Thursday, February 08, 2007

On the Learning of Irish

Sharon, agus conas mar a d'fhéachfadh sí ortYou’ve bitten the bullet. You’ve seen David McWilliams flicking his fringe while talking Irish with some múinteoir gaelscoile on The Pope’s Children, and you decide that you want some of that. It’s the off-season for classes – not that they’re worth a damn anyway, on An Spailpín’s experience – so you make your way to Eason’s or Hodges Figgis and you decide you’ll buy a book, and try to tackle the ancient language of the Gael that way.

You stand at the shelf that Hodges Figgis allocate to books in Irish – not many, but still the most in the capital city of this republic – and there she is, giving you the come hither look, or, she might say herself, an cuma tar anseo, a chuisle mo chroí. It’s Sharon Ní Bheoláin, and she’s the face of Turas Teanga, RTÉ’s most recent attempt at the painless instillation of Irish into the national psyche.

You have a vague memory of the show being on, but you must have been doing something else at the time. You buy the DVD box-set for fifty lids, go home and watch the first episode. You never watch it ever again, and leave it shamefully at the back of the press, along with that interior decoration book and the The Essential Heart on CD.

Turas Teanga epitomised all that was wrong in Irish language teaching. Because there seems to be an idea abroad that the slightest suggestion that any effort on the part of the prospective students would have same prospective students fleeing the premises in the manner of several nymphs surprised while bathing, what you have instead is beautiful Sharon driving around some beautiful scenery in a beautiful open-topped car intercut with some bucks turning hay and speaking Irish in impenetrable accents. What on earth is the point?

To An Spailpín’s mind, any question of learning a language is a question of building a vocabulary and understanding grammar. An Spailpín has read of sages who can pick up languages just like that – a gift enjoyed by caddish hero of the Flashman novels, for instance – but for mortals, things don’t come that easy, and you’ve going to have to sit down with your dictionary, grammar and workbook and put in the hours. But once you’re prepared to accept that, there is hope. Of a kind.

The ace, king, queen and jack of Irish grammars is a book called Réchúrsa Gramadaí, written – or compiled, even – by Brian Mac Giolla Phádraig. It’s a beast of a grammar, and answers all the questions you could possibly have – provided you’re sufficiently fluent to read the thing, because it’s written entirely in Irish. An Spailpín remembers flicking through a copy in secondary school and when I beheld a sample Leaving Cert question from 1936, I felt as that character in Chesterton’s Lepanto, who found his God forgotten and sought no more a sign. Had I had a Bible written in the original Coptic Greek it could not have been more useless than Réchúrsa Gramadaí was to a schoolboy whose first language was English.

An Spailpín still remembers the sense of being hopelessly lost and confused between all those urús, séimhiús and I-haven’t-got-a-clues that moved in and out of the miles of non-standard prose we had to hack through in those classrooms, responding to forces of I knew not what. A voluminous memory and what I suspect was a certainly antipathy on the part of the examiners won me a C in the Honours paper, and after that year’s Matriculation it was slán leat to the Gaeilge for ever.

Returning wasn’t easy, as it’s remarkably difficult to find good books of Irish tuition. It’s been said that there are more writers of Irish than there are readers and a quick visit to the bookstore will quickly suggest that notion is based in reality. Most of the books are aimed at children, of course, because they are forced to buy the books for school. Good egg for the author, but not so much fun for an adult learner, whose interest in súgradh, milseáin and lá cois farraige has hopefully receded.

The best book of tuition in the language, in the basics of how the language works, is “Cruinnscríobh na Gaeilge,” by Ciarán Mac Murchaidh. In his introduction, Mac Murchaidh remarks that previous grammars have been a little too comprehensive, and he’s hoping to come up with a more user-friendly edition. And he succeeds admirably – working through the book I saw for the first time where all those h’s were coming from, and why they were there. I even found out what An Tuisil Ginideach was, something I honestly never knew in fourteen years of Irish in school. I tell you most solemnly, watchers of the skies with new planets swimming into their ken were only in the ha’penny place with An Spailpín Fánach.

There’s only one problem with Cruinnscríobh na Gaeilge. It’s written in Irish. Grand if you have that Gaeilge bhriste that was always considered better than Béarla cliste, but if your Irish is so rusty now that you can no longer see the metal beneath, Cruinnscíobh na Gaeilge is no good to you at all.

The Christian Brothers’ famous New Irish Grammar is a possible solution. It’s in English, and therefore accessible. It appears to be modelled on the famous Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer, and it’s pretty by God comprehensive – sadists and terrorists the Brothers may have been, but they didn’t believe in phoning it in either. It is hard to imagine any question of Irish grammar that is not answered somewhere within the pages of the Christian Brothers’ New Irish Grammar.

The only problem, of course, is that while it’s all very good as a reference, trying to use the New Irish Grammar as textbook is like trying to learn a language from a dictionary. That’s just not the way languages, or human brains, work.

So it’s hats off and sound the trumpets for Ms Donna Wong. Donna, as you may have gathered from her handle, ain’t from round here. Ms Wong was studying Irish in San Francisco and now teaches it in Golden State College. As she remarked in an interview with last year, Ms Wong had such difficulty finding an Irish textbook in English that she wrote one herself.

A Learner’s Guide to Irish is the result, and An Spailpín Fánach heartily recommends it to anyone tackling a return to Irish. Once you begin to recognise the word mutations that are so much a part of Irish and so alien to English, the mountain will become considerably less terrifying. It still has to be climbed, but at least now you have a guide on whom you can rely. And what more can we ask for?

Of course, it’s a point of shame for the nation that this essential service, a basic textbook on the supposed first language of the State, needed a foreigner to write it and, had a foreigner not written it, would be waiting to be written yet. Were the body politic worth a damn, they’d make Ms Wong a freewoman of Dublin. Instead, they’ll probably be too busy shouldering each other out of the way trying to get into a photocall with Paul O’Connell at Croke Park.

But no matter. Irish has been for idealists for some time. If you’re looking for reward or thanks, you’ll need to look elsewhere for a hobby. But knowing some Irish does make Irish people feel more whole, or can do, certainly. If you doubt it, click on this link to Liam Ó Maonlaí singing ‘Sí Do Mhaimeo at a Fleadh a few years ago. If it means nothing, it means nothing and that’s fair enough. But if it registers at all, maybe a twenty bucks towards Donna Wong’s book wouldn’t be a bad idea as spring approaches, with its marvellous promise of growth and renewal, fás agus athbheochán.

FOCAL SCOIR: I noticed, while looking up stuff for this (because your diligent Spailpín does his homework you know), I was disappointed to discover that Réchúrsa Gramadaí is no longer in print. This is another source of national shame – even though the book may have blighted my childhood, that does not mean that it’s not very valuable. All it means is it should be kept well away from children. Like firearms or votes. I hope it’s back in print soon. For the nation’s sake.

Technorati Tags: , , ,