George Thomson

Seán O Lúing


Hardly ten colleges in Ireland now teach classical Greek. The study of the classical languages has diminished all over Europe, with the emphasis being placed in school and university on the teaching of modern vernaculars for the purpose of communication, and naturally Ireland, merged by her own full consent into the European Community, is obliged to follow the pattern. Latin, which was always more widely studied, has not reached a comparable point of contraction yet. But the abandonment of Latin as the language of public worship by the Catholic church was a shattering blow to the status of Latin studies in the modern world, from which no recovery is foreseeable. It is bound to become very much the language of the specialist. A strange turn indeed if the language that is the very cornerstone of European studies is to become the property of the exclusive few in university retreats.

Yet, although the study of classical Greek is vanishing off this island in common with the rest of Europe, paradoxically its future would seem to be more assured than its sister tongue. For the gulf between classical and modern Greek is not unbridgeable, as is the case between Latin and its closest descendant, Italian. Modern Greek is spoken by some ten million people and has the status of a working language in the European Community, even though this makes for headaches in the recruiting of translators. The Greek alphabet has never changed. The transfer of comprehension from the modern to the ancient language is not too formidable. One would not infer, from the classical catalogues published in recent years by Messrs. Basil Blackwell of Oxford and other centres that any diminution in Latin and Greek studies was taking place.

The above reflections, among others, were prompted by a conversation on the Birmingham-Oxford train between two donnish persons, of patently immense learning, at which this writer was a compulsory eavesdropper. They spoke of theses in progress, fragments, interpretations, of classical scholars and their achievements, with only a break in the highly civilised colloquy while one of them ate a meal which he produced from his briefcase. "Do you mind if I have my lunch now?" No, indeed, his companion did not, as he buried himself in study until, the repast over, they continued their talk. What most interested me, in the course of these learned exchanges between my travelling companions, was their ready agreement on the eminence, in the domain of his studies, of George Thomson, emeritus professor of Greek in the University of Birmingham. Here, to me, silent and anonymous in my seat, my wife Marie sitting beside me, was a fascinating junction in the mighty traffic of literature. Did my travelling companions know, I wondered, that George Thomson of Birmingham University was identical with Seoirse Mac Tomáis, a scholar of eminence in the Irish language, who had helped to embellish Irish literature by his influence on Maurice O'Sullivan, author of Fiche Blian ag Fás, and by contributions of his own.

George Thomson was little more than a youth when, on what must have been one of his earliest visits to Ireland, he made the acquaintance of the author who describes him as "a man neither too tall nor too short, with knee-breeches and a shoulder-cloak, his head bare and a shock of dark brown hair gathered straight back on it". The rapid portrait is Maurice O'Sullivan's, in his classic Twenty Years A-Growing (pp238-9). O'Sullivan was afraid at first because "There was not his like in the island." For the encounter took place in the ultima terra of Europe, three miles off the headlands of Dunquin. Thomson had come to learn the Irish language, and O'Sullivan, his fears put aside, became his friend and tutor. "George and I spent the next six weeks walking together on strand, hill and mountain, and after spending that time in my company he had fluent Irish." (p240) The year was 1923. Thus, fully equipped, George Thomson was later able to take up the post of Professor of Greek, through the Irish language, in Galway University, to the mystification, it would appear, of fellow-Hellenist E.R. Dodds.

It was the Chief Translator of Dáil Éireann, Liam O Rinn, himself a writer of talent, who introduced George Thomson to Stephen MacKenna, the translator of Plotinus. Hellenists both, they were also lovers of Irish literature and shared the ideal of enriching it with transfusions from classical sources, in much the same way as the great literatures of England and France had been developed, following the invention of printing, by translations and abstractions from Greek and Latin. The approximate time of Thomson's introduction to MacKenna may be placed as shortly after 17 May 1930, from a reference in a letter of that date of MacKenna's to Liam O Rinn, quoted in Mo Chara Stiofán (p87).

MacKenna says he would be glad to meet the Professor. He had already read, and proposed to read again, Breith Bháis ar Eagnuidhe (Sentence of Death on a Sage) and was grateful to the Professor for its doing. This was a translation into Irish of the three dialogues of Plato which tell of the trial, imprisonment and death of Socrates. It was published in 1929 by the Dublin firm of Fallon in association with the Stationery Office, in Gaelic type, 173 pages, including ten of introduction and thirteen of notes, and, for the delectation of bibliographers, a small erratum slip. The Irish is faultless and so easily read that one is unaware it is a translation. What is intriguing is the author's name, Seoirse Mac Laghmainn. This would translate as George Clements. Few would suspect that it concealed the identity of George Thomson, graduate of Cambridge, in time to become England's most distinguished Hellenist and interpreter of early Greek civilisation. The book is dedicated to Seán Mac Dáithí and carries the approbation of the Department of Education as being a suitable text for secondary schools. The imprimatur is likewise given to Thomson's next two contributions to Irish-Hellenic studies. These were the Alcéstis (1932) of Euripides and Prométheus fé Chuibhreach (Prometheus Bound) of Aeschylus (1933), published by the Stationery Office, Dublin. Both of these texts were edited to the most exacting standards of classical scholarship, even though the Alcéstis at least was produced under pressure. Thomson's preliminary note to this text is of interest:

This is an effort at editing a Greek text in Irish. I did it in some haste and had I worked at a leisurely pace it might have less defects. But the need for textbooks in Irish is acute and accordingly I thought I had better get it done as quickly as possible. As for technical terms, it is my view that Irish is fortunate, in literary matters at any rate, in having so few of them. Should no particular term be available, the meaning must be expressed in clear and simple language, which will benefit both teacher and student; on the other hand, should there be an excess of such terms, it becomes all too easy for us to conceal a lack of knowledge behind a facade of learned speech. In the case of such terms as I had to invent, I considered it better to borrow from Latin, just as French, English and many other languages do, than have recourse to Old Irish, since it is more important, in my view, that they be easily understood than be dressed in a pure Irish garb.

The Alcéstis contains 24 pages of explanatory introduction in which he includes a brief discussion (pp18-20) of A.W. Verrall's controversial observations on the play in his book Euripides the Rationalist (Cambridge 1913). Printing was by Alex Thom and Co. in a beautifully clear Greek font. Notes, appendices and vocabulary take up 177 pages, making the whole an impressive achievement of scholarship. The same may be said for his next Greek-Irish publication Prométheus fé Chuibhreach (Prometheus Bound) Dublin 1933. This has a Foreword, an Introduction of 20 pages, a Commentary of 76 and a discussion on the metre and grammar of the text. It was the result of a study of the play which began six years before, which he considered had enabled him to arrive at a better intrepretation than previous scholars.

This Irish edition was similar to the English one which he proposed to publish later, only it was simpler in detail so as to accommodate to the needs of those who were not yet sár-oilte ar an nGréigis (highly skilled in Greek). Much material which he thought might be unintelligible to them he omitted, along with proofs or evidence in support of the views he advanced. He pointed out, however, that some of these were to be found already in the Classical Quarterly xxiii (1929), 153-63 and Classical Review xliii (1929), 3-5, and the rest would appear in the forthcoming English edition. The English edition, October 1932, actually preceded the Irish one which had to contend with bureaucratic delays. No vocabulary was supplied, because the edition was not intended for beginners, but for the senior grades of secondary schools and university students, in order to encourage the use of the larger Liddell and Scott, the editor considering that the student should be weaned off the use of shorter vocabularies. Printing was done by Browne and Nolan, not in such fine and emphatic type as in the Alcéstis but clear and satisfactory. The print run for the Alcéstis was 1000, for Prométheus fé Chuibhreach 500.

It is doubtful if any scholar of comparable status to Thomson ever worked in the field of Gaelic-Hellenic studies or had his labours in this unusual area of scholarship marked by such conspicuous achievement. His pre-eminence in Hellenic studies is known, from his publications in English, throughout the wide world of classical scholarship. What is known only within a very limited sphere is his complete mastery of the Irish language. With his proficiency in Irish and Greek he represented what was to W.B. Yeats the ideal in education. What Thomson did was to make the language of Dunquin and the Blaskets the vehicle of commentary and exegesis in the most sophisticated area of the humanities and that he did this with perfect success makes him, if for no other reason, unique. He became involved, by his own consent and enthusiasm, in the task of revivifying Irish culture, and because he showed by his endeavour what could be done, the work of George Thomson remains for Ireland a beacon light.

George Thomson's friendship with Maurice O'Sullivan, who tutored him so well in spoken Irish, 'it's the fine, rich Irish you have now' (p257) - had an important literary sequel. Thomson persuaded the young man not to emigrate to America like his brother and sisters but to join the Garda Síochána, the Irish police force and go to the training depot in Dublin. Maurice left the island on the 15th March 1927, bound for Dublin, where he met his friend George, who introduced him to the ways of the city. In time he completed his training and was sent to take up duty at Indreabhán in West Galway. The life of a civic guard in Indreabhán was placid and O'Sullivan felt the winter long. He told Thomson he had time on his hands. Why not write about your youth on the island, suggested Thomson, who had noticed, not long after their first acquaintance, that O'Sullivan had qualities which go to make a writer, a talent for storytelling, imagination and a love of people. Stimulated by the example of his elder neighbour Tomás O Criomhthain whose noted book An tOileánach (The Islandman) had appeared in 1929, and encouraged by Thomson, O'Sullivan wrote the book between 1929 and 1932, not for the wide world, but for the people of his own small island whom he remembered with such affection.

He sent the draft to Thomson, who had meantime taken up the chair of Greek in University College Galway, amounting to five hundred pages of bulky manuscript. The work was too long to publish in its entirety. Thomson edited, pruned and counselled, always in consultation with the author, until between them a satisfactory draft was produced. 'In my opinion' writes Thomson, 'what I mainly did to improve the book was to make it more compact in the telling. I added nothing but removed a word or two here and a line or a half-page there, as one might comb wool or clear the chaff from the grain. But I changed nothing without submitting it to the author.' (Editor's Introduction, 5-6, to the 1976 edition of Fiche Blian ag Fás). Twenty Years A-Growing has been criticised on the score of presenting an unreal picture of the Blasket Island as a never-never land where the sun shone perpetually. The character of the book, however, makes this criticism unreal itself. What O'Sullivan described was not so much the physical island as the aura of youth and wonder that is distilled into those magic, fleeting years that are lived before twenty. He has caught and registered the echoes of boyhood, its sense of wonder and the nostalgia of adolescence with all its candour. It is part of the literature of youth, an appeal to something that lies profound in the human heart, a composition of deep local feeling and affection. It continues to be reprinted and remains an enduring tribute to the cooperation and friendship of Maurice O'Sullivan and George Thomson.

Tosnú na Feallsúnachta (The Beginnings of Philosphy), in 76 pages, the last Irish language book of Thomson's to appear in print, was published by the Stationery Office, Dublin, in 1935, but the author's brief foreword is dated May, 1932. He offers the book as an account of Greek philosophy from its earliest times to Plato, with nothing new except in the way of its arrangment, nor any discussion of controversial details since it was a book intended for the common reader. It is a light, easy to read, account, unique in Irish, and Thomson is obviously in love with his subject and medium. He makes Greek philosophy and its context the property of everyman. Here is a brief passage from the last chapter of Section III which deals with Plato's philosophy:

It is said that Socrates, when approaching the end of his life, dreamed one night that a swan, the bird of Apollo, came to him through the air piping sweetly, and that on the morrow he met a well-shaped personable young man named Plato, so that he understood he was the swan that he had seen in his dream. At any rate, but for Plato, we would know very little of Socrates; for he was always thinking of his master who had died in the cause of truth, and since it was from him that the light of truth had entered into his own soul, it was through the mouth of Socrates that he disclosed his thoughts to the world. No one has ever written prose more beautiful than that of Plato.

Our first meeting

Ever since I read Fiche Blian ag Fás I had been interested in George Thomson and his work and I looked forward to seeing him in person. I first met him a few days before his 80th birthday, in his Birmingham home, and had the pleasure of shaking his hand. He asked me about the position of the Irish language and its prospects. He went on to talk about the language, of how he had translated the dialogues of Plato into Irish, of how the beauty of Plato's prose transferred so easily into Irish, which had corresponding beauties, of how aptly and suitably both Greek and Irish transposed the one into the other. As he was speaking, he got up and paced the room, a light came into his eyes, his voice which at first had been weak, grew stronger, the years fell away, and I found myself listening to a man who spoke with the animation and fire of youth in a way that belied the calendar. I sensed I was in the presence of a most unusual person, who spoke with conviction and near passion about the matters in which he was interested. He talked about modern Greece and the huge audiences which had come to see the production of Ajax and Agamemnon in great open air theatres in Northern Greece, countrymen who had travelled miles to see these plays and had received them enthusiastically. He compared Greece with Ireland and talked of his Connemara experiences when he had attempted something similar.

His Irish language writings

I have the honour to be editor of a selection of George Thomson's Irish writings. He wrote on a variety of matters. Mainly they are drawn from two areas of experience, Greece and Ireland. Some are short stories, some are character sketches, some discuss the topics of the day. One thing that emerges is that George Thomson is very good at the art of storytelling. The Dancing Man (An Rinceoir Fir), is about a Dublin character who proclaimed he was a genius at dancing but was in reality very deft at the art of "touching". Phases of Thomson's own life are interwoven with the writings.

There is a fine account of his 1926 visit to Ithaca (modern Thiaki), birthplace of Odysseus, where he was the guest in the hilltop monastery of Brother Yannis, twenty years a monk and survivor of a community of three, who faithfully carried out his liturgy and gave shelter and hospitality to George and two poor retainers, a fisherman and swineherd, consisting of an omelette, a portion of octopus, goat's milk, cheese, olives, garlic. Turkish coffee and glass upon glass of 'fine spirited black wine', stimulating merriment, joy and the tempo of conversation. 'Let us rise now and drink a health to the stranger'. Midnight approached and grace was said, followed by prayers in the chapel. A description of classic charm. The Goat Boy (Buachaill na nGabhar) concerns a young goatherd who can produce sprightly music from the reed pipes, while George, who was not successful in getting a single note from the same instrument, watches the boy go off in the distance, like a reincarnation of Pan, making music as he went. There is a sketch, Barra na Trá, about the Blaskets (though he does not name it) and the observation of an elder about the future which corresponds to the prophecy of Tomás O Criomhthain ('Our likes will not be again').

Thomson is good at describing human situations - a young woman with her child abandoned by her lover, an army officer in gaudy red uniform, and the heroism with which she copes; the poor Connemara woman in the Galway train, grief-stricken but queenly in her dignity, in striking contrast to her mundane fellow-passengers. Many of the essays are on topics of the day, at a time in the late twenties when he lived in Watermill Cottage, Raheny, on the north side of Dublin Bay, and would walk around the curve of the shore to Trinity College where he was studying for a post-graduate degree. An absurd project was being given serious consideration, to build a Blue Lagoon, Hawaii-style, on the north shore of the Bay, a project which he scarified in an article headed Blue Lagoon, mar dh'ea as noting more than a playground for the affluent and wealthy, possessors of yachts and motors cars, of no benefit to common humanity. Dublin City, which celebrated its millennium in 1988, should be grateful to George Thomson for his part in scotching the absurd proposition. It is good to know that the area is now a wildlife reserve and one of the most attractive of Dublin's environs.

George Thomson was also a fine Shakespearean scholar and has translated into Irish a number of the Sonnets. Some of the material in the selection has been published in various journals; most, however, was made available through the kindness of Katharine, George's wife, to whom I take this occasion to acknowledge my gratitude for the readiness with which she gave of her time and help, and for the keen interest which she takes in George's Irish language work. George wrote in Irish on matters such as the use of the language in commercial life, on university education, on the way to enrich community life by taking learning to the people by way of University extension lectures, based on the principle that learning should be brought to the attention of the people and shared with them, that as a consequence of this the people would take an active interest in progress. He shared with Robin Flower the belief that great poetry and literature came up out of the thought and imagination of the people.

In Galway

In 1931 George Thomson was appointed lecturer in Greek through Irish at University College Galway, the first such appointment ever made. A special Act had been passed by the Oireachtas to legislate for it, providing also for a lecturer in Latin through Irish, a post to which Dr Margaret Heavey was appointed. She and George Thomson were good friends and respected teachers. Besides teaching classes, George Thomson, whose appointment and educational projects had the favour of Ernest Blythe, Minister for Finance, had set himself two main tasks. One of these was the provision of textbooks and studies, of secondary and university standard, on classical Greek and related subjects, in the Irish language. In this field he did considerable work. His second task was to bring University extension lectures to the people of Connemara. His purpose was to introduce learning to the ranks of the people, to teach them about trade and economics, to bring the Irish language to bear on their everyday life and make it an agency of progress, to improve their lot and turn their attention to the future.

George Thomson considered that the Department of Education programmes for Irish concentrated too much on the past and ignored contemporary European thought. 'I conceived the idea of using the language as a means of giving them (i.e. the people of the Gaeltacht) a modern education so that they could adapt their culture to modern conditions'. In his efforts to bring University extension lectures to the people of Connemara he found himself up against an obstacle that no persuasion could surmount. The Connemara climate was not suitable for open-air lectures. The only feasible lecture halls were the school premises, the use of which was denied him by the obscurantist parish priests who managed them. He received no support from the government or any official source in his efforts. George Thomson was highly critical of Irish governments and did not mince his words. He said that in achieving political independence as a result of the national struggle they had got what they wanted, they had no ambitions for social progress and had designed their Irish language programmes with the view of turning back to the past.[1] After a successful performance in Galway of a play which he had organised, and which was acclaimed by the audience, a friendly critic of his policies, Professor Donegan, who was present, came to him and said 'I now see what you are trying to do and I agree with you'.

George Thomson found, at a certain stage of his progress, that the great programme he had envisaged, of providing edited texts, translations and studies of Greek plays and poetry, histories of Greek literature and philosophy, was being held up and halted, at official level. Ernest Blythe, who had backed and encouraged his plans for providing textbooks, was no longer in government. There came a point at which he lost patience and resigned his post at University College Galway, finding that the progress he had planned was being made impossible. He was in those days, as indeed he was at all times, a spirited and stubborn man, fiercely committed to the Irish revival, and he found the doors being closed against his efforts.

He left Galway, 'my mind in turmoil', and returned to Cambridge, where at King's College he held a Fellowship. The year was 1934. In the upset of his changing from Galway to Cambridge there was lost or mislaid a complete translation into Irish of Homer's Odyssey. It was a serious loss. Maurice O'Sullivan was to go through the text with him to give it an authentic Blasket Island flavour and it was to be illustrated by Gwen Raverat, grand-daughter of Charles Darwin and a talented artist. Enquiries to Cambridge confirm that it is not there. There is a hope it may be somewhere in Galway. The twenty four books of the Odyssey would make a substantial manuscript. It shows the wholeheared commitment to the Irish language of George Thomson. It is our hope that it may be recovered, as something we would be proud to have in Irish.

This was the central reason why George Thomson left Galway. I have a very clear recollection of this, which George Thomson related to me in much detail twice, in his home in Birmingham. It has been suggested that his leaving Galway had something to do with his Marxist philosophy. That is not so. At that time George was definitely not a Marxist. His Marxism developed following his 1935 visit to Moscow and his appraisal of social and educational progress in the Soviet Union which he describes in a striking 'personal epilogue' to his essay on the Irish Language Revival (Yorkshire Celtic Studies III, pp10-12).

A fruitful association: George Thomson and Pádraig O Fiannachta

George Thomson's association in scholarship with Father Pádraig O Fiannachta began in 1959. Professor Margaret Heavey, George Thomson's Latin colleague in the Classics Faculty of University College Galway, had forwarded his Irish translation of Confessiones Sancti Augustini to Maynooth College for appraisal and publication. There it was given to Pádraig O Fiannachta, of the Celtic Studies staff, who considered George's translation to be excellent. George had translated Books I-VII. O Fiannachta continued the translation to the end of Book X where a natural break occurs, a point at which the essence of the autobiography is complete. The text, Mise Agaistín (I am Augustine) of 252 pp., appeared under the imprint of An Sagart, Maynooth, 1967 with an Introduction, pp9-24, by Fr. Seán Mac Riabhaigh and the imprimatur of Dionysius Episcopus Kerriensis. The sale cleared expenses and left a modest profit which O Fiannachta considered due to Thomson, who insisted however that it be credited to the funds of An Sagart, thus providing the first contribution to the enterprise that published in due course An Leicseanáir, An Leabhar Aifrinn Romhánach and An Bíobla Naofa. It is an entirely proper judgement that the name of the reader is consigned to oblivion who initially rejected George Thomson's translation of the Confessions because he was not a Catholic.

Thomson and O Fiannachta resumed their co-operation in 1975. Fiche Blian ag Fás had been out of print since 1941 and Thomson was having difficulty in finding a sympathetic publisher who would retain the unique native character of the author's text. Pádraig O Fiannachta, coming from the same milieu as Muiris O Súileabháin and familiar with the author's environment, was naturally interested in the book's fortunes and offered George his help in having it published. To ensure that editing would be sympathetic to the character of the book he crossed to Birmingham and after a week's collaboration they produced an acceptable text which is celebrated by Pádraig O Fiannachta, 'file agus fear léinn', Thomson's words, in a brief lyric in his collection Donn Bó (1977) much appreciated by George and his wife Katharine.

Thus the second edition of Fiche Blian ag Fás was launched at Listowel Writers' Week in June 1976, which George and Katharine attended, with George signalising the event in an elegant Irish address in a local tavern. Travelling to West Kerry he gave a striking interview to Proinsias Mac Aonghusa on the verge of a Dunquin cliff against the backdrop of the Blaskets which was filmed to appear in a later dramatisation of the book on the stage of the Peacock Theatre.

George's Greek and Irish language interests are so intertwined that to disengage them is impossible. In three important contributions to the Maynooth literary journals Léachtaí Cholm Cille and Irisleabhar Mhá Nuad Pádraig O Fiannachta has printed, out of George's Nachlass, a number of translations from the Greek in his fluent and lucid Irish.[2] These, which were found in Galway University, evidently related to his University lectures and his efforts to supply adult education to the Connemara public in his belief, as Pádraig O Fiannachta observes, 'that knowledge of the classics with their philosophical thought, their literary art and imaginative content would benefit the mind and soul of the Gaeltacht people who had not for aeons of time received their educational rights from clergy or laity, Gael or Gall.' (Léachtaí Cholm Chille XVIII, 162. An Sagart, Maigh Nuad 1988).

George's translation from the History of Herodotus of stories which were appreciated by the Blasket fishermen appeared serially in the monthly journal An Phoblacht between 21 January and 19 May 1928 under the general title An Seana-shaol Gréagach (Life in Ancient Greece).

Fiche Blian ag Fás and the Talbot Press

In preliminary notes to the manuscript of Fiche Blian ag Fás, which he presented to the National Library, George gives an interesting account of his negotiations with the Talbot Press about his efforts to persuade them publish it. Apart from causing him much editorial trouble, they kept raising difficulties. 'They said at first they would not publish it without a subsidy, but, after I had made it known that an English translation was being published by Chatto and Windus, with a foreword by E.M. Forster, they changed their minds, accepting instead a guarantee.' The guarantee had the support of Lennox Robinson, Edward Gwynn, Lord Longford and others, with Lennox Robinson urging him to go ahead and publish the English version, leaving the Talbot Press to its own devices and discomfiture. In the event George Thomson financed the publication at his own expense. The Irish edition was dedicated to Ernest Blythe, because it was through his influence that Maurice was accepted into the Garda Síochána. Maurice's own wish had been to dedicate it to George Thomson.

Other Irish language writings of George, as yet unpublished, are mentioned by him in these preliminary notes. 'I wrote a Greek Grammar and a Tosnú na Sibhialtachta (based on lectures given at University College, Galway).' These were also rejected, 'the first because of my spelling, the second because I was suspected of believing in the Darwinian theory', once more the identity of the editorial Boeotians being mercifully wrapped in oblivion. In collaboration with Osborn Bergin George translated an abridged Book of Common Prayer for the Church of Ireland which was published in 1935.

A comrade spirit

It is proper that the name of the North Kerry classical and Irish scholar Tim Enright should be mentioned as a friend and disciple of George Thomson. A primary school pupil of Bryan MacMahon, he graduated from Trinity College and went on to become classical master of Brooksbank Comprehensive School, Elland, in Yorkshire. When he retired in 1981, the Department of Classics, under the influence of his teaching, was ranked one of the top twelve in England. Sharing a love of Classics and Irish with George Thomson he also shared his Marxist convictions and campaigned on behalf of the underprivileged on the hustings of Yorkshire. A born teacher, he believed that the classical world was part of every child's heritage. He is one of the distinguished group of translators and interpreters of Blasket literature whose work has been published by Oxford University Press. Of George Thomson he wrote to me: 'Níl aon teora leis an sár-fhear sin' - 'There are no bounds to that great man'.

The best account of George Thomson is Tim's Memoir of him which forms the last part, pp119-150, of Island Home, the Blasket Heritage, George Thomson's own profound interpretation of the Blasket way of life, and his final book (Brandon, Dingle, Co Kerry, 1988).

The heritage of George Thomson

We might ask what did George Thomson bring to the Irish language. First of all he brought his positive conviction that its revival could be accomplished. He brought his talents of scholarship, by which he produced textbooks of the highest quality, using the language of the Blaskets and Dunquin to bear on the most sophisticated area of scholarship in the world. His career in Galway marked the zenith of achievement in Irish-Hellenic Studies. He brought to the Irish language a spirit of adventure and freshness. He inspired a young islander to produce a classic in the literature of youth, Twenty Years A-Growing, which may be cited as an example of his belief that great literature came up from the people. He identified for us the intellectual wealth that is present in the speech of the people. On the other hand he contributed to Irish a history of Greek Philosophy, translations from Greek masterpieces that sounded in Irish as natural as if produced by a Blasket islander. He enriched the Irish language with a new classical content, and showed how it could be enriched further. It is to be hoped that his Irish translation of the Odyssey will turn up. His familiarity with Greek influenced his style in Irish, which he wrote with Attic precision. In the Gaelic Pantheon he is a versatile and distinguished member.


[1] See George Thomson's illuminating essay 'The Irish Language Revival' in Yorkshire Celtic Studies III Transactions 1940-46, pp.3-12.

[2] Theocritus, Idyll 15, except vv. 100-149 (supplied by Pádraig O Fiannachta) in Léachtaí Cholm Cille XVIII pp. 164-169. The Iliad, Book 1, Ibid. pp. 169-182. Plato, The Symposium, in Irisleabhar Mhá Nuad 1988, pp.161-189, continued and concluded in Irisleabhar Mhá Nuad 1989, pp. 76-102. The foregoing appeared under the imprint of An Sagart, Maynooth, as did George's study of the Blasket culture An Blascaod a bhí (1977) and its expanded English version The Blasket that was (1982) in which were revealed parallels between Blasket life and the Homeric world. Pádraig O Fiannachta, now Canon and Parish Priest of Dingle, is the editor of An Sagart. Distinguished as a lecturer, poet and writer, with a phenomenal range of work to his credit, chiefly the organisation and editing of An Bíobla Naofa (1981) of which he was part-translator. Recently purchased the library of the late President Cearbhall O Dálaigh (2500 volumes) and presented it to the Great Blasket Centre in Dunquin. There is a brief biography of him in Stair na Gaeilge (Maigh Nuad 1994) 1-21.

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