Feature Articles

THE INVISIBLE TRIBE? by Gabriel Rosenstock

(PI News July/August 2006)

In Michael Cronin’s fascinating, bilingual, upside-down book An Ghaeilge san Aois Nua / Irish in the New Century (Cois Life, 2005), there is passing mention of ‘an treibhGabriel Rosenstock dhofheicthe’, the thousands of speakers of Irish who roam the streets of our cities, invisible to all and sometimes to one another. Are we the new Tuatha Dé Danann then, outside of the world of men, letters and history? Not so, says Cronin. We are real. Our babble is not totally lost among 200 other languages spoken, sporadically or daily, in Ireland. Far from being a doomed tribe, Cronin believes that multiculturalism offers a new space for the indigenous language, the ‘national’ language of Ireland. Otherwise, the joke which is language revival can only become more painful and more embarrassing for us all.

Cronin suggests language reform or language simplification as one clear way towards greater access to the language, a way out of the morass. To the best of my knowledge, recent language reform of German orthography has been rejected by the majority. Complexity of language itself, any language, is surely one of the reasons why its survival is crucial. Are there too many rules governing the use of the ‘séimhiú’? One might as well ask are there too many species of butterfly. We cannot have enough. What use are they? ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’ is good enough for me, whether a Brazilian butterfly gives us a cure for cancer or not! As a letter writer to The Irish Times remarked, ‘Bás teanga a simpliú.’ Poets would agree.

Of course, Michael Cronin, Director of the Centre for Textual and Translation Studies in Dublin City University, acknowledges the need for diversity among various languages and, in a key quote from R. Bernard, he affirms that ‘any reduction of language diversity diminishes the adaptational strength of our species because it lowers the pool of knowledge from which we can draw.’ The pool is lowering – dramatically – as you read these words and I share Cronin’s dismay at the world ’s indifference to this calamity. Alas, for hundreds of languages – and the poems that might yet be written in these languages – the game is already over. All the wealth and tools of Bill Gates could at best record them. Save them? Never. And yet, Irish survives. How do we persuade the people of Ireland to accept this treasure? How do we convince them that they will be infinitely adorned, not lumbered, by this unique gift? Build the highest statue in the world to honour Aogán Ó Rathaile?

What is interesting about Cronin’s thesis is that he views the depletion of the Bernardian pool of precious knowledge not only in a cultural context but in relation to the uses of the marketplace. Today’s economy, he argues, is a knowledge economy. But if our knowledge of Irish is limited, then ‘large swathes of the cognitive, aesthetic and affective experience of the people who have lived on the island become invisible …’ Who can argue with that? Is the day about to dawn, then, when the plethora of business schools that have sprouted up all over the country wake up and set about incorporating sophisticated studies of the Irish language as well as multi -discipline courses in cultural repossession (including hundreds of poems and songs) as core elements of the curriculum? Fanciful, maybe, but if you read Cronin, not entirely impossible.

He is pessimistic, however, about our ability or willingness to draw upon the Bernardian ‘pool of knowledge’ (which is self-knowledge) and, so, selective amnesia in relation to a thousand years of our civilisation seems set to continue. Shall we blame the Government –again? No, blame yourself, he seems to say. Selective amnesia begins with you. It is your responsibility – your loss, if you like. Otherwise, let’s breathe a deep sigh and settle on 2016 as a good year to celebrate Giving Up on Irish.

Cronin is, above all, a realist, a scholar, a creative intellectual. He quotes Ciarán Mac Murchaidh in the preface to Who Needs Irish? (a mixed bag of essays which includes a contribution from this writer): ‘Irish is the storehouse of so much of our heritage, our traditions, our literature, our spirituality and our lived experience as a people.’ Fine. But Cronin doesn’t deliver much on the spiritual aspect of this mosaic. He has more to say on the notions of power, globalisation and the new society we live in. But what exactly is Celtic spirituality – pre-Christian, Christian and even post-Christian? Matter for another book, one hopes, worthy of Cronin’s imaginative and intellectual breadth.
Meanwhile, Cronin concludes that the tribe, visible or invisible, is no longer the agency which will revive the language or allow it to perish. ‘We must start with the individual citizen if there is to be any substance to collective action … What needs to be shown once again is that the end of carrying the language into the 21st century is a new beginning for all.’ We should be very grateful to Michael Cronin for mapping out some of the hurdles and some of the opportunities along the way. If there is light at the end of the tunnel it can be nothing more, or less, than a meeting with yourself.

Poet and haikuist Gabriel Rosenstock’s most recent book is Rogha Dánta / Selected Poems (Cló Iar-Chonnachta)

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