Zimmer, Heinrich (1851–1910), philologist, historian, and Celtic scholar, was born 11 December 1851 in Castellaun in the Rhineland, Germany, son of a peasant farmer. After pursuing his early education at Kreuznach, he spent some time at the universities of Strasburg, Tübingen, and Berlin, where he studied Germanic and Sanskrit philology under a succession of great scholars, including Scherer, Müllendorf, and Weber. He was appointed a Privatdozent at Berlin University in 1878. In 1881 he became professor of Sanskrit and philology at the university of Greifswald, where the Irish scholars Osborn Bergin (qv) and Richard Henebry (qv) studied under him. His outspoken views earned him the name ‘the Tiger of Greifswald’. For the rest of his academic life the study of the Celtic languages occupied him exclusively. He was appointed in 1901 to the newly created chair of Celtic studies at Berlin University, where he remained until he died.
Zimmer's publications spanned an enormous range of expertise – linguistics, philology, law, history, religion, and literature. Between 1881 and 1884 he published in his Glossae Hibernicae (the first edition of the Old Irish glosses in Würzburg M.p.th.f.12) the famous ninth-century glossed codex of the Vulgate Pauline Epistles. His discovery of the laws of the Old Irish verbal accent, in which he was just preceded by Rudolf Thurneysen (qv), was published in his Keltische Studien, part of which was also a criticism of Irische Texte (1881) by his teacher W. O. E. Windisch (qv).
Zimmer first came to Ireland in the summer of 1878, and returned on many subsequent occasions during the 1880s. He insisted on learning Irish from native speakers, staying in 1880 in the house of Páidín Mac Donncha, known as ollscoil na Gaeilge (university of Irish), on Inis Meáin in the Aran islands. He took an active part in the activities of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language (Cumann Buanchoimeádta na Gaeilge) and acquired an unrivalled knowledge of the living dialects of both Welsh – having spent some time in Wales learning the language and preaching in chapel – and Irish. During the ‘land war’ of the early 1880s he sympathised with the circumstances of the common people and encouraged them to stand up for their rights and for their land. His peasant origins might well have encouraged his sympathies with the aims of the Land League.
Zimmer bemoaned the lack of knowledge of the spoken Irish tongue among the people of Ireland, and the lack of interest by celticists in the spoken language as a fundamental means of approaching the older language of the manuscripts. He wrote to the secretary of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language: ‘Scholars who devote themselves to the old Irish deem the modern unworthy of their consideration. I need not remark how erroneous is this notion. The more I studied the Irish language of the ancient MSS, the more indispensable I found a solid knowledge of the modern Irish.’ In 1899 he became a member of the commission on intermediate education, headed by Douglas Hyde (qv), and corresponded with Hyde on a number of occasions.
Zimmer was famously described by J. F. Kenney (1884–1946) in his Sources of early Irish history: ecclesiastical as ‘the Ishmael of Celtic scholarship, whose hand was against every man's’. His ideas were both fecund and robustly expressed, and were sometimes too far ahead of their time, so that he incurred, if not invited, the antagonism of his fellow scholars. Among his more famous outré theses – argued with great conviction and erudition – were that the tales of the Fianna cycle in Middle Irish literature were of Scandinavian origin, and that the learning of the early Irish church of the sixth and seventh centuries had been introduced by Gaulish refugees from the Vandal invasions of the fifth century. He berated his fellow celticists who ignored the modern language in concentrating exclusively on the older language, and in this, as in other ways, he evinced some vitriolic reaction from his fellow scholars – even from non-celticists such as Alexander Souter – to his ground-breaking publications on the origins of the Celtic church and on the influence of the writings of the British heretic Pelagius (qv) on the early Irish schools.
Zimmer drowned himself at Hahnenklee, near Goslar, on 29 July 1910, where he was receiving treatment for a nervous condition which had afflicted him for many years. After his death, his widow, Martha Hirt, sold his library of some 679 items, many of them rare multi-volume works, to UCD, partly in order to thwart her two sons’ desire to follow in their father's footsteps into Celtic studies. The collection is doubly valuable in having Zimmer's copious and learned annotations on them, and in forming the core of the then newly established Centre for Celtic Studies. His earlier library had been destroyed by fire in 1903, but was restored within two years by donations of books from scholars and learned institutions throughout the world. His son, also Heinrich Zimmer, became an orientalist of great repute.