Saturday, June 2, 2012

Queen Elizabeth II and the Nugent Primer

Queen Elizabeth II at Dublin Castle 2011

Opening page to Nugent's Primer
I remember when Queen Elizabeth II visited Ireland in 2011. It was a historic visit, the first time a British monarch came to Ireland since we won our independence from the UK back in 1922. The part I remember best was the opening line to her speech at Dublin Castle “a Uachtaráin agus a chairde”, spoken in that unmistakable Windsor brogue. I was impressed, it was probably more Irish than Bertie Ahern could have put together. But of course the real significance was in the symbolism. A British monarch addressing the Uachtaráin na hÉireann, and as gaeilge no less!

Nugent's Irish alphabet
with the ancient Ogham titles 
By a curious twist of history there was also another British monarch by the name of Elizabeth who wanted to learn a cúpla focail. Elizabeth I (1533-1603) requested a manuscript with a few Irish phrases for her to learn. She was fond of employing foreign expressions at court and it was probably nothing more than a curiosity. Christopher Nugent an Old English Baron from Westmeath obliged her and wrote a manuscript outlining the history of the Irish language, its alphabet and a list of phrases with Latin and English translation. Nugent went far beyond providing just a list of phrases, he wrote a mini apologetic for Irish culture and civilization. He was perhaps naïve in thinking that the English court would adopt a more civil attitude to a race they conceived to be little better than animals once they read his book. The manuscript still survives and is kept in the Benjamin Iveagh Library in Dublin.

List of Irish phrases
translated into Latin and English
from Nugent's Primer
As it turned out for Nugent, his love of Gaelic culture soon drew the displeasure of the crown. He was later arrested on the suspicion of treason against Elizabeth I and died in Dublin Castle in 1602. This was the same castle where Elizabeth II addressed the President of Ireland and her new Irish friends as gaeilge in 2011. Another sad irony of Irish history.

It was a brighter moment in the annals of Anglo-Irish relations when the Queen of England trod on the sacred sod of Croke Park and the Rock of Cashel. Yes, I was impressed by Elizabeth's speech that day. It meant something to me to hear the Queen of England show the Irish people and their culture such respect. As a parting gift the Irish state presented Elizabeth with a facsimile of Nugent's Primer, so she can keep practicing her Irish. As an Irishman I would like to wish her all the best on her Jubilee, go sabhála Dia an Bhanríon!

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