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Millennibrum: Seoirse Mac Thomais - an Englishman in Ireland.

You may not have heard of George Thomson, although he lived in Birmingham for most of his life. But his work with the Irish language was so significant that he is still remembered in Ireland, where several films and documentaries have been made about him. For a while he even used the Irish form of his name: Seoirse Mac Thomais.

George was born in London in 1903. He was a brilliant scholar, reading Classics at Cambridge. From 1937 until his retirement in 1970 he was Professor of Greek at Birmingham University. There he revolutionised the study of the classics; teaching his students modern Greek to introduce them to the ancient literature. He often visited Greece, and was inspired by the contemporary language and culture, finding links with the Ancient Greek texts he studied and wrote about. But he had first experienced his power and beauty of culture and language in Ireland, and his first love was for Irish.

George's grandfather was from Ulster. Although an Orangeman, he became a fervent Irish nationalist, and moved to London. George went to Gaelic League classes after school each day to learn Irish. In 1923 he first heard about the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Ireland, a remote and extraordinarily hospitable community where Irish was still the language of everyday.

The Islanders had their own strong traditions of storytelling and music. They lived in beautiful surroundings, but their life was very hard. In winter they could be cut off for months at a time. As George wrote: "There was no shop, no tavern, no post-office, no policeman, no doctor, no priest . . . the only kind of boat in use is a currach, a canoe of wicker framework and canvas covering". Most of the young people were destined to leave for America.

George first visited the Great Blasket in 1923. On his way there he nearly got put in jail - it was the day of the first elections held in the Irish Free State, and the Irish police thought that an Englishman speaking Irish must be a spy.

George had great respect for the Islanders, and for their values, writing "The virtue they admired most was what they called morchroi, 'greatness of heart', that is, a spirit of humanity." He made close friends with them, especially with Maurice O'Sullivan. from whom he learned to speak Irish fluently. In 1932 he funded the publication of Maurice's autobiography; Twenty Years A-Growing (Fiche Blian Ag Fas) which has since become a literary classic. Maurice was one of George's closest friends for the rest of his life.

George believed passionately in the importance of Irish language and culture. From 1931 to 1934 he worked at Galway University, teaching Greek through the medium of Irish, and translating Ancient Greek texts into Irish.

Fewer and fewer people spoke Irish as their first language; George tried to organise classes for working people, but his attempts were frustrated by the Establishment, who did not approve. In 1934 he left Ireland. He always believed in the importance of Irish, writing in 1965 'Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam' (A country without a language is a country without a soul). His daughter Meg remembers that, even when seriously ill at the end of his life, he had new vigour when he heard Irish spoken.

George then lived in Birmingham until his death in 1987. Like many young people in the 1930s, he became a Communist. He felt that Communism offered a way of maintaining and spreading the values and culture of working-people, which had so impressed him in Ireland. He gave classes to factory-workers in Long bridge, to the Indian Workers' Association, and supported the Clarion Singers, a Birmingham workers' choir. He is remembered with affection by everyone who knew him.; One of his students still recalls a seminar given by George in 1973: 'He lectured with a kind of kindness... When he talked to us, it was as if he was talking to a friend.'

In 1999 an exhibition commemorating George's life was shown in Birmingham Central Library. It will be on display in the Irish Centre, Digbeth, from the March 6-17; and is going on tour to Belfast, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, later this year.

For further information contact Maggie Burns on 0121 303 4549 (Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library).
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Title Annotation:National
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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