Rev. Neil MacNish of Cornwall, Ontario: Some Biographical Notes

It is amazing what you can stumble upon on Google. I included a Gaelic text from the Rev. Neil MacNish in my volume of Canadian-Gaelic literature, Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest, and only sparse biographical notes, as I could not easily find details about his life. I have just stumbled upon some very interesting details about him via a Google search which are worth sharing to help to fill out the story of Gaels in Ontario and indeed Canada and North America.

There is a full biographical sketch of MacNish in the University of Toronto Monthly 5 (1904-5), pp. 249-251. Here are some highlights:

It is fitting that something more than a passing note should be made concerning the recent death of the Rev. Neil MacNish, of Cornwall [Ontario], who was a distinguished graduate of this University [of Toronto] , and who never failed in loyalty and attachment to his Alma Mater. A man of singularly modest and retiring disposition, who shunned all the arts of self-advertisement, Dr. MacNish, by his learning and intellectual force, made a name for himself which his fellow Highlanders throughout Canada should not willingly permit to be forgotten in the years to come. No Scotsman of our time devoted himself more un selfishly and energetically to keeping alive the language, the literature, and the traditions of the Gael; and no one, in an age of material aims and the passion for wealth, loved learning more sincerely for its own sake. Neil MacNish was a son of Duncan MacNish, a highly respected factor and farmer of Argyleshire, Scotland, who brought his wife and children to Upper Canada many years ago, and settled in the County of Elgin. Being destined for the church, young MacNish matriculated in the University in 1858.

After completing his college studies in Canada, MacNish went to Scotland to obtain his theological education. He studied both at Glasgow and Edinburgh, obtaining the degree of B.D. at the latter institution. For a short time he was assistant minister in one of the parishes of the Church of Scotland, preaching in Gaelic to large congregations, exhibiting thus early the fluency and proficiency with which he could speak the ancient language of his forefathers. Returning to Canada he was ordained a minister of the Kirk of Scotland in this country, and was appointed assistant to the Rev. Hugh Urquhart, D.D., of St. John’s Church, Cornwall. On Dr. Urquhart’s death a year or two later, Mr. MacNish was appointed minister. He wielded a strong influence in the district, which was settled chiefly by the descendants of Highlanders, and with all these, whatever their creed might be, the young minister was on terms of friendly intimacy.

Although it was seldom necessary to conduct Gaelic services, as the members of his congregation were English-speaking, Dr. MacNish occasionally preached in that tongue at an afternoon service, when many persons came from the neighbouring County of Glengarry to hear the language of their ancestors. He frequently visited Montreal, where there was a -numerous Highland population, and when asked to do so, would give a Gaelic service. In this way he cultivated a taste for reviving Gaelic until the board of the Presbyterian College, Montreal, invited him to institute a Gaelic course for students who might be called to churches in those portions of Quebec or the Maritime Provinces where Gaelic continued to be commonly spoken. The literary part of this course of lectures was thrown open to alL who desired to attend, and for several years his class-room was filled by many who enjoyed his discourses upon the early literature of the various branches of the Celtic race. Dr. MacNish’s thorough acquaintance with the literature of ancient and modern Europe, upon which he drew freely, gave to his Gaelic course a fame and popularity which ex tended beyond the college world. He was the founder and first President of the Gaelic Society of Montreal, and interested himself in securing the publication of its Transactions.

Dr. MacNish left many warm friends throughout Canada who admired him for his scholarly gifts, his staunch attachment to his race and the traditions of the Celts, his generous disposition, and high sense of honour. Tenacious of his opinions, and courageous in giving them utterance, whether or not they ran counter to the popular prejudices of the moment, it is significant that he played his part in a community of mixed races and creeds with dignity, forbearance, and old-fashioned courtesy. Amongst Highland Catholics he was held in high esteem for his character and intellectual attainments ;and such was his loyalty to his Celtic fellow-countrymen that on more than one occasion, notably at the funeral ceremonies, those who professed a different creed were present as a tribute of respect to one who “bore without abuse the grand old name of gentle man,” and who justly deserves to be remembered for his fine qualities of head and heart.

Although I have not conducted a thorough search, I have encountered at least three articles he wrote on Celtic / Gaelic literature or history that were published in the Proceedings of the Canadian Institute. One of these is “Recent Contributions to Gaelic and Manx Literature” vol 1.1 (Feb. 1897). He begins this article by celebrating the resurgence of new literary activity evident in Gaelic at the time, particularly under the auspices of An Comunn Gàidhealach. It is noteworthy that he understands the linguistic vitality and potentiality of Gaelic, and appreciates it relationship with other Celtic languages. This supports my assertion in recent work that Gaels in Canada – regardless of whether they were in urban or rural settings – did not see nor need see any inherent inability of the language to function in and adapt to conditions in Canada, particularly as they saw hopeful signs in Scotland itself.

A veritable Renaissance has in recent years been observable in the study of Gaelic and of Gaelic literature. Never since Fingal was King of Seallama, and since Malvina gladdened the declining years of Ossian, has so much attention been paid to Gaelic, and to Gaelic traditions and folk-lore: and have so many men of scholarly ability and taste devoted themselves to the study, and, indeed, to the development of Gaelic. For it has always been conceded that Gaelic possesses intrinsic qualities of an extraordinary kind; and that, therefore, it can, in able hands, take on beautiful and diversified forms and developments. Evolution, in the truest acceptation of the term, is characteristic of Gaelic ; insomuch that, were scholars of ability and ingenuity to turn their careful attention to it, it could continuously assume larger and wider proportions. Such a momentum in favour of the language and literature of the Gael has now been gathered, that anything like retrogression is not to be apprehended, so far as regard is had to the production of Gaelic poetry and prose. …

Regrets are now unavailing, that the other members of the large Celtic family did not, centuries ago, follow the example of the Welsh in the way) of holding annual gatherings for the honouring and perpetuating, in healthful and ever- increasing vitality, of their own particular language with all its literature, and with all its traditions, that could in that case be found to pertain to it. H a d such gatherings been in existence for centuries, it may. be confidently maintained that Scottish and Irish Gaelic as well would to-day have treasures of valuable literature in prose and verse of which too high an opinion could not be formed ;— treasures which, unhappily, have sunk into the deep sea of forgetfulness. Much praise is to be awarded to those intelligent and enthusiastic Gaels, who were successful some six years ago in establishing the Gaelic Mod,— an annual gathering at which prizes are given, after the example of the Welsh Eisteddfod, for the best productions in Gaelic prose and verse, in vocal .and instrumental music, as well as in other attainments of a literary and artistic character. …

It must be regarded as a strong indication of the present vitality of the Gaelic language that a translation of the Book of Common Prayer into Gaelic, for the benefit of the Gaelic members of the Scottish Episcopal Church, was published during last year. The translators have performed their work well, as a general rule. With commendable propriety, advantage was taken of the Gaelic version of the Bible, which is in common use in Scotland, for the purpose of presenting, in a Gaelic dress, those portions of Scripture that, along with the Psalms, go to form a considerable portion of the English Prayer-Book. It is, at least, interesting to know that in Argyllshire itself there are several Episcopal ministers who conduct religious services in Gaelic. …

A Gaelic sermon preached by MacNish before the Gaelic Society of Toronto on June 14m 1896, was printed into Toronto, also demonstrating the use of the language in that city by immigrant Gaels. There is still so much to be explored about the legacy of Gaelic immigrants in North America, both in archives and on the internet.

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