Friday, 31 January 2020

Geoffrey Keating and the national language of Ireland

Geoffrey Keating and the national language of Ireland

Macaulay, reviewing Ranke’s History of the Popes, in 1840, said “It cannot be doubted that since the sixteenth century Protestant nations have made greater progress than their Catholic neighbours. […] whoever knows what Florence and Edinburgh were in the generation preceding the Reformation, and what they are now, will acknowledge that some great cause, during the last three centuries, operated to raise one part of the European family and depress the other.”
This is emotionally unacceptable but since Macaulay was the greatest historian of the 19th century it is not easy to claim that he was wrong. Of course the “shift of the leading sector” occurred more than once and the decline of the South was not yet happening in 1540. He did not mention Ireland. Actually, he did not mention France, the classic case of a Catholic country which was at the forefront in every sector of development.

Aidan Doyle, in his history of the Irish language, reports pupils in the 1880s having to study for the newly created exams in Irish and being obliged to study Geoffrey Keating as the source of a standard, even though it had no connection with the language they spoke at home. Keating's History of Ireland (Foras Feasa ar Eirinn) was completed in about 1632. My impression is that he wrote a very clear prose, in fact that although his register was slightly archaic it resembled modern Latin in being easy to read and that he had Modern Latin in mind in choosing his means. The question is why his work had not been replaced by more contemporary work between then and 1880, or alternatively why the Church had not created more works using it as a prose standard, so that the pupils of 1880 would not have found it so puzzling. The early 17th century saw three clearly classic and even monumental works in the Irish language, being Keating's Foras, the lives of the Irish saints, and the Annals of the Four Masters (a compilation of the whole body of original Irish annals). All of these were funded by the Church, and the scholars involved were Catholic clerics linked to Irish-oriented institutes on the continent. The notional date of 1540 for “the decline of the South” is utterly misleading here, and the force of the Counter-Reformation is unmistakable. The question is why the impulse halted, why did the Church give up on this project, why was there no more classic prose after 1640.
First, we have to ask whether Irish prose really ground to a halt after 1640. This is a taboo subject, but it may be that I have missed key texts and am grasping at a phenomenon that is not really there. Gearoid Denvir says about the Revival of the early 20th century "The tradition which they came into possession of, however, if it wasn't broken forever, was in danger of being extinguished. No prose worthy of discussion had been written since Geoffrey Keating's Foras Feasa ar Eirinn in the seventeenth century."[Denvir p. 35] (As an aside, this means that he is discounting oral narratives, collected in great quantities under the Republic, fairy-tales and so on. This is prose, but it does not offer linguistic forms which you could ask students to learn.) 

The development of Irish writing in Ireland in the period after the Conquest (An Concas), and especially after about 1650, was difficult for reasons connected with the colonist and overlord. Subject of much fantasy, projection, and exaggeration, there were also “Irelands over the sea”, in particular the friaries, colleges, and seminaries of the Catholic Church in Western Europe (Salamanca, Paris, Louvain, etc.); the Irish Brigades of various Catholic monarchs, silently intended as the professional nucleus of an Irish army which would one day expel the English; and the communities around exiled nobles, the Stuart Court naturally the most prominent of them after 1689, but not the only one (so that we have an account, Turas na dTaoiseach, of the exile of the Earls in 1607 and their journey to Italy during 1608). The manuscripts written for or within these groups are precious and voluminous. As a colony of Gaeldom outside the country, they were all deeply disappointing, and Irish speech disappeared rapidly as the exiles made their way in the host society. Political success depended on the ability to shine in the local language, to demonstrate the qualities of nobles or priests in speech and in social encounters. The Gaelic manuscripts were an asset of unmeasurable but perhaps minimal worth. Irish people were in North America (and later the Caribbean islands) from the 17th C on, but I have yet to hear of even one Irish manuscript being written in the colonial New World. However many Irishmen died fighting for the Stuarts, their court (or anti-court) was not likely to invest in Gaelic, as favouring the Irish was the best way to persuade the English and the Scots that no Stuart would make a good king of Britain. Loyalty did not buy loyalty.

The attitude of the Irish Church towards the Irish language is probably a key factor which changed. The Church had, arguably up until 1945 or even the Second Vatican Council, an unconscious identification with the landowners as its primary link with the secular world. Because it owned so much land, this sympathy was deep-seated. The handover of most Catholic-held land to Protestants under Cromwell (not reversed, or scantly and scarcely, by Charles II) meant that the Catholic church in Ireland lost psychological sympathy with the speakers of Irish (and acquired a passive, gradually increasing, sympathy with the English landowners). People always expect to find linguistic nationalism in the mind-set of the Church hierarchy, and are astonished when it isn’t there. Maynooth, the Catholic seminary set up in 1793 when the British reversed one of the many oppressive anti-Catholic laws, was not a Gaelic institution, and is often used as a term of abuse among nationalists. Doyle reproduces very interesting examples of priests pretending not to know Irish, when it is obvious that they did: it was a low-prestige language. So this may be why we no longer find monuments of Gaelic scholarship coming from the ranks of the Church. Keating, O’Cleary, etc., may have been from the last generation of a gentry class which spoke a natural and fluent Gaelic. Within the Church, Irish obviously lost ground to Latin, and a Keating born a century later might have written in Latin. An interesting book (of lectures given at Maynooth, in fact) discusses Irish sermons of early modern times, and prints a few from the 19th C which are partly in English spelling – the priests could speak Irish perfectly well but they didn’t have the formal education to use the Irish spelling system. So the educated were far from cultivating the language in this period.

Spanish and Italian visual art is no longer pre-eminent in the European scene of the 17th and 18th Cs. This is the most visible element of the “decline of the South”. But the Church undertook the conversion of its ignorant parishioners – so that it won, in Ireland, retaining the loyalty of the parishes and imparting the catechism, occasionally even literacy, to its flock. Despite every advantage, the English clearly lost the struggle on the ground, the struggle to control the poor, numerous, immobile, and culturally conservative. Secondly, the Church undertook overseas missions. This was world-historical, and a clear victory, again. The vigour of the Catholic church in the 20th C is the sequel of its success over the previous three centuries. Looking at a declining current of grand, showy, art, in painting and architecture may give us the wrong story – the Church redeployed its forces to a different front. (The ecclesiastical architecture of Latin America and the Philippines may be the grand achievement of Catholic art in the relevant centuries.)

Vincent Morley’s book From Keating to Raftery (O Cheitinn go Raiftearai) is a work on the line of Irish history written in Gaelic from 1650 to 1850. It is about how people attempted to recall a past which was already slipping away - the prehistory of modern nationalism, in a sense. It records the history of national self-awareness in Gaelic Ireland, essentially to refute the thesis that there was no “public realm” in the habermasian sense in Ireland. He undertook a heroic census of Irish manuscripts to find out about texts recounting history which might have been read aloud or memorised, apart from being read, in Gaelic Ireland. His results are very striking, but one depressing comment for us is that Keating manuscripts are less common than some simpler accounts of history. He counted 144 manuscripts of Keating. There is a noticeable dip in their number in the early 18th C. This is the point when the language changed, and scholars count this as the boundary where "early modern Irish" gives way to "late modern Irish". However, this shift did not give rise to a new standard language: instead, the new way of speaking was broken up into dialects. Morley concludes that he was decreasingly influential in the development of Irish public opinion, and that his style was too ornate and archaic to reach wide circulation through oral recitation. Morley says "If Keating's Gaelic was easy to follow in comparison with the Gaelic of Michael O'Cleary, all the same there was a trace of the classical language in his prose. The archaic forms of lexicon, grammar, and discourse which he used did not surprise his contemporaries - if we suppose that, a reformed version of his history would have been arranged sooner or later - but the result is that a long text written in a prose under the inspiration of classical Gaelic would not appeal to everyone." In an illiterate population, poems did better because they lent themselves to memorisation; Keating’s prose was not able to be stored and reproduced in this way. As he stopped in AD 1169, he did not answer the key political questions. Of course, Keating's clear but archaising style provided a link with the past - this was exactly why nationalists clung to his work, even after 1900, that link with a pre-English past was the very thing they dreamed of. (O'Cleary was the "team leader" of the four scholars who compiled the Annals of the Four Masters.)
The Gaelic Irish did not need newspapers and coffee-houses in order to take part in large-scale rebellions against the government - Morley has surely won this argument. Habermas was thinking about modern societies with supine and subdued media industries, not peasant societies with near-universal illiteracy. He is not really relevant to Ireland during its crisis, say 1530 to 1921.

What happened after 1880? We have to say first that there was a line which wanted school Irish to be based on Keating, i.e. recording in spelling a set of common sounds which had disappeared since 1640, which appear (I suspect) in the majority of all Irish words. They lost. Secondly, that there was a revolution in Ireland and the people who carried it out were willing to face the most intractable problems, and created a modern Irish which broke with the past, and even with nostalgic nationalists, and which a huge number of people now read and write. As a result, books like Keating look exotic and difficult – like 17th C texts in other European languages, of course. Conservatives were aware that Irish literary production between, say, 1640 and 1920 was wan and unimpressive. This was a stimulus to forging a link with something much more culturally credible, so 17th C prose to begin with and hopefully bardic verse for the advanced pupils. This was one reason why pupils were being asked to study the way Keating wrote, although it meant learning forms which were confusing because they were too similar to the spoken language and too different at the same time. This was not a benign situation for schoolchildren. Success came by accepting that the living link had been broken and immersing in the present day – even though this meant accepting that the English had won. The reformist torrent also changed the type-face, abandoning a font based on an Irish manuscript hand and moving on to one which resembles the fonts used by every country which uses the Latin alphabet. This was happening during the 1940s, I don’t have details but I can see that the folk-lore magazine Bealoideas was quite hesitant to take it on, as no doubt its public were all keen to maintain attachments to the past. My interest, obviously, is in trying to gauge what the character of the standard language is, thus qualifying what I win in learning it.

If you spend a day in a Flemish museum, you will notice that Flemish painting ceased to be the best in Europe. This decline is fascinating, rather than attractive, and there has to be an explanation of some kind. It is a process like any other historical process.
Emmanuel Todd says that the key factor differentiating regions was literacy. Areas with high literacy as at, say, 1500 to 1550, were bound to be the most economically modern in the period, say, 1550 to 1700. Such areas became Protestant because literacy promoted Protestantism, the priesthood simply could not deal with literate laymen and their intellectual curiosity. But, after the Counter-Reformation, literacy no longer led inevitably to Protestantism, so regions could become developed and rich without becoming Protestant on the way. There was a wave of increasing wealth both helped by literacy and massively facilitating it, but this was not a sequel of Protestantism.
Todd discusses the “leading sector” effect and says, if I am not mistaken, that by 1780 the Protestant nations were falling behind, as they did not secularise at the same speed as Catholic countries; thus France was evidently the dominant country in Europe between, say, 1760 and 1870, but Protestantism (in Alsace and Languedoc) played a tiny and, arguably, ignorable role in this. The key zone at this stage was of people who were no longer interested in the Church, as the key project of a society or a family, and were better qualified to deal with wholly secular ideas, and to exploit the new world which secular study opened up. He is fascinated by the whole “leading sector”, lead and lag, phenomenon, taking it to an extent which some other historians find unconvincing. I think the "lead and lag" approach is one of the most productive for European history, but it has 99 chapters rather than just two or three.

Denvir remarks that the foundation of Irish-language radio meant that speakers became familiar with other dialects, reducing divisions, so that there was effectively a way of communicating, although people did not for that reason abandon their dialect. This radio service (Raidio na Gaeltachta) was founded in 1972. As he says in his 1984 essay, "a man from Donegal can understand a woman of Kerry a good bit now, something you would not have believed in 1972 when the Raidio was founded." Of course there had been a standard Gaelic taught in the schools since the 1920s, but the relationship between this and the organically spoken language is complicated. The absence of a higher level of the language, of literacy and literati, had led to a greater richness of folk-lore and dialect speech. (The essay is Nualitriocht na Gaeilge agus an traidisiun.)

Gearoid Denvir, Litriocht agus Pobal, 1997.
Aidan Doyle, A history of the Irish language: from the Norman Invasion to independence,

No comments:

Post a Comment