Keith Gaughan

An attempt at public introspection


Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam

· 14min


The original is here, and it has some comments worth reading.

I’m, of course, referencing Risteárd Ó Bodchroitheadoir‘s (aren’t cross-linguistic puns a fine thing!) latest piece, “We Can Do Without Irish“. As with other pieces, whether I agree with the writer’s points or not is unimportant; I’m simply out to point out flaws in his thesis.

I know Richard is probably just trolling, and I shouldn’t feed the trolls, but it’s been a while since I’ve fisked anybody, so it’s time for another.

Not just as a compulsory subject in our schools, but altogether. Irish is about as much a part of our heritage as are famines, which is to say we should keep the memory of it alive and make sure a few specialists know it well, but be glad that in the end it’s a part of the past, not the present.

Let’s get one thing about my point of view approaching this out of the way: I love languages. It doesn’t matter what the language is, I haven’t met one I don’t like. Languages trigger the same emotions for me as great music, great literature, great architecture, great design, great art, beautiful code, beautiful women, and good beer. I love listening to others speaking languages I don’t hear often; I’ve dictionaries and grammars of umpteen languages, and take great joy in each one of them; one of my most prized posessions is a copy of Thurneysen’s A Grammar of Old Irish, which I found going for a song in UCC‘s Waterstones bookshop back when it was around. I’m a veritable language nut, and as I learned more and more about languages over the years, I gained a greater appreciation of the linguistic diversity of mankind. Every time a language fades from use, humanity loses a view on the world. I’ve no great desire to see any language, especially those—-English and Irish—-I’m in daily contact with, to be counted amongst the fatalities.

Growth and change are one thing—-Latin, often counted as a dead language, is alive and kicking, even if nowadays it’s more often known as French, Spanish, Romanian, &c.—-death is quite another.

Which is why I can’t understand why Richard equates the continued use of a language that is, after all, part of our common inheritence as a nation, to one of the great tragedies of our history. More worrying still is the implication that a detailed knowledge of where we came from, that which makes us what we are, pivotal moments in our history, should be the domain of a select few.

I also love Ireland deeply. I’m not talking about patriotism or jingoism here. No, this is a purer, more familial love of the nation I was born into. I love it for all that’s good and bad about it, the same way as I love the family I’m part of. The concepts of being ‘Top Nation’, and of ‘my country is better than your’ such as you see expressed in England and the US don’t sit well with me. Ireland is far from perfect, but there’s a lot about it to be proud of. It’s our nation’s and our culture’s positive and negative aspects that shaped each and every one of us as a person. That’s enough reason for me to value the culture I’m part of and the heritage it gave me. So…

While it’s correct to say that Irish is a part of our heritage, it’s a distinctly unimportant part. There is nothing particular to the Irish language that is essential to valuing Irish heritage.

…that given, there’s no aspect of our cultural heritage that, in particular, I can point to as being essential to valuing our common inheritence as a whole. No aspect whatsoever, be it language, literature, art, history, and so on. Nothing.

It may be splitting hairs, but I believe Richard is using the wrong verb here. I can value something while not appreciating its all aspects. It’s quite possible to value Irish culture without giving a whit about the works of Yeats (though harder if you’re a Sligoman like myself), and a depressing number of people do just that.

Richard’s error here is conflating his lack of appreciation for the language, which is all good and well, with whether it is any more or less deserving of preservation than any other language. Plainly, this isn’t so. If we threw out every aspect of our culture that wasn’t appreciated by somebody, we’d be left with nothing. But we don’t do that. We preserve those aspects where there’s a critical mass of people who are willing to preserve and further enrich them them regardless of how uncouth certain elements believe them to be. This is one of the key aspects of a persistent cultural artifact such as language.

By any reasonable definition,

Namely, Richard’s definition, which he doesn’t elaborate upon. Why do some people persist in using the word reasonable to mean that which I agree with?

..there are two aspects to taking one’s heritage seriously - history and culture. Neither require Irish.

Last time I looked, language counted as part of culture; and last time I looked, Irish was the language spoken by the vast majority of the nation up until 150 years ago, in spite of a concerted effort over centuries by certain powers to wipe it, and the culture it represented, out.

The Irish language is not needed to be more than adequately appraised of Irish history and culture.

That’s true, I’ll grant him that. But adequacy is very much a relative term: what’s adequate for somebody studying Irish history is woefully inadequate for for somebody studying medieval European poetry, for which at least a familiarity with Classical Gaelic and Normand French is essential.

In fact, approaching each through Irish rather than English puts you at a distinct handicap.

It could equally be said that approaching it through English rather than Irish puts you at a distinct disadvantage, except the handicap is different. For a full appreciation, you need both languages.

Irish history happened through English for the most part and at the least for the last number of centuries.

What, and Irish history started after the Famine? Is all the history and culture that went before that suddenly worthless? I believe our history stretches back several millennia, so this statement beggars belief.

The great works of Irish culture - all of them - are through English.

Oh dear. This statement could be forgiven had Richard not included the phrase ‘all of them’. It’d still be incorrect, but at least not blatantly so.

At least one of our nation’s greatest cultural artifacts, the Book of Kells, is in Latin. Yes, Latin. Our great epics, considered on a cultural par with those of Greece, Rome, the Vikings, and so on, were done through the medium of Irish. Irish is renowned by classicists for having one of the oldest literary traditions in the world bar none.

For as small a country as we are, our effect on culture outside of our little island has been disproportionately great right throughout our history. Literature, which Richard is equating with culture here, is only a small part of this, and literature in the English language a smaller part still.

But such a tradition doesn’t just pop up overnight; it’s grown and nurtured over time. Doesn’t the enormous body of cultural work contributed by Irish men and women to the world in English alone make you curious to investigate where this tradition came from? Surely given that single insight, being purposely ignorant of the Irish language could easily make one miss out some true gems. Not all Irish-language literature is Peig.

But to focus on literature alone, Richard fails to recognise the effect the Irish language and its literary tradition had on Irish literature in the English language. To quote from the Wikipedia article on Irish literature:

For a comparatively small country, Ireland has made a disproportionate contribution to world literature in all its branches. The works that are best known outside the country are in English, but Irish Gaelic also has the most significant body of written literature, both ancient and recent, in any Celtic language, in addition to a strong oral tradition of legends and poetry.

This Irish language tradition has contributed to making Irish literature in English something quite distinctive from English literature in other countries. From the older tradition, Irish writers in English have inherited a sense of wonder in the face of nature, a narrative style that tends towards the deliberately exaggerated or absurd, a keen sense of the power of satire. In addition, the interplay between the two languages has resulted in an English dialect, Hiberno-English, that lends a distinctive syntax and music to the literature written in it.

And such an interplay continues to this day, and is a valuable part of our literary heritage.

Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, and Shaw aren’t just better known because they wrote in English, they’re better known because the worked in the greater European literary traditions - and because they were better.

How they’re better isn’t explained. Nor is how the fact that they wrote in the English language makes them better explained. It’s simply asserted.

Looking to history will explain how this situation came about. There’s one very significant aspect of our nation that Richard omits: the Irish language, Irish-language literature, and native Irish culture as a whole were actively repressed in law for a very, very long time. As such, you’re going to get a vibrant oral tradition, but published literary works are going to be hard to come by.

Add to that with various famous events that lead to native Irish culture as a whole being associated with failure in the popular imagination and a good chunk of the Gaelic-speaking population being wiped out or faced to emigrate, and of course our most famous modern authors will be those who use the English language.

A short aside: did you know that the average French person is certain that Beckett was actually French, and wrote in French and not English? [Update: see the addendum below]

There is no writer in the Irish language that anyone need bother reading if looking for Irish literary contributions - there are more than enough Irish writers in English of truly first-class stature without excavating a dead language for literary fossils.

I’m happy Richard’s literary hunger is sated by our English-language tradition—-after all, in that alone we have a record virtually every nation on Earth would be proud to have—-but why do the rest of us have to be satisfied? And why not extend that further: surely nobody should bother with works in other ‘dead’ languages. There’s no worth in the likes of Beowulf, is there? But then, a language is only dead if people stop using it.

Nor can Irish music be taken as much of a contribution to Western arts. In fact, Irish music is better understood as resistance to Western artistic achievements.

Richard knows little about music theory or music history. He likes Classical music and thinks the rest is bunk.

Let’s take the first statement. In terms of influence, it lead to, in the US alone, the emergence of Country, Bluegrass, Rock and Roll, Roots, and various other style. And the influence continues. And let’s not forget the huge mutual influence Irish harp music had on Baroque composers and visa versa.

Rather than learning from the musical advances of Europe in the second half of the last millennium, Irish music is characterised by the primitive harmonic and melodic structures characteristic of peasant music from here to India.

Traditional music is, by its very nature, conservative. To be frank, similar accusations could be levelled against Classical music today, which self-consciously avoids influence from more recent musical forms.

Contrary to Richard’s beliefs, Irish (traditional) music is neither primitive nor static. It borrows liberally from other traditions in the form of both instruments and ideas, a process which has accelerated within the past century.

Moreover, Richard fails to appreciate the complexity of Irish music, and the skill required to perform it. This, I believe, is largely down to an ignorance of the tradition. Simple melodies? Sometimes, but this is and has always been done because music is as much to be performed as to be composed, and performance by the performer is as important if not moreso as the composition itself. To truly appreciate this, you need to listen to the same tune played by different musicians or sung by different singers: their interpretations will be wildly different. With Irish music, the devil’s in the details. This gives the music great longevity because a song composed centuries ago will still sound fresh because the performance makes it fresh. Technical skill is appreciated in Irish music, as anybody who’s sang Sean Nós, played the Uilleann pipes, or been accompanied by a Bodhrán player will tell you, but improvisational skill is just as important.

And on the topic of Sean Nós, the accusation of ‘simplicity’ holds no water. The defining mark of Sean Nós is the complexity and length of the music. But they’re not performed by a small army of musicians, so I guess that means it’s not as worthy of appreciation.

The self-conscious attachment to this artistically barren music is a cultural form of clinging to the soil. Again, looking for the Irish contribution involves looking past ‘Irish’ music. Irish composers of enduring note such as Field and Stanford are immeasurably superior standard bearers for Irish culture and heritage.

Would that be Sir Charles Villiers Stanford he’s writing about? Oh, dear! He should pick his examples a bit better! Let me quote from the linked piece, which says it better than I ever could:

Stanford wrote ten operas, seven symphonies, thirty-three oratorios or cantatas, three piano concertos, eight string quartets and a large number of smaller works among which his large body of song compositions stands out especially. In many works he distinguishes himself by his overt use of Irish traditional elements. This combined with the spirit of the age would have made him the ideal candidate for fame as national Irish composer, but it was his strong unionism and protestantism as well as his residence in England which made later generations doubt his sincerity. Too Irish for the English, too English for the Irish and too German for both, he fell between all stools, where only a new appreciation in a more multicultural environment will help his position.

As great a composer as he was, he’s not a great example to use for knocking Irish traditional music.

John Field is a stronger one however, but the fact that he and his family left Ireland when he was ten doesn’t bode well for him being influenced by the traditional music of the country of his birth.

The conflating of Irish language and Irish heritage traps us in the idea that the oldest most primitive forms of heritage on this island are somehow they authentic ones. They’re of marginal value only, but no more. The great contributions of Irishmen and women were almost uniformly made through English or in the greater traditions of Western civilization. The Irish language embodies little of our true heritage and obscures the rest. We can do without it. Leave Irish to the specialists and let’s stop pretending our heritage lies in its dead hands.

There’s no conflating going on except in Richard’s mind. The Irish language is an aspect of Irish culture, not the whole thing. Do I find it and Irish music worth preserving? Yes, personally I do, and others do too. Richard does not, and that’s ok. But describing something as primitive (whether that label is deserved or not) doesn’t mean its not worthy of care, not worthy of loving.

The thing about culture is that it’s organic; it’s aspects ebb and flow over time, ever changing and adapting to new people and new ideas. However Richard might like so spin things, Irish culture is just the same. As long as people care about some aspect of it, that aspect will endure. Richard is asking us to abandon aspects we care about. But for doing this, what do we get? Nothing. All we get is a fossil. I’d rather have the living article.

Another thing about culture is that it can be shared without diminishing itself. If anything, sharing our heritage enriches it. Similarly, embracing traditions of foreign cultures does not mean you have to abandon aspects of your own. You can take lessons from that which you come in contact with and apply them in innovative ways within your own cultural traditions; or take what you’ve been brought up with and take those same foreign traditions in new and interesting directions they might not otherwise have gone. Culture is an economy of plenty, and should not be forced into directions its participants don’t want to take it.

I wish Richard would explain to us all where his loathing of these aspects of Irish culture comes from, because I honestly can’t understand it. Tomáš Masaryk once said ‘To know another language is to live another life’. Maybe he should keep that in mind.

Update: Donal Ó Caoimh, Adam Maguire and Puthwuth also have great pieces on it. And now (July 20th), Conn Ó Muíneacháin joins the fray.

Addendum: To clarify things for the guys at Pretty Cunning, this is based an anecdotal evidence. Before I moved back up to Sligo, I used to live in Cork, and while there shared houses and flats with many, many French people, ranging from waiters to PhD candidates. Occasionally literature would come up, and whenever I mentioned that Beckett was actually Irish, the response was that of surprise. Hence my extrapolation.

Second Addendum: Richard made something resembling a response to the comments people have been making. Only it doesn’t address the actual points made by the likes of myself and manages to commit the genetic fallacy by taking a weakly argued email and treating that as an exemplar of those that disagree with him. For shame, Richard. How about some intellectual rigour? I, and others, actually have comments on our blogs and are willing to debate the points. Can’t you even write up a proper rebuttal on your blog? Not engaging in proper debate just makes you look trollish.