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Wednesday 12 February 2014

In Defence of an Irish Scholar

In 1946, the Irish scholar Myles Dillon was appointed to the Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh. The appointment met with some controversy at the time as shown by the following report in The Oban Times:


Irish Professor Appointed

Dr Myles Dillon has been appointed by the University of Edinburgh, to the Chair of Celtic Literature, History, and Antiquities, rendered vacant by the death on active service of Professor J. C. Watson.

Dr Dillon, who is 46 years of age, is the third son of the late John Dillon, the noted Irish Home Ruler. Earlier in the present year he was appointed to the Chair of Celtic in the University of Celtic, after having been for nine years on the staff of the University of Wisconsin.

Surprise and Disappointment

The appointment of Dr Myles Dillon, an Irishman, to the Chair of Celtic (writes our Edinburgh correspondent) has been received among Highland circles in Edinburgh with a measure of surprise and disappointment. It looks like a reflection on Scottish Celtic scholarhship.

The Chair has been vacant since the death on Service in 1941, while serving with the Royal Navy, of Mr James Carmichael Watson, and the work of the Chair, necessarily restricted by the war, has been carried on by Mr. K. C. Craig. The Curators of Patronage, who make the appointment, consist of three representatives of the University Court, and four nominated by the Town Council, and the present members are Principal Sir John Fraser, Bart; Mr Alexander Myles, a retired Edinburgh surgeon; and Professor Alexander Gray, of the Chair of Economics; representing the University; and Lord Provost Sir John I. Falconer, Baillie Sir William McKechnie, a former Secretary of the Scottish Education Department; Councillor P. H. Allan, and Councillor John E. Hamilton, M.C., from the Town Council.

On the face of it, it looked just a little anomalous that to a Chair of Celtic in a Scottish University, endowed largely through the efforts of a perfervid Scot, Professor John Stuart Blackie, and held in turn since its foundation by three distinguished Scotsmen, should be given to an Irishman. There were, it was common knowledge, applications from one or two Scotsmen who would have maintained the high tradition of the Chair, and it was confidently expected that one of them, a West of Scotland man, would be the the new Professor.

It has been said that Professor Dillon, however much he may know about ancient Irish Gaelic, he may know very little about modern Scotch Gaelic.

On hearing of Dillon’s appointment, Maclean wrote the following in his diary:

Dia Luain, 16 Meadhon Fomhghair 1946 [NFC 1111, 88]
Chaitheas an mhaidin a’ sgríobhadh amach an adhbhair a bhí ar na fiteáin, na sgéalta a d’ innis Séamas Iain Ghunnairigh. Bhí Angus McIntosh a’ cur an-t-suim ins an obair. Leanas do’n sgríbhneóireacht an lá ar fad go dtí am tae tuairim a sé a’ chlog. Bhíos a’ sgríobhadh roinnt tar éis tae chomh maith. Annsin, thosaigheamar ag imirt chártaí an nós céadna a bhíomar roimhe sin. Tá Angus le n-imtheacht amáireach agus tá cuire agam-sa a dhul isteach chuig Bàgh a’ Chaisteil i n-éinfeacht leis, agus an oidhche a chaitheamh i dtigh Annag NicIain. Bhí rudaí an-ghránna ins a’ bpáipear faoi Myles Dillon, a fuair anpost i nDùn-Éideann.

Monday, 16 September 1946 [NFC 1111, 88]
I spent the morning transcribing the material recorded on the wax cylinders, the stories told by James MacKinnon. Angus McIntosh took an interest in this type of work. The transcribing continued all day until tea-time around six o’clock. I transcribed a while after tea-time as well. Then we started playing cards in the same fashion as we had done previously. Angus is going away tomorrow and I’ve been invited to go to Castlebay along with him and to spend the night in Annie Johnston’s house. There were terrible things said in the paper about Myles Dillon who had taken the chair of Celtic at Edinburgh.

Those ‘terrible things’ as made clear in the above article provoked a joint response from Angus McIntosh (1914–2005) and Calum I. Maclean. Their sympathies were firmly on the side of their newly-appointed colleague Myles Dillon:

Northbay, Barra,
September 26, 1946.

Sir, ―We read your notice on September 14 of Professor Myles Dillon’s appointment to the Chair of Celtic in Edinburgh with very considerable regret. It seems a serious intrusion to make about seven eminent men to suggest that they have not appointed the most satisfactory candidate, and the spirit in which this insinuation was made hardly makes us feel proud of the way a section of the Gaeltachd (or pseudo-Gaeltachd?) extends salutation to a very distinguished and very charming Celtic scholar.

We wish to point out that the position to which he has been appointed is the Chair of Celtic Literature, History, and Antiquities, and not a Chair of Scottish Gaelic as “Highland circles in Edinburgh” seem to believe, and we doubt whether there is any man in Scotland as competent to fill it. Professor Dillon’s election may be a reflection on Celtic scholarship in Scotland, but at least it is an intelligent and enlightened move to improve that scholarship. We believe that the study and encouragement of such things is in a precarious position already without the introduction of unworthy and unjustified pusillanimity and ungraciousness.

There are many in Scotland who confidently expect as we do that Professor Dillon will give devoted and powerful aid not only in Celtic studies as a whole but to Scottish Gaelic in particular. It is on behalf of those people as well as ourselves that we request you to give publicity to this letter.

                        We are, etc.,
                        Angus McIntosh, M.A.
Lecturer in English Language and Literature, Christ Church, Oxford
                        Calum I. Maclean, M.A. (Edin.)
Folklore Commission, University College Dublin.

But such an opinion was by no means universal as shown by another correspondent, a certain John MacKinnon, who was less than pleased by the Irishman’s appointment:

Ardmore, Kingussie
September 16, 1946.

Sir,―May I, through your columns, express my surprise at the appointment of an Irish scholar, Dr Dillon, to the Celtic Chair of Edinburgh University.

Since its institution, this largely to efforts of that eminent Scot and Celt, Professor J. S. Blackie, that Chair has been occupied by Scotsmen of distinguished scholarship and culture who, in “thought, word and deed” have immeasurably advanced and enhanced the study and appreciation of all things Celtic. Among the various talents of these men was the additional gift of having an unparalleled knowledge of Scottish Gaelic. This, to me, should be the sine quo non of any man elected to uphold the traditions of that high office in Scotland’s capital city.

The newly appointed Professor is, I am sure, a most excellent and capable man in all respects and one wishes him success in maintaining the high traditions of his new appointment.

But there in Scotland today not a few men singularly qualified to uphold the illustrious standards of that Chair; men who have done and are doing invaluable work for the Gaelic cause. Among them are some who themselves have studied under the guidance and inspiration of that Chair. Surely it would have been a glorious and apt tribute to a past holder of that Chair that his successor should be one of his former students? In addition it would be a great incentive to that successor to know that he was the man chosen to carry on the torch of his one-time master.

That such is not the case is, in my opinion, a slur on Celtic scholarship in Scotland and a retrograde step in the cause of Scottish Gaelic in general. It seems rather illogical that hose men whose lifework is dedicated to the Gaelic cause in Scotland should be thus superseded when one of the highest offices of that cause is open to them. It there in this fact any inspiration for the youth of Gaeldom and of Scotland to aim high. In the words of Macduff ‘Stands Scotland where she did?”―one wonders.

                                                I am, etc.,
                                                    John MacKinnon

Even though the appointment did not meet with universal approbation or agreement, Professor Myles Dillon (1900–1972) eventually took up the Chair in 1947 but would only remain in post for two years. In 1949, Dillon returned to his native Dublin in order to become T. F. O’ Rahilly’s successor at the Director of the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute of Advance Studies. Such an appointment was less likely to have been met with a controversial reaction than when he had been appointed to the Edinburgh Chair of Celtic.

Anon., ‘Edinburgh Celtic Chair,’ The Oban Times, no. 4785 (14 Sep., 1946), p. 2
Angus McIntosh & Calum I. Maclean, ‘Celtic Professorship’, The Oban Times, no. 4788 (5 Oct., 1946), p. 5
John MacKinnon, ‘Celtic Professorship’, The Oban Times, no. 4788 (5 Oct., 1946), p. 5
NFC 1111 [Calum Maclean’s diaries from 1945 to 1948]

Myles Dillon

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