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The Correspndence of Myles Dillon, 1922-1925
Irish German Relations and Celtic Studies
Joachim Fischer and John Dillon, Editors



Irish Studies Review
'Myles Dillon, who would later become Senior Professor in the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies and one of the leading lights of the discipline, spent three years in German universities during the early 1920s on a travelling studentship from University College Dublin. These were turbulent years in Germany and Ireland alike, and the decidedly unsettled tenor of daily life in both countries is illuminated in a lengthy exchange of letters (edited from the Dillon family archive) between the young Myles and a variety of correspondents, mostly members of his family in Dublin. Chief among these was his father, John Dillon, the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party before its disappearance in the elections of 1919. Other notable (if only occasional) correspondents included Osborn Bergin, Douglas Hyde, and Gerard Murphy.

Myles, then in his early twenties, proved him-self to be a sharp-eyed observer of political and social trends in the Germany of the infant Weimar Republic; his father, for his part, had strongly articulated views on a wide variety of subjects, particularly on what he saw as the appalling mess made of Irish affairs by his political opponents in the infant Free State. The younger Dillon writes of the hunger and distress he sees about him in a Germany sliding into a disastrous financial depression, deplores the iniquities and cruelties of the French occupying forces, and berates the intolerable stuffiness of the German middle class. The elder Dillon and other members of the family write of random street battles in Dublin, political executions and assassinations, and the commandeering of the family home in Ballaghaderreen by Free State troops. Father and son discuss languages and literatures, the failings of the Irish educational system, and the trivia of family life. Father admonishes son to read Goethe and dress warmly, and each encourages the other to write more frequently and at greater length. Myles occasionally    displays surprisingly virulent anti-French sentiments, and his father an unabashed admiration for the politics of Mussolini; both reveal themselves as eminently civilised individuals.

In addition to its commentaries on the politics of the day in Ireland and Germany (and the striking similarities revealed between the situations in the two fledgling states), this highly readable book constitutes a welcome chapter in the continuing disciplinary history of Celtic Studies. When not concerning himself with more worldly affairs, Myles writes with scholarly delight of his continuing studies in comparative philology, including Sanskrit, Gothic, Old Norse, Greek and Latin as well as German and French, Irish and Welsh. One of the most fascinating aspects of his letters, not too surprisingly, is the light they shed on such now legendary figures as Thurneysen, Pokorny, and Bergin. Myles had just graduated with first-class honours from UCD, but, even though his teachers had included Osborn Bergin and Douglas Hyde, he had few illusions about the overall quality of the institution: 'It is about as bad as possible'. Germany, on the other hand, was still the undisputed centre of higher learning in this field as in many others, and Myles spent his three years there at three of its most prestigious institutions, the universities of Berlin, Bonn, and Heidelberg, before moving on to spend a further two years (not covered in the correspondence) in Paris.

In Berlin, scrambling initially to pick up enough German to understand academic lectures, he studied with Julius Pokorny, whose salary, even though he had recently succeeded Kuno Meyer to the chair of Celtic Studies, amounted in an increasingly worthless German currency to less than £12 a year. 'Berlin sent him £1 last week, and we went together and with the pound he bought a suit of clothes.' In Bonn he studies with the revered Rudolf Thurneysen, the greatest living authority on Old Irish, and 'a most friendly and attractive old gentleman' who, recently re- tired, can no longer afford to buy the books he continues to need. From Dublin, Osborn Bergin, his chief mentor in Ireland (and himself a one- time student of Thurneysen), writes encouraging letters and contributes the lightest moment of the book (and its epigraph) when he writes of an encounter with George Russell: ', Æ asked me about your dissertation, and I said you had been investigating the problem of the agreement of the subject and the predicate, at which he sighed deeply' (p. 253).

Providing fascinating glimpses into the culture and politics of both countries and the relations between them, the book is impeccably edited and annotated by Joachim Fischer and John Dillon, who provide a wealth of contextual information: a preface on the influential Dillon family and its connections; individual introductions to each of the three sections of the book (corresponding to the three academic years Myles spent in Germany) outlining political and social developments in Germany and Ireland alike; two appendices reprinting newspaper articles written by both John Dillon and Myles; an extended selection of biographical notes; and several hundred discreetly helpful footnotes.

Patrick O’Neill, Queen’s University Canada, Irish Studies Review


 English Historical Review (Volume 114, Sept 1999)
'The publication of The Correspndence of Myles Dillon, 1922-1925: Irish German Relations and Celtic Studies, ed. Joachim Fischer and John Dillon, is a significant event, both in the (ever more controversial) history of modern Celtic studies and for the light it throws on a scion of a well-known Irish family whose members played a prominent part in Irish nationalist politics for three generations.  Myles Dillon's grandfather, John Blake Dillon, was one of the leaders of the 'Young Ireland' movement in the mid-nineteenth century; his father, John Dillon, was the last leader of the Irish party in the British House of Commons, and his brother James was leader of one party in an Irish coalition-government and a minister in two other governments.  Having studied Classics and the Celtic languages at University College Dublin, Myles Dillon (1900-72) was awarded a Travelling Scholarship in 1922, which sent him to the universities of Berlin, Bonn, Heidelberg and Paris to study Comparative Philology, Celtic Philology and Sanskrit, where his teachers comprised all the most famous contemporary scholars in those disciplines, including such eminent names as Antoine Meillet and Rudolf Thurneysen.  The period covered by this correspondence was as fraught in Ireland as it was in Germany, and the letters give graphic expression to Dillon's reactions to the birth-pangs of the new Irish state and to the experiences of post-war Germany.  He was indignant at the punitive measures enacted after the Versailles Treaty, particularly the humiliations visited on a broken Germany by the French.  He was under no illusions, however, about the political reality: 'But thank God the Germans did not win.  If they had won, we should all have been under the harrow' (p. 82).  That said, he found Berlin 'poor and sad, and very pagan' (p. 97), whereas he thought the Irish people 'the holiest and most Catholic in the world' (p. 98).  Coming in the immediate aftermath of a bloody War of Independence and a fratricidal civil war in Ireland, this may seem like an odd conclusion, but Dillon's intense Catholic faith was to remain an abiding feature of his personality throughout his life.  The doings of Celtic scholars are, of course, a running theme throughout the correspondence.  The recent outburst of revisionist history among German historians of linguistics has seen a flurry of publications on the subject of wartime collaboration with the Nazi regime, in various countries (including Dillon's own).  Dillon's younger contemporary, D. A. Binchy, who was Irish Plenipotentiary to Weimar Germany, and likewise went on to a career as an eminent Celtic scholar, followed Dillon to Germany and saw the rise of the Nazis at closer hand.  His articles on Heinrich Brüning (1932) and on the rise of Hitler (1933) noted an intensification of the crisis, and his book Church and State in Fascist Italy (1941) made British readers aware - if they needed such assistance - that the threat was not confined to Germany.  This collection reports the first stirrings of such controversies in Germany.  Myles Dillon's later career as a scholar saw him appointed Senior Professor and Director of the School of Celtic Studies in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and President of the Royal Irish Academy.  He also assisted in the foundation of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Simla where he was several times Visiting Professor.  His Sanskrit work is still highly regarded in India.  It is very much to be hoped that Dillon's later correspondence will also be published, and with the same skill and care as is evident in the production of this collection'  Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, English Historical Review, Volume 114, Sept 1999
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