“I honour the memory of W. M. Hennessy as one of the few native scholars who did not shut their eyes to the progress of Celtic research on the Continent, and as one who was generous enough to place his intimate knowledge of his mother-tongue at the disposal of any student wise enough to consult him. It is always instructive to see how and where a man of Hennessy’s learning went astray. One of the snares into which he often fell was his habit of reading older Irish with modern pronunciation, as I have repeatedly heard him do” (Kuno Meyer sa réamhrá a chuir sé le Aislinge Meic Conglinne, 1892).

I gCaisleán Ghriaire, Co. Chiarraí, a rugadh é. Bhí Gaeilge aige ón gcliabhán, dar leis an gcuntas a scríobh Norman Moore don Dictionary of National Biography. Chaith sé tamall i Stáit Aontaithe Mheiriceá i dtús a shaoil agus ar fhilleadh go hÉirinn dó chuaigh le hiriseoireacht. Ó 1853 go 1856 bhí sé ag scríobh don Nation athbhunaithe. In 1855 fuair sé post in Oifig na nGealtlann ach ba le dianstaidéar ar na lámhscríbhinní Gaeilge a bhí sé ag caitheamh a dhúthrachta. In 1858 foilsíodh a eagráin de The Annals of Loch Cé agus de Chronicon Scotorum. Toghadh ina bhall d’Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann é in 1865 agus trí bliana ina dhiaidh sin ceapadh é ina Phríomh-Chléireach san Oifig Iris Phoiblí. In 1886, mar cheann de na hathraithe a lean bás Sir Samuel Ferguson, ceapadh ina leas-Choimeádaí Cúnta é. Ba é an Todd Professor san Acadamh é in 1882–84. Ar na leabhair eile a chuir sé ar fáil tá: The Life of St Patrick with the Tripartite Life (1870) The Book of Fenagh (1875) The Annals of Ulster (1888). Foilsíodh Mescad Uladh in 1889 tar éis a bháis. Foilsíodh an t-aistriúchán “Mac Conglinne’s dream” in Fraser’s Magazine i Meán Fómhair 1873. Dúradh faoi: “It is no exaggeration to say that the translation would of itself have placed him in the first rank of Irish scholars of the day: though wonderfully literal it yet enables a reader to recognise the attractiveness of the original” (RIA Proc. Series 3, Vol. 1, Appendix 1, 1887–91). Bíonn tagairtí freisin dá aiste Ossian and Ossianic literature (1871) agus dá athchóiriú ar leabhar James Graves, The pedigree of the White Knight (1856). Rinne sé athchóiriú ar na téacsanna Gaeilge don tríú heagrán de Poets and poetry of Munster (1883), le Seán Ó Dálaigh.

Chabhraíodh sé go fial le scoláirí eile. “Perhaps there is hardly a single work of Irish literature or archaeology published for a generation that does not contain a grateful acknowledgement of his generously accorded help” (ibid.). Sa tuairisc sin géilltear go raibh saineolas aige ar stair, dinnseanchas agus seandálaíocht na hÉireann ach deirtear ann freisin: “His knowledge was unfortunately not worked up into a connected whole such as would adequately represent his learning. Celtic scholars would have been grateful indeed for the heritage of an Irish encyclopaedia of archaeology and geography such as he alone could have written”.

Ghoill bás a mhná agus a iníne go mór air. “The effect upon his sensitive and affectionate nature being such that he never fairly rallied, and now is gone”, a dúirt Standish Hayes O’Grady in The Academy, 26 Eanáir 1889. D’éag sé ina theach féin, ’71 Bóthar Phembroc, Baile Átha Cliath, ar 13 Eanáir 1889. Cuireadh é i nGlas Naíon.

San aiste chéanna sin dúirt an Grádach: “If it be asked why the purely Irish work of such a man should not have been more abundant, suffice it to answer that his official duties in the Public Record Office, of which he was latterly chief clerk, necessarily absorbed much of his time and for the rest, that in some most important matters he was, to their great detriment and the public loss, purposely set aside, and the rich store of his knowledge left unutilised”. “He left no greater Irish scholar behind him”, dúirt Norman Moore sa D.N.B.

Cé go raibh sé ina bhall d’Aontacht na Gaeilge ó thosach bhí an méid seo le rá ag Seán Pléimeann faoi in Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, Iml. III uimhir 32 1889: ‘His knowledge of modern Irish gave him an incalculable advantage over those [Irish scholars] who had not this knowledge. Yet, strange to say, he had a dislike, an aversion I may call it, to the modern language. Unfortunately, during this century, the modern Irish has been in the hands of shams and humbugs—to these he had an inveterate dislike; and to this, I believe, his slighting the modern language was due’. Tá cuntas cuimsitheach ag Seán Ó Lúing air in Journal of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society No. 19, 1986.

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Diarmuid Breathnach

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