In 2007, I was at Easter Mass in the village of Cloghane, on the north coast of the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry. Here is, so far as I can recall, an unabridged version of the sermon the priest delivered in English: “About two thousand years ago, our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, died for our sins, and rose to Heaven. A lot of people don’t seem to think that’s very important. Well, ’tis!” After this laconic and surly homily, he switched to Irish, and talked animatedly for about five minutes.
In general, the priest seemed much more comfortable with the Irish-language parts of the bilingual service, though his English was fluent.
Cloghane is in one of the Gaeltacht areas, little patches in the far West of Ireland where the government hopes to keep the Irish language alive. Even there, one mostly hears English in the streets (well, it’s really just one street), but the example of the Easter sermon goes to show that Irish does play a central role in some people’s lives. One service the Gaeltacht areas provide is that people can come there in summerfrom Dublin or Cork or Boston to brush up on the Gaeilge and get in touch with their inner Cuchulainn.
And this is pretty much what brought the young writer J.M. Synge, Anglo-Irish by birth, Parisian by choice, to the desolate Aran islands in 1898. To give you an idea what I mean by desolate…the family he was staying with had to consolidate the soil on their land in order to have enough to grow potatoes. They spent a day scraping together soil from the otherwise stony ground in one corner of their little plot and carrying it to another corner to supplement the meager dirt that was already there. The carrying was done in a pannier, not a wheelbarrow, because, as Synge remarks, there were no wheeled vehicles of any kind on the island. Now that’s hard-core.
Synge came to the Aran Islands to learn Irish (which he had studied at Trinity College) and collect folklore, and his experiences there are recounted in his memoir The Aran Islands (they also informed his plays, including the famous Playboy of the Western World). Some of the islangers had never so much as visited the mainland, but he was not the most exotic person they had met, since German and French philologists had been there before him researching the language. These being the only foreigners the locals had ever met, they had come to the natural conclusion that all Germans and Frenchmen were obsessed with Celtic grammar. One fellow told Synge that there was hardly a French gentleman nowadays who wasn’t carrying around a great sack of Irish books.
(This phenomenon is parodied in Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), where the villagers tell some visiting Germans that they have an Irish-speaking pig. The Philologen are pretty excited at this, and indeed, after interviewing the pig, they decide that it speaks an Irish so pure that nobody can understand it. His like will not soon be seen again, says the narrator.)
Synge has a lot of interesting things to say about language, especially when he is telling us what the locals have to say. One man remarks that his mother never spoke a word of English except when she was talking to dogs or chickens. (I suppose this could be because dogs chickens and Englishmen belong to the general category of non-Irish speakers, or because English seemed to her suitable for animals.) Another tells him that Irish can never die out, because the islanders need their potato patches to survive, and potato cultivation is done only in Irish. People know the English words for the parts of a hooker (fishing boat, don’t worry) but they only know the Irish for the way to grow potatoes.
Synge gets lower marks for his sociological/racial musings, as when a meditation on shoes (he has worn out his boots and switched to a sort of moccasins called pampooties) leads him to this meditation:
The absence of the heavy boot of Europe has preserved to these people the agile walk of the wild animal, while the general simplicity of their lives has given them many other points of physical perfection. Their way of life has never been acted on by anything much more artificial than the nests and burrows of the creatures that live round them, and they seem, in a certain sense, to approach more nearly to the finer types of our aristocracies, who are bred artificially to a natural ideal, than to the laborer or citizen, as the wild horse resembles the thoroughbred rather than the hack- or cart-horse.
That whole passage has that not-so-fresh feeling in so many ways…where to start? The arrogance of his attitude toward the wild Irish? Or the arrogance of his attitude toward the laboring dray-horses of humanity? Let’s take his bizarre idea that 19th-century aristocrats were bred for physical prowess and beauty (did they sterilize their less agile and comely children?). Of course people used to talk about ‘noble blood,’ but one expects an admiring reader of Darwin (which Synge was) to be more or less a grownup. To be sure, it is an interesting question whether there was anything distinguishing the aristocrats of Europe apart from the smug and well-fed air of those who wield the whip rather than feeling it–I guess the nobility of Renaissance Italy might have been selected for a resistance to common poisons, for example.
But I digress. There is more fun stuff in Synge, and maybe I will get to it in another post.