Sunday, 9 June 2019

Learning Irish

Learning Irish

In a previous blog I wrote about the political history of famine in Ireland as a consequence of colonialism and land hunger. This post is about my personal project of learning the Irish language, with however many defects of skill and indeed of effort.
Sometime in 2016, I decided to attack Irish. I had learnt quite a lot of Scottish Gaelic (since an evening course in 2000) and I had a volume of essays (Cruth na Tire), on landscape in the Gaelic tradition, which was half in Irish and half in Scottish. This was provocative, and I determined to have a go at the Irish chapters, to see if I could read them. It was a difficult weekend. I came out knowing the “rotations” you need to connect Irish words with Scottish ones. I also concluded that I had to learn about 5000 new words in order to read Irish prose comfortably. (That is, very modern Irish – not anything older.)
There is just too much data to learn. But the process is deeply rewarding. I am counting my pupillage in Irish as a protest against Brexit.
Vincent Morley records that few manuscripts were written in Connaught. Why was that? I don't know.
One of the volumes of Maynooth Lectures (Leachtai Cholm Cille) has a piece about sermons which includes some such 19th C texts recorded in English spelling. Apparently the priests were native speakers but their Catholic education had not included literacy in Irish – although they probably knew Latin and English. So they wrote down their sermons in English spelling. This is very like a group of manuscripts from Scotland, where again you could be a native speaker and classically educated but not know how to spell Gaelic words Gaelic-style.
I wanted something lucid in organisation but interesting in content. This led me naturally to academic prose, usually about themes in the culture of the Irish Sea Culture Province, to use a significant phrase which not everyone may recognise. A significant scholar who chooses to write in Irish is likely to be a nationalist – this is just a cultural fact. So this has given me exposure to a range of views which I didn’t encounter while growing up, at the same time as initiating me into aspects of the culture of outer north-west Europe. Donald Meek remarked that the Gaelic world had rarely been studied from a Gaelic point of view – this might push me into an instability where there is no ground beneath my feet, if I reject a “European” point of view without having any knowledge of what I am to replace it with, but calls for a heightened sensibility to the deeper aspects of the regional culture, something going beyond the content of particular texts.
I wish I had the linguistic scope to read the bardic poetry which was so important to the culture of the nobles – but I can’t read this material in Welsh and I don’t see much prospect of me acquiring enough Gaelic to read either the incredibly rich Irish material or the less extensive Scottish equivalent. But memorizing language structures is enough for my purposes. Besides, there are quite a few texts I can access. The key thing is the overall structure of genres – the range of genres in the Gaelic world is quite different from the range in the mainland of western Europe, and this is immensely significant. I can’t reach a conclusion on this without encountering a large range of texts, it is part of the evidence as a whole rather than located in the lines of any single text.
I must say I am finding this process quite difficult. If you teach yourself, you can go down wrong paths. I felt very comfortable reading a novel “for adult learners”, published by the magazine Comhar. I got every part of the page rather than struggling on a ladder of guesses. But I couldn’t find a supply of simple Irish. Anyway, it’s good to read a book full of things you absolutely don’t know and which you find absolutely vital.
Before I got into the language, I read about Roderick O’Flaherty and had a strong image of him as someone who had Classical learning (he wrote in Latin) and yet also had a perfect knowledge of the old Gaelic culture. This struck me as wonderful and I really wanted that lost lore more than I wanted the language, although the language embodies the old Gaelic thing very directly. But when I looked at O’Flaherty’s book “Ogygia” (1684), it was unreadable. He just piled up recounted Classical learning and didn’t answer any questions. This is an example of acquiring a complete misunderstanding – part of the journey if you are entering a genuinely foreign culture. I had to form suppositions about what I was going to learn and because I was self-taught I formed bizarrely wrong ideas. But the Gaelic world has mainly been recorded through the filter of bizarre fantasies and distortions, that is the typical approach of someone travelling in from “inner north-west Europe” and most of the books you can get embody such distortions. So observing them in formation is very instructive. I don’t think you have anyone who observed the classical Gaelic world from an analytical viewpoint – by the time you had rational scholarship being brought to bear, all that is left is folk culture, and this isn’t what produced the myth-tales and the bardic poetry. I may be wrong about this. There was a terrific learned endeavour, say from 1580 to 1700, which recorded a great deal of the old knowledge. But it wasn’t asking questions or interpreting the material – it was part of the Counter-Reformation and it was confined inside theology and a deeply conservative learning. It captured the records about saints’ lives incredibly thoroughly, and the collation of Annals and so on was partly to get secure dates for the saints. Those people just weren’t asking “why is Ireland different from the rest of Europe” or “how was political power acquired and transmitted in Ireland”. Bernadette Cunningham quotes William Camden, saying in 1615 “if you take out of history why, how, and to what end, and what is done, and whether the actions answer the intents, that that remains is rather a mocking than an instruction, and for the present may please but will never profit posterity”(p.32); she does not spell this out, but in effect this defines what the traditional Irish historians, and even the large-scale works of the Counter-Reformation, did not do. It is quite easy studying the history of Ireland after the Tudor conquest (An Concas), but very difficult finding out how the traditional society worked. You have terrific stories, about saints and heroes or both together, but not political history the way Thucydides or Tacitus wrote it. Of course, this question-asking history is not typical of the West, even if it has taken over since 1600 or so.
Ireland did not have coins before the Danes arrived, and gave them up again after the Danes were defeated. It is very difficult to reconstruct how a society works without money, and it was certainly very different from what we know about. Pre-Norman Wales may also have been largely a non-monetary economy. Anyway, it’s no good thinking that 18th century Ireland was like that older Ireland, or that the knowledge of thinking Irish people then, however nationalistic they were, gave them or us access to the older society.
You may very well say, with Seamas O Siochain (Cultur agus an Stat), that anthropology is good with societies which operate without money or the State, and so would be good with pre-Norman Ireland. But anthropology is based on fieldwork, and no anthropologists studied Ireland before the 20th century. So the proposition is that “anthropologists have generalisations so powerful that they can give results with no fieldwork, and exploiting textual analysis and a bit of archaeology”. This isn’t convincing. I enjoyed reading O Siochain’s 1982 lecture (in Leachtai Cholm Cille volume 13) but it has limited concrete results. It is very interesting on a 12th C text, Senchus fer n-Alban, which is actually Scottish. There are zero Irish texts of this type and only one Scottish one. Unfortunately, this suggests that a very exciting method is going to run out of suitable evidence too quickly. The Senchus is a written document spelling out how the State (the Kingdom of the Isles) works in obligatory naval levies to fight off foreigners (probably the Norwegians). It is rare because Gaelic polities didn’t use written administration (and arguably weren’t states). It is obviously unsafe to generalise from it to kingdoms without chanceries and clerks. In some cases we know about, money arrived because states wanted a way of storing wealth and made people pay taxes in cash (rather than perishables such as flour). So perhaps Irish ‘petty kingdoms’ were politically weak and that is why they didn’t bring money into use. OK. I don’t see any way you could prove that. And, why was money not part of their political strategy but was part of the strategy of kingdoms in Southern England a century before the Romans came?
I was fascinated by the presence, in what may be the earliest piece of Irish prose (the ‘Cambrai Homily’, 7th C) of colour symbolism: the figure in which martyrdom can be either red, white, or green. This has been treated as something deeply Irish. But the figure is already present in a third-century (in the 250s) Latin tract by Saint Cyprian of Carthage. (This is discussed in Robin Lane Fox’s 1986 book Pagans and Christians, and the figure was also used by Saint Jerome.) The figure can’t be Irish, and the earliest written texts anywhere are likely to reflect the dependence of the literate minority on their patrons in the culture from which their knowledge of writing came. The idea of colour symbolism is good for teaching an audience of the uneducated, and evidently came from the Mediterranean milieu of early Christianity, and connects with the thinking which used colours to mark the robes of various grades of priest. But it may have become part of the Gaelic tradition, and been productive. Still, if Christian texts have deep structures, they presumably record the unconscious of the 3rd or 4th C Mediterranean, not of Ireland.
Something else which I was very curious about was the “revisionist” debate, between professional Irish historians, which began in the 1970s (and may be over now). (One version is that revisionism itself began in the 1930s, but that real arguments began after the start of the Troubles in about 1969.) The most radical essay in revision was perhaps a 1966 one by Fr Francis Shaw, SJ, on the legends of Easter 1916. This is a good way in for an outsider, because the experts disagree so much and there has been an explicit debate, citing evidence which you can study. The argument has mainly been about the period since the eighteenth century; so far as I can tell, there has been no argument about the period before the Norman conquest (of the 1180s). This is the most puzzling period, but I think it is hard to write about because the evidence is so thin and because it is so stylised. I found this period so frustrating when I was a student in 1977, and the only progress I can recall is shifting that frustration into a sort of awareness of a horizon where awareness ends.
Let me cheer myself up by thinking about a passage in St Cogitosus’ Life of St Brigid (analysed by O Siochain) which describes the building of a road where the route was divided up into stretches and different political groups (the text says “relatives and families”) supplied the work on particular stretches. This is a fascinating moment, as it is an “explanatory structure” which has been taken from an Irish text (of the 7th century) and applied to explain how “public works” were created in prehistory in other European countries. So archaeologists have looked at “causewayed enclosures” in England and found that different parts were worked in different ways – which they attribute to the participation of different tribes, competing or contributing to a “union” project.
I have a commemorative issue of the magazine Comhar for their record from 1942-82, something I can read reasonably well because journalists do write clearly and the issues they write about are stimulating. They reproduce pages from past issues (1982 was still the era of paste-up and photolithography) and the early ones still use the Gaelic letter forms (gaelach), which I can’t really read. Then in about 1949 they shift wholly to romanach, the usual European letter forms. Quite a big shift – one surely with pragmatic advantages. All the letters come from manuscript forms of the Roman alphabet, deviations don’t have much historical or orthographic force. I believe the print letters we use now come from a Florentine manuscript hand of the 15th century. All European countries which use the Latin alphabet now use those letter shapes. It is not very plausible to persist with a provincial variant. This isn’t a specifically Irish problem, for example the Gothic letters, or Fraktur, were used in 19th C Germany and revived by the Third Reich. Indeed, that rather aggressive revival may have influenced the Irish shift to a European (Florentine?) model. Scandinavian countries used a Gothic typeface up to some point and then abandoned it, I don’t have details on this. I don’t have information on the older Dutch and Flemish printing practices. Anyway, the Irish revivalists (athbeochan is the keyword) were not eccentric in putting a regional manuscript hand into print, but they were surely forward-looking when they switched typefaces. (Wikipedia tells me that English printers went on using blackletter, which is like Fraktur, until about 1590. You can probably find blackletter in the fonts available in your word processing programme. Wiki also says “It continued to be used for the Danish language until 1875, and for German, Estonian and Latvian until the 20th century.”) The Irish Text Society had antiquarian interests and printed its magnificent text series in the gaelach typeface. However, the short texts published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) use the European typeface, and these are a lot more accessible for learners.
I am asking the question “what language am I learning? where did this standard form come from?”, and this is revealing, although I certainly can't give a comprehensive answer. I believe that the texts printed in the first two decades of the 20th century used a basically 17th century standard of spelling, close in fact to Geoffrey Keating (in his work Foras Feasa ar Eirinn, finished around 1640). A reform then threw out a large number of non-pronounced letters, mainly intervocalic spirants. This produced something much more real and natural, but accentuated differences from Scottish Gaelic (which still uses such spirants in certain situations). Language building involves taking firm decisions, and some kind of centralised and authoritative body or bodies which can make those decisions uniform and valid. Once Irish stopped being “a language without a State”, it became part of the State.

I am wondering if the "hedge schools" taught pupils to write Latin but not Irish. That would suit the childhood years of future priests, who would go to a continental seminary and there speak Latin as an everyday language. In certain ways, the Middle Ages lasted until the 19th century in traditional Ireland. Scribes copy manuscripts because the printing press is not available. So the best pupils could become either priests or teachers in hedge-schools. But this conjecture is hard to confirm, after all the records of those schools are scanty. When did Catholic schools become legal? around the same time as the foundation of the college at Maynooth, in 1795? I guess literate Gaels had limited knowledge, but also had certain social power because everyone else was illiterate.

Addendum. The genealogist Dubhaltach mac Fhirbisigh recorded a political generalisation which belongs with "question asking" and is an exception to generalisations about the old Gaelic learning. It dates from sometime in the mid 17th century (in a book whose first version he completed in 1650) and states "It is customary for great lords that, when their families and kindreds multiply, their clients and their followers are oppressed, injured and wasted."

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