Richard Brazil Walsh – Ireland’s Pioneering Phonetician

By the start of the 20th century Irish (Gaelic) had become a minority language. The drive to reinstate the language from the late nineteenth century onward came from initiatives like the Gaelic Revival movement, whose approach was ideological and literary, and by the time the Republic was declared, in December 1937, a large amount of data had been collected from native speakers, but there was no professionally trained phonetician to record this data and make it available to future scholars.

Richard Brazil Walsh was the first trained phonetician in the newly independent Irish state, and is best known for phonetically transcribing Munster Irish, one of the three dialects of the Irish language.

Born on October 18, 1914, in Slieverue, County Kilkenny, Ireland, Walsh significantly contributed to the phonetics of the Irish language by authoring numerous works focusing on phonetics and phonology. Walsh attended primary school in Slieverue and then Mount Sion in Waterford city. Later, he joined Mount Sion secondary school where he was taught by Sean Silleabhain, and also attended Lawrence U. Chadhla’s Irish language night classes in Slieverue, which accelerated his proficiency and enabled him to win a scholarship to the Irish language summer college, Coláistena Rinne (Ring College).

Walsh’s hard work and determination earned him a scholarship to University College Dublin, where he studied under Cormac O’ Cadhlaigh and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English, Irish and Latin in 1936, and an M.A. in 1938.

As there was no-one in Ireland qualified to train or mentor him in phonetics, he had to go abroad. From December 1938 to June 1939, he studied at the University of London and was fortunate to be trained by the brilliant Daniel Jones, who is remembered as ‘the father of phonetics’. Later, in the summer of 1939, Walsh began working on The Irish of Ring, Co. Waterford: a phonetic study while studying under Professor Jean-Paul Vinay at the University of Grenoble. This landmark phonetic study of Munster Irish was published in 1947.

In 1941, Walsh was admitted to the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) and was the first student to enter its School of Celtic Studies, where he continued his research into The Irish of Ring.

Walsh was appointed part-time assistant at the School of Celtic Studies, DIAS, and lecturer in the Irish language at UCD School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore. When the linguistics department had grown enough to require a dedicated phonetician, he was appointed to that role and also continued to work as a researcher from 1943 to 1946, and again from 1952 to 1965, at the School of Celtic Studies. He received his Ph.D. in 1952 and was elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1957.

During his tenure at UCD, he delivered guest lectures at universities in Strasburg, Louvain, and Copenhagen in the 1960s and Harvard University in the 1970s. He also served as a visiting professor to the Department of English at the Memorial University of Newfoundland from January 1970 to December 1970.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan, classics scholar and advocate for the revival of the Irish language, spent from 1906 to 1922 in Ring, the Irish-speaking region (Gaeltacht) in County Waterford, collecting examples of the traditional, idiomatic speech of its inhabitants. The result was his magnum opus, Seana-chaint na nDéise, or, Traditional, Idiomatic Speech of the Déise Region. It was a detailed account of the verbal (as opposed to written) language, lexis, idiomatic expressions and sentence constructions used by the people of Ring. With the aid of Sheehan’s notebooks and his own field work, Walsh transcribed into phonetic notation the samples of speech that Sheehan had collected over almost 20 years. The resulting work, Seana-chaint na nDéise II, (Edited with phonetic transcription and notes by Risteard B Breatnach: Studies in the vocabulary and idiom of Déise Irish, based mainly on material collected by Archbishop Michael Sheehan, 1870-1945), was published in 1961. The Irish of Ring, Co. Waterford, was published in 1947. They produce between them an authoritative account of Munster Irish.

Walsh departed from the world on October 26, 1992, and is buried in Slieverue Cemetery.

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