Friday, February 24, 2017

My Nineteen Year Old Poem about the Irish Language

Here's a bit of an oddity. In a recent post, I wrote a little bit about the Irish language school I attended in my teens, and the conflicted attitude I felt towards the Irish language, Irish culture and Irish patriotism. Briefly summarised, this is how I felt (although I would have struggled to express it):

I was attracted towards Irish nationalism, if it was the full Gaelic Revival programme to revive Irish traditions, in a romantic, nostalgic, ruralist, and poetic mode. But the Irish nationalism I encountered around me wasn't romantic or poetic or reverential. It was bullish and progressive and urban and hi-tech and all the rest of it. Irish nationalists, and particularly Irish language enthusiasts, were quite emphatic about how up-to-date and progressive they were. They were interested in the future, not the past. They weren't "reactionary" or backward-looking, no siree! They were open to punk rock, sexual liberation, drugs, modern art, anti-clericalism, and all that jazz. The Pogues are probably the best exemplars of this attitude.

It didn't make sense to me. Why try to hold onto anything if you were going to take progress as your watchword, if you weren't going to at least be favourable towards old and venerable things? Obviously we can't live in the past, but can't we at least honour the past and treat it with reverence? How does it make any sense to cherish selected traditions while gleefully bashing others? If you're going to hitch your wagon to the notion of permanent revolution, why on earth would you expect your favourite institutions to get an exemption?

Progressive nationalism still baffles me. I recently read that the pioneering Welsh nationalist, Saunders Lewis, insisted (against many of his fellow Welsh nationalists) that nationalism had to be conservative. Of course. Isn't it obvious? And yet most Irish nationalists today are left-wing and progressive.

I mentioned that I wrote some poems expressing something of this attitude. I wrote at least two; I've lost one, but one (which I wrote in my college years) was published in The DIT Examiner and I still have it. I include a photograph. It was published in April 1998. More than nineteen years ago now! I was twenty years old. I think it's pretty accomplished for a twenty year old.

As will be obvious from the poem itself, I took a very dim few of business-people at this point. I pretty much viewed them as criminals and public enemies. I hated them. I wrote another poem about two business-men looking at a public park and talking about the office blocks they could build on it. Any appeal to "market forces", in my view, was nothing other than naked greed. I had an apocalyptic vision of a corporatist future where even the streets were privatised and human life was commercialised to the utmost degree. And this despite the fact that I was always a cultural conservative and strongly anti-Marxist.

Of course, this all seems rather embarrassing to me now. Although I've never become a zealot for the untrammelled free market, I've come to agree with Peter Hitchens that "capitalism" is simply a word used by people who think you can change human nature. Where I once believed that commerce and consumerism bulldozes over tradition, I no longer think this is necessarily the case. I've come to think that commerce, like chips, goes with everything. "Capitalism" doesn't have an ideology. It's just lots of different people trying to make a buck (like most of the rest of us).

This poem was obviously sparked when I read some article about a campaign for greater use of the Irish language in business (which seems like an entirely laudable objective to me now). Note the positive reference to priests, back at a time when I didn't practice any religion (and wouldn't for many, many years). "Gaeilgeoir" is pronounced "gwale-gore" and means "Irish language speaker", and usually, "Irish language advocate" as well. "Ochone!" is an Irish expression of lamentation, pronounced "ock-own!. The Fenians were an Irish nationalist movement in the nineteenth century and is generically used to mean an Irish nationalist.

Reading it nineteen years later, I think my instincts were healthy but my interpretation of them was wrong. I was right in celebrating "the poet, priest, and bar-stool Fenian", and insisting that there was no point in trying to preserve or revive a tradition if you didn't have a traditionalist mentality. I was right to champion romanticism and sentimentality. But I was wrong to take business and commerce as the enemy.

As for "the eternal disposessed", this was mostly my romantic attachment to the underdog and the outsider. I had this idea that one should always be on the side of the underdog and the outsider. This was long before I read Chesterton and started to think more clearly. I still feel a chivalrous regard for the underdog and the outsider, but I now realize that, if you believe in something, you have to support it even when it's winning. Abandoning your cause at the moment of victory is no better than abandoning it at the moment of defeat. Christ accepted the cross and the crown of thorns; he also accepted the palms and the jar of perfume.

I contributed poetry to the student newspaper for much of my student years. (I'm glad I did, and that I still have many of them.) The editor was more than happy to accept them, since few people contributed to the college newspaper. We would have rather cosy chats in his office every month. He was an Irish language speaker himself, and he now presents a radio show on an Irish language station. Perhaps this is why I wrote it in the first place, since I had precious little interest in the Irish language at this time. (My threat to "turn my face away from it" in the last verse is rather amusing to me now. I could hardly have turned my face away from it any more than I had already.)

I liked it better, when the businessman
Used other tongues to follow his vile quest;
When Irish-speaking had its own quaint clan
Who Trade saw as pariahs of the West;
The poet, priest, the bar-stool Fenian,
And all of the eternal dispossessed.

"Our mother tongue is not mere propaganda!",
The modern Gaeilgeoir cries, fist in the air.
"We left that lefty stuff behind with granda!".
Well, let him leave it; but how does he square
His task of linguistic Save-the-Panda
With business's crusade of laissez faire?

Why sell the yuppy Gaelic, when his creed
Is not to buy what can't be quickly sold?
Why think the hearts of profiteers will bleed
For the unwanted, profitless and old?
The market first! The market must be freed!
If Gaeilge PLC folds, let it fold!

But if it sells its soul, I'll turn my face
Away from it, without one short ochone!
A tongue untainted by the market-place
That lures trade's troops to be Hibernophone
And sells out from the poor, the only race
That everyone is eager to disown.

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