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SELECTIONS FROM THE WORKS OF THE
CHIEF POETS, ORATORS, AND PROSE WRITERS
WITH BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES AND LITERARY NOTICES,
CHARLES A. READ, F.R. H.S.,
Author of "Tales and Stories of Irish Life," "Stories from the Ancient Classics," &c.
BLACKIE & SON, LIMITED, 49 & 50 OLD BAILEY, E.C
A ROMAN historian in a well-known passage rebuked an ancient people for ignorance of their own land and their own race. Strong as is the attachment of the Irish people to their country, they cannot be wholly acquitted of the same charge. It is only within the last half century that a real attempt has been made to subject early Irish literature to severe and systematic investigation; and German scholars at one period seemed likely to anticipate Irishmen in the study of the Celtic tongue. The rise of men like O'Donovan, O'Curry, Petrie, and others, fortunately averted this national discredit, and an impetus has now been given to Celtic research which, so to speak, secures the future of that department of Irish literature.
But it is not the ancient literature or the elder generations of Irish littérateurs that alone have been neglected by the Irish people. There are few Irishmen, I venture to think, who have any conception of the number of well-known literary names which belong to Ireland. Accustomed to read and hear of many writers as belonging to English literature, we are liable to forget their connection with Ireland; and thus many eminent authors pass for being English who were born on Irish soil.
Apart, however, from this consideration, the want has long been felt for a work in which the prose, the poetry, and the oratory of great Irishmen might be found in a collected and accessible form. Such a book is primarily necessary for the purpose of enabling the literary history of Ireland to be traced in a systematic manner; and not the literary history only, but also the historical and social development of the people. In Ireland, as in other countries, literature is the mirror wherein the movements of each epoch are reflected, and the study of literature is the study of the country and the people. Most Irishmen, moreover, have felt the desire for a work in which they could readily find access to the gems of literary effort which rest in their memory, and would be gladly seen again.
I have made ample confession of the neglect of Irish literature among Irishmen themselves, and with the greater freedom I can make complaint of the astonishing ignorance of Irish literature among Englishmen. It is no exaggeration to say that many London writers of comparatively small importance are better known than some Irish writers of genius.
So much for the ideas which led to this Work; I now. pass on to the plan on which it has been prepared. As will be seen, a biographical sketch is first given of each author, and this is followed by selections from his works. The memoirs are not, as a rule, of great length, for the book is meant to be a cabinet of literature and not a biographical dictionary. In the selection of extracts the choice has been guided by a desire to present those specimens of an author which best
illustrate his style. Other considerations had also to be taken into account. It would be obviously absurd to give a passage which was not intelligible without full knowledge of all by which it was preceded or followed. As a consequence it was necessary to seek for an extract which stood out in something like relief, and which required no acquaintance with the context, or only such acquaintance as could be conveyed in a short preliminary note. This consideration has necessitated occasionally the selection of passages which were not, perhaps, the most brilliant in the author's works. Finally, it has been the constant aim to avoid the quotation of anything that had become hackneyed or that could wound the feelings or offend the taste of any class or creed.
As will be seen from the final memoir in the last volume I have had no large share in the preparation of the Work. Well nigh the whole of the first three volumes were prepared by the late Mr. Read, whose life-history Mr. Charles Gibbon has so touchingly told, and were carried through the press by Mrs. Read, who supplemented by various contributions what was necessary to their completion. I am responsible for the fourth volume only.
Finally, Mrs. Read unites with me in thanking the many authors and publishers who have so readily and courteously accorded permission to use extracts from the various works quoted.
T. P. O'CONNOR, M.A.