Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A Farewell to English-- Well, Not Quite....

Recently I finished reading A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon. I'm not going to write about it here; I've realized (from previous posts) that few people share my interest in diary-writing as a topic. However, I did throughly enjoy the book, which was a commentary on the whole phenomenon of diary-keeping, and which took a look at some famous (and, indeed, obscure) diaries from the time of Samuel Pepys onwards.

Afterwards, though, I regretted reading it, for a reason relevant to this post: I've resolved to stop reading books in English, in favour of reading books in Irish, for the foreseeable future.

I've written about the Irish language on this blog before. My feelings on this score are probably best expressed in this blog post.

I've been reading Irish language journals (An Sagart and Comhar mostly) on my tea-breaks and lunch-breaks, during working hours, for several years now.

The importance of reviving the Irish language-- not simply for its own sake, but as a habitat for a distinctive and traditional Irish culture-- seems more and more important all the time. I feel a deep sense of shame that I have reached my fifth decade without ever making a serious effort to master the Irish language. Indeed, it's a shameful failure on the part of almost all Irish people. You can't be Irish in English.

We shouldn't even speak of being Irish-- we should speak of being Gaelic. Ireland is just a physical territory, Gaelicism is an imaginative and spiritual world of its own.

The problem is, I'm terrible at Irish. Yes, I can have a halting conversation in broken Irish, but nothing more than that. I can barely write a sentence without a string of grammatical and spelling errors.

My reading comprehension has come a long way in the last few years, though. My strategy is to improve through intensive reading, before anything else. After all, that seems to be how I learned English (and English was by far my best subject in school). I never really had any abstract handle on grammar (I still don't), but I read and read and read.

So my resolution is that, for the foreseeable future (perhaps forever), my leisure reading will be entirely through the Irish language. 

I'm talking about print here, rather than online. There isn't really much of an Irish language internet-- and, since the Irish language subculture had become overwhelmingly left-liberal by the time the internet came along, it is quite uncongenial to someone of my views.

But, fortunately, I have access to thousands of Irish language books and magazines in the university library where I work. And they long predate the liberalization of Ireland (which was a fait accompli in Irish language circles long before its conquest of the whole nation).

I'm not putting an absolute ban on reading texts in English. However, I need a very good reason to do so-- for instance, research for something I'm writing. (And I mean necessary research, not just background reading-- I'm not giving myself that dodge.)

I'm continually tempted to return to reading in English, not because I don't actually enjoy reading in Irish-- I do-- but because I'm more likely to come upon a book I particularly want to read in English-- like the diary book.

But all the English reading in the world doesn't have the same value as any amount of Irish reading. (The same applies, even more, to speaking and writing in Irish-- though I wonder if I will ever be fluent in writing.)

Although I'm a galloping romantic, I also suffer from a strong streak of scepticism. So I don't make any claims for the Irish language except that it is my ancestral language and that it is lamentably neglected.

I don't believing there's any utilitarian case for reviving the Irish language, or any language. Daniel O'Connell, an nationalist leader of the nineteenth century, notoriously said that: "It would be of vast advantage to mankind if all the inhabitants of the earth spoke the same language." If you share that view, I don't know how to argue with you. (You also give me the creeps, like one of the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

Having paid my dues to scepticism, I must admit I often have very romantic reactions when reading Irish language texts; particular words and phrases make my blood stir. Is it a stir of ancestral recognition? No, I don't really believe that.

The feeling of warmth I experience when reading Irish language texts may have several explanations.

It might be pure nostalgia, pleasant associations from my school days. (My schooling was almost entirely through the Irish language, which makes my ignorance of it even more shameful.)

It might be (and actually, I know it is) a sense of cosiness from inhabiting, as long as I am reading, a smaller cultural universe. So many books have been published in English! It can be dizzying. Irish language culture is on a much, much smaller scale-- a more human scale, perhaps.

And then there is the warm glow that I always experience when I feel I am swimming against the tide.

I am only a nursling when it comes to the Irish language-- still-- but even that is no bad thing. It is like discovering the world afresh-- learning a new word for a familiar thing is, in a way, experiencing the familiar thing for the first time. It is rather like the section of The Magician's Nephew when the protagonists witness Narnia coming into existence.

But there's a long, long way to go, and I don't know if I'm ever going to get there.