Thursday, July 31, 2014

Joe McHugh Goes Back to School

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Is there a heart in Erin’s green isle that hasn’t been moved by the thought of Junior Minister Joe McHugh on his first day at school? While all the other boys and girls are off for the holidays, building sand-castles outside their Floridian beachfront properties or converging on Ballybrit for the Galway Races, Little Joe is setting off down the road with his schoolbag up on his back.

Minister McHugh can be forgiven for feeling like a man with the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Simon Harris, the new Junior Minister for Finance, isn’t being fostered out to David McWilliams for a course in economics. Neither is Seán Sherlock, the new Junior Minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs, being locked in a closet with an atlas and a flashlight, under orders not to emerge until he can match capital cities to countries with ease and confidence.

No such luck for Joe. Joe has to spend his summer holidays at school, learning Irish. He’s making a brave fist of it, sending a tweet in Irish last Monday about how he was off to school that very morning. There were only five grammatical and two syntax errors over the 140 characters, so it’s not like he’s at a complete loss.

That’s a little cruel, but it does make an important point. Whenever something like this happens – that is, when the language movement screams blue murder at a slight, perceived or otherwise – there’s always a lobby in the movement that insists that learning Irish is as easy as falling off a log. Why, even a child can do it, as the flourishing Gaelscoileanna all over the country attest.

Minister, if by chance you should come to read this, be warned: Irish isn’t easy to learn at all. Not even kind of. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible of course. I speak an odd word here and there myself. But don’t kid yourself that it’ll be easy. It won’t. Irish is really hard to learn, and it’s really hard to learn for three reasons.

The first reason is because Irish is an inflected language, which means that words change according to what they do in a sentence. Words don’t change in English – they used to long ago, but those traits were shed through the centuries. The only trace evidence of inflection in English is the distinction between the subject pronoun “who” and the object pronoun “whom,” and even that is on its last legs now.

Not so in Irish. The words in Irish change according to what they’re doing in a sentence. When you’re not used to that, it can be a bit of a fright. In early days, when Latin was taught in schools, it wasn’t so bad, because Latin is inflected as well. If you’re Polish, Irish may seem a stroll in the park – Polish is a very inflected language indeed. But coming from English, inflection is one of the first hurdles you have to clear.

The second problem, then, is that Irish didn’t evolve as a language the way other languages evolved. This is because somebody tried to kill it. The somebody didn’t succeed, but the wounds are still clearly visible on the body, which remains weak and fragile. This is why Fíorghaeil (literally, “True Irish people,” those whose enthusiasm for the language can be a little off-putting for the less motivated) harp on and on about what is ceart, correct, and what is mícheart, incorrect.

A language has to be true to its own idiom, its own flavour. When French had Montaigne and Hugo, English had Shakespeare and Dickens, and Russian had Tolstoy, all stiffening the sinews of their native tongues, Irish poets and writers were in the hills and on the run, not even worth the five pounds that was put on priests’ heads at the time. Irish, as a language, has a lot of catching up to do, and that’s why people can be over-protective.

And then we come to the third, and saddest, point of all. The single biggest reason Irish is so hard to learn is because we, the state, have made such a phenomenal bags of it.

Glass hammers, rubber nails and chocolate fireplaces are as masterpieces of human achievement compared to what the sovereign Irish nation has done in its efforts to revive the first language. Don’t mind that old chat about it being beaten into us. Reading, writing and arithmetic were beaten into us just as hard, but they seem to have stuck well enough.

Efforts at strengthening the language have succeeded in doing the exact opposite, like it was some sort of subtle plot to kill the language with kindness. For instance, a big effort was made in the 1950s to simplify the spelling of Irish, to make it easy to learn (this is the spelling in the Roman alphabet, not the old Gaelic typeface – that’s another day’s work).

Myles na Gopaleen ridiculed the spelling reform at the time and looking back with history’s perfect hindsight, the spelling reform has been a disaster. Irish remains difficult to spell, and the ham-fisted effort to simplify the spelling of the language has come at the cost of making any books published under the old spelling nearly unreadable.

A patriot and friend of this column sent your correspondent a copy of Seán Ó Ruadháin’s magnificent translation of Maxwell’s Wild Sports of the West of Ireland recently. I can barely read it, because it was published in 1934 and the spelling is very jarring to modern convention. Vandals, vandals, vandals.

And now it’s Joe McHugh’s turn to try his luck with the hobbled and battered language, as bruised by those who nurse it as those who tried to kill it. Not only that, but Joe McHugh has to do it when the spirit of the age says never mind the writing, it’s the speaking that’s important. Irish has no received pronunciation – we can’t even agree on how to say the colour “black”in Irish – is “dubh” pronounced “dove” or “doo”? Nobody knows. The Minister would be well advised to take sneaky notes if he gets a chance.

If Joe McHugh can turn it around, if he can suddenly somehow “get” the language and have it light a fire in him, he can become the greatest champion of the language seen since the Gaelic Revival of the last nineteenth century. It’s not all that likely, but it this column wishes him all the luck in the world. Go n-éirí an bóthar leis.