This was the title to a lecture I attended in the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in January 2012. The speaker was Professor Dáibhí O Croinín, of NUIG, author of Early Medieval Ireland and superbly equipped to talk about this subject from his background knowledge of German and Middle Irish. The German interest was key, for while working in Leipzig during a research furlough from NUIG, a transcription made by Whitley Stokes was brought to our lecturer’s attention by the university librarian, who later divulged the existence of an entire shelf of the same material in the possession of Leipzig University. Out of this has come O Croinín’s study of Whitley Stokes, recently published and consisting of a catalogue of the transcriptions and other research of the great palaeographer and celtologist.
Whitley’s father, George Stokes, was a surgeon with a Europe-wide reputation. Whitley’s grandfather, also Whitley, was a contemporary in TCD of Wolfe Tone and narrowly escaped being “lifted” by the state authorities of the time. Our subject, Whitley Stokes, was born in Merrion Square, at No. 5, now the School of Advanced Studies, and I think the former home of Judge Robert Day (1746-1851).
A more satisfying book, because a Life, is entitled A Tripartite Life, Whitley Stokes, the proceeds of a conference on the man and hinting at the three lives, England, India and Ireland, that informed his vast legacy. He was in India for ten years from 1862, acting as chief legal officer to the government, handling Sanskrit and codifying the Indian law. He trained in the Law in London in his early years. Whitley’s sister, Margaret Stokes, also became a famous antiquarian, with an important published legacy.
Whitley Stokes was the product of a rich tradition of Celtology begun by Johann Caspar Zeuss. Zeuss published Gramattica Celtica in 1853. That started it all. Other Germans followed: Rudolf Siegfried, Ernst Windische and Heinrich Zimmer included. Then there were the great Irish scholars with whom we are so familiar: Eoghan O Curry and John O’Donovan.