Tuesday 16 December 2008

Peig is back!

Yes, that Peig: the one that a young conservative, nationalist, and Catholic state employed to revive its native tongue. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Peig's death and both the national broadcaster and some of the print media have been reappraising her significance.

For the guardians of the fledgling nation, Peig's world was not only an authentic remnant of a great, ancient and oppressed culture, it also contained the elements from which a modern, proud nation could be forged. The people of Dún Chaoin and An Blascaod showed perseverance in the face of hardship; their way of life was wholesome; their faith was unshakeable; they lived in a kind of pre-modern harmony; above all their culture was Gaelic, indigenous, and part of an historic continuity that had survived centuries of attempted annihilation.

And so it was that Peig was pressed into the service of the Free State, and later the Republic. That much is not terribly surprising. After all, the mythic belief in the power of shared ancestary and a glorious past reached its (often bloody) peak in the first half of the twentieth century. And the idea of employing the apparatus of state, especially the education system, to preach the nationalist myth was a familiar formula.

It is tempting now to ridicule the naivety of our early leaders. How could they have been so wrong? But to do so is to apply the insights of a lesson in nationalism and globalisation of which our predecessors couldn't possibly have dreamed. Yes, huge chunks of straw were gliding by in the wind, but it is far too easy for us now to quench the idealism and hope which carried our nation into being. And idealism and hope which were only slowly ground out of existence in the unforgiving mill of twentieth century history.

Yet it is at least interesting, and possibly useful, to look back at exactly how different the future turned out. In the last two decades of the century, the Catholic church went into a steep decline. The latest development in many rural parishes is that there is no longer a priest to administer the sacraments. Parish councils are being established to run the affairs of the parish and lay people are carrying out much of the ceremonial aspects of church life also. Lay people who are not studying to be priests are being ordained as deacons in order to perform functions such as baptism.

It is hardly possible for me to chart the extraordinary transformation that has taken place in the last thirty years in how we live in Ireland – and the world. Suffice to say that we have melded in rather well into a world culture whose main values are consumerism, hedonism, materialism, and self promotion. We have probably become as rich materially as we have poor spiritually.

And leave it all to the Gaelic culture. The invented variety has thrived in the form of the Gaelic games. And traditional Irish music has enjoyed an amazing revival and has infused a whole plethora of modern genres in Ireland and abroad. But the key marker of national identity – the national language – is on life support.

I am certain that many people will not agree that the Irish language is dead. Under the strictest definition – no more speakers – Irish is surely alive, and probably kicking. But numbers alone say very little about the health of a language. The language has entered a kind of linguistic purgatory. It was put there by a nation whose attitude towards it has become schizophrenic. We profess to love it, but cannot learn it. We do not want it to die, but can barely keep it alive. We have recently legislated for its wider use, but we use it less and less.

There are thousands of people the length an breadth of Ireland who have learned the language. But the levels of competence varies so widely and their opportunity to use the language is so circumscribed that any notion of a speaking public is almost ridiculous. The language continues to die in the Gaeltacht (now many primary schools within the Gaeltacht are having to offer the curriculum in English because the locals cannot cope with instruction in Irish). Enthusiasts always point to the gaelscoileanna. But there is no convincing evidence that these lead to Irish speaking families much less communities. (And as I have noted elsewhere, the demise of the Irish language section in most major book stores must surely be another indicator).

Language use – and language death – are extremely complex social phenomena, just as language itself is one of the most complex capabilities we humans possess. And in truth, how the fate of a language plays out is dependent on a bewildering interaction of uncountable parameters, which must include cultural norms, identity, status, and the most severe of all, economics. When all this mix got together, it did for Irish what it is doing to thousands of other languages, and that is, it pushed it towards extinction.

But Irish will not disappear entirely. It will simply become the preserve of the enthusiast, the hobbyist, and alas the academic. And this is what brought forth my original thought about Peig being back. I heard a debate, indeed a very interesting debate, on Radio one in which a panel of academics discussed the merits of Peig's narrative style, her place in the feminist canon, her lonely position in a world being pushed out of existence by modernity, and her awareness of a readership and what it wanted to hear. The discussion was, of course, in English. And informed and sharp though it was, there was a faint echo of elegy in the timbre of the discussion, a kind of weak signal emanating from between the words, a signal from a world that is now dead and distant.

Peig's world is distant, yet strangely recent. In rural Ireland at least, the journey from a life that was simple, almost pre-modern, intensely local, and drenched in tradition to one that is frenetic, fragmented, and post modern, was dizzyingly swift. It often happened withing a single lifetime. In a recent talk at the Abbey, Seamus Heaney explained that the immense, disorienting changes since his childhood were at least partly at the root of a trauma that found its expression through his poetry.

It's as if we have been propelled into the future without time to consume history as it happens. It's a kind of time warp, a discontinuity in time, and probably all modern societies are reeling from its effects. We simply haven't come to terms with what has been happening. Hence the anguish, and the confusion about who and where we are. And I think this goes some way to explaining our difficult relationship with the Irish language. We know it is dead, but we cannot bring ourselves to bury it. We are in effect, attending an endless wake, and no one is prepared to take the body to the cemetery. A quote from Pearse captures the kind of intensity we feel for a truth that we love but which is no longer possible: "No man dies for what he knows to be true. Men die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true". Tá Peig marbh, ach mairfidh sí go deo.


Anonymous said...

Every so often I visit your blog and much of the time I agree with you. Except here and there. And this post is not an exception.
There is little doubt that Peg Sayers put a very good book together. But that is not really the main point. It is the trying to colour the minds of middle-teens with a social history while at the same time getting a grasp of the loveliness of a language. It just displays a lack in grasping reality.
There are few enough times in your life when a person can deal with the life of Peig. But the teen years are sure as hell not one of them.
There are and were more than enough writers around willing to write funny and pointed prose. And could get the beauty of the language to children. But agenda dictated for one reason or another, religion lifestyle whatever, they were not acceptable to a cabal of interests both within the Dept' and outside. You can see this with what could get a book banned.

Best wishes

A Doubtful Egg said...

Excellent, thoughtful article. I cannot speak more than a few words of Irish, something that upsets me a lot, but the problems which beset someone like myself who's enthusiastic but working full-time(ish) are numerous: finding the time to learn it; finding people to talk it to; justifying to myself the amount of time spent at it (would it not be more practical to learn French or Spanish, which are much more likely to be useful than Irish? A million dead patriots say no, but again it's back to practicality: why spend months perfecting a language that I'm unlikely to ever use? And there's a whole world of culture out there to explore, which takes up a lot of my spare time.)
I'm being bluntly honest here, as I have a house full of "Learn Irish" style books and have made a few attempts at it, but each time events got in the way and it went on the back-burner, so far back that it's now stone-cold.
I still have my copy of Peig, which I will probably never read. I think that Peig's life, however important as a social document, is one that most people are happy not to have had, to be honest!
Congratulations on getting a new job, and Merry Christmas to you.

Aidan said...

This was a very interesting post for me as this is a topic dear to my heart. Though I am from an English speaking background I did a lot of Irish debating at school and I have to say that I was reasonably fluent at the age of 17. However, I hit the wall you refer to after that by rarely having a chance to speak Irish again.
My own view is that the undue emphasis on the Gaeltacht regions is one of the problems. There should be concerted efforts to develop urban Gaeltacht. I have posted on this a few times on my blog, check this out if you get a chance: