Friday, April 30, 2004

The Irish Language - How We Lost It, How We Can Save It

There was some poor soul from last Sunday’s march to protest the exclusion of Irish from the list of officially recognised European languages explaining his position to Vincent Browne on Browne’s radio show on Tuesday night. I use “explaining” in its broadest sense – the man was so poor that even the notoriously narky Browne took pity on him, and, rather than savage him as is his wont, Browne merely sighed deeply at the more meandering of the Gaelgeoir’s points.

All very depressing I’m afraid. The Gaelgeoir was an avatar of all that is wrong with Irish, and a miserable personification of why the language is virtually dead at the start of the 21st Century – he was rambling, unfocussed, and uncoordinated. He hadn’t thought out what he was going to say, and, even when Browne offered him the easy question of why Irish was so important, he dropped the ball on the tryline.

The Irish language is important is because it’s part of what we are, part of what makes us unique. Without it, we become even more of an adjunct to Britain and the US, another assimilated cell in the depressing homogenisation of the country that will soon make Kerry indistinguishable from Kent or from Kentucky. And that would be a bad thing.

The three oldest surviving literary artefacts in Western Culture are written in Greek, in Latin, and in Irish. Irish, as a language, has a tremendous pedigree, but it has never attained the status of Latin or Greek not because it is a lesser language, but because the Greeks and Romans were conquerers, and the Irish were the conquered. Language, like history, is written by the victor.

The mere fact that Irish survived at all is due in no small part to the efforts of the revivalists of the late Nineteenth Century. Prior to this, speaking Irish was just a burden, an impediment to a child’s chance of being able to speak the language of whatever faraway land where he or she could emigrate and find a new life for him or herself, a life that he or she could not find at home under any circumstances. The memory of the Famine was widespread; Irish was the language of the hungry, the poor, the dispossessed. English was the language of hope, and of a possible future.

As such, the Irish nation owes a huge debt to people like Douglas Hyde and an tAthar Peadar Ó Laoghaire – without their efforts, Irish would be lost to us entirely. Unfortunately, it is also because of their efforts that the teaching of Irish has been so uniformly poor, and why, after fourteen years of learning Irish in school, twenty per cent of our natural span, that so many of us leave school unable to speak the First National Language.

In setting about to save the dying language, the Gaelic League had two choices. They could establish a standard, a melding of the different dialects that survived in the country into a whole, or they could do as they did, which was to recognise the spoken language of the people as the authentic Irish of today, as opposed to the long-lost Irish of poets like the monk whose cat was called Pangúr Bán. The establishment of a standard was tricky; the might and glory of Irish as a language was long in the past, before Strongbow’s arrival – an attempt to impose a standard would always run the risk of being rejected out of hand by speakers who spoke the language of their fathers and their fathers before them, and who would reject this Standardised Irish as being no less alien than English. Irish would become a Gaelic Esperanto – spoken by few, understood by fewer, loved by none.

And so, they chose another way. The founders of the Gaelic League, and those that came after them, like George Thompson in the 1920s, saw the spoken Irish of the people as the true Irish, and if there were regional variations then so be it – all regions were to be cherished equally. Except Munster Irish, which was seen as more equal than others.

People say they love their children equally, but it’s not true – deep down, there’s a favourite, and the unspoken favourite of the Gaelic League was Gaeilge na Mumhan. A lot of that had to do with the Blasket Islands of course, where idealists could see Islandsmen facing into the broad Atlantic in those flimsy currachs and say here, at least, is the true noble savage of Rousseau; here, on an island of Kerry, is the Natural Man, the man untainted by “civilisation.”

As the country went through the birth-pangs of independence, much lip-service was paid to the language, and precious little done to guide it from infancy to childhood. Because all dialects were recognised, no one word or no one construction was ever entirely correct, and equally, no one word or construction was ever entirely incorrect.

This was confusing at first; when it came to neologisms, words that had to be invented to describe things that never existed before and therefore had no name, the situation became farcical. At one stage, Irish had eighteen different words to translate the word “telescope”; each one was equally correct in the eyes of the law, or such law as existed in formalising an Irish grammar and vocabulary.

Any conquered language is always in danger of becoming pidginised; that is, borrowing words from the conquering vocabulary because equivalent words do not exist in its own vocabulary. The vision of the nineteenth century saviours of the language, that the Irish that was spoken in such Gaeltachta that survived was to promoted above any attempts to set up a language academy along the lines of the French, the Welsh, the Finnish or the Hungarians, has become a millstone around the language’s neck. The Irish revival was built on a collection of patois rather than an exemplary text that demonstrated a correct standard of Irish. All languages are spoken in different ways by different speakers, but they all need a central corpus of vocabulary and grammar if meaning is to be retained.

One of indictments of the incredibly poor job we have done as a nation to save our own language is the excellent job that the Welsh have done in saving theirs. What we forget is that the Welsh had God on their side – the core text of correct Welsh is based on a sixteenth century translation of the Bible into Welsh, and that provides a tremendous resource for whatever the Welsh equivalent of a fíorGhael is to say that such and such a construction is true to the genius of Welsh, and that such and such is not.

The French enjoy the same with the Academie Francaise, which enthusiastically joins battle with alien words like “le weekend,” which, to the Francophile, lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Poor misfortunate Irish lacks any such school of champions to defend her honour. The nearest Irish has is the Department of the Gaeltacht, but there is a question of what purpose exactly that Department serves, other than ensuring a constant stream of harp-stamped envelopes making their way to the residents of said Gaeltachta.

It’s a crying shame, and it’s about to get worse. The absence of a standard means that we, as a nation, are lacking a vital bulwark to fight the homogenisation of our culture. Because the language is dying, make no mistake about it. Vincent Browne’s interviewee indicated that the last survey conducted reported 100,000 people in the country speaking Irish daily – if speaking Irish daily constitutes being able to say sláinte then perhaps the results are accurate, but otherwise the language is dying on its knees.

I’d like to think that the advent of TG4, which has done more to make Irish cool than any other single initiative post Independence, will give rise to a generation that will find speaking Irish as natural as speaking English; that rather than being self-conscious about the language and associating it with school that they will use it as a emerald badge of distinction in an increasingly indistinct world. I’d like to think so, but I have no evidence one way or the other, and I am not by my nature an optimist.

The Government has to start getting serious about the language, and it has to start getting serious about the language now. We need to remember the proud history of the language, before the Strongbow, when the Irish monks brought learning back to Europe and Irish was a language of equal standing with Latin or Greek. We need to set up an equivalent to l’Acadamie Francaise to ensure that any new words coming into the language belong there, and that any leaving the language are doing so as part of a natural evolution, rather than as an act of linguistic eugenics. We need to say as a nation that this is who we are and this is what we believe in, or else apply for the franchise for the fifty-first state, or go knocking on the back door of Buckingham Palace and ask her Majesty if she will accept back her most humble, and penitent, servants.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Danger: Wide Load!

I read in my USA Today to my horror but no means to my great surprise that US children's clothing manufacturers are now making a considerable percentage of their clothes in, ahem, larger sizes. 15.6% of American children were reported as obese in 2002, and all that blubber just has to be covered up somehow. Why, my goodness, in the warmer climates of California or New Mexico, all that condition could leave children going down to the store for supplies and coming home basted, completely unbeknownst to themselves.

The haberdashers are being discrete about this fatty range that they're currently flogging ("I don't want to say we have a larger customer than we used to," says Rochelle Williams, spokeswoman for Sears, as quoted in USA Today) but An Spailín believes that as The Market clearly does not make judgement on body size, neither should it let bounds of taste, decorum of feeling stay its mighty hand from turning another dollar. After all, if the king-sized kiddies can't identify with the notion of in for a penny, in for pound, who can?

As such, while applauding JC Penney's consideration in providing teeshirts with wider arms (some people like to keep fat on their arms the way Popeye used his for tattoos), An Spailpín believes that JC should go the whole (pardon me) hog. As well as manufacturing such conventional apparel as trousers and jackets, why not accessorise with Hamburger Holsters, for emergency supplies of Big Kahuna burgers, Fries Supplies, for plenty of chips, and a Personal Drip, where the young person can walk down the steet trailing his or her own personal drip supplying them with sody-pop intravenously?

There's gold in them there grills, I'm telling you.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Scooter, the Talking Baseball

It's finally time to issue a moron-torium of the consistent dumbing down of our lives. Here's the latest from Fox Sports in the States, and don't think it'll take too long before someone at ITV or RTÉ whose hairline begins just above his or her eyebrows to take notes and start making localised adjustments: starting last Friday, with the first nationally televised game of the new Major League Baseball season, Fox Sports are accompanying their telecast with an animated talking baseball, called Scooter the Talking Baseball, which will explain what the different pitches in baseball are, and how they work.

This is bad as is; what's worse that is Scooter is being voiced by Tom Kenny, who made his name as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. So that should make him pretty authoritative on the split-fingered fastball, as invented by Nolan Ryan, shouldn't it? Nothing like patrician gravitas, I always say.

And here's the worst, the lowest of the low, the nadir: last Friday's Boston Globe quotes David Hill, who's the chairman of Fox Sports, and as such is getting vast, vast sums of money for his job, explaining the idea behind Scooter, the talking baseball. He says that Scooter is aimed at younger viewers to explain the different pitches, which is fair enough. But by younger viewers, he means ten to twelve year olds.

Ten to twelve year olds need to have things explained to them by cartoons? What next? White House Press Conferences hosted by Barney?

Oh God, this is next. David Hill says that the idea behind Scooter, the talking baseball is that "it's a way of sugar-coating the information pill."

Somebody sugar-coat me a bullet - I can't take much more of this.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Blumenthal on Bush

Sidney Blumethal's analysis of President Bush from today's Guardian. Insightful, fascinating but my God, how depressing.

Buddy, Can You Spare Me a Quid?

It all seems to have started with a seemingly offhand observation by Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph that there was a mistaken construction of the Vocative Case in the Latin of Mel Gibson's the Passion of the Christ. It's one of those Psued's Moments, when a skilled conversationalist can crush the opposition like a bug, and a maneuver that's always popular, as evidenced by the number of the people that take delight in declaiming the plural of "octopus" as "octopi" - more on the molluscs later.

Anyway, in such spare time as God grants Boris Johnson, he also edits The Spectator magazine, which is Old Tory in all its works. As such, it was no real suprise to read in the Spectator some weeks ago a phillipic by one Henry Mount decrying the declining standards of the teaching of Classics (Latin and Greek languages and cultures) in the British educational system, and inferring that it was really no wonder they lost the Empire if this is what's being taught in the schools.

Battle has been joined this week by one James Morwood, dean of Wadham College, Oxford, who posits that the classics are doing just fine, thank you very much and, if Henry Mount reckons doing Latin in University now is so damned easy, he, Morwood, will forward a copy of this year's Latin exam to Henry Mount and mark the returned script himself, and we'll all see who's a wiseguy then.

How thrillingly primal. But it is in its next step that the Specator earns the undying admiration of An Spailpín and, by implication, all right-thinking citizens. Because the Spectator is now running a competition where the readers are encouraged to translate about three hundred words from any article in that particlular week's edition into either Latin or Ancient Greek, either in prose or in verse, and submit it to the editors. There will be a monthly winner who will recieve that most gentlemanly of prizes, a bot of champers, and the overall winner after a year will presented with a special cup.

How perfectly marvellous. I feel like cheering, I really do.

Still wondering about the octopus? The correct English plural of octopus is octopuses. The crack about octopi comes from a knowledge that the -us root in Latin pluralises to -i, thus allowing people to extrapolate and show off how clever they think they are.

Where octopi argument falls down, of course, is that while -us pluralises to -i in Latin, octopus is not Latin; it is Greek, and therefore pluralises as octopodes if you're playing that game. Sorry about that.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The Roy Keane Debate on Prime Time

Whatever else may accrue from the return of the great lost leader to the national colours, the nation may rest assured of one thing: Roy Keane’s return to international soccer gave us the single greatest fifteen minutes of current affairs television in the history of Prime Time.

Prime Time’s boring current affairs remit would be taken up later in the show by the boring Shinners and the boring war in Iraq, but RTÉ looked into the heart of the people, and saw that one thing was etched in the nation’s heart, and that one thing was Roy Maurice Keane. We wanted a Keano debate, and we were not to be disappointed.

Cut to Miriam O’Callaghan, and her sideshow of soccerati. Reading from right to left, we had Alan Hunter (I’m not sure of his name, but his stellar contribution will live on while my bones have long turned to dust), head of some sort of supporters’ club; Peter Bryne, late of the Irish Times, and Eamon Dunphy, pundit, writer, biographer, broadcaster, and boulvardier.

Miriam opened service by lobbing a gentle half-volley towards the patrician form of the former chief soccer correspondent of the Irish Times: How dare Roy Keane come back to the Irish team after stabbing us all in the back?

Peter was having none of it. As for as Peter was concerned, Roy had broken more hearts than a combination of Rudolf Valentino and Pepe Le Peu, and his return could only mean The End of Civilisation as We Know It.

If Peter was having none of Keano, the Dunph was having none of Peter. “Peter Byrne is full of this same old guff about the jersey,” sneered Dunphy, as only he can, and placed Keano up there in the pantheon of current Irish sporting greats who prepare properly, unlike the FAI, who do not prepare properly and are therefore “a joke.”

Things were getting heated – time for some comic relief. Cut to Alan Hunter, who looked like a team of covert RTÉ operatives had snatched him from his fireside where he’d just been enjoying a mug of cocoa and an instructive read of the Herald. In a fashion statement seldom seen in the Prime Time studios, Alan was wearing, reading north from the equator, a red shirt, a gaudy tie, the chunkiest woolly cardie ever seen on television, a startlingly bristly red moustache, longish red hair combed straight back and a red face, to complete the cleverly co-ordinated ensemble.

Like few of the great thinkers, Alan was able to maintain two conflicting ideas existing in the same reality at once. Alan was delighted to have Roy Keane back playing for Ireland meaning that, as he so poetically put it, “Roy Keane will finish his Irish career in a green shirt under a blue sky rather than a grey cloud.” At the same time, Alan was highly concerned that Peter had a point, and that the return of Keano would lead to The End of Civilisation as We Know It.

At this point Miriam, like the good pro she is, sensed that in Alan she had a glugger of the first water. Better to stir things up between the Dunph and Peter Byrne, just as she had when she chaired a Saipan debate two years ago between the Dunph and Cathal Dervan – what memories, to think back to those two great soccer stags rutting for her favour!

Peter and Eamon were coming to the boil nicely. Peter thought that the only reason that Robbie Keane and Damien Duff played as well as they did in the World Cup was because Roy Keane wasn’t around (to take their lunch money and pull their hair, by implication). Eamo was having none of it, countering that great players will always come to the fore, and that anything Peter Byrne says is compromised by Byrne’s position as Jack Charlton’s biographer, Jack Charlton’s tenure as Irish manager being, as far as Eamon is concerned, the End of Civilisation as We Knew It.

The debate raged between the two old warriors, but, out of the corner of her eye, Miriam could see that Alan was getting agitated. She thought she’d better give him a go.

In an historic moment that stands proud with Parnell’s declaration that no-one shall call a halt to the march of a nation and DeValera’s reply to Churchill, a by-now quite agitated Alan told the nation that the crisis of Roy Keane’s return was so severe as to require a plebiscite of the people. The question of whether or not Roy Keane should play soccer for Ireland should be decided by process of constitutional referendum.

Miriam was, understandably, stunned by this. The slightest trace of a smirk could be seen around her perfectly rouged lips. The Dunph had enough – he realised that it was time to settle the debate once and for all. Drawing the most famous grizzled and craggy head in the field of soccer punditry closer to the mike that not a drop of bile should be missed, Eamon Dunphy asked the question the Nation needed answered:

“Miriam,” he asked, “where did you get these guys?”

Cue pandemonium. The frown on Peter Bryne’s face darkened and deepened, while Alan decided that the time for talking was through. “There are a lot of people who’d like to be sitting as close to Eamon Dunphy as I am now,” said Alan, while punching his open palm with his fist.

Miriam realised that the ancient need of the masses for bread and circuses had been appeased. Over to Iraq, after the fifteen golden minutes of sheer televisual quality. If Roy can do as well with emerald green on his back, all will be well in Erin.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Life on Mars

An absolutely fascinating story from Sunday's Observer about the possibility of terraforming Mars. Better get them before they get us, the little green bastards.

Monday, April 05, 2004

A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You - Is Mick O'Dwyer the Only Man that Can Save Gaelic Football?

The coming football season has the potential to be one of the most significant in the long history of the game. The past two All-Ireland titles have been won by Armagh and Tyrone, both by playing a style of football that has purists retching (will we ever forget Pat Spillane's "puke football" comment immediately after Kerry were humbled in the semi-final by Tyrone?) but has every one else involved in running football teams scribbling notes and ordering extra steaks and vitamins for the lads.

Tyrone and Armagh have become the Borg of Gaelic football, the teams against whom resistance is futile. The comparison extends in how difficult it becomes to differentiate between players, as the individual identities and even positions are subsumed into one thought, which is to hunt down and destroy. The opposition are coursed like a hare in a field of hounds, and there are enough sharp-shooters among the hounds to pick off the occasional scores that eventually make the difference and allow the Borg to continue to assimilate.

The traits of this style of football are supreme fitness, supreme organisation and, most significantly of all, supreme hunger. More than anything else, that was the difference between Tyrone and Armagh this year - Armagh's victory in 2002 took just the slightest edge off the Orchard County's hunger, and this New Age Football is all about edges and percentages.

Tryone will probably fall by the wayside this year too - the sheen taken off them by the win last year and also, of course, from the fallout from the tragic and awful death of Cormac MacAnallen, which may put football in too much perspective for them. But the danger is that the Blanket defense is spreading among the other contenders, who will see it as the great leveller, a means to make a peasant equal to a King, if only for seventy minutes.

Equality is a fine idea, in life as well as sports, but it would be a mistake to assume or presume that bringing a King down is the same as raising a peasant up. If we bring down the King, if the country all starts playing this Blanket Defense game, then the old game, that game that brought glory and happiness to so many in high summer, will be lost, and all we will be left with is rugby league, one of the uglier team games on the planet. The Earls will have fled once more, and darkness will reign in Erin.

Which is why An Spailpín is cheering like crazy for Laois to win Sam this year.

The first motivation, like all GAA motivations, is parochial. An Spailpín's own county is limping along in the wilderness right now, without anyone having the common humanity to put a bullet behind its ear and put it out of his misery. As such, my bloodshot eye surveys the scene, and, through all the wreckage and detritus, there is one county, above any other, which is keeping the game alive, which is keeping the faith with the hopelessly old-fashioned notion that players giving full expression the skills of the game is better than, and will always win out over, any System.

That the county in question is Laois is an irony not lost on seasoned football watchers. In the doldrums for so long, Laois became known only as a crew of tough guys, without the focus of Meath, without the players of Dublin, without the money of Kildare.

And then Micko arrived, and all was good. The week after Mick O'Dwyer was once more disgracefully snubbed by the Great Pooh-Bahs of the GAA when it came to the managership of the International team, O'Dwyer could be on the verge of his greatest achievement - saving the game of football itself - and the GAA doesn't even realise it.

How long will it take the GAA, and the people of Ireland, to realise that Micko is a man you don't meet every day? What does he have to do to make you love him? What does he have to do to make you care?

Kevin Heffernan's advocates always maintained that, with the team O'Dwyer had in the seventies and eighties, anyone could have been manager and they would still have won. In the absence of a control to measure against, this is a pointless pursuit, but it is also interesting to remember that when O'Dwyer took over, Kerry football was at a very low ebb indeed. For his appointment as manager to have suddenly coincided with the arrival of that Golden Generation is a very big coincidence indeed. So big that it clearly isn't a coincidence at all, and Mick O'Dwyer was as much a part of that Kerry team as Spillane, Sheehy and the rest.

Those that accuse O'Dwyer of staying on too long are forgetting that, if he hadn't stayed on as long as he did, Kerry's second three in a row of that era wouldn't have happened. Nobody was calling for Micko's head after Kerry came back from seven points down to win by six against Tryone in 1986, but many were the mutterings in the Kingdom after Kerry shipped the double blows of Séamus Darby in 1982 and Tadhgie Murphy in 1983. O'Dywer brought his men back from the dead to win three All-Irelands in a row, and yet all people remember is that scorching summer of 1987 when O'Dwyer's team suddenly got old, and aged twelve years in seventy minutes. After Kavanagh, the angel wooed the clay and lost his wings at the dawn of day - the nation could never forgive that Kerry team for growing old, for not going on forever, and, by implication therefore, never fully forgave O'Dwyer.

O'Dwyer's time in Kildare, those strange years, are seen as failures because Kildare lost the All-Ireland to Galway in 1998. It might be closer to the truth to say that getting what was in truth a very middling Kildare out of Leinster when Meath were still in their pomp, Offaly threatening and Dublin always dangerous (sometimes literally, of course) was a considerably bigger achievement than the four games O'Dwyer had to win to win Kerry another trophy back in the day.

But wouldn't it be something if O'Dwyer's greatest hour were to come this year - facing into his sixty-seventh summer, the sting of the Ireland managment rejection still under the skin, but able to look across a field at a team of footballers instead of automons and say, yes, I can deliver these men to the Promised Land.

It won't be easy for Laois. Galway are as committed to classy football as O'Dwyer's charges and their own manager/guru, John O'Mahony, clearly believes they still have an All-Ireland in them; Cork are bubbling under as Billy Morgan returns to try to save them once again, and even now the St John's ambulance people are in spring training in preparation for the annual apocalypse that is the Ulster Championship. But for Laois, a county known and feared for their robust and rambunctious approach, for Laois to win an All-Ireland playing football of snow-white purity, all under the guiding hand of the prophet that isn't recognised in his own country, that would be a Championship to savour.