Friday 20 September 2019

Luther's role in preserving and promoting the Irish language

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last Tuesday, 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg and began the Protestant Reformation, a topic to which I shall return later.

Meantime, I am suffering a shortage of hard news stories about politicians pounding the streets in Lycra, what with Leo being away across the Wild Atlantic Way.

In the Lycra line of news, the big story is the proposed trip to North Korea of John Halligan, Finian McGrath and Shane Ross.

This is a suicide mission as Halligan's hair is sure to arouse the envy of Kim Jong-un who might well arrest them as spies and shoot them with artillery shells.

Possibly Shane Ross finds this prospect marginally more palatable than having to listen to Brendan Ogle-trained train drivers all winter.

The nearest thing to hard news was also good news. Charlie Flanagan, Minister for Justice, plans to phase out the degrading direct provision system and let our immigrants work their way while fully integrating into Irish society.

Let's hope Flanagan shows the same firmness and common sense in dealing with the interim report on the breath-test scandal by Josephine Feehily of the Policing Authority.

Feehily fudges what should be done about the huge number of gardai who fiddled the figures in murky chain of command circumstances.

Fire hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, and destroy any remaining morale in an already-demoralised force?

That would be analogous to the appalling mistake the Americans made after the invasion of Iraq, by firing thousands of rank-and-file troops and police who had signed up for the salary rather than Saddam.

Because there is a Grand Canyon between what some senior gardai may have done to Maurice McCabe and rank-and-file gardai boosting breath-test figures for murky reasons.

My hunch is that a pragmatic public supports shadow FF spokesperson Jim O'Callaghan, who favours disciplining some senior managers. But I would add a symbolic formal rap on the record of every guilty garda.

Moving on, the TCD centenary symposium on Conor Cruise O'Brien made a good start in bringing this brave and brilliant Irishman in from the cold.

Like Vaclav Havel, another writer-politician, Conor was more honoured abroad than at home where nationalists bigots smeared him as a figure of hate with no followers.

But, as Stephen Collins reminded us, Conor's controversial (but now commonplace) policy of pluralism and unionist consent was supported by the Cosgrave and Corish government of 1973-77, and he was welcomed like a rock star by many of the pluralist rank-and-file at Labour Party conferences.

Good to see the current Labour Party recovering some of that ground in recent weeks by taking a tough stand on Sinn Fein.

Let's hope they join Micheal Martin in rejecting any pan-nationalist ploy that would see us make common cause with Sinn Fein against democratic unionists.

Another bonus of the TCD symposium was that Michael Kennedy, of the Royal Irish Academy, was challenged about his recent book criticising Conor's actions in the Congo as well as his advisory role in the film The Siege Of Jadotville which caricatured Conor as a colonial snob.

Noel Dorr, former secretary-general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, delivered a robust defence of Conor's conduct in implementing the United Nations resolution in the Congo, with the authority of having served under him as a junior diplomat.

Finally, Stephen Collins and myself got a full house for our tributes to Conor as a consummate journalist.

Conor could have enjoyed well-paid academic posts abroad. Duty drove him to come home to live frugally as a freelance columnist, pounding away at the Provisional IRA.

Two sour nationalists rested their rears on our seats before the session, working themselves up about me to the amusement of Gwen sitting behind.

At noon, before our session began, one heaved herself up to remark to her companion that "she could not stomach Eoghan Harris so early in the morning".

Finally, returning to the Reformation, the first thing to say is that it left little mark on Catholic Ireland. But it left a lasting mark on Irish as a written language in the form of An Tiomna Nua (the New Testament) published in 1602 and William Bedell's Bible which he never lived to see published in 1685.

The "Second Reformation" of 1818-1850 played an even more progressive part in preserving and promoting Irish as a written language.

For more than 30 years, Irish-speaking Protestant missionaries - preaching the Gospel as they saw it, seeking conversions as the Catholic clergy saw it - set up scores of schools along the Wild Atlantic Way, teaching Irish children to cherish and write their native language.

This was crucial in conserving the Irish language at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was promoting the use of English, a policy with which the Irish-speaking Daniel O'Connell strongly agreed.

One of the themes of my play, Souper Sullivan, staged at the Abbey in 1985, was the complex link between proselytism and the preservation of Irish.

Today, scholars such as Muiris Mac Conghail stress that the 19th-century Protestant school on the Great Blasket laid the foundations of the powerful prose style which marks the world-famous island writers.

Liam O Muirthile, the poet, believes "the fine flinty Irish" of Muiris O Suilleabhain's Fiche Bliain ag Fas and Tomas O Criomhthain's An t-Oileanach was formed by teaching Bible texts in Irish.

William Fisher, rector of Kilmoe, the subject of Souper Sullivan, was an ardent Irish scholar who frequented the cabins of the poor to learn Irish and translated manuscripts for the British Library.

During the Famine, Fisher built Teampol na mBocht, the Church of the Poor at Tooremore, helped by hundreds of spalpeens, who not surprisingly ended by worshipping in the Protestant Church - and later staying loyal to their choice of church.

Teampol na mBocht, the only Protestant Church with an Irish language name, is today somewhat anaemically called Altar Church, a legacy of local tribal pressure in the past.

Legendary Canon James Goodman went further than preaching in Irish. He used his uilleann pipes as part of his pastoral work - possibly converting enough to form a branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann.

Although a native of Kerry, Goodman adopted West Cork and collected a stupendous 2,000 tunes. A fine statue of him playing his beloved uilleann pipes stands outside Abbeystrewry Church in Skibbereen.

But Goodman must give way to Bach this morning as RTE is transmitting a special Reformation 500 service from St Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork at 10am.

Devised by Bishop Paul Colton, the Dean of St Fin Barres, Rev Nigel Dunn and director of music Peter Stobart, the service is both an ecumenical message of reconciliation and a robust affirmation of the Protestant Reformation.

Sunday Independent

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