Rudolf Thurneysen (1857-1940)


Life
b. Basel, Switzerland; studied philology under Windisch and Zimmer; examined Old Irish linguistic, literary, and legal history according to principals of historical linguistics; doctorate [habilitation] at Jena 1882, where he taught Latin, 1885-87;
 
appt. to chair of Comparative Linguistics at Freiburg-im-Breisau, 1887, and afterwards Bonn, 1913; issued Handbuch des Altirischen, 2 vol. (1909), later trans. by Binchy and Bergin as A Grammar of Old Irish (1946); also Die irische Helden und Königssage bis zum 17.ten Jahrhundert (1921) and Das Keltische Recht (1935); acknowledge as world expert on Old Irish;
 
Thurneysen retired from his post at Freiburg in 1923 and died in Bonn; Binchy studied under him and became the leading authority on Irish jurisprudence.

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Works
  • Handbuch des Altirischen, 2 vol. (Heidelberg: C. Winter 1909); trans. by D. A. Binchy & Osborn Bergin as A Grammar of Old Irish (1946); A supplement to same (1948), and Do. [rev. & enl. edn.] (1975; rep. & suppl. 1993), xxi, 717pp. [DIAS Cat. 1996].
  • DDie irische Helden und Königssage bis zum 17.ten Jahrhundert (1921);
  • Das Keltische Recht (1935);
  • ed. Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó (Dublin 1935).

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Quotations
On early Irish grammar tracts: ‘The Irishman sees the grammatical schemata as concrete realities. There are few documents that give us so deep an insight into the mind of the early Irish - so completely different from our own as these tracts, and yet they spring from the learned classes, acquainted with Latin grammarians. Only by comparison with them can we judge the powerful intellectual achievement a Johannes Eriugena has accomplished in the ninth century, schooled of course by the translation of Dionysius the Areopagite; he too erects a similar pyramidal construction, though it is logically built on a capacity for abstraction learned from the Greeks, without any loss of the Irish capacity for concreteness. Such a work in the Ireland of his day would have been impossible and remained incomprehensible. Apart from their piety the Irish certainly brought abroad with them their inclination to scholarship, which was not very widespread on the continent, and made them welcome as schoolmasters; but to develop their powers was something they could only do in closer proximity to the Mediterranean.’ (Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie xvii, 279f.; quoted in Proinsias MacCana, ‘Early Irish Ideology and the Concept of Unity’, in The Irish Mind: Exploring Intellectual Traditions, ed. Richard Kearney, Dublin: Wolfhound 1984, p.62.) Mac Cana, further: ‘Thurneysen refers here to grammar and philosophy, but as Frank O’Connor remarks, “He might have said with equal truth that a book like Bede’s History of the English Church would in the Ireland of that time have been impossible and remained incomprehensible.”’ (O’Connor, The Backward Look, London, 1967, p.9; quoting O’Connor’s translation of Thurneysen’s German above.)

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