Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A Farewell to Irish

 Well, not quite, but...

Recently I've decided that I'm going to give up my efforts (which I've pursued for several years now) to gain fluency in the Irish language. It just seems futile.

My ambition was to attain the level where I could get an article published in an Irish language publication. However, this seems more and more unattainable to me.

Grammar is my great obstacle. I can conduct a conversation in the Irish language fairly well. Nobody cares very much if you make mistakes in conversation. As long as you can keep the ball in the air, that's the main thing. But writing is a different ball game entirely.

The abstract study of grammar completely flummoxes me. For instance, every noun in Irish is gendered male and female, which has a big effect on how they are used in sentences. I can't imagine how anybody ever learns the gender of every single noun they use. It seems to me like having to learn the chemical composition of every object you come into contact with during the day, before you are allowed to touch it. I suppose it's done by a kind of intuition. I don't have that intuition.

I don't even understand English grammar! I've never understood the distinction between "to whom" and "to who", and all that stuff. And yet English has always been my strength. It was by far my strongest subject in school-- I got a fair amount of acclaim for it. A schoolfellow I met again, a few years ago, told me: "It was like being in school with Seamus Heaney". And yet I was mediocre, at best, when it came to Irish, French, and German. (My German teacher once wrote "I'm afraid this is rubbish" on my homework. She was a notorious battle-axe, but I think she was probably fair on that occasion.)

I'd always suspected it was simply a lack of interest that made the difference. I was, of course, interested in getting good grades in those other languages, but I wasn't very interested in them for themselves. All my leisure reading had been in English-- and though I've always felt poorly-read, in truth I'd read a lot by my early teens, comparatively speaking.

But I'm not so sure that it was simply a lack of interest, any more. I grew ferociously interested in Irish, in recent years, and I read a huge amount in it. I read so many of the back issues of Irish language journals, in the library, that I eventually found it hard to find an article (I mean one that interested me) that I hadn't read at least once already. But the magic never happened.

I forgot to mention that all my schooling, up until the age of eighteen, was in Irish language schools. So I have experienced countless hours of hearing Irish spoken by fluent Irish speakers, all through my formative years. (The teachers were fluent, that is. The kids spoke a kind of patois, and always spoke English when unsupervised.) And yet I've still never been fluent.

Why am I relatively good at English, but bad at all other languages? Is it simply because English happened to be my first language? Sometimes I wonder if it's more than that, if English is somehow congenial to my mind. Perhaps it is the lack of gendered nouns! (As soon as I write those words, I find myself fretting that there may actually be gendered nouns in English. How would I know? Well, if there are, I've never needed to know about them...)

I'm pretty good when it comes to vocabulary. I love learning the vocabulary of a different language because, in some ways, it's like experiencing the world anew. The poetry of words in any language is intoxicating. But when it's an unfamiliar language, it has the added lustre of discovery. If mastering a language was just a matter of learning a vocabulary, I think I'd do it very well. But it's a lot more than that.

I still think the preservation and revival of the Irish language should be a top priority for the Irish people. Really, there's no point talking about our Irishness-- which we do incessantly-- if we aren't going to take it seriously. Nothing can replace the language.

But I think I've done as much as I can, in my case. I do intend to keep my Irish up, by regular reading, but it will no longer be my main focus. I think I have to concentrate on my strengths. Life is so short, and we can only do so much.

Friday, September 25, 2020

A Delicious Selection from my Facebook Page

Here are some social media snippets to keep this blog ticking over, since I still have very limited access to a desktop computer (and blogging, at least on this platform, is very awkward without that). Posting on Facebook, on the other hand, is all too easy.

I have a habit of looking up G.K. Chesterton in the index of any book that seems at all likely to mention him. Just did this with a biography of Thomas Hardy. Apparently Hardy spent his last day on earth writing "retaliatory epitaphs" for George Moore and G.K. Chesterton. He was annoyed that GKC had described him as "the village atheist brooding over the village idiot", whatever that means. It's a pity he didn't live to read Chesterton's autobiography, in which he describes an early meeting with Hardy very positively. The epitaph is not given.

It reminds me that the last article Christopher Hitchens wrote, I believe, was an attack on Chesterton (in the guise of a book review on a GKC biography).

Passing the equinox reminds me that "the long winter nights" is one of my favourite phrases. Bertie Wooster often uses it when Jeeves starts on some anecdote and Bertie tells him to "save it for the long winter nights".

I always loved the book title Attic Nights and was doubly pleased when I learned it was a commonplace book some ancient dude compiled in the long winter nights in Attica. I thought of reading it but reading a book because you like the title seems excessive. Although that's why I read The Winter's Tale by Shakespeare and that was pretty good. ("Exit pursued by a bear".) It's from his late phase which is the only one that really appeals to me-- The Tempest is my favourite Shakespeare play.

Here is an interesting extract from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on Cardinal Manning, English convert and second Archbishop of Westminster. I have a soft spot for the Church of England so it's nice to know that as rugged a Papist as Manning could write a book entitled The Workings of the Holy Spirit in the Church of England.

"Unflinchingly dogmatic and a Roman of the Romans, he also gave his generation the initiative to practical ecumenism by his readiness to recognize the workings of the Holy Spirit in churches other than the 'one true fold'. This was an argument advanced as early as 1864 in his The Workings of the Holy Spirit in the Church of England, though Anglicans at the time were affronted by the fact that he allowed the Church of England no higher accreditation than he accorded to dissenting churches. He believed passionately that Christians of different communions could and should learn from one another, and should be prepared to work together in endeavours of 'practical Christianity', as he himself demonstrated in his co-operation with nonconformists and the Salvation Army to save men's bodies as well as their souls."

A tiny horror story: imagine you woke up, heard the words "This is your last warning" over a loudspeaker, and then-- silence.

I used to be a socialist, in my late teens and early twenties, and I can still remember why I was, and sympathize with it. I was not looking towards some kind of utopia and I actually feel this is an unfair criticism of most socialists. In fact, my socialism was quite "conservative" in that it was more concerned with holding back the tide of commercialization and privatization (as I saw it) than with any revolutionary change. I thought that private enterprise was always looking to erode working and living conditions and that the early years of the Industrial Revolution was proof of that. I genuinely feared that public amenities like libraries and parks would be privatised or just abolished. It seems a bit silly now, but there you go.

This seems to be how tolerance works in today's society. If conservatives keep their mouths shut and bite their tongues every time political correctness is accepted as consensus, then they are allowed to quietly hold their own opinions.

Recently I've been taken aback, a few times, at just how intolerant liberals and progressives are. I'm not talking pink haired equality studies professors here, but ordinary people. They really seem to think there should be no dissent allowed.

(Not all liberals, of course.)

It's funny all the little differences between America and Ireland, that I learn from being married to an American lady. Some almost at random:

What we call snakes and ladders, Americans call chutes and ladders.

What we call lovehearts (️💓), Americans just call hearts.

Do The Bart Man wasn't a huge hit in America, where it wasn't even released as a single. It reached number one in Ireland (and all the kids were singing it).

George Bernard Shaw famously said that Britain and America were two nations divided by a single language. How amusing his second name is pronounced BER-nard in Britain/Ireland, and Ber-NARD in America!

To reject nationalism because of the Nazis is like rejecting religion because of the Taliban.

I was reading an introduction to the ghost stories of M.R. James today and came across a reference to Tewkesbury. I felt the familiar frisson of wonder that the name printed on a page corresponds to an actual place, a place where people are walking up and down right now, a place with hotels and street lighting and buses. The existence of Tewkesbury astonishes me. I hope it always will.

I'm trying to drink more water. But how do you drink water? How is it done? How can I swallow a pint glass of flavourless liquid?

I could run five miles and work up a thirst, but that's a lot of work.

This is what I do. I pretend I'm drinking beer. I don't even like beer. But if I imagine myself as a man of letters in some smoky lounge in the nineteen-fifties, discoursing on Auden or on notions of the sublime, in between swigs... I can do that.

For a long time I've pondered the problem of clichés. It seems unreasonable that a happy turn of phrase should become shopworn after a certain amount of time. Why should proverbs be cherished when "clichés" are scorned? I love turns of phrase like "a walk down memory lane" or "in the cold light of day" and see no reason why they shouldn't be used again and again. I see no reason why language should be constantly mown like a lawn.

I was listening to someone talking the other day and she used such a phrase--I forgot what-- but I noticed how listlessly she used it. She drawled it out. Perhaps that's the difference? Perhaps clichés become lifeless because we use them lifelessly, or apologetically, or half-heartedly? Perhaps "clichés" remain fresh if we use them with as much relish as they were used when they were coined?


Unlike most of my fellow conservative Catholics I am quite fond of modern sacred art and architecture. Today I was remembering a time my father and myself were visiting my mother in Beaumont Hospital, in her last years. She was in a wheelchair and he took her to the chapel. My mother often brought me to Mass in childhood, and my father would sometimes bring me into a cathedral to light a candle when we were in the city centre. But as far as I can remember this is the only time I was in a place of worship with both parents outside funerals, weddings, First Communions, etc.

I had no religious beliefs at this time. I suppose I was an agnostic. And that wouldn't change for many more years. But I remember being struck by a very strong sense of the otherness of God (even if only as a concept) in that very modern chapel. I can't actually remember what it looked like, my visual memory is awful, but I remember it being very modern. The term "the shock of the new" is used to describe modern art. I guess it was "the shock of the transcendent" for me. This is why I defend modern churches and sacred art as having their place.


Atmosphere is a funny thing. I find myself stopping short when I say or hear something like: "There was an atmosphere of bustle" or "there was an atmosphere of festivity". What is this thing, atmosphere, outside of the individual elements that create it? It's nothing. But it's something. I think about this a lot. Every time I find myself inclined to use a phrase like 'there was an air of..." I feel I am somehow taking a lazy shortcut, but then I realize there is no other way of saying it. And I think this is an important subject, one of those loose threads that lead you into the heart of a labyrinth. The reality of atmosphere, I think, has all kinds of implications for social philosophy and politics and history.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Idea of "Thickness"

An idea that keeps coming to my mind, as I look about this world and explore my own feelings about it, is the idea of "thickness". I've found myself invoking this idea several times, when talking to friends, and I've struggled to express it adequately. I'm going to try to put it into words here.

Although I've struggled to express it, I don't want to make out that there's any great mystery to it. I don't think there is. But I would ask the reader to think in very fundamental terms. For the moment, forget about Catholicism, religion, conservatism, Ireland, or anything else you might associate with this blog. I would ask them, too, not to assume I mean something lofty or noble. Not necessarily. "Thickness" can be vulgar and tacky.

By "thickness" I mean something like "distinctiveness plus depth". And again, not depth in a lofty sense, but in a simple sense.

I think Christmas might be the best example for "thickness". Christmas is in many ways my ideal for everything.

You can't walk through a city centre in mid-December without realising it's Christmas. Christmas is everywhere; in the lights, the decorations, the carol singers, the pine trees, and a hundred other details. There are countless Christmas songs, Christmas films, Christmas recipes, and so forth. Christmas is very distinctive-- for all its multiplicity, it has an inescapable "flavour"-- and it's very, very deep. There's a lot of it. It's bottomless, in fact. It's so omnipresent, at that time of year, that if becomes a backdrop to everything.
Here's another example of thickness-- parliamentary history. You could take any recondite field of knowledge, but parliamentary history is a personal favourite of mine. I have an idyll, a poetic vision, of a parliamentary history uber-nerd, sitting up in bed, in his pyjamas, with a copy of Hansard (the record of British parliamentary debates) in one hand and a steaming mug of cocoa in the other. (My uber-nerd-- let's call him Harold-- is always English, since Westminster is "the mother of parliaments".)

Harold knows all about the Rump parliament, the Barebones parliament, the Khaki election, and the West Lothian question.  He can tell you who the Speaker of the house was for any year you mention. He knows how constituency boundaries have shifted down the years. In short, he is neck-deep in the "thickness" of parliamentary history-- a subject that is both distinctive (with its own procedures, vocabulary, rituals, and so forth) and deep-- again, effectively bottomless.

Would you like to run into Harold at a party? Personally, I would. Such people are often classed as "bores", although I've never understood why. Surely somebody who has a limitless fund of conversation on one subject is the opposite of a bore? Harold has much to say about something, at least. The true bore, to me, is someone who has nothing to say about anything, or (perhaps) a little to say about everything-- which is generally platitudes, popular opinion, and the fruits of casual reading or viewing. Harold is possibly a bit socially awkward, but would you really rather be trading tiresome and aimless banter with the social butterflies?

So couldn't it be said that everything is "thick", then? After all, you could immerse yourself in anything.
But I think there are real differences, and that "thickness" is an objective quality. For instance, take the contrast between Christmas and Easter.

Christmas is thick, in the secular world as well as in religious circles. Easter is not. Have you ever seen an Easter movie or read an Easter book? There may be any number of Easter hymns, but I know of no Easter songs. A person could easily walk through a city centre street and not realize it was Easter. I imagine that was possible even a hundred years ago.

Now, Christians know that the meaning of Easter is as deep and as distinctive as it could possibly be. And I imagine that distinctiveness, that depth, would be very evident in a monastery, or perhaps in some village with many pious traditions still alive, or even in a big and observant Catholic family. But, in contemporary Western society, Easter isn't at all "thick" in the sense I mean here. "The Easter spirit" doesn't roll off the tongue-- sadly. Easter doesn't form a backdrop like Christmas does.

(In fact, I've always had the desire for Easter to be made "thicker"...but that's another story.)

Another example of something that is not "thick", to contrast this time with parliamentary history. Let us take local history. Local history is very laudable, but in general, it's not "thick". It might be. I imagine, for instance, that the history of the Isle of Man is "thick", but I doubt the history of Watford is "thick". There must be lots of it, as with all history, but I doubt that it's very distinctive.

I crave "thickness" and I always have. And I have a certain affection for "thickness" even in contexts that might not seem particularly laudable. I've never been in a bingo hall, and bingo seems like a singularly mindless occupation to me. But I can't help feeling a certain affection for bingo halls, since bingo has its own slang, its own rituals, its own way of life.

"Thickness" can apply to anything. It can apply to transport, for instance. I've spent far more time in buses than on trains, but I've never found anything "thick" about bus travel. A bus is just a long car, for the most part. But air travel is very "thick", and train travel is as "thick" as you could wish. We've all heard about train-spotters and model train sets. Have you ever heard about bus-spotters or model bus sets?

Now I'm on the subject of travel, it occurs to me that age is not necessarily a guarantee of "thickness". Walking is the oldest form of human transport, but it's not particularly "thick". Not a fraction as "thick" as train travel, which came along the day before yesterday.
I would claim that even time-periods can be "thick" or not "thick". The seventies, it seems to me, were "thick". So were the sixties. But what about the noughties? Perhaps they will seem "thicker" in retrospect, but I doubt it.

So what is the importance of "thickness"? Well, it has a personal importance to me, since I crave it. But I think it is important for society, too. 

"Thickness" is always easy to mock, and is the habitual target of stand-up comedians. Christmas is a racket, the Isle of Man is inbred, train-spotters are pathetic, parliament should be modernized and streamlined, etc. etc.

But people gravitate towards "thickness" constantly, if only to mock and castigate it. It's something to grasp hold of, something to capture the imagination (in whatever way), a backdrop, a theme, a flavour, material for a joke or a caricature. "Thinness" is none of those things.

Let's turn to the example of Catholicism. We've all heard about the Catholic who has a "quiet, inward" faith, even though he might not get to Mass every week, and doesn't go in much for prayers and novenas. His faith is expressed in how he lives his life, he tells us-- or his obituarist tells us.

Very well. But I can't help feeling a lot more admiration for the old lady who goes to daily Mass, whose house is filled with holy pictures, who is always rattling off rosaries, and who goes on pilgrimage several times a year. Apart from anything else, she is constantly proclaiming the name of Jesus, while "quiet, inward faith" leaves it unspoken most of the time. But more than that--she fills the atmosphere, the little corner of the world she occupied, with the incense of piety.

The same applies to nationality. What is the point of being a patriot if you are not doing your part to preserve your country's traditions and distinctiveness? I've never had any interest in an Irishness which is confined to the depths of the psyche-- a quiet, inward Irishness, perhaps. Nationality that is not expressed in outward things is a feeble, wispy entity. But a nationality which expresses itself in song, story, language, dance, clothes, food and drink, and so forth-- that's a living and vibrant nationality. A "thick" nationality. Besides, I believe that, to a great degree, taking care of the "outward things" means that the "inward things" take care of themselves.

These are by basic thoughts on "thickness". It may not seem a terribly significant concept. But I find it coming to my own mind all the time. Generally speaking, I'm in favour of whatever fosters "thickness" and opposed to whatever diminishes it.