in at least a dozen different and conflicting ways. We mentioned this to the Cardinal.

"His Holiness is perfectly right,"he replied. "There is no possible meaning which could not be taken out of it, if you only grant the licence which these antiquarians claim. The Eugubian tables, in different systems,* have been explained by some as a calendar of Festivals ; by others as a code of laws ; by others as a system of agricultural precepts. It is no wonder that your Irish author explains them as Irish. But I will venture to say that, if you only take any common Italian or Latin sentence, and apply to it the same system of interpretation, you may explain it as Irish, and find it make excellent sense."

On leaving his Eminence, we resolved to put his suggestion to the test. We took the first sentence in the first of F. Segneri's sermons which opened in. the volume. I have since tried, but in vain, to find the passage : and I only recollect about it, that it related to the ardent desire of our Divine Lord, that the light of his gospel should shine among men. Dr. Murphy, without exceeding in the slightest degree the license which Sir W. Betham allows himself, in dealing with the Eugubian inscriptions, converted this Italian sentence into an Irish one, which, to our infinite amusement, literally rendered, ran as follows: " In sailing into the harbour, they came to the place of his habitation ; and they took a vast quantity of large specked trouts, by the great virtue of white Irish fishing-rods!"

The Cardinal repeated to Dr. Murphy during this visit what he had before said, that he did not pretend to speak Irish, but added that, if he had a little practice, he would easily acquire it. I had already heard the same from the Archbishop of Tuam, who knew him on his first arrival in Rome. I have since been told that, in the following winter, he formally addressed himself to the study, with the assistance of the late Rev. Dr. Lyons of Erris, who was then in Rome ; but I have no means of testing the truth of the statement, or of ascertaining the extent of his progress.
This discussion regarding the Irish language naturally suggested a similar inquiry as to the Cardinal's knowledge of the kindred Gaelic. The Rev. John Strain, who knew him in 1832, when he first came to- Rome, informs me that in that year he had no knowledge whatever of the Gaelic language. He got a friend of Mr. Strain's to repeat some sentences in it for him, and expressed a wish to procure some books for the purpose of learning it. I find from the catalogue of his library that he did procure a few Gaelic books : and Rev. John Gray of Glasgow, who was a student of the Propaganda till the year 1841, informs me that he at that time knew the language, but spoke it very imperfectly.

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