Strangely enough, this morning I found myself once again feeling furtive and sheepish in the very same church. I felt I had come full circle. This morning it was for a very different reason-- it was an Irish language Mass, and I was terrified somebody was going to talk to me in Irish!
My terrors were realized! Although the congregation was only small, almost the first person I laid eyes on was a woman who attends at my local church. (We actually wrote a hymn together, which was performed there.) She greeted me in Irish, and I nervously greeted her back.
After that, a different woman came to me and handed me a piece of paper, and said (In Irish): "I presume you speak Irish?"
"A kind of Irish", I said.
"Can you do a reading?", she asked.
"Sure", I said, not at all bothered by this prospect. (I enjoy being a reader.)
"I don't meant today", she said. "Goodness, I don't mean today. What's your name?"
"Maolsheachlann. Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh"
"Are you Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh?", she asked, seeming impressed.
Fame at last, I thought! But it turned out she was the mother of a former schoolmate, and that's how she'd heard of me. Still, she did mention my letters to the newspapers, when we spoke again after Mass.
There was a feeling of event and enthusiasm at the Mass. A young man was playing a harp. My friend from my home parish, who is a story teller, rendered the day's gospel as a story. (After it had been read in the normal way.) And questionnaires were distributed, asking people if they would be willing to help support and promote the Irish language Mass in various ways. I ticked the box beside "being a reader" and "bringing up the gifts". I couldn't see anything else I was confident I could do on the list, so I wrote (on the free space): "I could write a blog post about it, on my blog Irish Papist.". (It did mention social media.)
So here is the blog post. The Mass is at 9:30 a.m. every Sunday in Our Lady of Dolours Church, Glasnevin. Check it out!
The funny thing (and you'll see why it's funny in a moment) is that it's a complete accident I turned up there. I didn't realise it was an Irish language Mass. I was looking for an earlier Mass than the 10:30 in my local church. I always like to go to Mass as early as possible. I like the atmosphere of earliness. The nicest Mass I ever attended was a seven a.m. Mass in a hotel conference room, at my pre-marriage course.
But it's an interesting coincidence because, as a matter of fact, I have recently been making a big effort to improve my grasp of the Irish language.
Here I need to explain my complicated history with the Irish language.
Although I did not grow up in an Irish-language speaking family (in the sense of Irish being spoken regularly at home), my parents were very pro-Irish language and indeed helped to found a local Irish language school, Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch in Ballymun, which I attended and which is still flourishing. I also attended an Irish language secondary school, Scoil Chaitriona in Glasnevin, only down the road from the Lady of Dolours church. (Which explains some of my trepidation-- I didn't want to run into any ex-teachers or ex-classmates!)
So you would have thought that I would have grown up with a very favourable view of the Irish language. But, in fact, the opposite is true, for many reasons.
One reason is that English was, by a country mile, my strongest subject in school-- in fact, I don't think it's arrogant to say that I was the best at English in my whole year in secondary school. (Someone who went to school with me said, a few years ago: "You were, like, Seamus Heaney or something!"). This was a big deal to me, as I wasn't particularly good at any other subject.
I thought of English as 'my' language, and I hated the fact that it seemed stigmatized in Irish language schools and amongst the Irish language movement. Mostly this was just my juvenile perception-- there's a very sensible and obvious reason you are forbidden from speaking in English in Irish language schools, except in English class-- but there might have been some objective truth to it.
As well as this, I sucked at Irish. I sucked at French and German, too, but I especially sucked at Irish. It's a difficult language and it has a complicated grammar.
I have spent a lot of time wondering how it is that English is my forte, but that I am such a poor linguist outside that. I have come to the conclusion that it has to do with grammar. I don't remember ever learning English grammar-- I learned it intuitively as I went along, at a very young age. (I read Lord of the Rings when I was seven.) I still don't know anything about participles or conjunctions or infinitives, in an abstract way. Indeed, I suspect my English grammar isn't all that hot (and I don't really care if it is or not).
So the awareness that I was so bad at Irish was one reason for my dislike of it. But there were other reasons.
Family dynamics came into it. I am a contrarian by nature and I was fifth in a family of six, nearly all of my siblings (and my cousins, and my extended family) being enthusiasts for the language. Since I felt like a black sheep, I took being an English-speaker as a badge of my distinctive identity, and adopted an antagonistic attitude towards the Irish language (and every manifestation of Irish national culture whatsoever). It was all very juvenile. Although, in fairness to myself, I was a sincere anglophile (as I am still today) and this also fed into my self-chosen identity.
I also associated Irish language speakers with a certain sanctimoniousness and priggishness. Think of cyclists or vegans. (And my apologies to all three groups, who I greatly respect, but you all know what I'm getting at. The stereotypes are there, however unfair.) I got the impression that Irish languge speakers delighted in taking offence when they couldn't get served through Irish in a post office or some other institution (a right they have by law). I had one lecturer who went to prison out of a refusal to pay the TV license, since at that time there was no Irish language TV service. I see that as admirably idealistic now. Back then, I saw it as symptomatic of a tiresome entitlement mentality.
And there were still other reasons, some of which were not unreasonable. I grew up during the Northern Ireland Troubles. The face of Irish nationalism at that time was Gerry Adams and the other apologists for the murderous IRA. They used Irish as often as possible, in a very bellicose way. They besmirched, not only the language, but Irish national culture and national feeling in general-- for me, and for hundreds of thousands of others. Today they are the most secularist and ultra-liberal party on the island, outside the loony left micro-parties.
And there's another reason I had a prejudice against Irish. Although there have always been Irish language enthusiasts of every ideological persuasion, in recent decades it has been especially popular with the liberal left and the radical left. The most famous Irish writer of modern times, Máirtín Ó Cádhain, was a member of the IRA and a Marxist. (I should point out that the IRA of his day, before the Troubles, were a considerably less ruthless organisation than the IRA of Gerry Adams's day.) My grandfather spent time with Ó Cádhain in the Curragh concentration camp, as it happens.
(To be fair, the language also had an appeal to to the much smaller extreme-right tendency in ireland. One obscure ultra-right and ultra-Catholic group, Ailtirí na hAiséirghe, wanted to make the use of English a criminal offence! Less controversially, Catholic religious orders have been amongst its biggest supporters. Of course, we all know many Catholic religious can be quite liberal-left, so there is wheel within wheel...)
Given all these factors prejudicing me against Irish, how on earth would I ever come to value it, or to seek to get better at it?
Well, some of it was just growing maturity. I simply 'got over' all my sillier reasons for disliking the language, such as family dynamics and associating it with teachers I didn't like.
Much of it has to do with my wife Michelle. She is American, and though she has Irish ancestry, she never set foot in Ireland until she met me. But she was enthusiastic about the Irish language in a way that I was not, and wanted to learn phrases and expressions. It was through her initiative that we started to pray the Rosary together in Irish. (We spent a rather surreal hour driving around the roads of New Jersey, me teaching her the Our Father and Hail Mary in Irish.)
Of course, the year that is in it (I love that phrase) has influenced me, too. This is the centenary of the 1916 Rising, and I have been reading biographies of its leaders, as well as watching the various television programmes on the subject. (Actually, the Irish language TV station TG4 has an excellent series of drama-documentaries about each of the leaders.) Like most Irish people, I have very deep reservations about the moral validity of the 1916 Rising, but I have no reservations about the wave of cultural nationalism which proceeded and followed it, and with which many of the leaders were also involved, and which has preserved so many things that might have been lost otherwise.
But more than anything else, it is my ever-burgeoning traditionalism that made me change my attitude. Regular readers of my blog will know my views on tradition, which I outlined in a recent series of posts (and I link to them all because, if anything on this blog was worth writing or reading, I feel it was these):
Here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Tradition seems more and more important to me. It was always important, but it grows even more important with time and thought.
I used to see tradition as a bulwark against 'the filthy modern tide'. In fact, I wrote several unpublished novels dramatising this conflict. However, I have reached the stage where I am sick of being 'anti-' anything. I don't want to be anti-modernity, or anti-cosmopolitanism, or anti-pop culture, or anti-globalism, or anti-liberalism, or anti-pluralism, or any such thing. I want to be motivated by love, not antagonism and reaction and sourness.
(My friend Roger Buck, motivated-- I presume-- by such considerations, wrote a book with the brilliant title The Gentle Traditionalist. That expresses my own aspiration perfectly. I want to be a gentle traditionalist.)
Perhaps we are moving inexorably towards a globalized, multicultural, urbanised world. Doesn't this make it all the more important that we all hold onto our traditions, and even that we seek to revive them as far as possible? I'm talking about the traditions that unite us here, as much as the traditions that distinguish us from each other. All traditions. Everybody's traditions. Religious traditions, family traditions, school traditions, personal traditions, internet traditions, sporting traditions-- the whole lot. (One of the things I always love about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the various races, and even the various human ethnicities, seem very devoted to their own traditions, even in this very ultra-futuristic world of 'infinite diversity in infinite combinations'.)
Another factor that helped me change my mind was travel. For one thing, it put things in perspective. All the faction-fighting about the Irish language and its various ideological associations seems irrelevant when you travel abroad and realise the simple fact that other countries have their own languages, and we do not. (You are much, much more likely to hear Polish or Italian spoken in an Irish street than you are to hear Irish-- and I hasten to add, there is nothing wrong with hearing Polish or Italian spoken in an Irish street.)
This struck me particularly one day, the single day of my life I spent (or partly spent) in Wales. I was getting the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin and, having a couple of hours to spare, I wandered around the centre of that little town. I was amazed to hear people actually speaking Welsh, casually. Most people were speaking English, but the very fact that many people were speaking Welsh dumbfounded me. And it also filled me with shame. I assumed all the Gaelic languages were in the same situation.
All my life (as regular readers of this blog will now) I have craved special times and special places-- indeed, specialness in general. I have often written about the Halloween party I attended in childhood, which activated this desire with special vividness. I was transported at the idea of one special night of the year with its special atmosphere, sounds, sights, tastes, and smells. It seems to me that so much of human storytelling, from the Odyssey to Lord of the Rings to Star Trek, appeals to this hunger for specialness and difference-- the hunger to journey towards different places with different ways, the hunger for the 'incorrigibly plural' in a very concrete form.
And, as Tennyson wrote: "He is the best cosmopolite [cosmopolitan], who loves his native country best." Isn't it hypocritical to travel the world, looking for exotic differences and vibrant traditions, when you are not helping to strengthen your own native traditions? Don't we make the world a smaller and less interesting place, for the whole human race, when we neglect our native traditions?
Of course, I always thought like this, but it didn't motivate me to try to improve my Irish (except very spasmodically), because Irish is so bloody difficult.
I recently watched a documentary about Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland. His 1892 lecture The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland is often taken as the catalyst of the Irish cultural revival, and it's well worth reading. (There is nothing anti-English about it at all, which particularly pleases me.) He was the President of the Gaelic League, the organization which took the lead in reviving Irish as a spoken language. But when the Gaelic League voted to take a political stance-- in favour of the political nationalism which was also burgeoning at this time-- Hyde resigned, despite having a sympathy with political nationalism. This was because he felt the language should be kept neutral of such allegiances. A talking head on the documentary insisted that Hyde was right. When the Irish language is paired with some other cause, Mr. Talking Head said, it always suffers-- because the Irish language is the more difficult partner, and the easier to abandon.
This is how someone put it in a biography of Brendan Behan (who learned Irish while incarcerated): "There have always been more people willing to die for Ireland than to learn the irregular verbs." And I'm not surprised. It's so bloody difficult.
For this reason (as I admitted in my series on traditionalism), I have mostly avoided trying to improve my terrible Irish. But I became convinced of the truth of a motto that Irish language enthusiasts often use-- "tír gan teanga, tír gan anam"-- a country without a language is a country without a soul. There are many different Irish traditions, and many (such as GAA games) are in a very healthy state, but the language is truly the motherlode. As its promoters have always insisted, it preserves more than anything else a distinctively national way of looking at the world, the cultural memory of a whole people. Think of what a big distinction we make between the Francophone world and the Anglophone world, or their respective traditions in literature and philosophy. So there is no getting round the centrality of language. Leaving aside the Faith (which I would never seek to justify on the grounds of tradition anyway, or to reduce to a mere tradition), the Irish language is by far the most important of our national traditions, and shelters all the others.
In recent weeks, therefore, I have made my biggest effort in my post-school life, one which I really hope to sustain. I know it's going to take years for it to pay off at all.
I have been writing my diary in Irish, or in pidgin Irish, every day. (The diary itself is one I have been keeping since June.) I have also decided to read intensively in Irish. I reckon that my precocity in English (the only thing at which I've ever been precocious) came through intensive reading, so I am going to try the same thing with Irish. I call this the Toronto Strategy, since there was a bookshop (until recently) in Toronto called The Biggest Bookstore in the World (and because I like giving grandiose names to things). I have been reading kids' and teenagers' books mostly. I want to mirror what I would have done learning to read English as a kid. I didn't jump straight into the prose of Newman or the poetry of Swinburne. I read for fun.
And, to be honest, I'm actually enjoying reading these kiddie's books, just as I enjoy reading young adults' novels in English. Their story-telling is usually more solid and less pretentious than adult novels. I have just finished two novels by Deasún Breathnach (another leftie-- he described himself as a 'Christian communist'), both of which were excellent. One of them involved a suicidal cult which wanted to blow up the world. I'm now reading a collection of his essays. (One thing that irritated me in one of the essays was a complaint about someone writing-- in English-- 'alright' rather than 'all right'. Who cares? Why is this 'wrong'? I feel this is exactly the kind of finickiness which afflicts every language, but which has particularly bad consequences when it comes to minority languages which people are supposedly being encouraged to use.)
Perhaps it's my imagination, but I really feel I'm experiencing again the excitement of learning to read-- really learning to read-- that I did when I was learning to read in English.
Unfortunately, their isn't much on the internet in terms of reading in Irish. Most Irish language resources are about the Irish language, which is abominably self-referential. I can't find any free e-books. The best Irish language blog I've found, though, is an excellent one: Smaointe Fánacha Aonghusa, This has the advantage of being written by an orthodox and reflective Catholic. I tend to agree with his views on most things-- indeed, he made the very point about linguistic finickiness that I made above, in a post where he announced that he would not even publish comments where someone made a finicky linguistic point. (He once commented on my own blog, too!) The Irish, however, is a bit tough for me.
Thankfully, I have hundreds of Irish language books to read in UCD library.
And I do think it's going to take that many! I'm really very poor at Irish. I could just about have a conversation in broken Irish, but my written Irish...well, it's sub-pidgin. I think it's going to be a long, long time before I'm willing to write in Irish outside the private pages of my diary. But-- as Gerry Adams might say-- "Tiocfaidh mo lá!" (my day will come). I hope!
Is Irish worth preserving and trying to revive, given the tremendous difficulty of the project? Many people question this, including my fellow contrarian Kevin Myers, who points out the amount of money spent on failed revival projects, and the mere lip service (so to speak) paid by most Irish people towards the aspiration. Others have pointed out that the Irish language has no economic benefit and teaching it in Irish schools is a waste of resources. Some people have even claimed that Irish language literature and culture are not at all what they're cracked up to be.
Against all this, I would quote one of the few modern Irish poems I really like, and whose last lines always reduce me to tears. (A 'pooka' is a supernatural being.)
Death of an Irishwoman
by Michael Hartnett
Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but pookas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
I think all the most important things in social and cultural life are like the useless things in a child's purse.
Postcript, written the next day: I haven't really said anything about the beauty of the Irish language in this post, because I think all languages are beautiful in their own way. In my contrarian fashion, I used to tell everybody how much I disliked the romance languages, which I found mushy and slushy, and how much I preferred the more clear-cut sounds of German. This wasn't a lie, but when I actually heard French and Italian spoken in those countries I realised I was being silly. All languages are beautiful (except, of course, Klingon and the Black Speech of Mordor).
Spoken Irish can be extremely beautiful, in my view. For instance, listen to the lady speaking from 9:28 in this documentary about red-headedness.
On the other hand, spoken Irish can, in my view, also be quite the opposite. The Irish language commentary on GAA sports coverage is an example. It always sounds simultaneously harsh and reedy to me. (In my own mind, there is a 'soft' and 'full' Irish which is beautiful, and a 'harsh' and 'reedy' Irish which is ugly. I have spent thousands of hours listening to different Irish-language speaking teachers, so I feel I have a right to comment here.)
All that aside, I do think-- at least, I think it's possible-- that there is a kind of poetic logic to each language which can only exist inside it. What do I mean?
Well, one of the reasons I was an anglophile growing up was because I loved English places names, like Dorset and Yorkshire and Glastonbury. Contrariwise, I hated Irish place names, and I still do. Names like Carrickfergus and Ballybeg and Enniskerry have always made me wince. 'Reedy' is the term I would use to describe them. They make me think of the miserable, thin rain that is so characteristic of Ireland, and they conjure up Churchill's famous line about "the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone". They lacked the full-bodied, hearty, broad vowel sounds of the English names. (Although there are some Irish place names which appeal to me greatly, such as Gortnamona or Mallow or Barna. But they are a minority.)
Well, once, during a work-tea break more than fifteen years ago, a woman made a point that had simply never occurred to me before; that Irish places names, when anglicized, had lost of all their native beauty. It's an inescapably subjective matter, but this seems entirely true to me. Irish place names, in Irish, are usually beautiful; in English, they are usually ugly. The same is true of personal names. My name in English is 'Malachy Kelly'; which, with apologies to any Malachy Kelly who might be reading, seems downright ugly to me.
Now, it could be easily said that all place names (and all people names, too) tend to have the nature of a palimpsest, since they are usually drawing on pre-existing names in a different language, like so many place-names in America which are taken from native American words. So this is an argument that could go all round the houses. All I can say is that, in my view, the tea-break lady's point was valid for Irish place-names.
(I have read that, when the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain, they utterly drove out the native Britons, leaving barely a trace of them. This is deplorable from a historic point of view, but perhaps it explains the 'heartiness' and beauty of English place names.)