From Irish Political Review: November 2007

Old Irish And The Market
Part Three

Not long ago, when I mentioned that I was editing and translating 17th century Irish poetry, I was asked: How does that connect with us? How does it affect our lives now? Those are hard questions.

In the first of the books that C.V. Wedgwood wrote about the 1640s in England, she remarks: when these events have ceased to matter it won't be worth the bother of writing their history, but they do matter still. She doesn't offer any kind of proof or argument as to why they matter. Seemingly she takes it for granted that her readers will grasp why.

The Irish, and their poets not least, were involved in the same complex of events, and the outcome here was more decisive than in England. In Ulster, as everyone knows, 1641 matters. And in Munster, Ulster, Leinster or Connacht 1649 matters to all historically conscious people (true, there are people who say that it's best to have no historical consciousness if you're Irish).

Some of the written materials in which Ireland's 1640s can be seen working themselves through are in the Irish language. These Irish materials are mainly poetry, and what remains today is certainly only a small fraction of what once existed. Printed pamphlets had the means of surviving, whereas manuscript poems tended to get lost or destroyed. But in my opinion, those poems are an essential part of the story. Until they have all been edited and published—because most of them are unedited and unpublished to this day—and properly set in context, no one will be able to write about Ireland's 1640s the way C.V. Wedgewood did about England's.

Are Ireland's official scholars hard at work on this? A foolish question!—no, of course they aren't. The most ambitious of them are complacent commentators on an existing body of edited work which they assume to be complete, or complete enough to make no difference—or complete enough, anyhow, to serve their present purposes. These people don't feel at ease with Irish particularities, but they themselves contribute towards making Ireland a very peculiar place indeed: we're the strange country that has so much literature and history, we prefer to throw lots of it away.

Take the following verse from a poem by Diarmaid Ó Dálaigh, one of the O'Daly poets of Desmond. I believe he composed it in late 1641 or early 1642, just before the outbreak of the Rebellion in Munster, which this poem is intended to incite. Among other things he refers to the land-grabbing of the Percevals, who were among the spectacular successes of the restored Munster Plantation after 1600. Using the magic weapon of mortgage, Philip Perceval had ruined various Barrys and MacCarthys and picked up huge landholdings in the North Cork area. This robust and wrathful poem was a favourite of Geoffrey O' Donoghue, the Kerry poet whose work I've been editing, which is how I came across it myself.

In the following verse Diarmaid Ó Dálaigh expresses what the Gall, i.e. the New English Planter, has been doing to the Gael within planted Munster, and what the choices are:

Ach táid fraoch Goill go faoileach dá gceisil-mheilt,
ag treis-ingeilt ar shaoir-chloinn an Ghaoidhil gheis-oirbhirt;
as rogha gliadh nó as fógra fras-aimhnirt,
assignment ar gach fiadh d'Fódla eisoirdhirc.

But the furious Gall mills them merrily like cornstack-layers,
force-grazing upon the free race of the pledged-to-giving Gael;
the choice is war, or look out for a hailstorm that saps us,
assignment on each territory of an ignoble Ireland!

I think I can safely assume that my readers don't know this poem. I am 95% sure that it has never been published. But supposing there had been a major rebellion, I won't say in Slovakia or Lithuania, but in Poland, France, or England, which a poet had advocated with a verse like this . . . is it likely his verse would be unknown in that particular national culture? It's inconceivable!

But I don't want to shove anything, least of all Irish poetry, down anyone's throat. For some friends of mine Irish is an irritating dead language that was pushed down their throats in school and is still being shoved down the throats of their children and grand-children. I can't say they didn't have reason to hate it: they know how they feel, or how they felt. Being employed in that way brought no benefits to Irish. It was going against the grain . . . of the language, as well as the forced-learners.

Five, six, seven centuries ago the Irish language made conquests among a strange population by its charm. No one pushed it down the throats of the Normans; to all appearances it went down as smoothly and pleasurably as alcohol. A great many of them too, and they were won by attraction, not compulsion. On the other hand, the 20th century Irish Revival, where it became mainly coercive, was a complete failure.

Experience proves that English is a much better language for shoving down people's throats. English has a historical track record and can show impressive success. Not long ago I came across Edward Walsh's description of how people changed from Irish to English, in his preface to Irish Popular Songs (1847). This is how it happened:

"The popular songs and ballads of Ireland are as completely unknown to the great mass of Irish readers, as if they were sung in the wilds of Lapland, instead of the green valleys of their own native land. These strains of the Irish muse are to be found in the tongue of the people only; and while for past centuries, every means had been used to lead the classes which had partaken, even in the slightest degree, of an English education, into a total disuse of the mother tongue; when the middle and upper ranks, aping the manners of the English settlers located among them, adopted a most un-natural dislike to the language of their fathers; when even in the courts of law the sole use of the vernacular was a stumbling-block in the way of him who sought for justice within their precincts, and the youth who may have acquired a smattering of education found it necessary, upon emerging from his native glen into the world, to hide, as closely as possible, all knowledge of the tongue he had learned at his mother's breast; it is no wonder the peasantry should, at length, quit this last vestige of nationality, and assist the efforts of the hedge school-master in its repression. The village teacher had long been endeavouring to check the circulation of the native tongue among the people, by establishing a complete system of espiery in these rustic seminaries, in which the youth of each hamlet were made to testify against those among them who uttered an Irish phrase... The poor peasant, seeing that education could be obtained through the use of English only, and that the employment of the native tongue was a strong bar to the acquirement of the favoured one, prohibited to his children the use of the despised language. This transition was, and is still, productive of serious inconvenience to the young and the old of the same household in their mutual intercourse of sentiments. The writer of these remarks has often been painfully amused at witnessing the embarrassment of a family circle, where the parents, scarcely understanding a word of English, strove to converse with their children, who awed by paternal command, and the dread of summary punishment at the hand of the pedagogue, were driven to essay a language of which the parents could scarcely comprehend a single word, and of which the poor children had too scant a stock to furnish forth a tithe of their exuberant thought."

That is how communities change language voluntarily. The parents voluntarily see to it that the new language is pushed down their children's throats, with the help of the schoolmaster's stick and his spying system, and not just at school times but at all times. This grim experiment had been carried through in hundreds of thousands of families by Walsh's time, and it would be carried through in hundreds of thousands more—including, I believe, the family of my maternal grandmother. (One day, when I was eight or nine, I discovered that she spoke fairly fluent Irish. I didn't understand how that could be, since Irish was a school subject and this old woman hadn't been near a school for decades.)

What Walsh describes is the key modern language experience of Ireland. It is what shapes the modern language-life of the great majority. As for Irish—I think of Irish as a force in the underground, with a little of it left above ground still. Mainly it is distanced from us and our immediate lives, though the deeper down one goes the more one finds that it has soaked the entire land. I don't know that this force can be tapped. Whatever it is, it seems contemptuous of methodical modern purposes. But now and then it will gush up unpredictably and unexpectedly and have little or large effects.

Around 1880 it seemed that there wouldn't be any more gushing. The tendency towards universal and exclusive use of English was obvious. This much was evident even to foreigners, and certain foreigners found the development inspiring. For example, Hungarian nationalists who were concerned with the problem of how non-Magyar languages and the sense of non-Magyar nationality could be killed off within the vast territory of Great Hungary, where the Hungarian speakers were still a minority.

Magyarosodás és magyaositás by Beksics Gusztáv (Budapest 1883) addressed this issue. The title can loosely be translated as 'Magyarisation and Magyar-assimilation', or 'Compulsory and Voluntary Magyarisation'. Beksics was against trying to Magyarise by force. Better to do it the voluntary way, the English way! If the Magyars got a stranglehold on the towns and a monopoly of modern culture, then sooner or later it would dawn on the Slavic masses that neither they nor their sons would ever get anywhere, the cards would be stacked against them in the law and in all social relationships, until they gave up their useless languages and adopted Magyar. That might take a long time, but it was a sure conclusion and one could afford to be patient.

In support of this he gave the Irish example. His view of Ireland was intelligent and crystal-clear, and the only strange thing about it is that it turned out to be wrong.

"The language of the town will swallow up the language of the countryside without any compulsion or national martyrdom. It swallowed it in antiquity, in the Middle Ages and likewise in the modern age. In Ireland the towns, which became English, liquidated the Celtic language. The English language conquered first the towns and afterwards the countryside. By now the language of Ossian is spoken only in corners of the Kerry mountains. O'Connell attacked the English in the English language. He borrowed from Shakespeare those lightning-bolts with which he blasted perfidious Albion. The Irish nation no longer lives in its language, but only in its history and creed. All that keeps it on the alert is hatred of the English, otherwise it would already be fusing completely with the Anglo-Saxon race. If after the religious question the agrarian question is solved also, Ireland will no longer rebel. It will be as soundly English as Wales, which also was originally dominated by Celts." (p56 in a dual-language Hungarian/Slovak edition, published in Bratislava in 2000).

A decade after Beksics wrote, the Gaelic League was founded by someone who seemed to belong to a type well-known in England: a bookish, reactionary country gentleman who hated progress and modern life and wanted to turn back the clock. And in the two decades that followed (during which the agrarian question was solved, quite according to the prescription of Doctor Beksics) the most gifted and capable young people in Ireland joined this reactionary gentleman's movement. They included most of the key personnel in 1916 and in the subsequent War of Independence. They led the Irish rebellion which had logically ceased to be possible.

It's often been said, and I think the truth of the statement is clear: there couldn't have been any independent Ireland without the Gaelic League. The same suitable conditions might still have arisen, but the leadership wouldn't have been formed. The Gaelic League was a school of revolution. To all appearances the Irish language gave these people intellectual independence and self-respect—which they were able to assert in the progressive Ireland that spoke English! But surely that shouldn't have been possible?

I don't think any modern sociological explanation can make much of all that. When Roy Foster writes about 1916 and after in his History of Modern Ireland, he seems haunted by the feeling of some obscure force of evil.

Thus unexpectedly from underground, the mighty Irish language presented its claim not to be forgotten so easily! But what was one to do with it now that it couldn't be forgotten? Revive it?

The idea was a natural one. When people whose heads have been turned pretty well inside out have a period of renewed strength and a feeling of power, it wouldn't be strange if they set about trying to put their heads back the right way in. But the operation isn't easy. In the Irish case there was a lot of passive resistance. And one reason for this is that the original language change was so horrible that the community would need to be under some bleak compulsion to submit to another. Community language change is a horrible business.

People whose recent forbears had been through this mill were in no hurry to put their own families through it in reverse. Anyhow, they were reaping some of the gain from that earlier pain. The law was accessible now. Dickens, Scott, Cervantes, any amount of English literature, original and translated, was turning up in Irish rural homes. The world was in better focus than it had been. Why risk blurring it?

This was one reason why the Revival ran aground. But beyond that there was the question of utility. It was clear that the community was deeply involved in usefulness and destined to be more so, and it needed a utilitarian language. Could Irish be that language? Or could it have been that language, given certain initiatives taken at a certain historical juncture?

I am not concerned with these questions here. I don't see that the worth of Irish depends upon how one answers them. Certainly I am not in favour of conceding the small place that Irish still has in Irish life and schooling to whatever the priests of utility would put in its place. I see no reason why compulsory Irish in schools in its present-day form should be thought oppressive. I am in favour of maintaining it, since it offers the child some small chance of connecting with what's in Ireland's depths. Beyond that, I am in favour of all cheerful experiments with Irish that can still be made. The Gaelscoileanna seem to be cheerful places. (That's another thing sociology wouldn't have predicted!)

But for me the greatest value of the Irish language is historic, in its extraordinary literature. With an unbelievably resolute pride, Irish in the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries keeps its integrity, refuses all compromise, scorns even to consider getting into the trend of thinking and living which England is pioneering.

The power of this extraordinary testimony is unappreciated. To paraphrase Edward Walsh: the great poems of Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh are as completely unknown to the mass of Irish readers as if they had been composed in the wilds of Lapland. And this is what I find so unforgivable in the Institute of Advanced Studies, whose latest stale idea (Michelle O' Riordan, Irish Bardic Poetry and Rhetorical Reality, Cork 2007) is to reduce the filidh of Ireland to the level of troubadours. After James Carney's mind-opening speculative work, the way was clear for a fruitful contact with those great uncompromising poets of the time of Elizabeth and James. I think that this could be valuable not only for Irish culture but even for the culture of the world.

In Elizabeth's time the great English mind was Francis Bacon, and he's now the great mind of the world, whether acknowledged or not. His glittering eyes are in every shopping mall. ("We have...! We have...! We have...!") But, leaving aside all those places like Slovakia which—merely because they're landlocked!—still do not have sea-surfing facilities with real salt water. . . even Dubai, with its indoor ski slope in the midst of a desert, isn't yet quite the New Atlantis. More is possible, more is needed. . . Francis Bacon is always with us and always still ahead of us.

The society of constant experiment and improvement, where everything, thought included, is demeaned (but Bacon says something like 'equalised' or 'levelled') and poetry is contemptuously pushed to the margins, was never pursued through the medium of Irish. There was a search for alternative paths in history, in association with Spain or the Stuart kings, where Gaelic Ireland could have kept true to itself. The 20th century Revival (under difficult conditions—so difficult, in fact, that the remarkable thing is not that the project fell into coercion and absurdity, but how much it did that was positive) also involved a quest for an alternative.

Now, of course, we're assured by Professor Fukuyama (who with breath-taking cheek, on the very stroke of 1989, tried to buy out European philosophy from the bargain basement—see The End of History and the Last Man) that there's no alternative anywhere. Certainly, looking at contemporary Ireland, it's hard to see one. And if it wasn't for all that poetry forever soaking our road-lacerated land, it would be hard to imagine there could ever again be surprises.

In the meantime, I think it wouldn't kill anyone to know the poems of Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh. I hope to collect them sometime in the near future. They've been taken by modern academics as poems of pure despair. A great poet will be understood in many ways, but if he was really a prophet of despair it's strange that his best translator should have been Patrick Pearse. I don't now have Pearse's translation ready to hand, so I must offer my own of the verse following, from Mo thruaighe mar táid Gaoidhil (My sorrow, how the Gaels are!):

Má thug an Deónughadh dhi,
Saxa nua dan hainm Éire,
bheith re a linn-se i láimh bhiodhbhadh,
don innse is cóir ceileabhradh.

If Providence has willed
a new England called Ireland,
to be all its days in enemies' hands,
to this island we must say farewell!

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