Sunday, May 10, 2020

Lockdown Thoughts

Ireland has been on lockdown since St. Patrick’s Day, and I’ve been working from home since shortly before that. The library is closed, and we haven’t heard when it will be re-opening. Like hundreds of millions of people around the world, my forays outside the house have been pretty much confined to grocery shopping and short strolls. My internet reception is incredibly patchy, so I haven’t been able to blog. I’m writing this offline now.

I don’t think there’s anything original to say about the Corona virus, the lockdown, the shutting of churches, and so forth. At least, I’m not motivated to go over this very well-trodden ground here.

I’m a very indoorsy person, so being stuck in the house has been no great privation for me. I’ve used the time to work on my grasp of the Irish language. I’ve been watching Irish language television, listening to Irish language radio, writing my Irish language diary, and having many long conversations in Irish with another member of the household. Right now I’m compiling a list of Irish language words and terms I don’t know, and trying to learn them.

When it comes to learning languages, vocabulary is certainly my strongpoint. I still retain a surprising amount of the German and French words I learned in school, especially considering I was a C student at best. (I got a B in both, in my Leaving Cert, but I think those results were over-generous.) And, when it comes to English, I don’t think I’m boasting when I say I rarely encounter a word I don’t know, unless it’s a specialist word. (And I’m delighted when I do encounter one.)

I can remember how I learned many fairly commonplace English words, even when I learned them in childhood. For instance, I can remember I first learnt the word “capitalism” when I asked my father what system America had, if Russia had communism. For some reason, I can remember that this conversation occurred around the release of the Tim Burton Batman film in 1989. So I was twelve. There are many, many other examples.

The magic of words is something that never ceases to enchant me. I can never get over the idea that saying (or reading, or writing) a word, in some sense, summons the thing itself. This is a theme so dear to me, and yet so elusive, that I must resist the temptation to get sucked into it. How to express the all-but-ineffable?

How am I doing in my study of the Irish language? It’s hard to say. The ogre Grammar stands across my path, casting a daunting shadow. I have never had any abstract understanding of grammar—whatever mastery of English grammar I possess it purely intuitive. Grammatical terms bewilder me. I had hoped I could somehow absorb Irish grammar in the same way that I must have absorbed English grammar, intuitively. It doesn’t seem to be working. Eventually I will have to tackle it head-on. I keep putting that battle off.

Aside from that, however, I seem to be making progress. I can read Irish with ease at this point—aside from poetry (ironically), and the more turgid sort of literary texts. I rarely encounter any difficulty when watching TV or listening to radio, although some of the more fast-talking native speakers are still utterly incomprehensible to me. I can have quite high-flown conversations in Irish.

It seems to me that, to an Irish person, nothing (in the natural order) should be a higher priority than the revival of the Irish language. Indeed, I feel convinced that this is actually a duty of piety. The languages and the cultures of the world are a part of God’s creation, and speak of His glory, every bit as much as the natural world that the Popes have called on us to cherish. Pope Francis has spoken on many occasions on the true model of globalization, which (he says) is that of the dodecahedron rather than the sphere. The Pope does not urge cultural homogenization upon us—rather the opposite.

It’s true that I’ve given up trying to reconcile old-style Irish nationalism with my Catholic faith. Faith always comes first, and the Church’s vision of international development (and especially migration) doesn’t really seem compatible with the sort of ethno-state Irish nationalists aspired towards for so long. But I think I culture was always more important than politics, anyway. The preservation of tradition is the most important thing—not power, or territory, or demographics.

Everything takes me back to the importance of tradition, the need to preserve and revive tradition. Every TV show I watch, every book I read, everything I see and hear every day, points me back towards the importance of tradition—most especially in our own time and place. Even pop culture and consumer culture seems to be panting for the irrigation of tradition.

Is this monomania on my part? Well, perhaps. But I don’t think so. I think the internal contradictions of our society, when we really think about them, show its need (and its displaced longing) for tradition and specialness and distinctiveness.

One thing that constantly baffles and frustrates me is the modern world’s addiction to the line of least resistance, a kind of ingrained fatalism. Cultural trends are accepted as unstoppable.

One example is the decline of poetry. Why is poetry no longer widely read? Why are people who consider themselves literate and well-read not ashamed that they don’t make a serious effort to read poetry? Have we become a different species? Has some mutation in the human brain disabled the faculty to take a serious, continuous, life-long interest in poetry—to take it as seriously as fiction or music or cinema? Why have editors, publishers, TV producers, teachers, and everybody in the arts and culture industries simply acquiesced to this?

Another example is the Irish language itself. Its obituary has been written innumerable times. To seek to revive it is seen as the height of naivety, of self-delusion, and its enthusiasts are seen as tiresome cranks whenever they press its claims as a serious national aspiration, rather than a vague wish.

But why should this be so? What is so inevitable about the Irish speaking English? Irish people jabber incessantly about Irishness and the Irish character and Irish history and all the rest of it. Sporting occasions bring out huge effusions of patriotism. This is good in itself—better than the alternative—but why do we continually neglect the single most important element of our nationality? Nothing can compare to language, in terms of developing a distinctive identity, since language encompasses everything.

Both of the foregoing examples are combined in a story I read recently, about the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who died in 1967. He came after Yeats and the other figures of the Irish Revival, and (rather predictably) he rejected their cultural nationalism, their romantic evocations of rural life, and so forth. He wanted to be open to the modern world, to the authentic ordinary life of the twentieth century, etc. etc.. He also took a dim view of Irish language revival, arguing that English was now the language of literature and that schoolchildren should be taught just enough Irish to appreciate the poetry of Irish place-names.

When I read that story, I wondered if Kavanagh would agree with me that, today, this very attitude of cultural laissez-faire has more or less killed poetry itself as a popular art-form, in both English and Irish. People stopped trying to revive Irish because it was just too much effort, like he recommended. But they also stopped reading poetry because it was just too much effort.

Another example. I was reading the memoirs of Keith Waterhouse, the British journalist and writer. He was describing the beginning of his journalistic career, and he referred to an elderly journalist, in passing, as the last of the newspaper columnists who were actually essayists in the style of Chesterton. Reading that made me wonder. Had Waterhouse himself (who became a journalist of considerable prestige) ever tried to revive the medium of the newspaper essay? Or had he simply acquiesced in the decline of the essay-type column, which is surely an example of “dumbing down”? Was his attitude simply: “People don’t want that anymore, and we have to give them what they want”?

And if that’s enough for a writer—simply accepting the constraints of one’s time, shrugging one’s shoulders and going along with dumbing down, homogenization, the death of tradition—what is the value of writing? Or of any culture whatsoever?

It’s not enough for me, at any rate. Writing is a quest for meaning, for wonder, for the sublime. But how is it enough simply to celebrate these things wherever we can find them-- which is an increasingly difficult task in our society of supermarkets, office blocks, tacky advertising, and reality TV? Isn’t it incumbent upon us, as well, to rush to their defence?


  1. I read somewhere that most people questioned in a survey haven't in fact managed to do fulfill all the arty,crafty or studious goals they'd imagined they would during all this,so you're probably to be congratulated. Maybe it's just persons I come in contact with,but noticing so many people compulsively making up and passing on (largely unfunny) virus humour,for weeks on end,it's hard to imagine many tapestries getting finished.

    1. I certainly haven't been quite as studious as I would have wished, but I have managed to work on my Irish a good bit.

      I have been off Facebook for most of the lockdown, and rarely on it since I did return, so thankfully I have missed most of that awful virus humour. Some of it was good.

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  3. Maolsheachlann,

    Wonderful to have a blog post from you again! I know you are constrained by lack of Internet access, but you have been missed. And a fine article, too. I agree with every word.

    Above all, I am with you entirely when you say 'I can never get over the idea that saying (or reading, or writing) a word, in some sense, summons the thing itself'. Words are actions; to speak is to create; when we speak, and others understand, the world is materially changed. It helps that we have a sacramental religion in which words set the seal on all seven sacraments, and in which, above all, God not only speaks, but is the Word. Poetry, even secular poetry, if true poetry, is a semi-sacrament. It actually ushers light into the soul and changes it.

    That few ages have been blinder to this truth than ours is the burden that we must carry.

  4. Going along with anything can in some sense be even worse than our physical diseases. If some basic meta-lesson be learned from the crisis it may not be that, but many good things happen also no doubt.

    Isn´t the all-but-ineffable what life is all about? Maybe "probing" poetry comes quite close to it, so that modern man feels a bit disturbed, coming as it were from within the pc-aligned cultural zone imposed?

  5. By the way, it is sad to see that whereas Ireland once boasted a distinctive and unquellable culture even though lacking formal political expression, the reverse now seems to be the case.