Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kathleen Ni Houlihan at the Rose of Tralee

First published in the Western People on Monday.



Thank you, thank you, no, you’re too kind, thank you. A chairde go léir, tá fáilte is fiche romhaibh back to the Dome in Tralee where, after that break for the news, it’s time to meet the next Rose. And here she is now – it’s Kathleen Ni Houlihan, ladies and gentlemen!

Oh, thank you Daithí, it’s really great to be here in the Dome in Tralee.

Well, you’re very welcome of course Kathleen, as are all our lovely, lovely girls. Now Kathleen, where are you from? What’s your story?

From? Well. I’m from Ireland of course. You could say I am Ireland, if you want to get metaphysical about it.

Now Kathleen, there’ll be nobody getting physical here tonight before the watershed, we’ll have none of that carry-on. Sure where are you from, woman?

Oh God. Look – let’s say I’m from Sligo if it’s that big a deal. WB Yeats was from Sligo, and he wrote a play about me. It’s as good a place as any.

Oh, it is of course. Beautiful place, Sligo. Lovely fiddlers. And Kathleen, what is it that you do?

What do I do? What don’t I do?

Now look Kathleen, there’ll be time enough for the tongue-twisters later, when we’re backstage. What do you do for a living?

A living. Well. God. I’m a slave I suppose.

A slave! Well by God, we haven’t had one of those, I don’t think, ever, not even back in Gay’s time, and that isn’t today or yesterday. And tell us, what sort of life is it being a slave? Could you call it glamorous?

Glamorous isn’t the first word I’d use, no. It’s not a very glamorous life.

Isn’t it, isn’t it? Well sure, we can’t have everything? And Kathleen, where do you do this slaving?

Oh right here Daithí. Right here in Ireland.

In Ireland! Well, I never heard of that. And how did you get into it?

Oh, I’ve been a slave for years, on and off. I suppose you could say it started eight hundred years ago –

Eight hundred years! Go away out of that!

I’m sorry. I’m speaking now. Eight hundred years, yes, when the Normans came. They weren’t so bad, the poor old eejits. Then the English came. That wasn’t so great.

Indeed it can’t have been. Sure amn’t I often enough in the Aviva myself for games against “The Auld Enemy,” or that never-to-be-forgotten day at Croke Park when –

I’m sorry. Who’s telling this story? You, or me?

!

Thank you. So yeah, the English owned me for years and years. It seemed awful at the time, and there was one of them – what was his name? Ozzy? Odell? No, Oliver; yes, Oliver. He was a pig of a man, there’s no other way to describe him. And it’s true that the Famine wouldn’t have happened in Kensington. Or even Scotland. Besides, if they had a famine in Scotland, how would anybody be able to tell? That’s a hungry country if ever I saw one.

Now Kathleen, don’t get political. We’re live on television, there’s a big referendum coming up –

Are you still here?

Right. I’ll shut up now.

Good. It won’t be before time. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the English. Yes, they seemed a real pain when they were here and we blamed everything on them, a little like the way Dónal Óg Cusack blames everything on on the Cork County Board. He’s funny. But then, when the English left, things were still bad. So it can’t have been all their fault, can it? And then, as if we hadn’t enough of fighting, we started fighting amongst ourselves, because there weren’t enough of us dead. It was bad down here, I remember.

Yes. Yes, it was.

There may be hope for you yet Daithí. Just don’t push your luck. Now, where was I? Oh yes – so, there I was, the English gone, and me still somehow dressed in rags, chained up and scrubbing from rosy-fingered dawn until the black dead of night. So I began to wonder just how it was I could be free and still a slave. There could be one or two in those fancy boxes I see at the back of the theatre here who might know the answer to that.

Oh God. I’ll never get this gig again. They’ll have that little ceolán from Kildare back next year, sure as anything.

I’m sorry, what?

Oh, never mind me. Go on, go on.

You do fairly go on, you know. Anyway, where was I – oh, that’s right. I was down on my knees, scrubbing, every day the good God sent me. And then what do you think?

You entered the Rose of Tralee?

No, you ape. No, I got rich! I met this high roller and he swept me off my feet. We had good times, baby, I’m telling you. That man had pots of money – every summer at the Galway Races, drinking champagne out of my shoe, getting a new car because the old one ran out of petrol, all that. Sure we were all at it.

Not me. I was a butcher, back then. Before all the bling and wasted dreams.

Butcher? I wouldn’t have thought it and how Eleanor Tiernan confused you about the sausages that time. Anyway, there I was, having a fine old time and thinking hard times come again no more, when one day the guards paid us a visit in the Princess Grace room in the Shelbourne. Turns out every check the buck wrote bounced higher than an O’Neill’s size 5. They cuffed him and took him away, and next thing I know I’m finding out that those red-soled shoes might look good in magazines but they’re not so hot for legging it cross-country from Dublin to the Dome in Tralee with the police in hot pursuit.

And tell me Kathleen, do you think you’ll ever learn?

Do you know Daithí, that could be the first intelligent question ever asked at the Rose of Tralee? I hope I do learn, yeah. It’s long past time for me. Robert Emmet said he’d keep a seat for me among the nations of the Earth and maybe, after two hundred years, it’s time I took him up on that.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The ESRI and the True Nature of Education

First published in the Western People on Monday.


The Economic and Social Research Institute, the ESRI, have published a report about the Leaving Cert. The report, titled “Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post-School Transitions”, is a sequel to the Institute’s 2011 hit, “From Leaving Certificate to Leaving School: A Longitudinal Study of Sixth Year Students.”

This year’s report is shorter than the 2011 version – it is seventy-four thousand words long, five thousand shorter than before. One would like to think it’s shorter become some editor, with his cigarette, eyeshade and blue pencil, returned the first draft to the authors with instructions to “punch it up a little bit,” but hope may be in vain.

As may be any hopes of the authors that anyone would read their reports. Seventy thousand words qualifies as novel-length – who on earth is going to plough through all that, and why? A look at what appeared in the press last week would suggest that not only does the ESRI’s Leaving Cert Report tell us nothing we don’t already know, it is based on some painfully naïve suppositions about how the great world turns around.

The ESRI report tells us that social class is a major factor in whether or not a child goes to university, a revelation equal in shock to hearing that night follows day or water is wet.

Some years ago, possibly as many as twenty, Fintan O’Toole wrote a genuinely magnificent column in the Irish Times about the nature of social class. He considered two children, both born on the same day, and rolled dice at each pivotal stage in their development to see what their luck would be like in life.

At birth, the middle class kid rolled a six and the working class kid rolled a one. By the time the kids were in school the gap was of the order of 24-4 or 30-6 and will never be bridged. That’s how the world turns, and has done for as long as humanity has recorded its own history.

The ESRI report does address the problem of students learning off answers for the Leaving Cert, but not quite in the way you might expect. Should the State make an effort to make the foremost exam in the State less predictable than clockwork and taxes?

Why, sure they could do that but the ESRI would be much happier if “discussion could usefully focus on the potential role of project work and team work within senior cycle in equipping young people with the kinds of skills they need for lifelong learning and the labour market.”

This is the sort of stuff we have to listen to all the time about education. Forget all those fuddy-duddy notions about learning stuff you didn’t know. Project work and teamwork are very much where it’s at.

Reading these sorts of theories, you would be forgiven for wondering if some of the theorists have ever worked on a project or in a team, because the chief thing you learn from working on a project or in a team is that Hell is other people.

Projects aren’t collaborative efforts. The majority of people on a project aren’t pushed. They’ll do enough to keep the boss off their backs but after that, well, life is for living, not projects, as far as they’re concerned.

One person on the project will do more than half the work, for different reasons – enthusiasm, natural leadership, fear, whatever. But as sure as God made little green apples there will also be at least one person on the project who won’t do a tap, not even under threat of violence. He or she has figured out that the leader and/or the others will crumble and cover for him rather than shop him to the bosses. And that sort of Machiavellianism is not a lesson that we should be teaching our children.

The other thing you have to wonder about these educational theorists is if they ever met a child. They seem to have a very vague idea of how children operate. The theorists will tell you that, rather than hammering home times tables and handing out mountains of homework, if you just open the child’s minds to the wonders of mathematics, they’ll light up like tiny stars on every point of the co-ordinated plane.

The theorists tell you that people shiver and break out in hives at the very mention of the world “maths” because the teachers are teaching it badly. The theorists may be assured that if the maths teachers knew a better way to teach maths they would do, for the same reason they walk into the classroom, rather than hop.

The current vogue in teaching maths seems determined to make what was once straightforward complex, for no apparent reason. Its proponents say it’s because it encourages the children. But being confused isn’t the same as thinking, a fundamental point the theorists seem to miss.

The US equivalent of our Project Maths is called the Common Core. One of the Common Core support materials outlines an old school maths question – “If 3(y-1)=8, what is y?” – and goes on to say it’s no good because “this question is an example of solving equations as a series of mechanical steps.”

How is that a bad thing? All maths is built on one single sentence, written by Euclid of Alexandria, three or four hundred years before the birth of Christ. “A point is that of which there is no part” is the sentence with which Euclid opens his book, The Elements. Euclid took the smallest thing there is, a thing can cannot be broken into smaller parts, and built a whole mathematical world on it, in a series of mechanical steps.

Reader, if it was good enough for Euclid, it’s good enough for you. If you got your Leaving Cert results last week, congratulations and the best of luck to you. If you’re facing into the Leaving next year, there is one little-known and under-exploited trick that will stand to you. Keep doing your homework. Everything falls into place after that.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mayo v Kerry, Down Through the Years

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Kerry and Mayo are both western, coastal counties, with neither one likely to be mistaken for somewhere in the Golden Vale or the Garden of Ireland. Both are ravaged by emigration, both have Gaeltachta, and they even share an obsession with Gaelic football.

But here is the difference – when it comes to football, Kerry win and Mayo lose.

Every country’s folk literature has prince and pauper stories – two boys who look exactly alike but, through accidents of fate, are living completely different lives. In Gaelic football, Kerry are the royal sons, enjoying the spoils of victory. Mayo … well, Mayo are down in the scullery, washing the potatoes.

It’s hard to believe in the light of current events, but the Mayo and Kerry rivalry hasn’t always been one-sided. Kerry faced Mayo as Munster Champions when Mayo won their third and last All-Ireland, in 1951. They drew the first semi-final before Mayo edged past the Kingdom in a 2-4 to 1-5 victory in the replay.

Few on that 1951 team could have thought that Mayo would win just four Nestor Cups in the next thirty years, in 1955, 1967, 1969 and 1981. For the remaining twenty-six years, Mayo couldn’t get out of Connacht.

Mayo played Kerry twice in the four semi-finals that followed those four Connacht titles in those barren thirty years. In 1969, Kerry were reeling from their third-straight defeat at the hands of Down in an All-Ireland Final, a streak of northern dominance that gets Kerry backs up still, nearly fifty years later.

Mayo had a golden generation at that time that was born, to borrow Thomas Gray’s words, to blush unseen. It was the bad luck of Ray Prendergast, Johnny Farragher, Willie McGee, the peerless Jinkin’ Joe Corcoran and more to be in their pomp when Galway had their greatest-ever team. Mayo finally beat Galway in 1967, and had their best chance at an All-Ireland final appearance two years later, when they faced Kerry in the semi-final.

Mayo lost by a point. They had a free to draw, but it sailed wide. Kerry went on to beat Offaly in the All-Ireland Final, while Mayo went into decline. For twelve years Mayo lost to every county in Connacht in one year or another. Some years Mayo were unlucky, and some years they were just plain bad. But Mayo always lost, year after year.

Until Mayo finally broke through in 1981, and met Kerry again in the All-Ireland semi-final. At half-time it was all going to plan as Mayo led 1-6 to 1-5.

But Kerry’s greatest-ever team woke up in the second half, and scored 1-13 without reply. Mayo were buttered up and down Croke Park, scrunched up and put out with the rubbish. Welcome back to the big-time.

Fifteen years later, the teams met again in the first All-Ireland semi-final of 1996. Kerry had won only their second Munster title in the nine years since O’Dwyer’s men finally fell to Father Time, and were managed by one of Dwyer’s great lieutenants, Páidí Ó Sé. The early ‘nineties weren’t good for Mayo either, as every year the team found new ways to get knocked out of the Championship in a more humiliating fashion than the year before.

John Maughan was named the new Mayo manager in 1995. A former county player whose career was cut short by injury, Maughan had managed Clare to a Munster Final win over Kerry four years before. Mayo had beaten Galway on a wet day in Castlebar to win the Nestor Cup, but when the sides met each other in the All-Ireland semi-final, everybody knew who were the aristocrats and who hadn’t a seat in their trousers. And then the ball was thrown in, and the world turned upside-down.

Mayo have had many sweet days in the summers since 1981, but there’s a strong case to be made for that semi-final win over Kerry in 1996 to be the sweetest. It certainly wasn’t expected – there was strolling room on the Hill that day, room to wander down to another barrier, ask the people there if they could believe it either, and then wander back, shaking the head.

In their dreams, Mayo might have thought about scraping by Kerry, somehow. No-one saw a six-point thumping, 2-13 to 1-10, graced by goals by James Nallen (“Nallen has it now … to McHale … back to Nallen ... GOAL! JAMES NALLEN!”, as Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh put it at the time) and the current Mayo manager, who revelled in the great stage of Croke Park during his playing career.

The 1996 Final and replay were what they were, but none of that seemed to matter on the morning of the 1997 Final. Mayo were back in the Final after beating Galway in Tuam for the first time since the 1950s, and feared no man. Someone said later that Mayo must have been the first team to play Kerry in an All-Ireland final and think they just had to turn up. Nobody told Maurice Fitzgerald, and the Kingdom was restored by a man who is a bigger hero in Kerry than even the medal-laden heroes of the seventies and eighties.

Mayo and Kerry have met four times since, with Kerry winning them all. No; with Kerry unleashing Hell on Mayo, great waves of brimstone-filled fiery wrath and destruction, flailing Mayo to ribbons time and again.

But the defeat in 2011 was not like those of 2004, ’05, and ’06. James Horan’s team is being paid the greatest complement that can be paid a team, and they showed signs of that in the first year of Horanism. Mayo are now streetwise, and not to be tangled with.

By contrast, there is an echo of 1997 about Kerry, with their having discovered yet another skinny magician who seems able to command the very elements themselves. Kerry are hungry to make up for the 2011 Final loss to Dublin should Donegal fail to win the other semi-final, while Mayo have long ago gone past hunger to a deep and awful spiritual want. Who will triumph on Sunday? Reader, watch this space.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is UFC Really a Sport?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Consider two fighting Irishmen, in fair Las Vegas where we set our scene. But these men are not alike in dignity, and are viewed differently despite their very similar pursuits.

Conor McGregor, the Ultimate Fighter, is hailed on all sides as an athlete and hero while poor Sheamus O’Shaunessy, being a professional wrestler, is considered some sort of circus act.

It’s hard to make a case for professional wrestling being a sport, chiefly because it’s not. Wrestling is not a sport the same way Coronation Street isn’t a sport. But it entertains the children and can’t really be said to do any harm.

But since when did we decide to take Mixed Martial Arts seriously? Is there really that big a difference between these two wild and whiskery Irishmen?

Is the Ultimate Fighting Championship an evolutionary leap from boxing, as its adherents would attest, or is just an offshoot of wrestling, sold in the global marketplace like so many pounds of lard and with just about the same nutritional value?

Men have always fought, and probably always will. It’s too deep in the genes to ever go away. Fighting is certainly in the Irish genes – we had the faction fights of the 18th and 19th centuries and even today some families, for better or for worse, still settle disputes in the old-fashioned way, with their bare knuckles.

John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensbury, was the man whose twelve rules codified fighting into boxing, the sweet science, and it was boxing that was the pre-eminent fighting sport of the 20th Century. Mike Tyson once said that the Heavyweight Champion of the World was the “baddest man on the planet,” by which Tyson meant that being Heavyweight Champion made you the hardest man alive. It’s not hard to understand the attraction of that.

But that was twenty or more years ago. Boxing is a dying sport now, killed by its own greed. Being the “baddest man on the planet” ceased to mean anything when there were four or five baddest men on the planet at any one time, as different associations named different Champions in the hope of getting a slice of the lucrative American TV pie.

The increased money available in the other professional sports attracted men who might otherwise have been boxers. The sanitisation of society and real fears over the long-term damage that boxing can do haven’t done anything for the sport either. Amateur boxing is popular but it’s nearly unrecognisable from the pro sport in its terrible glory.

Boxing’s slow death has opened a vacuum in the market, and it’s that market that the discipline of Mixed Martial Arts, through its primary exponent, the Unified Fighting Championship (UFC), is trying to fill. As a marketable product, UFC is inspired, a perfect fit for its throwaway age. As a sport – well. Ultimate Fighting isn’t quite, as the young people, all that.

The idea of the Ultimate Fighting Championship is that a Champion is just that – ultimate. He would win a streetfight as quickly as he would win a boxing match. It is boxing without the science or, indeed, the sweetness. Raw, visceral, primal stuff.

Except that it’s not, is it? The UFC is as far removed from streetfighting – or brawling, or causing public nuisance, as streetfighting is also described – as boxing is. Barefoot streetfighting might not be the best tactic, not least as some Rommel of the backstreets may be wearing bovver boots himself, and take an ungallant advantage.

There is something counter-evolutionary in seeing a barefoot person wearing gloves. It’s as if he or she got mixed up somewhere in the process of evolution. But kicking has to be part of this Ultimate Fighting, not because it’s a fully-rounded martial art, but because some sort of kicking motion is essential for audience appeal.

A lot of people who like UFC grew up watching video games, and fighting video games always feature kicking. Therefore, the UFC had to have some sort of kicking action in the show, so the lads in the audience would know when to cheer.

They couldn’t have booted kicks though, because there’s a big difference between a kick from a bare foot and a kick from a booted foot. Real life isn’t a video game. Therefore, UFC’s tough guys fight barefoot. In their tootsies, like little girls.

You don’t read that on the posters.

It’s a pity that boxing has gone into its terminal decline. The Marquess of Queensbury brought a kind of nobility to fighting. Before its corruption, there was an honesty to boxing that is not so obvious in UFC.

Domhnall Mac Amhlaigh, a Galwayman with Kilkenny roots, wrote an excellent memoir of his life as a navvy in England after the Second World War called Dialann Deoraí – “Diary of an Exile.” At that time, socialising was done by attending dances run by the local Catholic parish. The dances themselves were dry, but the pubs nearby did a roaring trade as men reacted as they always do in times in drought. They loaded up, and arrived at the hall steaming.

Naturally, fights broke out as a consequence. However, there was one priest who ran a particular dance and didn’t care for the Irish letting their nation down in pagan England. He broke up the fights himself, and held the combatants back until the dance was over.

Then, when there was no-one in the hall but themselves, the priest marked out a ring, handed out boxing gloves and had the boys settle their disputes like gentlemen.

There is no real trace of the gentleman about UFC and how it markets itself. Certainly, gentlemen were few and far between among some of the men who climbed through professional ropes over the years, but the sport always had that aura, that layer of discipline and self-control running through the violence and holding it in check. This counts for nothing in UFC. It’s all about the shaping.

Shaping, because it would be interesting to know just how tough these lads really are, when they have their shoes on and aren’t oiled up for the cameras. We have seen some robust exchanges in Croke Park recently – would any of the Ultimate Fighters fancy seventy minutes of that?

A friend of the column was fascinated by WWE Wrestling when he was a child. One day, his father came in as he was watching some fight, with some guy posing in the ring. “He might look tough now,” said the old man, “but I wonder how tough he’d be after digging twelve ridges of potatoes?”

Not very, is this column’s guess.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Did Ireland Win the First World War?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

There are so many events commemorating World War I this month that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Ireland won the thing.

Last week saw a Nationwide special on the four Irish regiments that participated in the war, and this week sees a TV series broadcast over two nights called “My Great War”. There’s also a panel discussion to be chaired by John Bowman after the second episode of “My Great War” where we discuss the war and what we can learn from it. We will discuss it sensibly, as a nation. Just like we always do.

Because Irish culture has never been so influenced by that of the United Kingdom since we theoretically severed our links with the mainland, it’s important to notice that two strands are being woven into the World War One narrative in the media that swirls around us, all day, every day.

The first strand is the narrative of the war itself; that it happened, how it happened, how and where it was fought, and all that. Most of this is coming from the UK, and is very interesting for those interested in that period of history.

The second strand, however, is very particular to Ireland. That narrative is being spun like a top and it’s important to be aware that spinning is going on.

This second narrative posits that World War One was a ‘just’ war, fought for honorable reasons, and that the soldiers who served in Irish regiments were unfairly discriminated against when they came home and also in subsequent history. Those that did come home, of course. Many did not.

And that narrative is fine. It’s a perfectly legitimate point of view. Former Taoiseach John Bruton made a related argument in a hugely under-reported speech at an event in the Irish Embassy in London last month to mark the hundredth anniversary of the passing of the 1914 Home Rule Act.

Bruton made the point that the Easter Rising had legitimised violence in Irish politics, and the nation would have been better off if the Rising never happened, had stuck with John Redmond and had Home Rule delivered after the war in 1919.

There are a lot of people who currently think Bruton may have had a point. There are those who were never happy about independence. There are those who were badly treated by the independent Ireland are very understandably bitter of over it.

And there are other people who are beginning to look back on the ninety years of Irish independence, and don’t see that much to show for it. We had the boom and the crash and now, worst of all, it looks like we’ve learned nothing, zero, the null set, from it all.

The Dublin property market is overheating again, the Banking Inquiry is looking like a sequel to the Mrs Brown movie and the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have to find a way to mix oil, water, fire and ice to pass a budget in October. So asking if it was all worthwhile is a legitimate question.

But Irish public life is ill-suited to legitimate questions. Politicians and public figures call for calm and reasoned debates on abortion or the nature of marriage or Ireland’s role in World War I but they certainly don’t get them.

We don’t do town hall debates. We don’t do going on the record. We don’t follow Martin Luther and say “here I stand; I can do no other.” What we do instead are shouting matches that properly belong outside chip shops at two in the morning.

And while men are threatening to remove their jackets and engage in boxing, the actual business of public life and government is going on just the same, in much more sedate, though hardly more civilised, surroundings. Nods are nodded and winks are winked until eventually, through highways and byways, deals get cut and things get done while the politicians are still roaring to be held back, before they do damage.

It would be something if people took their stand and said yes, it was a great thing that Ireland played a role in the Great War. Or if they took an opposite view, a view that was quite common until the hundredth anniversary of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination loomed into view, and people saw a chance to rewrite some history books.

Because the opposite and long-standing view of the Great War is that, of all the many wars fought for no reason, World War One was the most pointless. It was a war fought by political entities that were wiped out by it – the House of Hapsburg in Austria-Hungary, the House of Hohenzollern in Germany, the House of Romanov in Russia and the Ottoman Empire that was based in Turkey.

The only House that survived was that of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who were clever enough to change their name to the rather more British-sounding Windsor on the 17th of July, 1917. We look forward to the commemoration of that anniversary in three years’ time.

The rulers of the three “Great Powers” – Germany, Britain and Russia – were all first cousins. Pictured side-by-side, it’s nearly impossible to tell George V of England from Nicholas II of Russia. The three Emperors used to give each other commissions in each other’s army, because all three of them loved dressing up and playing soldiers.

But small ripples can transform into great waves, destroying all before them. These three Emperor-cousins’ love of playing soldiers lead to real soldiers being mobilized one hundred years ago this week, real soldiers who were slaughtered in their thousands and thousands for the next four years.

John Bowman’s TV debate will probably focus on the Irish in the British Army, but that’s too narrow a scope to tell this story. It would be nice if the full story of how the First World War started were told as part of the debate – not least as events in the same corner of the world seem to be getting edgy once again, one hundred years after the start of the war to end wars.

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.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why So Serious? The Relentless Misery of Irish Literature

First published in the Western People on Monday.

In his review of the prize-winning and more-or-less-impossible-to-read novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, Professor John Sutherland wondered in an aside why it is that Irish fiction so hates Ireland. The Professor listed the culprits in the litany of literary misery in an article in the Guardian newspaper after McBride’s novel won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction a month or two ago.

Sutherland pointed out that James Joyce and Samuel Beckett high-tailed it to Paris as quick as ever they could, with Joyce charmingly describing Ireland as “a sow that eats her farrow.” Sutherland also remarks that John Banville, whether writing as himself or as Benjamin Black, is unlikely to send anyone to the Emergency Room in the local hospital having split his or her sides from laughing.

And Sutherland hit the nail square on the head. Irish literature – that is to say, those books that the chattering classes of south Dublin like to talk about – is generally one long tedious whine, with chapter breaks every now and again so you can choke back a double whiskey to stiffen your courage.

In order to successfully compose an essay on the Irish novel as part of his English studies in NUI, Galway, some years ago a contemporary of your correspondent made the mistake of putting off the necessary background reading until the weekend before he sat down to compose. As such, he had to binge-read the four novels set for the course in order to share his insights with his professor.

The first he read was A Pagan Place, by Edna O’Brien. There is no line of dialogue in that book anywhere. It’s like being stuck beside Edna herself on a bus making its way over and back on the backroads of her native Clare on a wet Tuesday night in late October.

She drones on and on in a stream of consciousness while you yourself only want to run away into the Aillwee Caves and sit in a damp, dark and cold hole until she gets bored and nods off in her seat.

But our hero got through it, in the end. Next up, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore, a laugh-a-minute romp set in Belfast about the hilarious antics of a middle-aged spinster who deals with her loneliness by sinking into alcoholism.

Unsurprisingly, our man could have done with a drink himself by the time he got through to the end of that one, but he thought that he had the back broken on the task now. He reached up to his shelf, took down The Dark, by John McGahern, and started to read.

One chapter later, the book was on the floor and our man was sprinting into town like Keith Higgins when he sees green grass ahead of him. Our man burst into a sleepy Hole-in-the-Wall bar on Sunday night and couldn’t even speak until he had imbibed a quart or two of that Heavenly soup brewed in St James’ Gate.

After reading three Irish novels in a row, each more miserable than the last, this student of literature found himself in the same position as Lucille, that strange woman whom Kenny Rogers met that time in a bar in Toledo – he was hungry for laughter, and here ever after, he was after whatever the other life brings. Anything but more McGaherism, Moore-ism or, God between us and small farms, O’Brienism. Anything but O’Brienism.

O’Brien and McGahern were giants of the ‘sixties generation of Irish novelists. Has the boom given rise to a slightly jollier style of Irish novelist? Could it be possible that the bust that followed the boom has dragged the Irish novel into a more mature worldview, the sort of sangfroid that comes from viewing triumph and disaster, and viewing both disasters just the same?

Er, no. As well as Banville the Bleak and McBride the Miserable, mentioned above, the other two greats of contemporary Irish fiction are Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright.

Tóibín’s great hero is the American writer of the last century, Henry James, a man assured of a podium finish in any list of Great Bores of Letters. If that’s what Tóibín is looking for good luck to him, but I don’t plan to plough through ten dense pages only to discover that Hector has put two spoons of sugar in his tea.

Anne Enright won the Booker Prize for a book that she herself described as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.” Be still, my heart. Not only are you wall-to-wall with the slowly dying and the terminally dysfunctional should you decide to read the thing despite all advance warning, you are also in danger of having young men in horn-rimmed glasses and beards too big for them corner you in bars wanting to talk about the work moved them. Thanks a lot, Anne.

Because Literature is Serious-with-a-capital-S, people think that means it can’t be light-hearted, even just a little bit. But we’ve known since Aristotle that the line between tragedy and comedy is a very thin one, and it can often be difficult to tell one from the other. Life itself is like that, and art is meant to reflect life, not to provide pseudo-intellectual fibre in hipsters’ morning cereal.

Shakespeare has long been considered the greatest writer in English and what people seem to overlook is that Shakespeare was a funny guy. Even his bleakest play, King Lear, is shot through with flashes of humour, chiefly involving the love triangle between Lear’s daughters and the Duke of Gloucester’s son, Edmund. Edmund is quite the boyo, all things considered.

Most appropriate of all to today’s discussion is the fate of Cinna the Poet in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Marc Anthony has inflamed the passions of the masses after the murder of Julius Caesar, and there are riots all over Rome. A group of rioters catch Cinna the Poet and assume he is the anti-Caesar conspirator of the same name, crying “kill him! Kill him!” all the while.

“I am Cinna the Poet! I am Cinna the Poet!” pleads Cinna. There is a pause, as the disappointed rioters mull this disappointing news over. Then one of the mob, inspired, shouts “Kill him for his bad verses! Kill him for his bad verses!” and that is the end of Cinna.

Miserable Irish novelists might be well advised to stay out of Rome. Just in case.