Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Broken Chancel with a Broken Cross: Why I Cherish the Irish Language, Despite All The Reasons Not To

The title of this blog post comes from one of my favourite poems, 'Morte D'Athur' by Lord Alfred Tennyson, a magnificent study of idealism and nobility in the face of despair:

So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

I always assumed 'chancel' meant a church, but Webster's dictionary online defines it as: "the part of a church that contains the altar and seats for the priest and choir". In either case, it always sticks in my mind as one of the most perfect lines of poetry I know, sublimely Gothic in its fusion of desolation and sacredness.

The whole poem has always exercised a magic over me. Both the Irish and the English have been accused of constructing a sort of religion of defeat. Certainly I've always had an affinity with the underdog (and I mean the real underdog; I'm not talking about the pecking orders of 'marginalisation' and of victimhood which have become so popular in our day). Nothing seems more inspiring to me than the spectacle of a hero-- or indeed, anybody-- encountering that over which he cannot triumph, before which he must go down.

Today I served as a reader at the Irish language Mass in Glasnevin, for the second time. I have only been attending the Mass for a few months. I was asked to read the very first day I turned up, which tells you something about how difficult it must be to find readers.

It is not a very well-attended Mass, and very many of the congregation don't seem to have even basic Irish, as they don't say the responses which are printed on the misalette. (All the more credit to them for attending.) Not all the priests give their homily in Irish.

I rush to the door of the Church immediately after Communion, waiting there for the final blessing, and leaving immediately. I don't want anyone speaking to me in Irish, as I cannot adequately conduct a conversation in Irish. Perhaps that's childish, but there you go.

In recent months I have felt a strong urge to improve my Irish, or to at least make Irish a part of my life in some way. This despite the fact that my irish is extremely bad and I would be unable to write a sentence in Irish that was not littered with spellling and grammatical errors, nor to sustain a conversation in anything but pidgin Irish-- halting pidgin Irish, at that.

I have been reading a lot of Irish language books, and I can now read books written in straightforward Irish with relative ease, and without the help of a dictionary.  Books written in more archaic, idiosyncratic or regional Irish are a different matter, as is poetry, which defeats me completely. My hope is that I will at some stage feel competent enough to speak in Irish, though I feel far from that yet.

Why should I bother? It's something I have often asked myself.

After all, I think there is one thing that Ireland needs more than anything else, and that is the Faith. The 'one thing needful', surely, is that Ireland will return to its altars, to the religion that sustained it for so many centuries. Eveything good, hopeful, joyous, healthy and noble is rooted in the Faith.

The one thing needful

Isn't the Irish language a distraction from that? After all, reviving the Irish language is really not going to have any practical benefts.

You can say anything you can say in Irish just as well in English.

Everybody who speaks Irish (and I doubt there is even a single exception) also speaks English.

The only reason to write a book in Irish is so that there will be another Irish language book in the world.

The Irish language may boast a wonderful literature-- I can't judge, since I think the appreciation of literature is far beyond my grasp of Irish. But I very much doubt that Irish language literature can hold a candle to English language literature. Anyway, there are already more great books and great writers than any of us can ever hope to read in English, or in any other widely-spoken language, for that matter.

From a personal point of view, it's hard to imagine that I will ever have anything but a mediocre grasp of Irish. All my life, the English language has been my friend. English was by far my best subject in school-- so much my best subject that there was no comparison with any other. My strength has always been 'writing'-- which means, of course, writing in English. I was never any good at any other language, although I took French and German.

The Irish language doesn't really present any opportunities for Christian evangelization, or for participation in the political, social and cultural debates of our era-- participation in which has always been one of my greatest pleasures (hence this blog). Nor does it present any personal opportunities to me.

The Irish State has pumped a vast amount of money (although many Irish language speakers would argue that it is, comparatively speaking, a tiny amount of money) into the revival of the Irish language, since independence. The Irish language is a compulsory subject in schools, which has been a bone of contention for decades. We still haven't come within an ass's roar (to use the Irish phrase) of reviving the language. It could be argued we haven't even stepped an inch in that direction.

The Irish are very often criticized (notably by the contrarian journalist Kevin Myers) for their hypocrisy and their lip-service regarding the Irish language. Few of us use it, or have any serious intention of ever using it. And yet, opinion poll after opinion poll shows a broad support for the Irish language amongst the Irish people. I think this is not a case of hypocrisy, but rather of Mark Shea's excellent coinage 'eupocrisy'-- being better than your principles, or your behaviour.

Kevin Myers-- rare critic of Irish revivalism.
From a personal point of view (and I will not dwell on this, since I have dwelt on it often before), I have a lot of stored-up resentment towards the Irish language myself. All of my schooling was in Irish language schools-- the fact that I am still so bad at Irish makes me embarrassed. Fairly or unfairly (and to be honest, I think it's a mix of the two) I developed an intense dislike of the Irish language and of its supporters until I was well into my twenties. Even now, this is my visceral reaction on hearing Irish spoken, when I am not expecting it.

This is not all that unusual. There is a symbol of the Irish language called the 'fáinne', or ring-- a kind of badge one wears to signal that one is an Irish-speaker. I did a Google search for 'fáinne-wearing', and you only have to glance at the results to see that many people share my reaction. To be fair, sometimes it's even Irish language enthusiasts making fun of themselves.

(A quick aside: I often think there should be a single word to express the frequently used phrase: 'in spite or because of'. I'm going to go ahead and coin one: despause.)

Despause of all this, the Irish language seems more and more important to me.

Why despause? Becase the very things that militate against the revival of the Irish language, seem to me to give it a special claim on our attention, and on our loyalty.

I believe in chivalry. Chivalry is about a lot more than holding doors open for women. Chivalry is about reverence towards frailty and vulnerability. Reverence, not pity or mere kindness. Old things have a special claim on chivalry.

The fact that there so few hard-headed, utlitarian arguments to make in favour of the Irish language only makes me feel a deeper reverence towards it.

I have spent a lot of time in recent years studying the currents within conservatism-- American conservatism, especially. It grieves me to see how libertarianism is increasingly dominant, along with (more recently) opposition to multiculturalism and Islam. Social and cultural conservatism seem to be very much in abeyance.

It's easy to be a libertarian because it's such an easy argument to make. "Freedom" is a straightforward concept. It's easy to evaluate anything on the ground of whether it 'either picks my pocket or breaks my leg', as Thomas Jefferson put it.

And really, I'm not knocking libertarianism. I've developed a lot more respect for it in recent years, especially as I have come to realise it is not necessarily anti-tradition or anti-custom or anti-community. And, indeed, the simplicity of the libertarian 'test' is in some ways a good thing.

Nor, indeed, am I necessarily knocking the anti-multiculturalist outlook, which runs a whole gamut from UKIP (at its most benign) to neo-Nazism (at its horrible worst). I have sometimes thought that a certain form of multiculturalism might be the best way to preserve cultural differences, in the reality we inhabit. But I am entirely sympathetic to the struggle against globalization, against homogenization, and against the destruction of national and cultural differences. How you balance this with the claims of humanitarianism and international solidarity (which are also important) is a difficult question.

But the real point I'm trying to make is that these forms of conservatism are all rather 'hard-headed'. They appeal to realism, and abhor naiviety. They tend to use the bludgeon of a very simple test. Such as: Why should someone else be allowed to tell me what to do? Or: where has multiculturalism ever been anything but disastrous, in the long run?

Glenn Beck, libertarian pundit

Social and cultural conservatism, on the other hand, has no simple test. It is much harder to argue for, most especially because it calls for reverence rather than irreverence. It seeks to promote, not a principle, but a finely-spun fabric of institutions and traditions which are difficult to reduce to a scheme. It is studded with apparent contradictions, such as the contradiction between the scepticism social conservatives tend to show towards political correctness and psychobabble, and the reverence they tend to show towards ideas which might seem just as easy to rubbish-- religious beliefs, romantic nationalism, nostalgia, childhood innocence, and so forth.That is just one example.

It is relatively easy to argue for 'hard-headed' versions of conservatism. It is much more difficult to argue for social and cultural conservatism. It's hardly any wonder that so many people opt for the first approach rather than the second.

And yet, I have a very deeply rooted intuition that the things that are harder to argue for are nearly always more valuable than the things it is easy to argue for. This post is already very long, and a defence of this theory would make it even longer.

So I'll just give an example. I have some interest in the American conservative radio host Michael Medved (which began with one of his books about bad movies). His book Hollywood vs. America, often mentioned on this blog, was important to me at a certain point. It was a plea for more responsibility and sensitivity on the part of the entertainment industry. I also read his autobiography, Right Turns, in which he describes his efforts to found an orthodox synagogue in an area with very few practicing Jews. At the start they had to comb the beach looking for Jews (I forget how they recognised them).

Both of those things seem much nobler to me than his defence of big business; which, essentially, is that Starbucks is generally better value and a better experience than a local independent café, and that every small business wants to be a big business; and so on. This seems to me like the mere worship of success. Seeking to protect or nurture something that is imperilled, or neglected, seems to me much more inspiring than boosting that which needs no boosting.

(I am not saying successful institutions never need to be defended, mind you; the primary purpose of this blog is to promote what is arguably the most successful institution in the world. It's all a matter of context.)

However, let me return to the actual topic of this post, the Irish language. The Tennyson poem I mentioned contains this very moving passage, part of which is quoted by Kevin Costner in the film JFK. The words are spoken by the fatally-wounded King Arthur, when his last remaning knight Sir Bedivere has twice failed to throw Excalibur into the water, as he instructed him:

To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:
"Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
Authority forgets a dying king,
Laid widow'd of the power in his eye
That bow'd the will."

I don't know about you, but I find the line "authority forgets a dying king" so poignant I can hardly bear it. Lost causes and dead kings and tattered banners have always been irresistible to me.

The Irish language pulls at my heart, but not because of its treasures of literature and poetry, and not because it preserves a particular way of looking at the world, and not because of the noble and courtly and bardic society that once used it. It pulls at my heart because, for centuries, it was the language of the ordinary people the length and breadth of this island-- the language of the peasantry and the poor, of the household and the hearth, of the fire and the well. The language of the common people whose blood runs in my veins. That, to me, is romance enough.

(Indeed, it would seem from this blog that Irish was spoken even in some parts of Dublin right up to the twentieth century.)

From a wider perspective, I think Irish is important-- as every indigenous language, custom and tradition is important-- as part of an international struggle against cultural globalization. I am fond of the statement by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones: "The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels I shall paint."  I think that is the right spirit. From this perspective, (almost) every argument in favour of jettisoning a cultural heirloom becomes an argument for preserving it instead. The more difficult its preservation, the more important that makes it, and the better a counterbalance it is to the great global tide of sameness.

The Morning of the Resurrection by Edward Burne-Jones
I also like this quotation, from St. Josemaria Escriva: "Do you entertain a spirit of opposition, of contradiction? Very well, exercise it by opposing and contradicting yourself." I have thought a lot, and written a little, about contrarianism. I think it can be a good thing. In fact, I think there's a sense in which all virtue is contrarianism, in which all life is a kind of contrarianism against death. But, without even getting so exalted, I do feel a healthy contrarian pleasure whenever I read an Irish language book or pray my Rosary in Irish. I feel that I am at least pushing in the right direction, however feebly.

In fact, attending Irish language Mass is a double contrarianism, since it is a defiance of both secularisation and globalisation. (I suppose someone will point out that we should concentrate on what we are for, and not what we are against. Well, bite me.)

I am never going to have excellent Irish, but-- along with everything I have written already-- there is a certain pleasure to reading books in Irish. In a way, it is like seeing the world newborn, since it is looking at life through a completely new filter. This has always fascinated me. One of my favourite things in the world has always been the reflection in a coloured Christmas bauble. I also like photographs that are filtered through a coloured lens:

I have often written of my love for snow-globes on this blog. Well, when I savour the Irish word for snow-globe-- 'cruinneog sneachta'-- it is almost like seeing a snow-globe for the first time.

Cruinneog sneachta
When we think about frontiers, we tend to think about the future, and about faraway places. But I think the most exciting (and challenging) frontier is in precisely the opposite direction; in the past, and at home. Here, too, we can break into wild and uncharted horizons.

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