Last September, ASNC hosted a conference to commemorate the centenary of the death of Whitley Stokes (1803-1909), the Celtic scholar and colonial jurist. Today, one of the contributors to that conference, Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, has a column on Stokes, which mentions our conference, in The Irish Times. Also, in December, another contributor to our conference, John Drew, had an article on Stokes published in Indian newspaper The Hindu. So what is about Whitley Stokes that would attract press attention from Ireland to India?
Stokes was born into one of Ireland's most prominent academic families. His father, William (1804-78), was professor of medicine at Trinity College Dublin, and an important figure in Irish cultural life. Similarly, Stokes's grandfather, also named Whitley Stokes (1763-1845), was a professor of medicine at TCD and a founding member of the Royal Irish Academy. Throughout his life, Stokes's social circle comprised many leading intellectuals, historians, artists and poets. From his earliest years these included Samuel Ferguson, George Petrie, Eugene O'Curry and Rudolf Siegfried; later, in his twenties, he became friends with William Allingham, Arthur Munby, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Stokes studied at St Columba's College, then Trinity College Dublin. He went to London to study law and was called to the bar in 1855. In 1862 Stokes travelled to India, where he worked for the legislative council; in 1879 he became president of the India Law Comission. Stokes returned to London in 1881, where he lived, at Grenville Place, Kensington, until his death in 1909.
Whitley Stokes (1830-1909)
From the 1850s onward, Whitley Stokes published prolifically on many topics, such as European and Sanskrit poetry, but his most important contributions were to two fields: Indian law and medieval Celtic philology and literature. The bibliography of his published works (in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, vol. 8) includes thirty monographs and around three hundred scholarly articles. In the field of law, his major works included Hindu Law Books (1865) and The Anglo-Indian Codes (1887-8). His seminal Celtic publications are too numerous to mention; he edited and translated many of the most significant works of medieval Irish narrative literature, and it remains the case that many of these texts are only available in print today in Stokes's editions and translations. In addition, he published on Old Irish glosses, as well as on Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Gaulish.
Whitley Stokes was a complex and contradictory individual. Renowned for his acerbic, even aggressive, criticism of his contemporaries in print, Stokes's private correspondence reveals him to be warm, witty and romantic. He suffered from extreme feelings of depression and insecurity, and experienced much heartache (particularly the death of his first wife in India). The achievements of his life chart the expansion and consolidation of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, and raise questions about the experience of the Irish within that imperial context, but equally they chart the expansion and consolidation of historical and cultural knowledge within the nascent disciplines of philology and literary studies. This small flurry of press interest in Stokes and his life is to be welcomed, but we are only taking our first steps towards understanding the scholarly contribution of this intellectual giant, and towards understanding the cultural and political context within which he worked.