Monday 8 February 2010

From Ireland to India

ELB writes:

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.

1 comment:

  1. Whitley was a first cousin of my great grandfather Sir Gabriel Stokes, also an Indian Civil Servant. May I point out an error in the piece (in a link to the Irish Times) by Daibhi o'Croinin, as there is no place in his article to comment? Whitley's wife Mary did not die in November 1881, she died on 30 June 1879 in Simla, nineteen days after the birth of her youngest son Francis (Frank). Her death is recorded in the England and Wales National Probate Calendar. My great grandfather lost two young wives out in India leaving him with 4 small boys, plus a girl who died in infancy. Similarly, his brother Sir Henry Edward Stokes lost two young wives in India leaving him with 3 small boys plus another boy (a twin) who died in infancy. All three Stokes men thus paid a high personal price for a glittering career in India. But unlike Whitley, Gabriel and Henry chose to stay on in India; they sent their children back to Ireland to be brought up by relatives. I wonder if Whitley had stayed on in India, surely he too would have ended up with a knighthood.