Thursday 9 September 2010

Why the left hates Blair

Someone in prospect magazine wonders why the left hates blair more than some of his conservative predecessors. My thoughts are roughly:

Blair’s achievements are enormous: the huge improvement in the NHS and the funding and performance of schools to name just two. His constitutional changes (though conceived before he became PM) were also very significant. So too with peace in NI.

I think the virulent opposition to Blair from the left – more instense than against conservative leaders – owes something to a sense of betrayal. From the day of his controversial court backed electoral victory, Bush was loathed on the left. For Blair to align himself so closely with Bush, after 9/11 but even before the Iraq war, was always going to alienate Blair from large sections of left opinion. Blair allowed no distance between himself and Bush, not even a shade that might have made independence of mind and policy seem credible.

On Iraq, where Blair constructed a casus belli from intelligence that was plainly insufficient, if not patently exaggerated, he was always going to destroy his image on the left. In arguments about justifying Iraq, Blair keeps on saying that after 9/11 he knew islamic fundamentalism had to be confronted, yet everyone knows now, as they did then, that Al Queda and the 9/11 bombers were not spawned in Iraq but elsewhere. So despite Blair’s insistence that Saddam’s regime posed a threat, we know that it didn’t really, not after 1991 and all the years of sanctions. Saddam was a murderous dictator, but the time to intervene to save his victims was long past (incidentally the West backed him while he was at his most brutal).

On top of Iraq, there is Blair’s rightward lurch in matters concerning law and order, and issues like Freedom of Information (which he now says makes government impossible).

Blair was an immense politician, and I believe did have a genuine progressive intent, at least in the beginning. But more clearly than any prime minister in recent times, he let power go to his head. He became a megalomaniac, even evangelical in his zeal. He seemed not to have a healthy sceptism towards power itself. The way he deployed his power, and how he altered the office of prime minister, are troubling.

For Blair there was no such thing as a cabinet. He was right and his person decision was a diktat. It is probably on balance a good thing that there was another powerful figure next door whose presence was the ultimate limit on how far Blair wanted to stretch his office.

Blair’s term exposed how little real counterweight exists in the British system for a PM with a large majority and who is in command of the senior figures in his own party. In the end, he is hated on the left as much for how he deployed power as he is for any single policy (aside from Iraq).

Friday 3 September 2010

Subjects I hated in School (Or did I)

I attended a terrible primary school : apart from the teacher in the infants’ class, the other three varied between hopelessly incompetent and simply deranged. All my teachers at primary school were middle aged women. Two of the four were so bad that they spent a good deal of their time either crying, pleading with the class, or exploding in fits of violence. It was a disaster for them and us, but that was how it was. Parents complained to the board of management – but the main voice there was the parish priest and he supported his teachers to the last. And anyway, even if he hadn’t there probably wasn’t much he could do. This was the late 70s, but even now it is almost impossible to have incompetence teachers removed. The only thing I would hope is that they are rare and that on average most children get decent, capable teachers.

It is secondary that I wanted to talk about, but primary has a huge bearing on how a child fares in secondary. Those who say primary is a crucial foundation are right. When I arrived in secondary I felt that I was far behind the other students. In everything from history, to maths, to Irish, they were years ahead of me.

At our school we did exams every Christmas and I recall that the message from my first set of exams was that I had a lot of catching up to do. Thankfully I developed an appetite for study and over the course of the junior cycle I made up the lost ground. But I was probably lucky. I could easily have become disheartened or found that I couldn’t bridge the gap, in which case I would have joined that quarter of the class or so who never returned for the senior cycle.

The truth is that I didn’t really hate any subjects, but my interest was usually a direct function of the effectiveness of the teacher. I was unlucky again in Irish, English, and French, finding myself with two of the schools weakest teachers. (I had the same one for French as English).

I dropped classical studies (my year was the first where this was offered in place of Latin) after first year, and also dropped Commerce, choosing instead to stick with woodwork and technical drawing. I excelled at all the technical subjects and in the end got very high results in subjects like drawing, maths, and the sciences. But my progress in the languages had stalled.

I had a moderate interest in Irish but the teacher hadn’t. His passion was Gaelic football and he spent large parts of the class talking to the footballers about results or forecasts (I had no interest in sport of any kind and used this time to scribble or write obscenities into the margins of my textbooks). English and French were even worse. The teacher had no command of the class – or her subject matter. I never really read any of the texts. In the end, for my intercert (now the called the junior cert) I scraped a C in English and French and a D in Irish.

I remember well the day the results came out. I walked into the principal’s office to see how it went. He was beaming. I had done very well overall. He said I had 8 honours, among them five As. I was ecstatic. I hadn’t expected to do half as well. Standing beside the principal was the Irish teacher, a dour look on his face, and as I took the slip with the results he said ungraciously, “obviously languages aren’t your strong point”.

It hit a nerve, for I can still feel the way his comment deflated my sense of joy in my achievement.

For the senior cycle I was again unfortunate with teachers. Apart from one year I had the same dreadful Irish teacher, and again the same teacher for English. Thankfully I had a much better French teacher. I made up ground in French, getting a B in the end. But I only scraped a C in English and Irish.

I know now that there was nothing at all wrong with my ability to learn languages. During my first year in college I took up evening classes in Irish. It became a passion and I read voraciously in Irish throughout college and spend several summers in the Gaeltacht. Years later I was to spend three years in France and made very good headway with the language. In English too I developed a taste for literature – and even writing.

My experience has taught me this much about education. One, the competence of the teacher is vital. A capable teacher can be inspiring and can draw students toward their subject. Two, students should never give up. Learning is indeed lifelong, and with a bit of dedication you can amaze yourself at how well you can learn even a subject you might not terribly like. Better still you might discover a way in to a subject that makes you realize you kind of like it after all. Three, never allow yourself to be categorised. I believe that the boxing of people into learner types is artificial. So and so is great at maths and so and so is great at language. True, different subjects require different skills and abilities, but after all, even at the end of the senior cycle the goal is not mastery or deep learning, but to get a very solid foundation, and that can be achieved by any student in any subject.

Wednesday 30 June 2010

The Words We Use

For a long time now each generation which has reached middle age has lamented the decline in intellectual ability and civility of the one coming after. Yet civilisation hasn't collapsed. In many ways it is now a better time to grow up than at any time in the past. But the changes over the last half century aren't a mere linear evolution in manners - there seems to be a substantial rupture with the past.

The way in which post-60s generations have kicked off respect for authority has in many ways been liberating. But the reaction or rejection has gone too far and has been far to unselective. This, in my opinion, is one reason why teaching in school is now a barely tolerable task. And it may also explain the explosion in petty, mindless crime. It certainly explains the evaporation of civility from most public spaces.

It seems that we have been gripped by an agressive (and agressively hedonistic) cult of the individual. All of this was underway before the late, great, acceleration of technology into the realm of the personal (where the bywords of marketeers have been 'personalisation', 'customisation', 'unique user experience' - all short hand for individualsim). The twin phenomena of rejection of authority and tradition, and the rapid rise of email, text and other casual forms of communication have cut away the formality - and the discipline - that was once associated with the written word.

Indeed, to mention just one consequence, isn't the demise of letter writing one of the more lamentable side effects of our great leap forward into the age of electronic communication. What a joy for ordinary citizens to have records from their ancestors. But more important, for posterity, what a jewel to have such things as say, the letters of Abraham Lincoln, or those of other eminent persons in the history of any nation.

I cannot claim any great knowledge of the link between proficiency with language and intellectual ability. I would hazard that informality and (what we call) debasement probably have no bearing whatever on the agility of a mind. Even the most slovenly language will be capable of conveying all that is required to run a laboratory - or a country. The great fear would be if the collapse of language were to make its way into literature. There are few greater pleasures than reading a paragraph of prose which shines in impossible beauty. When we reach a stage where literary language has been thus devalued, we should know that we have indeed reached the end of civilisation.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Watching England Lose

This little post came to mind in response to a piece by Roddy Doyle in the New Yorker. Doyle wrote that he was going to bet for England but when he went to the bookies he couldn't bring himself to back the old enemy..

Doyle's remarks ring true: here in Dublin I could hear my neighbours cheer each time Germany scored. Typically punters in Irish pubs shake the rafters when someone, anyone, scores against England. These are usually the same people, like Mr. Doyle, who support English soccer clubs! Nothing illustrates our relationship with England better than the soccer paradox.

We built our argument for independence on the twin beliefs that a) we are not English, and b) they, the English, were responsible for all the wrongs of our history and our current state of misery. For this much blood was spilled (and great national myths were necessary to justify each separate horror). None of this, of course, makes us Irish unique. We made our myths, our wars, and our nation. Our trouble with the English, however, is that while we broke the political ties, we failed to break the cultural ones.

We failed to rehabilitate our national language and we remained under their cultural and (for most of the 20th century) economic shadow. Language is important. Nothing facilitates the cultural dominance of a great power over a small one more than a shared language. In terms of forging an independent culture (though I stress, not in any other way), it was to our misfortune that the power which stepped into the role of global empire after Britain was also English speaking. This cemented the position of the English language in Ireland (as elsewhere) thereby preserving a direct channel for English cultural produce into Ireland. All of this was happening at a time when communication, television, and later the internet was connecting Irish homes into the English cultural scene.

During our (ill-fated) economic boom of the 90s and naughties, Irish town and city cetres grew more and more like those in England. This is more to do with capital flow than culture, but it merely set in concrete what was happneing in parallel in cultural terms. In Ireland we consume vast quantities of British celeb culture; far from being force-fed British media, the fact is, English titles sell here because we Irish are prepared to pay to read about Victoria Beckham or Elton John.

We even follow the British Royalty, another topic which bubbles the paradox to the surface. Despite following the tribulations and foibles of prince Harry with great interest, there is something of a minor backlash on Irish airwaves at the announcement that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is going to visit Ireland next year - the first visit by a British Monarch since Irish Independence.

In Ireland we are happy to adore and support anything English as long as it has no national symbolism attached. This is surely a sign that despite our political independence, our success at building a functioning nation, and our increasing confidence as a member of the European Union, an ache of self doubt lingers in the heart of our project to creating a unique national identity, one that need not be defined by what it is not: English.

Monday 14 June 2010

FG wrong on Leaving Cert Irish

The position of Irish in the school curriculum is central to the larger question of whether the state - and by extension this nation - ought to preserve or promote the first official tongue. The cause of the language is very dear to my own heart, and therefore I feel very strongly that this is an important issue.

Everyone knows that Irish language policy has been very flawed down the years - though some remarkable changes have taken place over the last 15 years or so. We know too that there have been chronic failures in how the language has been taught. I recall studying 16th century poetry in a class where no student had the ability to order a train ticket in Irish. Some of these failures have been corrected in part in recent years; for example, by making the curriculum more relevant and emphasizing communication over literature.

Given the known and perceived failures it is tempting to reject current policy in its entirety. This would be a mistake. If the Irish language - still declining in the Gaeltacht - has any hope of survival as a spoken tongue, it is by virtue of the latent but widespread support that it enjoys among the general population.

It is true that among those who look favourably upon the language, most never succeed in mustering the effort required to learn to speak it. The reasons for that are complex, but the fact remains that passive support among the public is a crucial buttress without which the whole edifice of recent language policy would collapse.

Compulsory Irish, I believe, has been a key factor in maintaining a thin but very widespread knowledge of the language among the general population. It makes the vast bulk of the population at least moderately familiar with the language. People may not have enjoyed their experience with Irish in the classroom (one hopes that this can be continuously improved upon for future generations), but, more often than not, they come away wishing the system had served them better and that they had learned more not less of the native tongue.

When people who struggle with the language are given the option, they will opt out, and the result will be an evaporation of the crucial familiarity with Irish. The result will be alienation from the language. It is easy to see how, over a period of time, this would lead to a drastic drop in support for government sponsored revival efforts.

That people retain a mere 'cúpla focal' after years of schooling is an indictment that the system has failed to create competent speakers. Yet dispensing with this thin base entirely would be devastating.

The Fine Gael attempt to make Irish optional is a political ploy - designed to portray a party ready to take radical steps to inject impetus into fresh policies. In reality their proposal is a populist proposal, designed to capitalise on the widespread negative view, not of the language itself, but of how it was taught in school.

I would urge those who support the goal of preserving Irish not to fall for this ploy.

It is worth noting the Welsh have increased their compulsory requirement. From the early 90s it was compulsory to study Welsh to age 14 and in 1999 that was increased to 16. Welsh preservation and even revival efforts have been seen as more successful than ours. We should certainly keep an eye on developments there, though I would accept that each situation is different.

One thing is to be welcomed. Over recent years the debate on the Irish language has been increasingly informed by expert opinion in the field of socio-linguistics. Indeed this has brought a dose of reality to the question of Irish survival prospects that was previously absent. It has also highlighted with greater accuracy than before, that the language is indeed in a very perilous position. The state of the language is now so fragile - despite popular views to the contrary - that a major step in the wrong direction could wipe it out quickly and everywhere as a community tongue.

So the status of Irish in school should not be an object of experiment or political gaming. Instead it should be seen as an essential component of a survival strategy for a language which now needs very careful nurturing if it is to survive.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Bord Gáis Taking the Piss

All I needed was to have my gas metre moved by a couple of yards. There was nothing complicated - just a trench and a short pipe. So I phoned Bord Gáis. I gasped when the agent told me how much it would cost: a thousand euro!

I thought I had misheard and asked again. Yes, a thousand euro, said the agent.

I took a minute to recompose myself, took a deep breath, then, knowing I had no choice if I wanted my porch built, I begrudgingly agreed.

Ok, I asked, so will the Bord Gáis people have my gas working again when they leave? Oh no, the voice said, in a tone somewhere between surprise and contempt, you will have to call a registered gas fitter to reconnect you.

Why, that is absurd, I protested, I'm paying you, the gas company, a thousand euro, to move a box two yards, and you wont even connect me? No, that is not our responsibility.

But a thousand euro, I cried, this is obscene. Well, in any case, the voice said wryly, we need to have your gas installer certify it for safety. Wait a minute, I said angrily, are you telling me that the only major gas company in the country cannot move a pipe by two yards and verify that it's safe? That's ridiculous, I said.

My protestation was to no avail of course. This is what monopolies do: rip people off. What I had experienced was a taste of say, 1986. Back then most of the big service and utility providers were monopolies. It could take months to get a phone installed and when you did the costs of using it were astronomical. But Telecom Eireann didn't care - the last thing that mattered to them was happy customers.

So far, however, Bord Gáis has managed to maintain its monopoly over gas supply. They can defend their position under the pretense that there is competition by virtue of the fact that people can choose coal or oil. But this falls apart simply because coal and oil aren't gas. Bord Gáis and BP and Topaz and Bord na Móna now call themselves 'energy providers' as if a customer rings up an asks for three thousand kilojoules. It's absurd. For a start, coal and oil are far dirtier than gas. Plus Bord Gáis has an installed base of pipelines to houses in cities. And finally, the raw materials are priced differently. So Bord Gáis saying that users have choice is patently false. It would be like Telecom Éireann saying in 1986 that as an alternative users can choose carrier pigeons.

But anyway on the appointed morning my Bord Gáis team turned up to move the metre. (And nice chaps they were too). I asked one of them if they would be finished that day. Today, he laughed, I expect to be out of here in an hour. I have seven of these jobs to do today.

So there we are. Bord Gáis charged me a thousand euros for what it took these two men to do in an hour. Now I don't know what those men were paid, but I would presume it falls considerably short of 500 euro an hour.

To finish the job, I had to pay a gas installer a further three hundred euro to reconnect my metre to my house - along the path which Bord Gáis had just dug up.

Overall 1300 euro to move a pipe by two yards. The Celtic Tiger might be gone, but Rip Off Ireland is alive and well.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Father and Son

When I was about three years old my father, directly after coming home from work or just after dinner, I'm not sure, used to sit me up on his knee and tickle my ear with his tongue. Then he would tell me a story. Sometimes this took place lying on the couch, for I remember my father tucking me in beside him. This is a recurrent and favourite memory of mine, and is both vague and brilliantly clear. I have no clear idea of exactly when my father began - or stopped - showing his affection in this way, and I cannot recall any great 'visual' detail. I don't remember any one of these occasions in particular and can only guess what my father might have been wearing, or how the room in the house was decorated. I think I know how the furniture was arranged, and I certainly remember that the couch was facing a window, in the direction of the kitchen. I always imagine my mother standing with her back to the window, as a silent observer, in silhouette. Her position there, standing watching father and son, cannot be a faithful memory. I now realise that she would have had better things to do with her time, being in charge of two boys under three and a nineteen seventies father who worked hard oursite the home, but who never interferred, we would now say helped, in domestic affairs. But the memory also has great clarity. I can hear and feel my father's tongue in my ear, and I hear his voice say hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock.

This is one of serveral very clear - and very dear - memories that I have of early childhood. Another is one of me playing with my grandfather's pocket watch. He passed away in 1977, when I was four. In another memory I am riding a cart behind a donkey with my uncle, who was only 9 years my senior. This was on my grandparents' farm where the donkeys were pushed to extinction in the middle to late seventies by the arrival of a diesel tractor. (A David Brown 770 which has since mostly melted back into the earth beside the byre, also in a state of decay).

My early memories are very precious because they connect me with people, allive and deceased, who were near the centre of my life at one stage or another. Yet these memories are terribly fragile. I know that people often have false memories of childhood (Scientists of memory say that we often create these memories unconcsciously from a mix of real memories and suggestions by others. This often results in impossible memories, which are recalled episodes which could never have happened, like being present at an event which took place before you were born. This is down to a thing called source confusion where the rememberer cannot recall the source of the information. It could have been a story someone told or something they read, and in the mind it got inserted with other real memories of self).

Even if some of my early memories are false, I don't necessarily want to find out. They are like pillars that are now built into my life story, and I cannot bear to imagine them being torn away.

When my father became seriously ill lately I found myself revisiting a lot of my childhood and teenage memories that involve him. The process happened of course unconsciously and over a period of weeks. I might be waiting for a meeting to start at work when I would remember my father, wearing a yellow vest, his white shoulders exposed to the July sunshine, and hunched over a turf spade. His hair is dishevelled, but thick and ungrey. His motion is fluid and silent, though from time to time I hear the slap of peat on peat.

Or I am getting ready for bed and another memory arrives: he and I are sitting on the pier in Killybegs, hot summers day, me seven or so, and both eating ice-lollies. Mine is an orange ice thing, his a choc ice or a brunch, or one of the more adult ice creams that I couldn't manage. There is no sound but he must be telling me about the boats, the great fleet of trawlers that packed into the harbour then but which are long gone now.

Or while driving alone I suddenly recall my father perched on the tiny stage of the local pub, his paolo soprano accordion strapped on his shoulders, his eyes are fixed in the distance as he inhabits his music.

These are a few examples of the many memories which have bubbled to the surface over the past few weeks since my father suddenly became ill. Thankfully he is making a good recovery now and his prospects are reasonably good. But his close call has vivifyied him in me, and I fell I need to be near him more than before.

The inability of Irish fathers (and sons) to communicate is a well known source of anguish. My father, despite all those shared memories and experiences, remains far too much unknown to me. It hurts to admit that I still can ask, who is that gentle, patient, loving, man that tickled my ear? Or what might have been on the mind of the robust, big-hearted man throwing the sods onto the turf bank? Or where does his music take him?

It is a lonely thought that I might never really get fully inside those memories, never really acquire a fuller understanding of the figure that made them all possible. I had always thought that those memories, which are shared experiences, even if some are unreliably remembered, are a kind of collage which, when viewed from afar would form a meaningful picture that isn't visible in any single part. Yet I feel that I am standing here squinting at the grey and blurry distance.

Now more than ever I want to know my father better, to learn about his inner life and how he views his own life, and mine. But maybe I'm wrong to even try - maybe knowledge is not the currency of love. Perhaps the opposite is true. Maybe it is the mystery, and the unfathomable that sustain love.

Yet the power and immediacy of those memories create a yearning for something more. Something bigger and more complete. So I feel I will go on trying, desparately, to discover more.

Monday 15 February 2010

Open Letter to Deirdre de Búrca

Deirdre, a chara,

When, or if, the Greens decide to bring down the government it will likely be as a result of an accumulation of breaches of trust. That is always how it happens. But they must carefully choose which the issue that they allow to break the camel’s back.

In your own case, whatever the merits of your argument about there being a pattern of Green submission to Fianna Fáil, you chose an issue which entirely centred upon YOU. I’m afraid it just looks so bad – for you that is.

Your timing too: the week George Lee quits. Celebrity cum superhero Lee emerges as a political idiot and sets this weeks theme music: self-obsessed clowns who cannot take the heat of political life. Then you throw out your rattler over a plum job in Brussels.

Knowing too how terrible the collateral damage your party is absorbing from being in power, and how your exit would hurt them, this is an immensely selfish act. You have hurled yourself into the political abyss, and you may well help bring your colleagues in after you. Well done!

Le dea-ghuí,

Monday 8 February 2010

Can the Left capitalise?!

In a comment on a progressive blog I lamented the fact that the left seems more hung up on holding or increasing current spending levels than it is concerned about service levels and value for money. One response to my comment ran that 'yes, but few here are really more concerned about spending levels per se'.

I know that the left is not obsessed simply with spending levels : but that too often is how it seems. It appears to me that much of progressive opinion seems embattled and defensive, and in its moment of seige it is unwilling to concede anything: even the truth. The mentality is that the wagons are closely circled, and all will be defended. This must explain how the broader left can defend the scandal of social partnership.

If there has been criticism from within, it certainly has been muted. The McLoones, Beggs, and O'Conors, co-opted by the Ahern governments, and complicit to one extent or another in its disastrous economic governance, remain unscathed. Similarly no one on the left pointed to the grotesque spectacle of Higher Civil and Public Servants (among the highest paid public servants in the world in a bankrupt country) inviting those in all jobs and in none to join them in the march on PS pay. As another commenter pointed out, the same applies to calling underperforming service providers. And I am decrying the same uncritical approach to spending: the mantra is always for more spending, regardless of the evidence of chronic mispending of moneys currently allocated. The fear of course is that scrutinizing spending will lead to questions on pay, work practices and conditions.

In all of these cases the public sees a defence of the indefensible, and turns way in despair.

I don't understand why the left needs to be so defensive, especially now. True, at a time when the neoliberal dogma of the self-correcting, free market, arrogantly bruised aside skeptics with swagger and media-pumped bluster, it was understandable that the retreating left took defensive positions.

But now, with free market ideology badly shaken, it is time for progressives to go on the offensive. And in my opinon the only way to do that is to admit present and past shortcomings and to campaign with honesty and with a view to persuading the neutral ground. The time for pandering to its own constituency for the sake of survival is over. The imperative for the left to re-invent itself couldn't be more urgent because if it fails now to refresh its ideas and to bring them into force, the crisis in the current capitalist model will be an interlude not a watershed.

In Ireland the left seems to me to be represented by entrenched, self-serving, and mostly public service unions on the one hand and an opportunistic, wavering, and power hungry labour party on the other. (then there is the fringe, from Joe Higgins to SF, the People before Profit, all of whom, I hope, remain nothing more than a fringe).

We cannot be surprised that PS unions are self serving - in essence that is their purpose. Nor can we be surprised that the Labour party is power hungry - politics is about power after all. Still, I would have hoped that the Labour party could have by now worked out a viable and coherent narrative not about what kind of society it strives to achieve - we all know the mantra about fairness and equity - but how it can be brought about and in particular what kind of role the state should play in achieving social and economic objectives.

The right succeeded admirably in crafting a narrative about the virtues of the market: the market always allocates resources more efficiently, the market gives choice to the individual, the market requires but also copperfastens freedom, the market drives innovation. Why can the left not similarly frame its ideas in cogent arguments which can be made to look no less self evident?

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Bás na Gaeilge

Chualamar na scéalta céanna fiche uair: go bhfuil an Ghaeilge ar shéala bheith marbh sa Ghaeltacht mar theanga phobail, go bhfuil deighilt mhór idir phobal labhartha na Gaeilge sa Ghaeltacht agus lucht Gaeilge na gcathracha, agus gur orthu siúd, Gaeilgeoirí na mbailte, a bheidh todhchaí na Gaeilge ag brath. Bhí na barúlacha seo le cluinstin ó thús ré na hathbheochana i leith agus, má choinnigh an Ghaeilge ag meath mar theanga phobail, mhair sí i mbéal na ndaoine sa Ghaeltacht. Glactar go forleathan anois, áfach, go bhfuil stáid na Gaeilge sa Ghaeltacht ina géarchéim teanga.

Murar féidir a rá go bhfuil fíor-dhíospóireacht náisiúnta ar siúl faoi láthair faoi thodhchaí na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta (ní dóigh liom go mbeidh a leithéid de dhíospóireacht ann feasta), tá an réadúlacht agus an t-ionracas le sonrú anois san áit a mbíodh an siabhrán agus an séanadh. Faoi dheireadh tá daoine ar spéis leo cás na Gaeilge ag dul i ngleic leis na fíricí loma.

An rud is suntasaí faoin phlé a dhéantar ar an Ghaeilge le blianta beaga anuas ná go bhfuiltear ag cur eolas na teangeolaíochta chun tairbhe, go hairithe an méid a bhaineann le teangacha atá i mbaol, nó go fiú, an tuiscint a bhaineann le bás teangacha. Ba chúis mire é an chaoi a mbíodh daoine ag dul i muinín fhigiúirí an daonáirimh ar úsáid na Gaeilge chun cur i gcéill go raibh an teanga ag seasamh an fhóid.

Tá stáid na teanga sa Ghaeltacht geal soiléir faoi láthair. Seo an méid a bhí le rá ag an Staidéar Cuimsitheach Teangeolaíoch :

“Is é tátal lom shuirbhé na ndaoine óga nach bhfuil ach idir 15 bliana agus scór blianta fágtha mar shaolré ag an nGaeilge mar theanga theaghlaigh agus phobail sa chuid is láidre den Ghaeltacht”

B’fhíor don Dr John Walsh “géarchéim teanga” a thabhairt ar chás na Gaeilge sa Ghaeltacht san alt leis a foilsíodh ar roimh an Nollaig. Agus ní iontas ar bith é gur scríobh Seán Tadhg Ó Gairbhe ar an Irish Times le déanaí gurb ann do “bhliain chinniúnach na Gaeilge”.

Ón uair a thuig mé go raibh an Ghaeilge i mbaol is iomaí uair a smaoinigh mé ar an chuma a shíl mé a bheadh ar dheireadh na Gaeltachta. Ar an cheo ar fad a bhain le cás na Gaeltachta le blianta, sílim anois go n-aithním dé deireadh na Gaeilge mar theanga phobail. Don chéad uair tá an cainteoir dúchais ag sleamhnú as amharc i bpolasaí teanga an stáit. San alt céanna le Ó Gairbhe fiafraíonn sé “cad a d’imigh ar an gcainteoir dúchais, duine go mbíodh an-chaint go deo air i dtuarascálacha fadó?”. Tháinig an cheist chuige nuair a thug sé faoi deara nach bhfuil táisc ná tuairisc ar an chainteoir dúchais i nDréachtstraitéis Fiche Bliain don Ghaeilge a d’fhoilsigh an Rialtas i mí na Samhna, 2009.

Ní hionann é sin is rá ar ndóigh nach bhfuil cainteoirí dúchais fós ann. Tá gan amhras, buíochas do Dhia. Ach is cosúil anois go bhfuil tús áite caillte ag an Ghaeltacht maidir le todhchaí na teanga.

Ó thús ré na hathbheochana bhí teannas agus míthuiscint idir mhuintir na Gaeltachta agus lucht foghlamtha na teanga sa Ghalltacht. Má bhí ceannródaithe na Gaeilge sna cathracha dílis agus díograiseach, bhí siad rómánsach agus idéalaíoch freisin. Ba bheag an tuiscint a bhí acu ar an anró a bhí á fhulaingt ag lucht an tsaibhris teanga a bhí scaipthe i measc na gcnoc lom sna háiteanna is iargúlta in iarthar na tíre. Bhí bearna mór cultúrtha eatarthu freisin. Bhí an sean-traidisiúin fós beo sa Ghaeltacht fad is a bhí an nua-aoiseachas ag bualadh na gcathracha.

Bhíothas ag súil an t-am sin go ndúnfaí na bearnaí seo faoi dheireadh. D’fhéadfaí na síolta is áille agus is mó luach den traidisiúin a shábháil sa Ghaeltacht agus a chur sa Ghalltacht (smaoiním ar dhearcadh De Valera). Agus d’fhéadfaí an chuid is éifeachtaí agus is iontaí de shaol nua na mbailte a thabhairt do mhuintir na Gaeltachta (monarchana, teilifís, cumarsáid). Ní raibh a fhios áfach cén chaoi a d’imreodh na hathruithe casta sin ar a chéile ó thaobh cúrsaí teanga de. Tá tuiscint níos fear anois ann ar cheisteanna sóch-theangeolaíochta, agus tuigtear go mbíonn brú millteanach ar mhion-teanga nuair a chuirtear gréasáin nua (bóithre, fón, idirlíon) in áit na sean-ghréasáin (idir dhaoine muinteartha, inmheánach don phobal).

Is léir anois nár éirigh linn deireadh a chur le meath na Gaeltachta. Is léir freisin nár éirigh linn an deighilt idir mhuintir na Gaeltachta agus Gaeilgeoirí na gcathracha a fhuascailt. Léiríonn alt spéisiúil leis an Dr Brian Ó Broin (Irish Times 16 Eanáir) go bhfuil bearna mór teanga idir chainteoirí dúchais na Gaeltachta agus chainteoirí cumasacha na gcathracha.

De réir Uí Bhroin is gránna le cainteoirí dúchais Gaelscoilis na mbailte. Is minic a bhrúnn siad cnaipe an rialaitheora nuair a thosaíonn cainteoir a d’fhoghlaim a chuid Gaeilge ag caint ar an teilifís. Ní thaitníonn Gaeilge na Gaeltachta le go leor foghlaimeoirí ach an oiread. Dar le Ó Broin tá an chaint dhúchasach deacair dothuigthe i gcluasa an fhoghlaimeora.

Rinne Ó Broin anailís ghrinn theangeolaíoch ar shamplaí de chaint na gcathrach agus de chaint na Gaeltachta. Dar léis tá difríochta móra foghraíochta, deilbhíochta, gramadaí, agus comhréire idir an dá chineál Gaeilge. Tharla an éabhlóid seo de bharr a laghad teagmhála a dhéanann an dá phobal lena chéile agus dar le Ó Broin d’fhéadfaí ‘pidsean’ a thabhairt ar an teanga nua atá i mbéal mhuintir na cathrach. (Teanga neamhsheasmhach le gramadach shimplí agus a cruthaíodh in áit na mbonn chun cumarsáid a dhéanamh is ea pidsean).

Ba é an fhís a bhí ag lucht na Gaeilge i gcónaí ná go mbeadh an Ghaeltacht ina thobar ag foghlaimeoirí agus gur ó chaint na Gaeltachta a bhfaighidís an saibhreas agus an snas. Is léir nár tháinig an fhís sin i gcrích.

Mura féidir le foghlaimeoirí saibhreas, iomláine, agus áilleacht theanga na Gaeltachta a thabhairt leo, an fiú an Ghaeltacht a chaomhnú ar chor ar bith? Nó an é go mbeadh Gaeilge na gcathracha ní ba bhoichte fós murach an Ghaeltacht bheith ann? Nó an bhfeidhmíonn an Ghaeltacht ar leibhéal eile in intinn an fhoghlaimeora, go seasann sí mar bhun-chloch faoi choincheap éigin a bhaineann le féidearthachtaí teanga, sé sin gur mó an tábhacht a bhaineann leis an Ghaeltacht atá i samhlaíocht an fhoghlaimeora ná a bhaineann leis an fhíor-Ghaeltacht féin?

Mairfidh Gaeilge éigin ag cainteoirí aonáracha ar fud na tíre, ach is dóigh liom féin gur beag seans atá anois ann go dtiocfaidh an Ghaeilge slán mar theanga phobail. Goilleann sé go mór orm an méid sin a rá. Is iomaí uair a smaoinigh mé ar cén cineál báis a cheap mé a bheadh ag an Ghaeilge. Ag amharc ar na léarscáileanna a léiríonn na limistéir a raibh an Ghaeilge beo iontu ón naoú haois déag i leith, samhlaítear dom i gcónaí leac mhór oighir ag leá. Níl fágtha den leac anois ach giotaí beaga atá fós ag leá agus tá teas an Bhéarla, mar theanga dhomhanda, ag scalladh fúithi níos tréine na mar a bhí riamh. Is gearr nach mbeidh againn ach lochán uisce.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Falling out of Love with Politics

I sat up half the night on April 9th 1992, waiting on the very tight British election to be called. It was supposed to be a narrow but comfortable win for Labour after thirteen years of Conservative rule. But in the end, it went to the wire and Labour lost.

Since then I have waited up on many an election, including the 1997 Irish election, when I think news emerged that Fine Gael's Nora Owen lost her seat. (Her constituency was one of the trial constituencies for electronic voting).

Over the years I have always tried to keep abreast of key political developments in Ireland, Britain, America, and, during and after living there, France. I was never a true political anorak, however. I always failed to muster the interest in peripheral figures or precise election tallies for example.

I became (an inactive) member of a political party, though again, I failed to be interested in the down and dirty of local political activism. I have a deep admiration for those volunteers who organise, discuss, canvass, and so on. They have amazing perseverance and unshakable resolve. They are truly remarkable, and they are the life blood of democracy. But unfortunately I found the minutiae and machinations of local political life terribly boring. Local constituency meetings often get bogged down in mind numbing procedural and organisational matters. A bewildering diversity of opinion is aired at them, and much of it is pretty bland, and a lot of it, I have to say, is downright lamentable. Some one will pipe up about economics without the faintest idea of how economics works, someone else will rage about banks, or someone will issue a general fatwa against farmers. It isn't an enlightening place to be. One interesting thing is how the multitude of voices, noise essentially, gets filtered as it passes up through the layers of an organisation, to emerge at party level at something that is coherent enough to call a policy.

Eventually I had to admit to myself that I'm not really a political animal and that my interest is more in the theory than the practice!

Nevertheless, I managed to remain very interested in the theory part! And I kept hooked in to the main national, and party, debates. But over the last 12 months I have noticed a change in myself. I am reading the political sections of the newspapers less often (I used to track them religiously), and I'm finding myself less and less in front of a political program on TV (Despite making a brief contribution myself to a recent edition of the Frontline). I think that unconsciously I have begun to tune out from politics.

I think I know why. Pure disillusionment. I have ceased to believe that any substantial change is possible no matter who you vote for. The structure and culture of say the Irish political system is set in thick granite. It cannot be shaken. A decade and a half or tribunals revealling the noxious relationship between politics and business has not lead to a new dawn. In fact, bar minor changes, the old system rolls on. And on political reform one report after another rolls out (on say Seanad reform) only to be quietly shuffled off to gather dust. And make no mistake - the proposed banking inquiry will deliver the same quantity of change: none.

Regarding the theory - I am still fascinated by the big questions. About the shape of a constitution, the structural biases of a polity, how much the state should be involved in the economy, where the line should be drawn between the rights of the individual and those of the collective, the efficacy of supranational organisations, the effect of globalisation on the state, and so on.

But on the practical side and the nitty gritty, I feel that life is far too short. It might be fun to know how a glacier shapes a valley over a million years, but few would derive much excitement from watching its progress in a day. The same is for me and political change. It just feels as though it isn't happening, so I am not going to bother watching too closely. I will continue to vote and keep an eye on developments, but my passion for politics has cooled.

In a way I feel a little liberated, though perhaps it is only a fool's paradise. I can gladly miss the six o'clock news (like I did today, home early from work and got back into a fantastic book) and I can mostly forget about the papers! A great ocean of time has opened up before me and I feel free enough now to explore it without being weighed down by the most common emotions relating to Irish politics - frustration, bewilderment, sadness, embarrassment, and often, anger. Time to forget about political life and get on with the real thing.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

A Short Reflection on 2009

As we start into a fresh and challenging decade I am tempted to look back at the last ten years of my life. But even a cursory glance back is enough for me to realise that a great number of chapters were added to my life over the decade – some delightful and others less so – to pore over the details here. (The truth is that right now I have neither the mental energy to relive and reflect on a full decade nor the physical time to document my meditations.) Instead, maybe I can take a peek back at 2009 just to see if it will reveals whether it was, as it sometimes feels now, a year of heavy lifting, or just another typical year in the middle of life.

On the whole 2009 was stressful. I have had to work harder, by an order of magnitude, than ever before. I now work in a small firm whose very survival depends on the next generation of its product which is a couple of years behind the ideal market window. The team is small – about ten – and we have had to work about an extra day each week for far too many months. Perhaps an extra day a week doesn't sound like much, but there was on top the incessant intensity of the work. This is not the place to go into the details of that story, but I think the burden has begun to take its toll on my mental state and even perhaps on my physical health: I have gone down with a number of severe cold/flus over the last month. This might be pure bad luck with what has been a bad winter for bugs, with swine flu and so on, but I feel that I have succumbed more readily this year than before. Just today our boss has impressed upon us the importance of, to use his words, “keeping our foot on the pedal” until the end of January. The trouble is, that was the message for November and none of us believe there is less than another two or three months of heavy hours ahead.

But the main story on the work front in 2009 was that I had some! In the autumn of the year before I was laid off and was very fortunate to start a new job in January '09. To start a new job in in 2009 and still be in it at the end was, given the wretched economic climate in Ireland, a considerable achievement.

But January of 09 brought a more sobering experience too. I visited a friend of mine, I'll call him John, who was severly ill with lung cancer. He had been ill for about a year. I hadn't seen him since about the time he was diagnosed (he was abroad for a good part of the time). His wife let me in and I passed in to the living room where John was sitting with a blanket over his knees. A warm but emaciated smile greeted me. I found it hard to conceal my shock at the feeble, emaciated figure before me. From one angle John seemed to have aged by about twenty years.

Outwardly at least he was in good spirits, and spoke as loquaciously and intelligently as ever. But I wasn't close enough to him to learn the of what must have been his inner horror. His wife showed as much a sign of the strain as he did: she seemed worn and embattled, and it was clearly a big job to manage John's illness both physically and mentally.

John's two teenage children returned for lunch from school. I didn't know them that well, but at least to my eye they hadn't yet realised how gravely ill their father was.

I thought I detected a distance in his eyes when John said that he was now beginning a six month schedule of chemotherapy, and then that “after that we'll see”. (his cancer had already spread and this was his second series of chemo).

Eventually I had to leave to catch a train and at the same time John's wife was reminding him that he was already late for a hospital appointment and that they had to leave immediately. So we left together and I walked them to their car. I said good bye as normal, but it wasn't a normal good bye. I think both of us knew. After I had walked off I turned to look back, and John was slowly bending to climb into the car. That would be the last time I would see him.

I don't know whether John's death caused my perspective on life to shift or whether it merely accelerated a change that was already under way, but over the last year I have been engaged more than ever by nagging questions concerning the direction of my life, my priorities, and what shape real tragedy takes. I have become a bit more anxious, more pressed to realise approximations of happiness, more worried about trying to weave all the ungovernable strands of a modern life into a some kind of reassuring fabric. Probably the biggest change over the last year is a realisation that old recurring dreams should be shelved in favour of more modest, but more achievable destinations. Yet when I do this exercise – banish the romantic to make way for the pragmatic – all I'm really doing is learning to grow old.

But the two greatest things in my life, bean Thomaltaigh, and my son, mac Thomaltaigh, help make growing old a pleasure in itself. They both made 2009, despite all its shadows, a very rewarding place to be alive. Bean Thomaltaigh, possessed of that silent, inner strength, that voracious instinct for life that only women have, was a support without which I could scarcely have faced 2009 let alone survived it. Bean Thomaltaigh is loved and lovable and capable of sustained generosity. And mac Thomaltaigh, now two, is at the right age to be a perfect antidote to self-doubt, age, and existential uncertainty. I see in him the mad, carefree, and relentless hunger for life that is possible only in youth. His disarming innocence, his tumbling and frolicking, all have made our living room a surer and more fun place to be.

[ There was loads more of course, and I hope to come back to this and add a little more later]

When I look at it in the round I see in 2009 a plodding, difficult year. But in the grand scheme of life, it was a year that gave as much as it took. During the year I think I've grown (as well as grown older!). In some ways it was a year I set out to survive, a holding period, a place to seek refuge in a storm, but it gave its joys as well, and even getting to its end, intact, if a little battered, gives a sense of achievement. It taught me (again and more deeply) that this is life – vagarious, relentless, rewarding, punctuated with great joys and wrenching pain, bearable, unyielding, in short, very livable.