The multilingual Irishman who valued the language of others

In 1941, Fredericka Martin, an American nurse, arrived on the isolated islands of Pribilof in the Bering Sea with her doctor husband. The couple had been brought to the islands by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. At Saint-Paul Island, located in the sea between Alaska and Siberia, they would provide medical services to the indigenous population, the Aleut people.

Martin’s sympathies, notes researcher Raymond Hudson, were entirely with this community, whose history was interwoven with difficulties. Although Martin’s social justice worldview brought her closer to the Aleut people, there was something that separated her from them: language.

To learn the Aleut language, Martin began a correspondence with an Alaska-based linguist with Irish roots, Richard Henry Geoghegan. Writing from his home in Fairbanks, Alaska, Geoghegan provided remote tutoring to Martin while living with a physical disability. She discovered that her knowledge of languages ​​ranged from “her own native Gaelic” to “Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Egyptian, including modern European languages ​​to obscure Eastern dialects”.

For Martin, his language training at Geoghegan was more than an education. It was a transformative encounter. “Life has become more spacious, more invigorating,” she writes, “because an elderly scholar handicapped by a physical handicap, had so sincerely spread his knowledge for strangers at the cost of long hours of painful effort. “

But who was this multilingual Irishman? And how had he found his way not only to Alaska, but to an intimate knowledge of so many languages, many of which are rarely spoken?

Geoghegan remains prominent in the languages ​​he translated, the remote places he lived and the people whose lives he impacted.

Richard Henry Geoghegan was born in January 1866 in Cheshire, England, the son of an Irish physician. Although Geoghegan is of English descent, his biographer David Richardson describes him as having a “decidedly Celtic” soul. “All his life he will claim his father’s land as his own,” Richardson wrote. Geoghegan remembers spending much of his youth in Ireland and even claimed a childhood friendship with a young JM Synge. Later in his life, Geoghegan will describe his early years spent partly “on the banks of the Shannon”.

Cultivating an Irish identity was apparently one of Geoghegan’s lifelong pursuits, but learning languages ​​was his top priority. Geoghegan first attended Oxford, where he studied for two years on scholarship, learning Chinese. A meeting with another Oxford student in his apartment on an autumn day in 1887 would have a profound impact on his life. That day Geoghegan’s friend told him about a new language that had been invented by an ophthalmologist living in Poland by the name of LL Zamenhof. The language, known as Esperanto, is designed to be easily understood and learned. The great dream of its inventor and its adherents was that Esperanto, exploited by the peoples of the world to overcome the language barriers that separated them, would usher in a more harmonious future.

Geoghegan was immediately intrigued by the language and became one of the first to adopt Esperanto. “My official number as an Esperantist is 264,” he later wrote, “indicating that I was the 264th person who signified his adherence to the language, and I was the first English speaker to do it “. Geoghegan corresponded with Zamenhof and became an important ally for the inventor of Esperanto. The story of the Esperanto Association of Ireland notes that the adoption of the color green by the Esperanto movement may be linked to Geoghegan, who associated green with his ancestral Ireland.

After Oxford, Geoghegan’s attempts to become a Chinese and Esperanto teacher in London were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, members of his family were heading to the United States, settling on Orcas Island in Washington state. In 1891, Geoghegan joined them and emigrated to Washington. Geoghegan worked in various parts of the Pacific Northwest before finally moving to Alaska in 1902, where he remained until his death. Working in office jobs, his skills were legendary. Historian Linde Lunny notes that Geoghegan could have taken notes using two different shorthand systems at the same time, “using both hands.”

In 1916, Geoghegan married Ella Joseph-de-Saccrist, a woman of dual origin living in Alaska, whom Lunney describes as a “prostitute, madam, smuggler and businesswoman, who was accused in 1915 of injuring a customer. , and in 1921 for shooting a pimp. “For Geoghegan, she was simply the love of his life. She died in 1936, a few years before Geoghegan’s death in 1943. They are buried together in the cemetery of Clay Street in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Geoghegan, although an obscure figure, remains an important recurring figure in the history of the languages ​​he has translated, the remote places he has lived, and the people whose lives he has impacted. Among the major projects of his life in Alaska was his work with the Aleut language. Her studies of the language culminated in the first dictionary and grammar of the aloute in English, published after her death in 1944. The dictionary was edited by her friend Fredericka Martin, who noted in the dictionary that its author was a man who loved “the pursuit of knowledge for itself.”

This article on Extraordinary Emigrants was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA Historian in Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin Docklands, an interactive museum that chronicles how the Irish shaped and influenced the world .

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