From Irish Political Review: August 2007

Old Irish And The Market
Part One

The authorities of University College Dublin have provoked one of the rare outbursts of protest against the totalitarianism of commerce in Irish life—the assertion of merchant values in areas where some other sort of values were supposed to apply, like, for example, the universities. The Old Irish Department in UCD hadn°t been proving very marketable, so earlier this year UCD closed it down. And this has led to some protest.

A whole generation ago, before the Deluge, I spent three years in University College Cork. I had emerged from secondary school with a powerful but unfocused desire to know. Since I had little idea of what was knowable or what was worth knowing, I would have welcomed guidance. I was ready, I think, for something like the University of Berlin in the 1830s—or even in the 1900s, when Heinrich Zimmer was there. Anything at all might have caught me up and swept me away—number theory, Spanish poetry, Celtic philology, even history—if only a professor could have communicated the conviction that this was the most important thing in the world.
But UCC had professors and lecturers of another sort. For even the more lively and interesting of them, it seemed that the most important thing in the world was to be a certain kind of Cork bourgeois. There were coteries that some people were able to get into; there one could get some more insights into the subject and into Cork intellectual bourgeois existence. I had neither interest nor talent. I spent three years doing what an outsider's cold eye might see as drifting, though I regard it as waiting. There is a time to wait.

I am grateful to UCC for two things, and neither of them has got much to do with the university's normal activities. First of all, it enabled me to encounter the Maoists. They actually came the closest to what I had wanted from the university: they had the intellectual earnestness and bold scope of thought. And secondly, because Irish students were allowed to do holiday work in the USA, I managed to spend two summers in the breath-taking city of Boston, and because I worked there I began to get a focus on urban society, which in Cork was like a riddle in a foreign language. Previously I had known only isolated rural life and the barracks-life of a secondary boarding school. (I fully appreciate the point John Waters made in one of his books: if you grew up somewhere like Castletreagh or Kenmare or Skibbereen—some place where milk came in bottles and there were rows of poles with lamps on them—then you've got the basic urban experience, and you can relate to New York, Tokyo, Sao Paolo, with no bother. And if you didn't, you can't.)

But though I find little pleasure in remembering UCC, at this remove I would wish to be just to its memory. And in my opinion, at that time if one was to conceive of UCC then as merely a business like Easons or Dunnes Stores, one more commercial racket, it was necessary to do some counter-intuitive thinking. The thing wasn't perfectly obvious. Around UCC there still hung the atmosphere of an earlier stage or state of Western metaphysics, as described by Heidegger. (It was just a few years into the post-World War Two period, I think, when he said that in the last stage of Western metaphysics everything would be exploited as raw material, "including that raw material called man". He was human enough to be shocked, twenty years or so later, at how far things had gone. That was around the time when I was in UCC.)

On one level, it was obvious that UCC served Irish capitalist society, providing it with practical experts—in particular, engineers. The engineers were the pioneers of the coming values, but they still only half-knew it. They were made to co-exist with a great many of us who were not at all as practical. The university was engaged in teaching history, languages, classics, philosophy, and these studies were thought to have value, even if they couldn't just be price-labelled. There was a notion of the mental culture of society, that society would be enriched by a work of thinking which was various and had an extensive range. The engineers, with their cheerful, loud vulgarity, were just one element of the blend. I hung around with them for a while; they intrigued me. "We are, we are, we are, we are,/ we are the engineers; / we can, we can, we can, we can / demolish forty beers": I thought that had a touch of Carmina Burana.)

Old Professors Breatnach, Ware, Fogarty, they of the slow dignified steps and swishing gowns—well, they were certainly no Schellings, no Zimmers. But they would never have admitted to being merchants. As a Maoist, I loved to argue with their younger versions, proving that the university, beneath all its gowned pretensions, was a vulgar capitalist enterprise. It was fun because the point was contested. There was something to argue about.

But no one will have that fun any more. I am told that UCC now refers to its students as 'customers'. And UCD is openly bringing advertising, marketing and selling into every breath it draws. This culture is identified especially with the President, Hugh Brady, a medical doctor by background. He too spent some time working in Boston: he was a consultant there. It's to him that the protesting professors from elsewhere addressed their complaints when the Old Irish department was abolished, and I suppose if someone is specifically responsible for that decision it has to be him. So let's take a look at the one-sided argument (because Brady and all executives of his enterprise have scorned to reply to criticism).

For some time UCD's Old Irish department had been ailing. After the last professor retired a few years ago, the authorities made no move to fill his chair. There were only two students doing the degree course. Last year UCD made the decisive move.

"As I understand the situation, the department had been reduced to two lecturers, the absolute minimum required to maintain the core; only one of these was permanent, and the opportunity was taken not to renew the contract of the other lecturer in order easily to achieve the aim of putting an end to Old Irish in UCD" (Professor Liam Breatnach, Irish Times, 19.06.2007).

All of this was clear by the beginning of the new school year in Autumn 2006 and was immediately commented on in the UCD student newspaper. Now in fact UCD had been the only university in Ireland where students could do a full Basic degree in "Early and Medieval Irish", i.e. the Irish language as it appears in works composed before about 1250 A.D. And since UCD is Ireland's largest and wealthiest university, the move could be seen as pioneering. Professors of Irish elsewhere could see danger signals. A number of them got together and sent a private letter to the President of UCD, asking him to stay his axe. The President simply ignored them.

On 13th March 2007 twenty three of them went public, through the Letters' Column of the Irish Times. The list included Liam Breatnach and Pádraig A. Breatnach, Senior Professors at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Professor McCone of Maynooth and MacManus of Trinity, Professor Corthals of Hamburg, and others from Ireland, Europe, America and Australia. To be fair to these people, I must strain the reader's patience so far as to reproduce their letter in full.

"Madam,—Professors of Irish and Celtic Studies from universities in Ireland and abroad wrote some months ago to the president of University College Dublin to express grave disquiet about a proposal by UCD to discontinue early and medieval Irish (old Irish) as a full degree subject. As no response has been forthcoming and as UCD has gone ahead with its proposal, we feel bound to draw the issue to public attention.

"Together with Latin, old Irish is the linguistic bedrock on which all study of the sources for the early history and literature of Ireland is founded. For more than 150 years, ever since the study of Irish and the other Celtic languages was first placed on a scientific footing by the great German scholar Johann Caspar Zeuss (in whose honour An Post recently issued a commemorative stamp), the subject of Old Irish has been a focus of academic study for historians of language and literature the world over.

"The primary responsibility for cultivating the study of Old Irish rests with Irish universities and learned institutions. For much of the 20th century UCD enjoyed a distinguished national and international reputation as a centre of Old Irish, and its professors and alumni have played a pivotal role in developing Irish and Celtic studies generally.

" As Ireland's largest university, UCD has a special obligation to continue to foster and develop the training of students in the vernacular language and literature of early and medieval Ireland. It cannot be allowed simply to place the onus of doing so on other universities with fewer resources.

"By withdrawing Old Irish as a degree subject, whether to save money or for any other reason, UCD is undermining its own standing as well as that of Ireland as an international centre of learning in the humanities.

"It is also failing in its constitutional obligation to cherish and support the study of Ireland's cultural heritage. We believe it is incumbent on UCD to retain the capacity to provide full-scale degree training for students in the subject, and we wish to urge that all necessary measures are taken to ensure this.

"Now more than ever, in a prosperous country facing the future with self-confidence and optimism, the obligation to provide the means for teaching and research in the areas of culture that are unique to Ireland should be self-evident."

This provoked a correspondence which went on fitfully in the Irish Times letter column for the following three months. The correspondents, so far as I can see, were mainly pretty much of a mind with the professors. In fact, many if not most of the correspondents also seemed to be professors. They included Seamus Deane, for whom UCD's decision exemplified "our idolatry of the market".

The undoubted high point of the campaign was on April 6th, when Mary Hanafin, Fianna Fail's Minister for Educaton, "expressed concern" about UCD's decision. But this had all the appearances of a token gesture. I don't know if any other politicians 'expressed concern', but I think it's safe to say that no politician said anything more forceful.

President MacAleese, visiting the United States early in May, was invited to comment. Typically—

"the President declined to be drawn into the dispute about UCD's decision, but she welcomed this week's announcement that Cambridge University is to offer a course in modern Irish. “Isn't that the most extraordinary sign of the vibrancy of Irish culture? And the fact that it's not just offered, of course, to an Irish audience. This is for a scholarly audience drawn from all over the world, drawn from all sorts of perspectives”, she said" (Irish Times, May 5.)

Our President speaks the most charming newspeak.

This was too much for eight academics from Cambridge, who wrote in to point out to her ladyship that—

"The University of Cambridge does so against the background of a long-established tradition of teaching in Old and Middle Irish, without which this new course would not have been established.

"This year, as in previous years, students graduating from Cambridge will include those whose main focus of study has been the vernacular language and literature, as well as the history, of Ireland in the early medieval period. It is astounding and dismaying that students in UCD should not have the opportunity to follow a similar course of study."

Liam Breatnach is no doubt justified in claiming (IT, 19.06.207) that "all of the correspondents to the Irish Times regard (UCD's decision) as unjustifiable". But all of this unanimity has not managed to force any utterance from UCD. "No one responsible for the decision in UCD has yet offered any explanation of any kind for it," Breatnach adds. What did occasionally happen, however, was that people who were not responsible for the decision, but who belonged to surviving departments that included Irish or had some connection with Irish, wrote in to enthuse in market-friendly language about the wonderful things they were doing now. Professor Liam Mac Mathúna produced an article in the MacAleese dialect for the Irish Times (06.06.2007): "These are exciting times for Irish language studies". L. Breatnach (19.06) had no difficulty ripping him to shreds.

On June 12th there was a letter of a different kind by Caoimhín Breatnach, Senior Lecturer in the Scool of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics. (Consumers require choice, and I can't see why UCD restricts it so much: why not the School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics, Archaeology, Ancient Art and Applied Irish Traditional Medicine?) Breatnach said: "I have consistently voiced my opposition to the decision not to fill the chair of Old Irish and to discontinue Old Irish as a full degree subject." One can imagine that in present-day UCD this takes a certain amount of courage.

As a revealing contrast, there is the pitiful story told by Fintan O'Toole (IT Weekend Review, 26.05). O'Toole is one of the very few non-academic writers who felt that this argument was worth getting into—if a string of unanswered protests in much the same key, and pretty well confined to the same newspaper, can properly be called an argument. (The other whom I'm aware of is Ulick O'Connor in the Irish Independent of June 10th). After some interesting reflections on UCD's presentation of its history as opposed to the facts, he mentions its previous high reputation for Gaelic scholarship and remarks: "Hard as it is to believe, the new commercialized regime has abolished the chair of Old Irish. Sadly, it seems the world of academia in Dublin has become infected with the most common virus of our time—developer's disease."

In an article published in April, O'Toole quoted UCD's decision to end Old Irish as evidence of a narrowing of minds in the universities. On May 26th he returned to the theme.After the publication of the previous article—

"I received a long letter from a very senior Irish academic. He is in many ways an exemplary figure: a hugely popular teacher but also a prodigious writer and researcher who regularly publishes work of the highest quality. But I can't tell you who he is. The saddest and most startling line in his letter is one in which he says that, although he would be quite happy to speak out for his own sake, he fears that doing so would have adverse consequences for his department.

"It is possible, of course, that such fears are unfounded. But my correspondent is a calm, amiable man, not given to obvious paranoia. His anxieties are ones that I have heard expressed by a number of academics in a number of institutions. And the very fact that such fears exist within our universities is itself a cause for deep concern. Universities are supposed to be centres of free inquiry and of intellectual curiosity. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the radical restructuring that is currently affecting most of them, there is something utterly askew when even very senior academics feel that they cannot engage in an open and honest discussion of what is happening around them.

"My correspondent's letter is about what he calls the "managerialist" culture, "which is running riot in our university system, particularly in the two largest universities, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin". His view of this process is worth detailing, especially since it involves subjects other than his own, and cannot therefore be dismissed as the mere product of academic amour propre.

"“Classical languages”, he writes, “once a distinguished tradition in UCD, scarcely are known any more. Ireland used to produce distinguished classicists; nowadays we import them from Britain and elsewhere. Medieval studies in UCD, once a jewel in the intellectual crown, is being let die; again, we used to produce medievalists of world stature, now we import them. Similar and equally scandalous assaults on the teaching of modern languages have gone unnoticed by Irish journalism. Again, the attempts to force shotgun marriages on subjects that are dissimilar have been ignored. History, sociology and political science have been forced together in Trinity in a way that threatens the identity of all three. At one stage UCD proposed a shotgun marriage between classics and philosophy, betraying a ludicrous ignorance of the nature and content of both intellectual areas.”

"(This) is not, however, an argument against "intellectual synergy". On the contrary, he argues from his own experience the relevance of a broad, open-minded education, even to specialised areas of research such as his own. “…The old Irish system of broadly-based undergraduate degrees in the humanities”, he argues, “has offered historically an extraordinarily rich variety of subject combinations to generations of undergraduate students. It has produced a large share of our writers, academics, public servants and political leaders, and Ireland would be much poorer intellectually and culturally without it. That richness is under threat . . .” ".

I dare say it is, if its champions have to cower in anonymity! There were some who did not. "Old Irish language and literature are vital not only to the understanding of Irish origins but also for modern Ireland's perception of itself", said George Huxley of the School of Classics, TCD (March 29). And he added two sentences that made me think back to UCC and its gowned professors:

"The self-congratulatory, oligarchic, over-paid managers at UCD have been behaving as though they were CEOs of a pharmaceutical corporation or other conglomerate. They should be reminded of the true purposes of universities and of the enduring merits of learning for its own sake without regard to soulless utility and impertinent quantification."

About the same time there was Mary O' Carroll from Letterkeny, very much to the point:

"It's a funny sort of university that refuses to provide teaching of the native language and culture of its own people at undergraduate level.

"Could you imagine Oxford University refusing to teach Early and Middle English, or Heidelberg University refusing to teach Old and Middle High German, or Oslo University refusing to teach Old Norse? One could go on and on…

"What is a university? Is UCD a university?"

To sum all of this up, once more we may quote Liam Breatnach's letter of June 19:

"All of the correspondents to the Irish Times regard (the decision) as unjustifiable, and as the authorities in UCD can present no justification for it one must conclude that they too find it unjustifiable."

Actually, I wouldn't conclude that. I would conclude rather that Brady and Co. do not feel that getting involved in a controversy in the Irish Times will help them sell their products. But if they judged differently and they weren't too busy, I suppose they might say: "Our job is to offer customers what they want or what they realistically might want, and not to try telling them why they should have things we know they don't want. Old Irish wasn't selling, and our judgement was that there was no one around who could make it shift."

What immediately strikes one about the Professors' letter is the impoverishment of its argument. When electing to go onstage in the Irish Times they presumably did intend to appeal to some sort of public—indeed, they say so themselves. Therefore they needed to be able to show that this matter was of public concern, and that UCD's decision was against the public interest. After all, even if Ireland and UCD are very rich, funding is still not infinite and money can still be used wisely or unwisely, and space for classrooms etc., time and energy are precious things. Why is it so important that UCD should commit its precious resources to Old Irish?

The Professors' letter begins well enough. The first paragraph is okay as an opening, the first sentece of the second paragraph might be passable. But after that, despite a certain urgency of tone, despite a certain gift for phrasing things sharply, the argument flags and fades. Many readers must have given up reading it somewhere in the middle. The absences are glaring.

What I think is most glaringly absent is something on the following lines: "Old Irish is a national treasure. In order to have access to it we must continue the efforts of previous generations, and as a precondition and foundation there must be intensive professional studies. Old Irish has already enormously enriched our nationhood and national well-being, in ways that could not have been predicted and to an extent that we cannot now calculate. We must see to it that we are able to draw on this inexhaustible treasure also in the years to come."

(If anyone were to ask how Old Irish has enriched Irish nationhood—well, the question can be asked in many ways. There's Yeats's way:

"When Pearse summoned Cuchulainn to his side,
What stalked through the Post Office?"

What indeed! It might take a lot of describing. But it was something; it was not nothing.)

But the Professors seem to be debarred from this kind of argument. There might be a very faint hint here and there ("Ireland's cultural heritage"), and some of the signatories would be aware of these aspects in private. But a respected Professor cannot now say these things publicly for fear of shooting himself in the foot, because

Ireland has gone global. So what suitably global argument can be presented?

There is one at least. We can argue that Old Irish is a major challenge to global pedantry. And since this is Ireland, and it was here that the materials for this branch of pedantry were produced in past ages, "in a prosperous country facing the future with optimism and self-confidence" the obligation to cultivate his pedantry at its point of geographic focus "should be self-evident".

On behalf of the global Fachmannschaft, the professors from Dublin and Oxford, Cork and Santa Cruz, Harvard and Hamburg have appealed to the Irish public. And presumably they're surprised that, for all the unanimity of those responding (in a case like this, a sure sign that nothing is happening) they have not even been able to force Hugh Brady to come out for a moment from the back of his shop.

In a book of mine published about 13 years ago, The Christian Druids, I presented what I believe to be the key to early Irish culture. (I discovered it independently, but I was not the first modern writer to do so.) Christianity in Ireland was uniquely assimilated and naturalized by a pre-existing order of philosopher-poets. The successors of these men, the poets who dominated Gaelic thought for as long as any of that ancient high culture still continuously existed, are those whom I call the Christian druids.

Along with this contention, I presented an argument about the poetry, which, viewed purely from an academic angle, might have seemed to multiply the difficulties of making contact with these ancient minds. But I know that for many people that book of mine brought 'Old Irish' to life. Some of them were poets, painters and musicians; others were just curious-minded people, of whom there are a fair sprinkling in Ireland still.

I devoted one chapter of my book to the Amra Senáin, a truly magnificent blend of praise to the river (Shannon), praise to the moon (Sen-án, 'Old Bright One') and praise to the saint (Senan of Scattery). Some years previously the poem had been edited and translated by one Professor Liam Breatnach. That is to say, the poem had been massacred by Professor Breatnach. He squeezed every drop of historical and cultural sap from it and left it dessicated in his litter of apparatus. In twenty five packed pages he devoted thirteen lines to the poem's content! He was resolutely deaf to that wonderful poem, and reading his translation is a miserable experience.

We approach Irish materials with a certain poetic spirit, or we kill them stone dead. (Father Dinneen, now—he didn't kill his materials! Occasionally, perhaps, he committed the great crime of letting imagination fly where knowledge couldn't plod. But he didn't kill the poems.)

There's a proper place for specialist pedants even in fields of living knowledge, and even in the knowledge of Irish, but that place is not at the forefront, where they are now. The disease of pedantry is certainly worst among those who are dealing with the older Irish materials, but it's general in 'Irish Studies' and spreading. Brady could be writing the Mene, Thecel, Upharsin for the whole lot of them. Dead (i.e. murdered) poetry won't have that many takers in the long run.

To prove that it doesn't have to be so, even at the summit of academia, that it hasn't always been so, I need only mention one name: James Carney. In a future article I intend to say something about this admirable poet-academic, and the sad state of Celtic Studies after his passing.

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