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He strove to resuscitate the dead art…

17 July 2014

If you were expecting Sajid Javid to be replaced as minister for culture in our recent reshuffle, perhaps on the grounds that his qualifications for the job were far from obvious, spare a thought for the two ministers in Ireland responsible for the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht, who it turns out – to huge political embarrassment – can’t speak Irish. The Gaeltachtaí are the regions in the Republic where Irish is supposed to be the dominant language: their combined population is about 2% of the state, but I very much doubt if there is anyone alive today who doesn’t also speak perfectly good English. But the fiction that the Irish language is alive and well has been maintained from the earliest days of the Irish Free State.

When I went to school there, some 50 years ago, a bizarre system had been designed to encourage us to learn a language which is actually formidably difficult – far harder than most major European languages, possibly on a par with Polish in complexity. Like all the other languages I learnt, it was taught as a dead language (my father used to tell the story of the son of the French ambassador who failed his French language oral at Trinity College, Dublin because the examiner found his accent unintelligible). But unlike Latin and Greek, failure in Irish had disproportionate consequences: you couldn’t get a grant for a university course in any subject unless you passed Irish at the final exams you took on leaving school.

To get round the obvious problem this presented, the department for education devised a simple solution. Pupils could elect to take either a pass paper, which was simple (if you’d spent six years of your life studying the language); or they could take the honours exam, which was not. The honours paper was a serious examination intended for native, or at least fluent, speakers; it involved study of set texts, writing essays etc. just like a final English paper. There was no translation, as the pretence was maintained that Irish was your only language; and it was rumoured (I chose not to put this to the test) that the inclusion of a word of English in your script would lead to an automatic fail. You could only get honours if you took the harder paper, but you ran a far higher risk of failure. The result was that virtually every pupil in all the Protestant schools took the pass paper.

I can’t say that I had any particular enthusiasm or aptitude for the language, and like most of my schoolfellows I was resentful of wasting so much time on so useless a task. But if I was going to do it at all, I might as well try to do it properly. With the encouragement of my Irish teacher, and the arrogance of youth, I took the risk, and scraped through – far from brilliantly, but enough to be certified as a fully fledged Irish speaker. As I did rather better in my other papers, I soon received a letter in Irish (although I had to read it three times to understand it) telling me that I had come first in the competition for two of the seven Easter Week scholarships (a feat of rather less distinction than it sounds given the size of the country and the linguistic elimination of the main competition, as honours in Irish was a prerequisite for these awards), but as I could only hold one of them, I would receive the Tom Clarke scholarship (for natural sciences). Apparently this was because Clarke’s signature appeared first on the 1916 Proclamation (declaring Ireland’s independence), while the name of James Connolly (attached to mathematics), whose rebellion was at least based on political thinking (however misguided), would have appealed to me more than that of a convicted criminal responsible for planning a terrorist bombing campaign in London. Obviously I was never a contender for the Patrick Pearse scholarship, awarded for the Irish paper. Pearse at least was a genuine enthusiast for the language: I am not sure if either Clarke or Connolly had any knowledge of it.

Do the names attached to prizes matter? Less so when faceless committees attach the names randomly long after their death. But the philanthropists who endow academic prizes deserve more than the effective anonymity with which most schoolchildren ignore them. They, like the dedicatees of musical compositions and donors to museums, should excite at least a little curiosity.

Nearly a half century later, I look back on my exposure to Irish with some disbelief. I now find the texts I studied then utterly unintelligible. Not once have I had to use my Irish, although as an art historian I have had to muddle my way through most European languages (including – rarely, thankfully – Catalán and Serbo-Croatian): perhaps if I absorbed one thing it was a fearlessness in the face of foreign texts (but the demands art history makes are fairly limited). Even the rudimentary Latin and Greek I learned have had infinitely more practical value: these are languages which may not be spoken today, but unlike Irish they have a real life through being so deeply embedded in European culture. Only the music of some Irish poetry kindles any recollection at all, and as I re-read Aoḋagán Ó Raṫaille’s famous poem Caḃair ní ġoirfead in Father Dinneen’s edition (where lenition is still indicated by dots, a quaint practice which can now be revived with modern word-processing) I realise that the struggle to master the words (and crucially the sounds – the poetry falls completely flat in translation) had blinded me to the real meaning of the poem. This was probably just as well as it was a direct attack on my forebears.

How to preserve the culture of the past is a challenge to all of us. As fewer and fewer children are taught scripture, the accessibility of much of Western painting recedes – anchored only by the sensuous delight in the paint itself. Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner’s magisterial account of J. S. Bach, takes us through the turgid world of Lutheran theology with an impetus derived from the genius of the music: but where the impetus is inaccessible until the mountain has been climbed, what can be done?

It seems that the message of defiance in Ó Raṫaille’s poem (“I will not seek help” etc.) has also been lost on the Irish ministers, as they have agreed to take up Irish lessons. Good luck to them; but I can’t help but feel, like Ezra Pound in the poem that provides the headline to this post, that they are “wrong from the start.”

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