Sunday, July 30, 2017

Pat Walsh's "A Rebel Act": Book Review

A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett's Farewell to English
This biography covers all of this Irish poet's life and career. The subtitle may lead one to believe it's only about the period roughly from 1975-84 when Michael Hartnett's decision to no longer publish his poetry in English gained attention among Ireland's poetry, literary, and critical circles. But the tenth of the book devoted to this phase shows its importance and duration within the poet's 58 years.

Pat Walsh must have read everything ever mentioning Hartnett. His documentation records his consultation of the poet's manuscripts and notebooks, interviews, and press coverage down to quite rare small press publications or ephemeral journalism. He lets the poetry, the poet, and his contemporaries tell as much of the story as possible. Generous excerpts from Hartnett's verses, his own writings beyond poems, and his radio broadcasts also deepen any reader's appreciation of his work. Furthermore, while Walsh tends to stay in the background more as diligent compiler than as a critic with his own take on this difficult-to-categorize man, he judiciously includes criticism which calls Hartnett to task when warranted. For not all of his verses are up to the high standards of his best.

Complementing literary criticism produced on Hartnett, this fuller depiction of a dapper, erudite, coruscating, and forthright poet and presence during the 60s through some of the 80s reveals a deep care for the state of Ireland, regarding its heritage, its commitment or lack of to its long-denigrated "first official language," and Hartnett's determination to demonstrate by his own action his nuanced understanding of not only a language but a way of life and a manner of living and thinking which, for many in his Dublin audiences hearing him declaim his poems, must have been received with a mixture of reactions. Today when national identity, ethnic roots, international treaties, and corporate domination have markedly increased since Hartnett's era, this 2012 study is timely and trenchant. (Amazon Britain + US 7/30/17)


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Michael McCaughan's "Coming Home": Book Review



Facing his mid-life crisis, Michael McCaughan explores his reunion with the Irish language he'd abandoned, along with most students in the 26 Counties during nearly the past hundred years. He begins his memoir as resigned as Ireland's majority: 'We have acquired a prayer, permission to go to the bathroom and an empty slogan.' (13) Sé do bheatha a Mhuire, an bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dtí an leithreas and tiochfaidh ár lá. Throughout his career as a Spanish translator abroad, he'd regale Latin Americans who'd begged him to "say something in Irish" with a hodgepodge recited from rote.

Coming Home is a generic phrase itself. The book's subtitle: 'one man's return to the Irish language', situates him within a small shelf of similar stories, some cited, others not. Lonely Planet co-founder Brian Fallon left Boston on the same quest, a bit fictionalised as Home With Alice (2002). The fact this was published only in Australia may reflect the presumed limited appeal of this trope. That same year, Darerca Ní Chartúir in her overview-guide to the language appended testimonies from four Americans attending summer schools in Gaeltachtaí. Two years on, Ciarán MacMurchaidh edited 'Who Needs Irish?' A few learners answered why in the affirmative alongside acclaim by natives. and from a schooled minority who embraced the speech that McCaughan and many of his peers spurned.

I contributed to the 2007 issue of Estudios Irlandeses an examination of 'Making the Case for Irish Through English: Eco-critical Politics of Language by Learners' emphasising the perceived benefit of learning Irish in its natural setting. Brian Ó Conchubhair summed up in A New View of the Irish Language his 2008 chapter on 'The Global Diaspora and the "New" Irish (Language)'. He charted a 'hyper-Gaeltacht' (238) as Gaeilge entered its 'transnational' phase, sustained rather than attenuated by a combination of recent emigrants and the descendants of such, joined by other ethnicities connecting via Irish. Added to this in the decade since would be social media, video chat, and instant messaging.

Ó Conchubhair considers 'Hanson's law of third-generation return' first propounded in 1938: 'what the immigrant's son wishes to forget, the immigrant's grandson wishes to remember'. (New View 245) McCaughan, as one who has lived far from Ireland for much of his five decades, wonders why he took his Spanish from basics to fluency, while Irish languished. He puzzles over his surname and the silence from his Co Antrim-born father, who never revealed his side regarding sectarian origins, and the tug that pulls this son back. Dwelling in the Burren circa 2014, he takes advantage of Raidió na Gaeltachta online in caring for the 'fever' which inexplicably had consumed him to tackle, this time almost from scratch, another tongue. Union with this common resource unlocking centuries of lore past and present motivates his quest, rather than nationalism, Leaving Cert scores, or atavistic pride.

One wonders: within a multilingual Irish society, why Gaeilge shares craic in many a high street less often than, say, Polish? True, the exceptions of the immigrant, young or mature, who masters Irish gain publicity. But as one Irish wag mused, few of America's new arrivals hastened to study Cherokee or Seminole. If casual Irish does enter conversations, it's more likely within a congenial pub rather than a stern shop, (This is the reviewer's query; a minor flaw of this book is its too passing a coverage of this persistent social shame. Next to a continent where many citizens may communicate between four languages easily, the default refusal of most Irish to choose their native option continues to vex not only McCaughan and those he interviews and quotes. Compulsory lessons can't bear all the customary blame. And while a short glossary of Gaeilge terms and a brief list of sources consulted appear, the lack of an index thwarts recall of names, places and materials within this data-rich text.)

McCaughan wants to link in. Like learners can on the Net in the 'hyper-Gaeltacht', he keeps the radio on, plunging into 'the deep end' rather than rely on the English subtitles for TG4. Not far from the remnants of coastal districts where everyday Irish has been spoken, he considers the trauma of An Gorta Mór and the trace elements of guilt which weakened survivors. Remorse generated either a 'fierce, aggressive' attachment or rejection of the language, (22) He alludes to Animal Farm for the post-1922 'language bosses' who held on to their version of the tally stick, an bata scóir, emulating their hated English masters in beating on miscreants who lapsed into a forbidden but habitual tongue.

Either language was replaced with deliberate effort. McCaughan reasons that if Irish 'disappeared out of our families one word at a time', its erosion may be reversed by phrases enriching conversation. This as with much of the content assumes an Irish audience. Gill Books markets this to them, from the author's own birthplace of south Dublin. McCaughan therefore shares hints, resources, and strategies for those with the benefits of an Ireland residence to 'put on a second coat we've grown used to' (adapting composer Peadar Ó Riada's metaphor). McCaughan regards Irish as a 'second skin,' or even as what lingers in the 'marrow'. (64; readers may want to look up Peadar's father Seán's story.)

Exemplars such as Peadar, travel writer Manchán Magan, comedian Des Bishop, poets Paul Durcan, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Michael Hartnett encourage him to distinguish his mother tongue, an Béarla, from his native one, an Ghaeilge. The fate of Hartnett, who tried to revert to Irish-only for his work, sobers him. McCaughan realises that the call to the mystic within will fall on many deaf ears around him, but he dismisses any practicality. As Spanish enraptured him as a teen, so now does Irish, at last. As well as tips for learners, this book's added value shows in the language policies from the Americas McCaughan uses to integrate his critique of the Dublin governments' hapless schemes.

Echoing Magan's Hartnett-like 'No Béarla' TG4 attempts in 2007 to conduct affairs in Ireland's 'first official language', the author tries to buy via Irish a ticket from Doolin to Inis Mór. He's told; 'you know, your Irish is very hard to understand.' Galwegians scold that he has 'no dialect'. Within the heartland, he considers a Buddhist analogue. Right Speech renders as 'what you say and how you say it is a reflection of a deeper truth'. (136) This illuminates his path. He ignores idealism; like many sojourners to these redoubts, he confronts a common impasse. Weary locals rebuff learners' attempts.

As this demonstrates, in the Gaeltacht, its public language becomes English; parents revert to Irish as a private medium; meanwhile children brought up as native speakers find themselves weakened by the influx of those relocating there with little or no Irish. At school, the classes may stay in public Irish, but McCaughan suspects children revert to English on their own watch, This imbalance presents a conundrum. To assist with their ancestral language the Irish people, who needs it most? Should entities support native communities or learners in urban centres, queuing at Gaelscoileannaí?

Contrasting the decision of most Irish to pay no more than lip service to Gaeilge, McCaughan credits the Zapatista movement, celebrating its indigenous and 'unbroken link to their ancestors' who use Tzeltal. The U'wa of Colombia choose their own too, rather than capitulate to the colonial imposition of Spanish. Proximity need not result in subservience or expediency; Central Europe and Scandinavia revived their local languages in the same period that millions of the Irish lost their own. McCaughan admits key revival differences historically and economically. Yet he seeks out a lively inspiration,

He strengthens his familial tie to the North of Ireland. The selfless attitude and volunteer spirit in Bóthar Seoighe infuses revival. State-designated enclaves mean simply places where Irish is spoken, But "the growth of Gaeilge in Belfast carries the mystique of a forbidden language spoken against the odds, and with a hint of subversive mischief'. (160) On the Falls Road, he sees more evidence of living Irish than in all of Dublin, Cork and Galway cities. Republican activists Michaél Mac Giolla Gunna, Féilim Ó hAdhmaill and Anthony McIntyre agree that their acquired Irish as crafted and transmitted in lessons 'behind the wire' conveyed a generosity imbued with true freedom. Their children, whether in class or at home, are growing up with both languages, with spontaneous poise.

This open-hearted reaction to Irish among those dubbed Nordies cheers this Ulsterman-once-removed.. Adults seek out Irish too, within not only West Belfast communities which welcome what was long persecuted. Ulster-Scots advocate Linda Ervine at the East Belfast mission started from far less than scratch. She conceives of her Irish-language endeavour as a 'vocation, an activity that needs to happen regardless of money'. (177) Their provincial roots tangle in garbled, anglicised place names and natural landmarks. West of Maghera, in south Derry, Gaeilge resurrects from this fresh soil, 'present yet invisible.' (198) At Carn Tóchair, this 'post-colonial option' cultivates a 'critical mass' of learners-to-speakers; what began with half a dozen in 1992 has grown to 180, young and old, fluent.

Niall Ó Catháin champions this líofacht enclave of those reuniting with this subterranean presence. For the Irish language 'was taken from us, and if we want it back we have to use it'. This bold grip reminds the writer of other surprising connections. Peadar Ó Riada tells McCaughan that in the tuneful townland of Cúil Aodha near Cork, a local, Lizzie O'Brien, was godmother to Sid Vicious.

McCaughan misses his chance here to nod to John Lydon's childhood visits to his own maternal domain in that very county. Derided then for his north London accent, he may today travel under an Irish passport, but he still bristles at being mocked for his tone. Lydon became infamous for rejecting many English symbols, as well as Catholic pieties. Ó Riada swirls Irish lyrics into world sounds. In their own ways, both play off a rebellious streak against clerics, some long supposed a Gaelic ally.

He seeks a decentralised Celtic Christian tradition, and as Lydon might accept, 'an atheist god if you like'. (209) If the North reveals the refusal at last to treat the accents in Irish as sectarian shibboleths, so Cúil Aodha suggests the native speaker's home advantage. Lydon and Ó Riada might concur that one born to the language applies his tongue unconsciously, as natural. This ease can never be totally gained by tutelage. It may single one out, depending on the setting, but it also anchors born speakers.

Concluding this journey around Ireland, McCaughan repeats the experience of others who have sought to find themselves through Irish. Native or learner, both find 'this is no country for Irish speakers'. (251) Relegated to the formulaic cúpla focal from a politician, a Republican and/or an Aer Lingus flight attendant, Gaeilge reveals its second-place status. The battle over Irish-only signage for An Daighean/ Dingle and the resentment from the tourist industry, second-home dwellers and visitors to Gaeilge amháin sa Ghaeltacht confirms the truth of McCaughan's charge. Yet he brandishes one cheery sign himself. The 'can-do philosophy' in the Six Counties epitomizes its 'brass nerve'. South of the border, this courage dwindles. Enlivened, McCaughan ends with a hope that one focal at a time, an Irish polity committed to diversity will sustain and nourish its native language, as its daily reality.

Dublin: Gill Books. 6 June 2017. ₤7.99/ € 14.99. 256 pp.