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Seachtain na Gaeilge and the Mahogany Gaspipes

In 1935 Seosamh Mac Grianna suddenly decided not to continue writing his novel Dá mBíodh Ruball ar an Éan. As an afterword he later added three lines to the end of the unfinished manuscript.

“Thráigh an tobar sa tsamhradh, 1935. Ní scríobhfaidh mé níos mó. Rinne mé mo dhícheall agus is cuma liom. The well ran dry in summer, 1935. I will write no more. I did my best and I don’t care.”

That might serve not only as an epitaph on Mac Grianna’s life as a creative writer – he lived until 1990 in varying degrees of poverty and ill health – but perhaps a parting comment on his own struggle as a Gaeltacht writer who had not only written brilliantly out of that experience but who had been an idiosyncratic part of the political and cultural revolution that had begun with fiery optimism but was already running bereft of ideas by the time Mac Grianna gave up on that failed enterprise.

I have been thinking of this for a while now, and seen as we are in the midst of another Seachtain na Gaeilge – or Coicís na Gaeilge to be calendrically accurate – perhaps I might elaborate. Prodded also by Pól Ó Meadhra’s piece a few days ago on how to not only preserve Irish as a spoken language but how to ensure that it once again becomes, as it was for thousands of years, the teanga labhartha throughout the country.

This also coincided with my reading of the late Tomás Mac Síomóin’s book, The Broken Harp, in which he deals with both the cultural and possibly even genetically transmitted reasons, in his opinion, why Irish as a spoken language of the majority of our people functionally ceased to be, as well as similar ideas to Pól regarding how that process might be reversed. Both focus on the need for a Gaelphobail; a network of small communities or “circles” outside of the Gaelscoileanna and the official language “movement.”

In my own imaginings I can see a Treacy or O’Neill or Hannon or Shanahan or Mulvanny ancestor not that far removed – maybe five generations in the case of the Tipp side; perhaps two or three further back on the Dub Hannon/Mulvannys – arriving home one day from school or market or some dealing with the authorities and deciding that there was no point in continuing to speak their own language.

All of that was encouraged, of course, by a colonial administration, often enforced brutally at the end of a blade, and a significant comprador element as epitomised at various times by our own leaders such as Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic hierarchy, but most of all through the National School system established in the 1830s with the express purpose of extirpating the language.

That would be achieved no longer perhaps by physically liquidating its speakers as had been envisaged by the Tudor Protestant settler ideologue Edmund Spenser – although the genocidal element of the Great Hunger as a factor in further hastening its decline cannot be denied – but by persuading Irish people that their own language was a burden to be jettisoned not even mostly to ensure life advancement but basic survival especially when that meant having to leave one’s own place.

That is the decision that the vast majority of my forebears and of your forebears made at some point in time. The first time that began to be questioned seriously was in the late 19th century when an eclectic range of people from Anglo Irish intellectuals to Catholic priests and nationalist revolutionaries decided that for Ireland to be truly Irish required that it be “De-Anglicised” in the words of Hyde and that Irish be revived as a spoken and written language.

To the best of my knowledge the first of my own family to take part in that failed cultural revolution was my grandmother whose family of Hannons and Mulvannys had been in Dublin, and briefly Liverpool for a spell in the 1860s, for maybe a century before she was born in 1904.

Her family were Fenians, Invincibles even, and her attendance at classes organised by the Gaelic League was of a part with the family’s interest in the GAA – where she met my Tipp grandad – and of course “her secret revolutionary organisation,” the Brotherhood.

But a curious thing happened. I don’t think she ever became particularly proficient in Irish and she sang the national anthem at Croke Park in the original English words of The Soldiers Song which she had learned as a young girl. She remained nonetheless devoted to the dreams of her youth which she never divorced from her Fenian/Free Stater family’s total loyalty to Collins and Griffith. She even endured the mockery of her republican husband and sons to vote for Maurice Dockrell a former unionist turned Fine Gaeler!

The curious thing, however, was that none of her own children became Gaeilgoirí or even functionally literate in Irish, despite Irish having become a priority subject in the schools of the new state, and despite their own political and cultural nationalism which found expression in other ways; mostly the GAA but I know that two of them attended Irish classes organised by the IRA in Dublin in the 1950s, as did my mother although she unlike them knew nothing of that.

That failure of the education system is referred to by Mac Síomóin where he wonders “what is the nature of the mental/psychological block that inhibits even the minority that acquires an elementary knowledge of Irish from speaking this language,” let alone the strange “visceral hatred of Irish” that is still found in places?

Not just among the “counter revolutionary bourgeoisie” whom Mac Síomóin as a Marxist likes to imagine are mostly at fault for the failure of the cultural as well as the other objectives of the revolution, but among the working class both urban and rural and among the non-republican left. There are no more visceral haters of the “ginggangoogly” and the “diddlyeye” and “the gah” than those Dublin lefties – some but not all of them from distinctly non proletarian backgrounds – whose latter-day Marxist fantasies are adjoined to some mythical notion that Irish “working class culture” is what the Black and Tans probably did at the weekend in 1920, except with Sky Super Sunday and Peaky Blinders in place of the soccer pools and Titbits.

Personally, I have become one of those oddballs who reads a lot in Irish, can follow match commentary on TG4 and most conversations on Raidió na Gaeltachta but who rarely speaks Irish and probably then pretty stutteringly. Mostly because I do not think much in Irish, other than engaged in the above, and have much greater proficiency in expressing myself through English.

I am perhaps the sort of obverse of those younger native speakers to whom Mac Síomóin refers whose home language remains Irish but most of whom who he claims are unable to read Irish “without constant reference to a dictionary.” The reason for this he doesn’t fully explore but it would appear to be connected to the fact that the popular culture of younger people in the Gaeltachts is the same banal Anglocentric pablum as that of the rest of the population. Hence best expressed in what Mac Síomóin describes as Géarla, a new idiom that incorporates a lot of English deemed more appropriate to the above.

As he says, a literary culture is essential to any language, and in its absence becomes no more than an argot incorporating elements of the dominant vernacular language or an anachronism. Which was one of the main points of attack of Máirtín Ó Cadhain who, in reference to the failure of the revival to produce a thriving modern literature, was scathing of those who he claimed were content for the language to remain a source of Béaloideas for academics and collectors of linguistic artefacts, rather than a living developing language primarily of the people of the Gaeltachts but also of those who had made a conscious decision to become Gaeilgoirí.

Ó Cadhain was one of the few giants as it were of the language to have appreciated Flann O’Brien’s hilarious novel An Béal Bocht which was published in 1941 and affected to be an account by a native of a remote Irish speaking area where it never stopped raining and where the inhabitants were subject to an unending Beckettian life of “an cruatan, an gátar, an t-anás, an anchaoi, an t-anchor, an ainnise, an gorta agus an mí-ádh.”

That was leavened in the past by the sort of “daoine uaisile as Baile Átha Claith” referred to by Ó Cadhain who occasionally visited to organise festivals and collect first hand evidence of the misery. Perhaps Flann was too harsh and there is no evidence to support Ó Cadhain’s later claim that the only way to save the language was through socialism. The minority nationalities of the Soviet empire and of China would certainly take issue with that.

There is of course a need to ensure that the surviving Gaeltachts can survive economically and socially. Perhaps allied to that the creation of the sort of community networks referred to by Pól and which exist in different parts of the country – especially where they are connected to existing or plan Gaelscoileanna and other community initiatives – represents the best hope of advancing some way to the objectives that underlay this annual official celebration of a language which has at least survived.



The Broken Harp

Author: Tomás Mac Síomóin

ISBN 10: 1502974576  ISBN 13: 9781502974570

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014
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