Robert Atkinson


(1839-1908); Professor of Romance Languages, Sanskrit, and Comparative Philology, TCD; gave inaugural address On Irish Metric (1884); ed. Seanchas Mor with others; resisted inclusion of Irish in Matriculation curriculum and clashed with Douglas Hyde, informing Mahaffy of the alleged indecency of Irish sagas at Intermediate Education Committee and disparaging all folklore as ‘abominable’, 1899; anthemised by Lady Gregory, AE [George Russell], and others and answered by W. B. Yeats in ‘The Academic Class and the Agrarian Revolution’ (Daily Express 11 March 1899 - as infra); his editorial work in Irish rendered him the object of a dismissive rhyme (‘Atkinson of TCD / Doesn’t know the verb to be’); it was at the house an Atkinson relative in London that Oscar Wilde met Constance Lloyd.

COPAC listings incl.
Irish Lexicography: An Introductory Lecture [RIA Todd Lecture Ser., 2, i] (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy 1885), 34pp.; 22 cm. - with links:

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The Passions and the Homilies from Leabhar Breac: Text, Translation, and Glossary
[RIA Todd Lecture Series Vol. 2, Pt. 2 ] (Dublin: RIA 1887), vi, 922[950]pp. See also On Irish Metric: An Inaugural Lecture on Celtic Philology (Dublin UP [TCD] 1884), q.pp.

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See P. J. Mathews, ‘Hyde’s First Stand: The Irish Language Controversy in 1899’, in Éire-Ireland, Vo. 35, 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 2000) [see extract].

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W. B. Yeats, ‘The Academic Class and the Agrarian Revolution’, from the Daily Express, [11 March] 1899): ‘There are opinions and manners so memorable as indications of movements of thought that one longs to put them into some shape in which they may be read after the discussion that gave them birth is forgotten. I would gladly give such permanence to certain literary opinions of Dr Atkinson and to a certain violence of manner in his expression of them. He has said “All folk-lore is essentially abominable”, and of Dr Hyde's imaginative and often beautiful stories, “they are so very low”, and of “the range of Irish literature” (including the tales of Cuchulain which “made an epoch” in the life of Burne-Jones, and many tales that are the foundation of much in contemporary Irish literature), that it has “very little of the ideal, and very little imagination”; and, in waht one must conclude to have been a paroxysm of political excitement, that there was a book of Irish tales “with translations” published the other day which “no human being could read without being absolutely degraded by contact with it, of the filth which I won't even demean myself to mention” - a book which every folklorist knows to have no existence outside of the imagination of Dr Atkinson. “All folk-lore is essentially abominable.” If a Professor at an English University were to say these things in a conspicuous place, above all before a Commission which he hoped would give his opinion an expression in action, he would not be reasoned with, but his opinion wold be repeated with a not ill-humoured raillery and his name remembered at times with a little laughter. Dr Hyde has understood, however, and perhaps rightly understood, that the conditions of Ireland are so peculiar that it is necessary to answer Dr Atkinson, lest, as I should imagine, some imperfectly educated priest in some country parish might believe that Irish literature was “abominable” or “indecent” - to use another favourite word of Dr Atkinson’s - and raise a cry against the movement for the preservation of the Irish language. [.../] The true explanation is that Dr Atkinson, like most people on both sides in politics of the generation which had to endure the bitterness of the agrarian revolution, is still in a fume of political excitement, and cannot consider any Irish matter without this excitement. If I remember my Bible correctly, the children of Israel had to wander forty years in the wilderness that all who had sinned a particular sin might die thre; and Ireland will have no dispassionate opinion on any literary or political matter till that generation has died or has fallen into discredit. [...]’ (Rep. as Item 42 in Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth by William Yeats, ed. Robert Welch, Penguin 1996 - - available at Amazon Books online; accessed 29.09.2017.)

Æ” [George Russell], ‘Nationality and Imperialism’ (in Lady Gregory, ed., Ideals in Ireland (1901; ‘[...] A blockhead of a professor drawn from the intellectual obscurity of Trinity, and appointed as commissioner to train the national mind according to British ideas, meets us with an ultimatum: “I will always discourage the speaking of Gaelic wherever I can.” We feel poignantly it is not merely Gaelic which is being suppressed, but the spiritual life of our race. A few ignoramuses have it in their power, and are trying their utmost, to obliterate the mark of God upon a nation. It is not from Shelley or Keats our peasantry derive their mental nourishment, now that they are being cut off from their own past.' (rep. in Poetry and Ireland since 1800: A Source-book, ed. Mark Storey, London: Routledge 1988, p.142.) [Note: Also given in Irish Literature, gen. ed. Justin McCarthy (Philadelphia 1904).

Lady Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men (1904), Notes: “The Apology”: ‘Four years ago, Dr Atkinson, a Professor of Trinity College, Dublin, in his evidence before the Commission of Intermediate Education, said of the old literature of Ireland:- “It has scarcely been touched by the movements of the great literatures; it is the untrained popular feeling. Therefore it is almost intolerably low in tone - I do not mean naughty, but low; and every now and then, when the circumstance occasions it, it goes down lower than low ... If I read the books in the Greek, the Latin or the French course, in almost every one of them there is something with an ideal ring about it-something that I can read with positive pleasure - something that has what the child might take with him as a [Greek phrase] - a perpetual treasure; but if I read the Irish books, I see nothing ideal in them, and my astonishment is that through the whole range of Irish literature that I have read (and I have read an enormous range of it), the smallness of the element of idealism is most noticeable. ... And as there is very little idealism there is very little imagination. ... The Irish tales as a rule are devoid of it fundamentally.” / Dr Atkinson is an Englishman, but unfortunately not only fellow-professors in Trinity but undergraduates there have been influenced by his opinion, that Irish literature is a thing to be despised. I do not quote his words to draw attention to a battle that is still being fought, but to explain my own object in working, as I have [309] worked ever since that evidence was given, to make a part of Irish literature accessible to many, especially my young countrymen, who have not opportunity to read the translations of the chief scholars, scattered here and there in learned periodicals, or patience to disentangle overlapping and contradictory versions, that they many judge for themselves as to its “lowness” and “want of imagination”, and the other well-known charges brought against it before the same Commission.’ (Slaney Press Edn. [with Cuchulain of Muirthemne] London: 1994, p.309-10.)

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John Frayne, ed., Uncollected Prose of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan 1975), Vol. 2: Atkinson gave testimony before Intermediate Education Board remarking on ‘smallness of the element of idealism’ in ancient Irish literature, and dismissing Douglas Hyde’s stories as ‘low’ and as having been written in a language that ‘was not good enough for a patois’; claimed that the Book of Leinster was unfit for children to read and professed the view that ‘All folklore is at bottom abominable’, as reported in Daily Express, 28 Feb. 1899, drawing fire from W. B. Yeats, in ‘The Academic Class and the Agrarian Revolution’ (Daily Express, 11 March 1899). Yeats wrote ‘[...] the true explanation is that Dr Atkinson, like most people on both sides in politics of that generation which had to endure the bitterness of the agrarian revolution, is still in a fume of political excitement, and cannot consider any Irish matter without this excitement.’ Further, quoting Atkinson and speaking of Trinity College, Dublin: ‘“All folklore is essentially abominable”: in that mood it has lived and worked, and of that mood its influence is dying. [...] Fortunately for its country it has raised up powerful enemies, perhaps the most powerful of all enemies. “Imagination”, as the old theologian has written, “cannot be hindered because it creates and substantiates and goes on.” Imagination and style are the only things that can, as it were, root and uproot the heart and give men what loves and hates they will; and our academic class understands in some dim way that its influence is passing into the hands of men who are seeking to create a criticism of life which will weigh all Irish interests, and bind rich and poor into one brotherhood [p.151]; and a literature which will bring together, as Homer and Dante and Shakespeare and all religions have brought together, the arranging and comparing powers of the man of books, and the dreams and idealisms of the man of legends. Our academic class has worked against imagination and character, against the mover and sustainer of manhood; and eternity is putting forth its flaming fingers to bring its work to nothing.’ [&c.] (pp.151-522.)

P. J. Mathews, ‘Hyde’s First Stand: The Irish Language Controversy in 1899’, in Éire-Ireland, 35, 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 2000) - quotes extensively from Atkinson’s evidence at the Intermediate Education Commission, 1899 - e.g.: ‘Now all I can say is that no human being could read through that book, containing an immense quantity of Irish matter, without feeling that he had been absolutely degraded by contact with it - filth that I will not demean myself even to mention. Instances no doubt are not numerous in it, but they are there, and if you will call at any time upon me in my rooms, I will show you them [...]’. (Mathews, op. cit., p.178.)

P. J. Mathews, ‘Hyde’s First Stand: The Irish Language Controversy in 1899’, in Éire-Ireland, 35, 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 2000) - quotes Archbishop Logue’s response to the Irish-language controversy surrounding the Intermediate Education Commission of 1889: ‘I have no doubt the efforts now being made, with such promise of success, to restore our venerable and beautiful old tongue to the place which it has lost through past indifference, will contribute to, renew and strengthen not only the spirit of nationality, but also the spirit of piety and morality. It is well known fact that nowhere in Ireland is faith stronger, religious feeling deepere,innocence of life more conspicuous, that in these districts where the Irish language still lingers and is lovingly cherished.’ (Mathews, op. cit., p.183.)

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Atkinson’s Irish
: The poor scholarship of Atkinson’s edition of Trí Biorgaoihte an Bháis led to the couplet, ‘Atkinson of TCD / Doesn’t know the verb to be’. He was made a particular object of criticism for his lack of command of the language by Peadar Ó Laoghaire who claimed that he knew less than a ‘gossoon in a Connemara bog’. (See Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.146; quoting Tomás Ó Fiaich, ‘The Great Controversy’, in Seán Ó Tuama, The Gaelic League Idea, Mercier 1972, p.68.)

Eamon de Valera: see note on the possible rationale behind De Valera’s reprieve from execution in 1916, relating to his mother Kate Coll’s employment at the Atkinson country house in Co. Clare up to the time of her sudden departure for New York and the part played by John Atkinson, Lord Chancellor up to 1905, in securing that reprieve by personal intercession. (See further under De Valera, infra.)

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