Saturday 2 April 2016

Heaney and Fergal's Aeneid

Teenage Signature inside Mackail's AENEID
The publication of Seamus Heaney’s translation of the sixth book of Vergil’s Aeneid coincided with my receiving, from an Irish in-law, the huge privilege of access to Heaney’s school textbook translation of the epic. It is the 1953 reprint of J.W. Mackail’s The Aeneid of Virgil Translated into English; Heaney signed it with his name (twice) and his school form number.  He will have used it at St. Columb’s, the Roman Catholic boarding school in Derry to which he had won a scholarship at the age of twelve. 

"Kill me but I'll win the Language War"
The books of the Aeneid he annotated  heavily were near the end. The figure who attracts most attention is Turnus, the indigenous Italian, killed with studied brutality by the colonising Trojan leader Aeneas. But in one of the most beautiful episodes in world poetry, Juno extracts from Jupiter the promise that if Turnus must die, the people of Latium, despite their defeat, will be allowed to retain their name, their customs, and crucially their ancient tongue. In Mackail’s translation, Juno says:

"OK, but Let Them Speak Latin"
‘Bid thou not the native Latins change their name of old, nor become Trojans and take the Teucrian name, or change their language, or alter their attire: let Latium be, let Alban kings endure through ages, let Italian valour be potent in the race of Rome. Troy is fallen; let her and her name lie where they fell.'

Not so did English die out in the land of the conquered Irish. Although the first language of everyone in Ireland was Celtic (Irish Gaelic) until the sixteenth century, fewer than a million can now speak it at all. The parents of a friend of mine were still being punished for speaking it at school in the 1940s. I flew into Dublin this week (you know you’re in Ireland when there are horses grazing by the runway of the international airport) and was pleased to hear Irish, rare in the east of the island, before I got through Security.

Pre-Lecture Drinks with Emily and Matthew
I had been invited by super-competent under- graduate Emily Gallagher to speak to the splendid Classical Society at Trinity College, where a local joke is that Vergil was clearly an Irishman, his name being the Latin form of Fergal. My topic was the longevity of the Irish tradition of classical scholarship: there are Old Celtic annotations on manuscripts from as early as the sixth century CE. By the end of the twelfth, Celtic speakers could read good versions of the Aeneid, Statius’ Thebaid and Lucan’s Pharsalia in their mother tongue.

Hearing Irish, the direct descendant of Celtic, makes me tingle. It is an Indo-European language of high antiquity, introduced into Ireland three thousand years ago. There are no Irish writers on whom the linguistic dispossession of their people does not weigh heavily. Much of Ireland may have gained independence from Britain back in 1922. But unlike the conquered ancient Italians, the Irish had no Juno to guarantee that if their leader was sacrificed, they would be allowed to carry on speaking Latin/Italian rather than be forced to speak Phrygian/Trojan at school.

I’ll update you on Heaney’s thrilling Vergilian  marginalia when I’ve managed to decipher them all.

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