Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Too Close To See

My secondary schooling (ages thirteen to eighteen) occurred at an Irish language school run by Dominican nuns. It was called Scoil Caitríona, that is, St. Catherine's.

I found myself wondering a few days ago who it was named after. (Or named for, as my American readers would say-- and come to think of it, it makes more sense.) St. Catherine of Siena?

The funny thing is that I don't remember ever wondering this during my years in the school. Not once.

I currently work in the James Joyce Library in University College Dublin. I probably say the words 'James Joyce Library' several times a day. But a picture of James Joyce, or a thought of James Joyce, never comes into my head. It just slides off the tongue now.

I liked Scoil Catríona, but the Catholic environment didn't impact on me much at the time. I had a brief but intense religious conversion on my summer holidays, after my first year, and I remember looking approvingly at a statue of St. Francis (or was it St. Anthony?) when I returned. That passed, however.

I'm quite pleased that I was never anti-Catholic. I quite liked the school's religious pictures, statues, etc. and I didn't mind the prayers before class at all. I hated religion class but we didn't learn very much religion in it. It was mostly personal development and pop psychology and other fuzzy stuff.

I was anti-Irish language, though, and anti-nationalist. Not all the time. I passed through different phases. I had several things to contend with. As I've mentioned before, I was (intermittently) very drawn to romantic nationalism that was agrarian, traditionalist, revivalist, sentimental, and so forth. But the Irish nationalism around me (I don't mean in Scoil Caitríona, but in Ireland in general) was none of these things. It was urban, anti-traditionalist, anti-sentimental, quite often anti-religious, and usually cynical. That confused me and made no sense to me, although I wouldn't have been able to articulate this confusion.

Come to think of it, one of the many reasons I was anti-Irish language was because its supporters were so vague about why they wanted to revive Irish. "We're Irish and we should speak our own language", they'd say. But why should Irish be our language? Why not English, after all? It does the job.

It didn't make any sense to me that they were revivalists and traditionalists when it came to the Irish language, but they weren't noticeably so in any other regard. They seemed entirely modern and progressive and hardheaded in other respects. Again, I wouldn't have been able to even think this through, certainly not express it. But it was undoubtedly there, and I even expressed something close to it in some satirical poems.

(Yes, I was a weird kid even to be thinking about this stuff. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. For me, it's not so much not worth living as simply impossible, and this has always been the way for me. I've always needed to be consistent.)

I still don't really adhere to the 'matter-of-fact' nationalism that so many of my contemporaries seem to espouse. Why should any particular territory have its own government? What's so obvious and necessary about that? If we're not going to care about reviving traditions in general, why revive a language? If we are going to accept globalization and homogenization ("become cosmopolitan and outward-looking"), why get perversely sentimental about Irishness when it comes to the World Cup or when we're making movies and albums? How can we emphasise our traditions and distinctiveness when it comes to seeking the tourist dollar, but cringe at them all the rest of the time? 

I didn't intend that rant. I was only going to remark on never having wondered who St. Catherine was. Maybe I should write more about my schooldays.


  1. Here here. Brilliant question -- why does Irish language matter if nothing else traditional does? And "perversely sentimental" about the World Cup is right on as well. Americans do the same thing for the World Cup and the Olympics. Isn't sport, and all the more national sport, just about the only public outlet for the spirit which is still permitted us? Perhaps this is something that America and Ireland shares -- spiritual impulse (of course, a largely good thing) which is choked off, and liable to burst out of the smallest outlet it is given.
    Daring to take up the grass-is-greener line again, I think in the case of Ireland this phenomenon is more due to a high degree of spirit, and less "choke" (though of course it is immense), whereas in America there is less (though no doubt ample, and in many places very strong) spirit, and even more "choke", that is, fewer accepted means of expressing the life of the spirit in public life. One could view the emotion or emotionalism of certain Protestant denominations, and its influence in much of the Christian culture in America, as a response or reaction against this.


    Mac Cruimein

  2. Well, I always want to be careful not to mix up nationalism and Catholicism-- in the history of Ireland especially, that has been regrettable. So "spirit" isn't a word I would use. Nevertheless I know what you mean and I agree with you.

    The problem with writing a blog post, or anything else, is that you have to simplify at some point. I know that Irish language speakers who are progressives would say: "But we DO support traditional music, and Gaelic games, and other Irish traditions." But, even where they do, it's never in a traditionalist spirit-- they always want to update and blend and "deconstrust". So, if you're not going to be reverential, what's the point? You may as well not bother, in my view.

    I'm not sure what I would say about your views on America vs. Ireland. It seems to me that America is an incredibly vibrant culture. This is a country where ordinary people routinely fly the national flag. It's such a big subject. "E pluribus unis" also complicates it.