Queen spoke language of Irish warlords

WHEN Queen Elizabeth II makes her historic State visit to Ireland today, will she greet President Mary McAleese in Irish? Her namesake, the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I, would have done so.

Elizabeth 1 was a multi-lingual Renaissance monarch with a passion for learning. Her earliest surviving letter is in Italian and she was fluent in French, Latin and Greek, but Irish, the mother tongue of a large minority of her subjects, had never been part of her youthful education.

This queen of Ireland thought it necessary to learn a cúpla focal, perhaps prompted by the visit of Shane O’Neill, the great Gaelic chieftain of Tyrone, to her court. O’Neill and his retinue visited Whitehall in 1562, dressed in Gaelic fashion and speaking Irish, which was said to have caused “as much wonderment as if they had come from China or America”.

Looking upon the proud Shane and his fearsome Galloglass (mercenaries), Elizabeth may have concluded that obtaining enough Irish to break the ice might go some small way towards winning over such rebellious warlords.

In addition to playing a role in her diplomatic posturing (and perhaps satisfying her natural curiosity), the Irish language also became a major prop to her religious policy. For centuries, Irish had been officially condemned but the Reformation ideals of placing the Bible in the vernacular, and preaching in the common tongue, meant that Elizabeth performed a policy u-turn.

In a series of well-calculated moves, she paid for the manufacture of an Irish typeface to print religious literature in Irish, commissioned a translation of the Bible into Irish and even appointed bishops based on their ability to preach in Irish, all in an effort to convert the Gaelic Catholic population to Protestantism.

Whatever her motivations for expressing a desire to obtain a basic grasp of the language, Elizabeth would have had no shortage of help, as she was often surrounded by Irish-speaking courtiers, such as her distant cousin, the infamous ‘Black Tom’ Butler, Earl of Ormond. Instead, she appears to have turned for help to a teenage noble named Christopher Nugent, soon to be Baron of Delvin in Co Westmeath, but then a student at the University of Cambridge.

Nugent was heir to a prominent Anglo-Irish Catholic family, who were both proud of their English heritage and equally comfortable sponsoring Irish poets and men of learning.

The student was presented to Elizabeth when she visited Cambridge in 1564 and whether she deliberately commissioned his help, or whether he seized upon a chance remark of hers, he appears to have sprung at the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the queen. He produced a short primer of the Irish language (included a flattering address), signed, and sent it to her.

Nugent had his own pressing reasons for doing so. Although his family were Catholic, they had done quite well out of property deals after the dissolution of the monasteries and he now felt the need to take over his late father’s estate, which was receiving unwelcome attention from his Gaelic and Anglo-Irish neighbours. Flattering Elizabeth helped smooth his return and he arrived back in Ireland the next year, with Elizabeth’s favour and a knighthood into the bargain.

The language primer Nugent produced is quite short (about 18 pages) and therefore of rather limited use for acquiring a second language. Among its features are a series of introductory phrases (with parallel translations into Latin and English), designed to help Elizabeth open a conversation in Irish and then seamlessly change over to a mutually accessible language. For all its limitations, Nugent’s work is still a landmark in the history of the Irish language — it represents the earliest surviving documented attempt to explain aspects of Irish grammar to a non-Irish speaking audience.

It stands in clear contrast to our other main sources for the medieval Irish grammatical tradition, namely texts like the eighth-century Auraicept na n-Éces (The Scholar’s Primer) and grammatical treatises produced for, and by, Irish poets in Irish bardic schools, whose job it was to praise their chiefs and patrons. Those texts were intended to provide a grammar for use in poetic composition, which was often arcane and stylised and so Nugent’s text is also important as it shows how someone who was not a professional poet analysed day-to-day speech.

By an extraordinary coincidence, Nugent’s primer is now housed in the Benjamin Iveagh Library at Farmleigh House, where Elizabeth II will be staying during her Irish visit. Benjamin Guinness (1937–1992), the third earl of Iveagh, was an enthusiastic book collector and his collection was recently donated to Marsh’s Library by the Guinness family, though it remains in the care of the OPW, at Farmleigh House.

Perhaps Elizabeth II will take a little time to visit the library and peruse the book dedicated to Elizabeth I? If she flips onto the last page she may even find useful phrases (phonetically spelt) for conversing with President McAleese, such as conas ta tu (‘how are you’) and taim go maih (‘I am fine’). Unfortunately, she won’t find ‘So what do you do?’, nor is she likely to hear President McAleese respond with Nugent’s suggested reply, Dia le riuean Saxona (‘God save the Queen of England’).

* Dr Denis Casey is an honorary research associate at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge. Nugent’s primer may be viewed online on the Irish Script on Screen website (http://www.isos.dias.ie).


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