Tuesday 30 October 2007
A young man in a farmyard is screaming, begging for mercy. The dark hearts surrounding him reply in expletives punctuated by thumps. Now, in perfect sync, the yelps keep time to the thud of metal on flesh. Then, the whip of nailed cudgels attenuate the wailing. Body music carries the movement - a sinew tears from kicking, a bone cracks under iron, and flesh sucks the puncturing nails. Towards the end of the performance, a diaphram-gasp, as life itself is chased from the body.
Friday 26 October 2007
Chuir mé féin aithne ar Shéamas Ó Cualáin i bhfómhair 1992. Sa dara bliain in Ollscoil na Gaillimhe a bhí mé san am agus rún agam freastal ar ranganna Gaeilge. Ní raibh agam ach Gaeilge lag agus chuir sé imeagla orm bheith ag dul isteach i rang nach mbeadh ach an Ghaeilge á labhairt ann. Chuaigh mé chuig an chéad rang le mo chroí i mo bhéal. Séamas Ó Cualáin a bhí ina bhun.
Cé gur labhair mo mhúinteoir nua go breá soiléir, bhí deacrachtaí agam é a thuiscint in amanna, de bharr a laige is bhí mo chuid Gaeilge. Ach bhí stíl ar leith múinteoireachta ag Séamas a chuir ar mo chompórd mé gan mhoill. Faoi cheann roinnt seachtainí bhí mé tugtha don Ghaeilge agus níos fearr fós bhí cara nua ar m’aithne.
Ba chumasach agus b’éifeachtach an múinteoir é Séamas. Bhí plean leagtha amach aige do na ranganna i gcónaí is bileogaí úsáideacha réidh aige. Dhírigh sé a aird ar cibé lochtanna a bhí ar chumas an fhoghlaimeora. Ní ba thábhachtaí fós ab ea an caidreamh a bhí aige leis na mic léinn. Bhí meas ag daoine air cionn is gur thuig siad go raibh eolas a cheirde aige. Ach thar aon rud eile bhain daoine sult as na ranganna. Idir scéalta grinn agus chuile chineál diabhlaíochta, bhain sé gáire as a chuid daltaí i dtólamh.
An bhliain dar gcionn thosaigh mé ar an Dioplóma sa Ghaeilge. Bhí Séamas ag teagasc in Áras Mháirtín Uí Chadhain, An Cheathrú Rua, ar dhianchúrsa a bhain leis an dioplóma sin. Le himeacht na haimsire d’éirigh mé mór le Séamas.
Thugainn cuairteanna air ina theach cónaithe ar an Spidéal. “Glór na dTonn” a thug sé ar an teach atá suite ar an chladach ar bhruach an tsráidbhaile. Bhínn ag súil go mór leis na cuairteanna céanna. Nuair a bhí sé i mbarr na sláinte, chuireadh sé fáilte romham ag an doras agus é gléasta go slachtmhar. Thráchtamar ar chuile chineál ábhair – cúrsaí polaitíochta, stair na hÉireann, agus ar ndóigh, cúrsaí peile. B’iontach an bród a bhí aige as imreoirí na Gaillimhe – peil agus iomanaíocht, cé go gcreidim gurbh fhearr leis an pheil í gcónaí. D’fhreastail sé ar na ‘trí cinn as a chéile’ a bhain na Gaillimhigh sna seascaidí. Ach b’iomaí uair a thug sé cuairt ar Pháirc a Chrócaigh roimhe sin, agus dar fia, b’iomaí uair ina dhiaidh. Bhí spéis ar leith aige i liathróid láimhe, cluiche a d’imir sé féin ina óíge, agus de réir mar a thuigim ba bheag nár bhain sé craobh na hÉireann nuair a bhí sé i mbarr a réime.
Nuair a chuireadh sé tús le caint is le scéalaiocht ba dheacair stop a chur leis! Is iomaí bus soir ón Spidéal a chaill mé cionn is gur fhan mé ró-fhada ag éisteacht leis. Bhí tíomaint aige an uair sin agus thabharfadh sé isteach go Gaillimh mé sa ghluaisteán dá gcaillfinn an bus. Roinnt blianta ina dhiadh sin, chaill sé an cumas tíomana, ach shiúlfadh sé amach chuig an gheata i gcónaí le slán a fhágáil liom.
Fuair mé cárta Nollag uaidh chuile bhliain. ‘Céad slán le Béal Átha Seanaigh mar ar rugadh is ar tógadh mé’ a bhíodh scríofa aige ar chlúdach na litreach. Leagan Gaeilge de dhán Allingham. Is i mbaile dúchais an fhile seo, Béal Átha Seanaigh, a chuaigh mé féin ar scoil. Bhíodh nathán ag Séamas do chuile ócáid.
Bhuail tinneas é cúpla bliain ó shin agus chuaigh sé in olcas i dtús shamhradh na bliana a chuaigh thart. Chuir mé scairt ar an chréatúr tamall beag sular bhásaigh sé agus bhí sé soiléir go raibh sé ag fulaingt. Ní raibh an greann le cluinstean ná an fuinneamh le mothú.
Chuir sé brón ar mo chroí nuair a chuala mé gur shleamhnaigh sé amach ar shlí na fírinne ar an 26ú lá de Lúnasa na bliana sin. D’fhulaing sé cuid mhór sna míonna deireannacha, ach choinnigh sé leis go cróga. Fear cráifeach ab ea é - rud, sílim, a chuidigh go mór leis nuair a theip ar a shláinte.
D’fhreastail mé ar a shochraid ar an Spidéal – bhí cónaí air faoi fhad urchair chloiche den Séipéal. Aifreann álainn a bhí ann. Bhí pobal mór i láthair, idir óg is aosta, idir lucht na Gaeilge is lucht peile, idir iar-mhic léinn is iar-chomharsana. Aithním Séamas go cruinn i bhfocail an tsagairt le linn a sheanmóra: fear uasal agus fear dílis, fear a roinn a chuid eolais agus a chuid ama, go fial flaithiúil. Chuirfinn féin cúpla focal leis sin: greann agus daonnacht.
Tar éis an aifrinn, siar linn go mall go dtí reilig an Indreabháin áit ar leagamar ár gcara i gcré Chonamara. Tá an suíomh go hálainn - cois farraige ar bharr cnoic. Má tá saol eile ag spiorad Shéamais, faoi mar a bhí ag na mairbh i scéalta Uí Chadhain, beidh sé lán sásta ag amharc amach ar chontae an Chláir is ar na hoileáin Árann is é ag éisteacht le Glór na dTonn.
Monday 22 October 2007
Secondary school was worse. I felt like an outcast because I was the only person from my primary school who went to the Christian Brothers school. Timidity is to making friends what amputation is to long distance running. I found it hard to break into established groups. As Autumn turned to Winter I used to grasp the radiator by the window and watch forlornly as the other boys enjoyed a game of soccer cum horseplay in the yard. One boy told me later that he had thought I was a haemophiliac and that this must have been why I stayed inside at breaktime. Eventually, however, I got used to this particular group of boys and I slowly turned silences into short conversations which grew into acquaintances. It was as if, over a period of about 6 months, I gradually faded in from a previously invisible state. Of course, this didn't mean I had become confident. It meant, however, that I felt alive, acknowledged, present, accepted. As the years went by my confidence grew, but only at school. Academically I was one of the brighter students in the class, and I think this helped blow off the cloud of inferiority which had enveloped me in the beginning.
While I mastered my self-doubt at school, however, I remained shy inside, and infuriatingly timid in any new environment. It would often feel like being more or less back in the first few days at school. This is exactly what happened at college. The same pattern applied. Shy and withdrawn at first, then slowly moving out of that horrid introverted shell.
When I would start a new job, again I'd spend the first 6 months as a shadow. Moving about in obscurity, forever listening but saying little.
Those who are assertive and confident probably don't understand the burden that shyness places on those who toil under its cruel yoke. The shy person makes the best point of the meeting a dozen times - but only in her head. All the while the cocky waffler is clocking up credit for merely opening his mouth. Eventually someone who is modestly clever clinches the bonus points by saying what the shy person knew but couldn't bring herself to air. The shy person leaves the meeting feeling defeated and robbed of the acknowledgment she deserved. And all this is often accompanied by a tinge of self-loathing for letting another opportunity, the millionth, pass.
A shy person accepts the shortest straw, settles for the smallest room, gives gratitude where none is due, responds to arrogance with submissive silence, gets paid less than the crank, misses the sweetest opportunities, fails to pluck romance when it dangles ripe before him, and always, always regrets his inability to change.
Where does shyness come from? The experts reckon it is partly environment and partly hereditary. This sounds like the long winded way of saying, we don't know. But I personally back the genetic theory. My father is deeply diffident. His unassertiveness has become a legend in our family. Probably his biggest fear is the prospect of being refused something he asks for. His defence is to never ask. If his daily bread depended on him having to ask for it, as opposed to work for it, we would have starved! I hasten to add, that in all other respects he is a wonderful man and an excellent father. But did he inherit this complex from his father too? Undoubtedly. My grandfather was known locally as being 'very civil'. Which meant he was submissive and incapable of protest or public anger. And I think that inability to make one's anger public, especially when justified, is another form of shyness.
But stop, you brash assertives! You are asking why on earth can we not just "get over it"? Well, if it were that easy, there wouldn't be many shy people left. How many of us are there anyway? What percentage are we, 10, 20, 30? One study suggested above 40%. How different would the world be if we were suddenly to change. If we, the shy, were to hurl our demands firmly and confidently on the world, perhaps life would be a much more contested space. Or, perhaps our addition to the collective quest for better and for more would help push out the boundaries of human endeavour. Who knows.
One thing is certain, though. Society offers us little help. Perhaps we are too timid to ask! But maybe it's just that shyness is not recognised by society as the real problem it surely is. I am tempted to think that a huge chunk of the population live, to varying degrees, diminished lives because they cannot overcome their timidity. If that is the case, our failure to help the shy is both a tragedy and a terrible waste.
Over the years, however, I personally managed to drag myself in from the shadows. In part a reserve of confidence began to build up naturally within me. And in part I made a deliberate effort to kick off the shackles of timidity. For example, speaking in front of a crowd remained for a long time the most fearful thing I could imagine short of being trapped underwater. Eventually, however, I summoned the confidence to take public speaking classes. It turned out to be a crucial turning point in the evolution of my self belief.
I am now quietly confident in most situations, though at times, in a moment of weakness, little pockets of doubt creep in around my feet. Perhaps timidity, like an addiction, is so central to our being that it cannot be cured, merely managed and overcome. But that's ok. For even if the destination of unshakable self belief is unattainable for the shy, the journey towards it is worthwhile. If you are shy, it's a journey that just must be made and it will take you through fertile valleys and over rugged peaks to horizons you could only imagine but never visit.
Friday 19 October 2007
Proponents of 'choice first' claim they believe that the market mechanism delivers the optimum results. Open it all up, they say, and the market will work its miracles. Have faith, they beg, and the market will apply the magic of its invisible hand to lead us to salvation. Social ills such as inequality, poverty, and misery are the price we must pay for the promise of freedom.
But like most religions, 'choice first' is a sham. In the promised land, happy parents choose their school like picking a new car. In reality, under an extended private system, parents have no choice at all. Your children will be schooled in the best school you can afford. If that means the free one, so be it. And if you are rich, you choose the best school. How can this be choice when there is no decision to be made?
When we try to reach them, the Arcadian fields, where contented children sing and frolic, recede into the mists. Choice is a myth and is no more than a clever way to dress the divisive tyranny of the market in the garb of freedom.
Tuesday 16 October 2007
I always considered myself a lover of jazz - not all jazz, but certainly the standards. I would include some less mainstream genres among my favourites - scat, electro-jazz, a touch of fusion. But I'm not a jazz cat, not an aficionado. Which must be why a recent concert by a big name left me utterly baffled. Without giving too much away, let's say the artist's name rhymes with Pain Torture. I had listened to, and enjoyed, some of this saxman's earlier work. He was billed as one of the greatest living jazz-men.
In the theatre before the gig I was buzzing with excitement: this would be a treat. The Torture Quartet appeared on stage to a burst of applause. A silent anticipation fell upon the hall. The odd string was plucked, the piano man tapped a key. It was ten minutes into the first track when we realised this was too long for a sound check. I got that sinking feeling that the wanton dissonance would continue for the duration. And it did. Now I love improvisation, innovation, new sounds. But this was naked randomness. A sax note here, a piano chord there. I forced myself to try to get it, but I drew a musical blank.
The tracks were brutally long, over half and hour - and it felt like more. And no amount of facial contortion on the part of the bassist can make me like his ten minute solo. Then the sonic masturbation - a handful of improvised notes, repeated over and over and over. But alas, no climax.
I found only comedy in the ridiculous courtship between bassist and pianist as the one echoed the other's simple phrases ad nauseam. There seemed to be an idea of working towards unity near the end of marathon-long pieces, but for me it was mostly a jarring dissonance. Time and again the drummer smashed a more delicate movement with a sudden, frenzied attack on his kit. And then he'd relax and smile: I wondered had he reached a higher level of being, or was he merely revelling in our bewilderment. At one stage we had entered a state of inharmonia so perplexing that I wondered if four people, wholly untrained, would produce a sound more forgiving on mind and ear.
When Mr Torture refused to play a least one older, more palatable track to relieve our suffering, the odd punter began to file out of the hall. At the end of each long, cacophonous track, there was indeed a certain amount of one handed applause - but surely more out of relief or sympathy than appreciation. The whole experience was, well, torturous.
I welcome Minister Hannafin's decision not to provide state funding for any further fee-paying schools. It is true that capping the supply of these schools while demand rises will drive prices up and enhance the elite status which these schools already enjoy. Since there are so few of these schools, however, the distortion which they apply to the principle of equal opportunity is very limited.
The consequences of an expansion of the system are far worse. If private schools were to become as widely used as private health insurance, then half of all students would attend them. This would result in a very stark and widespread divide between those who can afford private schooling and those who cannot. Every community in the country would have its own little enclave of snobbery.
Worse still, people all across the country would be struggling to get their children into these schools. In effect, the private fees would be an additional tax which you could pay for extra quality - if you could afford it that is.
Another factor would come into play. For a whole set of complex reasons, children from poor backgrounds get less support in the home for their studies. And they rarely get the opportunity for grinds. These children would be schooled in the public system. Clearly a two tier system would emerge. This would be morally wrong, economically wrong, and bad for communities.
A perplexing question is why the Education minister is blocking the emergence of a two tier system while her colleague in Health is pressing ahead with precisely such a system. Have we two governments or one?
Monday 15 October 2007
When the HSE announced cuts in its budget a few weeks ago the media went into overdrive. Health is always a great story - particularly if it gives the papers a chance to put the words patient and suffer in the same headline. In all the hsyteria, the real issues around the HSE cuts got very little coverage.
The first is that the HSE has genuine issues around its budgeting. Apparently it always works off a yearly budget which means that it is very hard to smooth out a the demand function which varies a great deal from season to season and also from year to year. Then there are random spikes - say a flu epidemic or just by chance a clustering of demand for hip operations.
Demand is easier to predict in say houses because the economic model for doing so can be soley based around the price signal. If taxes decrease or wages go up, demand will increase, and so on. And trends in these drivers are easier to establish.
But no granny I know chooses to slip off the chair when hanging up the curtains. And I cannot recall an of my relatives deciding to go into cardiac arrest : it just happens. These are events that happen randomly. Over a certain time period a distribution appears to take shape, but the volume on a given day or month is bursty with peaks that often jump far from the average. It's like watching traffic on the M50. You know that statistically 3000 cars per hour will pass. But it's hard to predict how many will pass in any 10 second period.
Similarly with illness. And so the HSE definitely should not be working to a yearly budget but perhaps a 3 year budget. Perhaps some aspects of the budget might even have a 5-year envelope.
Even so, the HSE needs to put better systems in place to help predict and manage spikes in demand. But the media aren't interested in such mundane matters.
The second issue relates to the fact that even if the HSE had better management, certain hospitals would overspend. In these cases the HSE cannot, as the media and many punters would have it, simply write a cheque to cover the increased costs. It is a plain truth that any system will sprout further inefficiency if its managers know that when it overruns, it simply has to shout for more.
Anyone who has seen work practices in our hospitals knows that, to put it kindly, we need to work on efficiency. This can never happen unless the HSE stands firm against demands from hospitals which have overrun their budgets. If they do anything else, the cost base will run off the graph with no real return to patients.
This is not a debate about the overall health budget - that is another matter. And as Mary Harney has pointed out, it is often difficult for the person in the street to understand the complexities of managing the biggest single orgranisation that the state runs. We are talking about a hugely diverse complex system that consumes a budget of 14 billion and which employs over 100,000 people. It is massive.
But sadly the media will do little to help bridge any gap in understanding. The last item I saw on RTE had a clip of Mary Harney with a voice over about the cuts. There followed contributions from hospitals, health employees, patient focus and finally a typical opportunistic response from FG - all with an interest in opposing the cuts. But no HSE spokesperson. No objective media analyst. In short no debate about health, merely alarm about cuts.
The CSO have recently published the results of the Irish language portion of the 2006 census. The total number of people who claim they can speak Irish has increased a little though the figure has decreased as a percentage of the population. I want to comment however on the numbers relating to daily use of the language.
In particular I will dwell on the numbers who speak the language daily outside the education system. I think this is a valuable approach because those who use Irish inside the education system are doing it to earn either a living or a diploma which, in my opinion, is a vast misrepresentation of the state of the language. (In fact that's why the Census people decided to make that breakdown to begin with).
The figures show that some 53,471 people in this state speak Irish on a daily basis outside the education system. That's 0.4% of the population. If you can draw a positive picture from this figure, you must have followed a very different stats syllabus than I did. To me, this indicates that the language is hanging not by a thread, but a micro-fibre. It's beyond me how the Irish language body, the government, and enthusiasts of all sorts can pass over this figure without rushing to the belfry to sound the bell.
Looking at the figures for the Gaeltacht is scarcely a cause to raise our glasses either. In the Gaeltacht 17,687 people speak the Irish daily outside the education system. That's less than 20% of all Gaeltacht residents. Surely it's time to question the entire Gaeltacht policy if more than 80% of residents don't really speak the language daily in any meaningful way. The tax payer funds Gaeltacht programs to the tune of hundreds of millions per annum yet no linguistic cost benefit analsysis is ever attempted. Even if we agree that the government should fund the language at all, surely the money could be better spent elsehwere. At the very least the whole Gaeltacht project needs to be reassessed or reformed.
Looked at another way, a full two out of every three people who speak the language daily outside the education system now reside outside the Gaelteacht. Why then does the Gaeltacht deserve special status? A status which has singularly failed to stop the decline of the langauge on the western seaboard.
These figures, however shocking, will draw no debate. One reason is that the government doesn't want to be seen to offend a reasonably powerful Irish langauge lobby. And second, perhaps more important is that the said lobby willfully ignores the parlous state of the language. It is as if the movement is afraid to take that first critical step towards introspection, afraid to peer into its own soul, afraid perhaps to take a look at all, terrified that when it does there will be no soul to inspect.
Thursday 4 October 2007
I know where you're coming from with the "fringe, erratic screaming". My musical journey began with Iron Maiden's Piece of Mind. In their live material, I used to love Bruce Dickinson screaming at the top of his voice on songs like the Prisoner or Run to the Hills. From there I moved to bands such as Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine - both genre-making. But my journey was always conventional, never straying off the track into the harsh fringes of heavy rock. I used to loath death metal. I found it morbid and repetitive - though with hindsight much of the stuff I liked was the same in milder form. Along the way I detoured through softer indie stuff like the Happy Mondays, though to be truthful, it wasn't music led me to down the path to the Happy Mondays but a rather innocent and badly handled teenage crush. There was nothing happy about it, but that's another story.
I think I was growing out of all my old stuff when my musical journey was altered abruptly when a flatmate bought Kind of Blue, the Miles Davis standard. It was like I had just entered a new world. It hastened the retreat of metal from my musical life - but I still like the odd screamy anthem. Whatever about lyrics or musicality there is something envigorating about the high octane, energy-driven, racy vibe of heavy or alternative rock.
But I grew into jazz like nothing else. Jazz for me was less transitional. It runs deeper. It holds. Of course the world of jazz is as varied as life itself, but my favourite genres are scat, electro-jazz, and perhaps a touch of fusion. And of course, the standards never go away.
My favourite artist is Kurt Elling - best known for his scat and vocalese. His voice is rich and grainy and he has a bewildering tonal range. In live performances during an extended scat, he sometimes seems entranced, wholly absorbed in and carried away by his own harmonics, and then he hits the top, in a controlled but sustained scream, and just then some chord vibrates deep within me, as if something layed down years previously has suddenly been touched.
"Dóchas Linn Naomh Pádraig" I sang, hopelessly out of key. Whack. Another smack on the bottom. "Your people all had music. Start again" my teacher growled. This was about 1981 and I was in second or third class.
My teacher, let's call her Mrs Heavyhand, was unspeakably incompetent. The amount of learning that she imparted in the three years I spent in her chaotic classroom was almost nil. She spent most of her time literally running after her pupils in a caper that was mostly comic, but often violent.
The central plank, so to speak, of her teaching practice was the stick. Her arsenal was formidable. The standard issue was the ruler, mainly used for minor infringements such as talking. Next came the metre stick - employed with ferocity for any act of throwing or shouting and against noted trouble makers at the back of the class. Her nuke was the broomstick. She called on the broom-shaft for general breakdowns of order and to punish capital offences such as fighting or climbing on desks.
Many parents were aware that Mrs Heavyhand was both violent and incompetent. And a few parents were bold enough to complain to the parish priest. But their protest fell on ears that were as deaf as they were conservative. Nothing happened. Mrs Heavyhand continued to ply her brutish version of Irish schooling until the day she retired, by which time hundreds of children had passed through her boorish and incapable hands.
In all her time she taught a single but valuable lesson: Ireland must find a way to deal with bad teachers.
Monday 1 October 2007
First, the number is pretty small. I found it hard to find a figure for the total number of books published in Ireland (checked CSO, national lib, ClÉ, and other sites). I found an EU chart which showed titles published per capita among a list of about 18 countries. Ireland was absent. But if I took the lowest EU figure, for Greece at .4 per 1000 population, and extrapolate for Ireland I get roughly speaking 2000 titles per year. I picked the low figure because a recent discussion in the Irish Times revealed that we publish a much lower number of books per person than the Eu average. The reason is the UK. Many Irish books get published by UK publishers (there's an interesting discussion going on at the moment about why Irish publishing houses are losing so much ground to their UK counterparts). We consume perhaps more books per head than other countries, however. And it is reasonable to assume that when books published in the UK but sold here are accounted for, we at least match the EU average for titles going on sale per year. That would take us to at least 10,000 titles per year. (probably still a conservative estimate - the UK is way over 100,000 per year). So of our 2000-10,000 (conservative) titles released in ireland per year, fewer than 200 are in Irish. Surely this says something?
The second thing is that nearly 40% are childrens books. Given that the king of Childrens books, the UK, boasts no more than 10%, the figure for Irish is extraordinary. I believe it says more about the dearth of adult reading than it does about our childrens market in Irish. Though on the positive side, it does show that children may be getting their needs met.
So that leaves us with 80 titles for adults. Now remove the self-referential works - i.e about Irish language, learning materials, etc, which hold a bloated position in Irish publishing. Again, this is natural for a minority language and one heavily promoted / compulsary. (for an indication of the self-referential phenomenon visit the front page of the rather excellent on-line Irish language shop, litríocht.com. Five of the six featured titles are about the Gaeltacht, Learning Irish, or Irish usage).
What remains then is a minute number of titles, fact or fiction, published in Irish for adults about that vast mysterious thing called human life. In other words, Irish language publishing is in a parlous state. But the only irish word that captures this state of affairs, namely géarchéim, never gets uttered. Where is Bord na Leabhar Gaeilge?
I argue that the dearth of literature, research, analysis and debate through Irish, on anything from from Climate Change to Crossdressing, bolsters my case that we have no national discourse in Irish. No separate world view is represented in the language, and therefore its claim to be culturally central to who we are is vastly inflated.
And yet I know these words, far from spark a potentially useful debate, or even a single opposing argument, will do nothing but draw sparks from the live wire of blind fanaticism that runs through large parts of the Irish language lobby.