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FATHER THÉBAUD'S IRISH RACE.*
[From Brownson's Quarterly Review for October, 1873.]
It is refreshing to meet, in these days of superficiality and flippancy, with a book from an anthor who thinks, and has mastered his subject. Father Thébaud has here given us a genuine book, solid and erudite, really profound and instructive, full of intense interest to many millions of American citizens, and of the greatest value to the philosophy of history. At last something like justice has been done to the Irish character by a writer not of Irish birth or descent. The author has not indeed given us a full history of the race or of Ireland, but he has given us the key to Irish history, and introduced order into what has seemed to us hitherto a chaotic mass of dry details, by setting forth clearly and distinctly the principles and causes in which they originate, and which explain them.
The author has evidently made a profound study of the Irish character, and his judgment of the genius and mission of the Irish race strikes us as just, and, as far as it goes, final. He regards, we think justly, the Irish as a providential people called, trained, and fitted by Providence to a special work in maintaining and diffusing the true faith, hardly less so than the children of Israel, who were called to be the conservators of the primitive traditions and to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, who was to be born of their
We agree fully with the author that every nation has a distinct character of its own, which cannot be destroyed without the destruction of the greater part of the nation itself. We agree
also with him that this character is not only persistent, but providential; yet, we have been in the habit of considering that, except in the case of the Hebrew people, each nation derives its distinctive character not directly from its progenitors, since all nations have had the same progenitor, nor from the direct act of Providence, but indirectly through second or natural causes. I doubt if all the diverse tribes and nations, the Kelte, the Teutons, and Slaves-of
* The Irish Race in the Fast and the Present. By the Rev. Aug. G. THÉBAUD, S. J. New York : 1873.
the Japhetic race have derived their distinctive national traits from Japhet, the younger son of Noah, who is their common progenitor, or that these have been created by God, otherwise than through the action of created agencies. If the author is right in his ethnology, the Irish, and the English who, he tells us, are of Scandinavian origin, do not owe their respective characteristics to the direct action of God. But this is a matter of no great bearing on the characteristics and mission of the Irish race.
Father Thébaud regards the Irish as a branch of the Keltic family, and illustrates Irish characteristics by the continental Keltæ or Gauls, as the Romans called them, and those of the Gauls by those of the Irish. This is the generally received view ; but in a pretty thorough investigation we made some years since, in answer to the question who were the Celts or Keltæ, we were led to doubt if the Irish are of the same race as the inhabitants of ancient Keltica, now France, and the Armoricans and Britons. That the Irish and the Gael of Scotland, or the Scoti, who gained the supremacy over the Picts, and gave their name to North Britain, were of the same race, there can be no doubt; but that the Irish and the Welsh, or ancient Britons, are of the same race is not fully proved to our satisfaction. The earliest settlers of Ireland, we should maintain, were, probably, Iberians from Spain, but who were the Scoti or Milesians who invaded the island and subdued its original inhabitants, remains to us an unanswered and unanswerable question.
Father Thébaud may be right; we certainly cannot prove that he is wrong, but we do not feel certain that he is right. For ourselves we prefer to consider the Irish, or the Scots as they were formerly called, as the most ancient civilized people of Europe, or now existing on the globe, but withont attempting to determine their race affiliations. Their language is said to belong to the Japhetic group of languages, but some Irish scholars tell us that it bears, perhaps, a still stronger resemblance to the Semitic group. Has it not been classed with the Aryan or Indo-Germanic family, mainly because it has been assumed to be identical with the Welsh and Armorican dialect ? Are the Erse and Welsh dialects really identical ? We are incompetent to decide. But the dispute among philologists as to which group of languages the Irish belongs to, is at any rate a proof of its extreme antiquity, and that it originated at the point where the divergence of the Semitic and Japhetic groups was in its beginning, and had not as yet extended far enough to be unmistakable.
There are undoubtedly many things in common between the Irish and the continental Kelts before the Roman conquest of the Gauls, but perhaps not more than there were at the same epoch between the Gallic and the Germanic tribes. Pelloutier, in his “ Histoire des Celtes," maintains that the Celtsor, as the word should be written and pronounced, Kelts, with the C like K, as formerly in Latin, corresponding to the Greek Kappa, as it did in AngloSaxon and does in the Irish of to-day-were of the same race with the Germans, and applies to them the account given us of the Germans by Tacitus, which is to be also applied by Beaufort, in his “République Romaine," to the Romans, held by him to be of Keltic origin. It is still disputed by ethnologists whether the Belgæ of Cæsar, the Fir-Bolgs of the Irish annals, were of Keltic or Teutonic origin, though Merivale gives very strong reasons for holding them to be a branch of the Keltic family. In our judgment, which is worth very little, the Irish belonged to an earlier emigration from Upper or Central Asia than either the Keltic or the Teutonic, and we base our judgment on the fact that their language is older. Their patriarchal or clan system, which prevailed universally prior to Nimrod, the stout hunter before the Lord, who was a builder of cities, is more perfect than with any other known people, and their religion, as Father Thébaud himself proves, was less corrupt, which is evidence that they emigrated at a very early stage of the grand gentile apostasy, if not before it, perhaps in the very days of Phaleg, when the dispersion of mankind, according to their several nations, began. The traces discovered here and there of Phænician mythology and idolatry, are probably due to the Phoenicians and Carthaginians who, long subsequently, traded in their ports, and had factories on their coasts.
If we give any credit to the Irish annals, and the tendency of recent investigation is to confirm them, the Irish, at the epoch of the Roman conquest of Gaul, were a more polished people and had a higher civilization than the Gallic tribes who were subdued by Cæsar and his legions. The Irish had at that time, as Father Thébaud proves, and had had long before, a rich and peculiar literature, of which numerous fragments still remain; but, if Julius Cæsar is to be believed, the Britons and the continental Kelts had none, and certainly no trace of a literature of any sort have they left behind them. Father Thébaud argues that they must have had a literature, and that Cæsar was not well informed, because the Irish certainly had. But this sort of reasoning does not strike us as conclusive. We do not deny the alleged Keltic filiation of the Irish, but we do not feel certain of it; and for ourselves we believe the Irish were in possession of their beautiful island, and were a civilized people, long before the continental or British Kelts set out on their migration from Asia westward. We believe they were directed by Providence from the eastward to the western isle, before they had fallen into the corruption originating with the Hamitic family, and were preserved comparatively pure from idolatry and immorality, ready to receive with their whole heart the Gospel when presented to them, and to become in due time, through ages of suffering and martyrdom, the missionary people of the great Japhetic race.
This last, after all, is what, and precisely what Father Thébaud has written his book to prove, and prove it he does, of the Irish race; and we differ from him, if at all, only on some incidental points, not essential to his main argument or purpose. We do not seek to settle the affiliations of the Irish people. They are peculiar, with distinctive features of their own. We do not find their chief characteristics in any other people. They have more resemblance to the ancient Spanish or Iberian race, than to the Gallic tribes conquered by Cæsar, and even to the modern Spaniards than to the modern French, which we regard as in their favor, for after the Irish, we count the Spanish race the finest and noblest in the world, though greatly deteriorated since the accession to the throne of Spain of the great grandson of the Bourbon, Louis XIV., and the deleterious influences of France.
The author gives as a characteristic of the Keltæ, and therefore of the Irish, their wonderful force of expansion ; but, if this means expansion by force of arms, as it would seem it does, it is hardly true of the Irish, however true it may be of the people of the country the Greeks called Keltica, and the Romans Gallia, which was somewhat more extensive than the present France, or France even before lier recent dismemberment. The Irish colonized the Scottish Isles, and the Scottish Highlands, and their race gradually absorbed or drove out the Picts and obtained the sovereignty; but they were never an aggressive or robber people, and their wars, except of clan with clan and between their chiefs or chieftains, were wars in defence of their country against foreign invaders, as the author amply proves. They were an agricultural and pastoral people, cultivating the arts of peace.
Inhabiting an island in the ocean, with no fleet, commercial or military, except their light cnrraghs, and their trade in the hands of foreigners and carried on in foreign bottoms, it is not easy to see how they could, whatever their disposition, have engaged in a career of expansion by force of arms. The point on which we are disposed to differ froin Father Thébaud is as to the affiliations of the Irish race, not as to the characteristics of the Irish race itself. We do not believe that the Irish can be shown to have been a branch of any great conquering or robber race, and they never were and never have been a predatory people. Their foreign expeditions prior to their conversion appear to have been limited to sudden raids on the neighboring coasts of England, and perhaps of the continent, such as were possible to be undertaken in their curraghs. As a rule Ireland sufficed for the Irish, and they lived at home, self-sustained and self-sufficing. It would be contrary to the providential mission of the Irish people to suppose it otherwise. After their conversion, the Irish became, in some measure, an expansive and a conquering people. But her armies were composed of peaceful monks, and her conquests were peaceful conquests to the Gospel, in making which her soldiers of the cross were sometimes slain but never slew.
Our view of the Irish race is that they were detached from the parent stock before the patriarchal religion had become to any great extent corrupt, or while they still retained the religion and traditions of Noah in great force and comparative purity, and, directed by Providence to the western isle they still inhabit, where, separated in some sort from the rest of the world, they preserved in comparative purity and vigor the primitive religion, the primitive civilization, institutions, manners, and customs, as transmitted from antediluvian times through Noah and his sons; and where they were held by Providence, so to speak, in reserve till the coming of St. Patrick to bring them into the Christian church, and enable them to enter on their missionary work. They were never an uncivilized, a barbarous, or an idolatrous people; only they were civilized after the Noachic