Monday 19 August 2019

Declan Lynch: 'Maybe the Irish language is a great success story after all'

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

I was on the phone to Miriam O'Callaghan, talking on her Today radio show about these new suggestions that Irish might be dropped as a compulsory school subject, when I was struck by an intriguing thought - one that hadn't struck me before, which explains why I could not formulate it in words for Miriam right there.

Indeed it was so intriguing, it clearly demanded further reflection - which I have engaged in, and the result of which I am now in a position to share with you.

What if they actually wanted it all to turn out like this?

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This is the question that popped into my head, as I found myself speaking once again about 100 years of efforts to revive the Irish language in a meaningful sense, a project which any normal person would regard as a failure of such extravagant proportions, the human mind simply cannot quantify it by any conventional measurement.

And maybe… yes maybe we keep finding that it is beyond our limited powers of imagination, because in truth, that was not the nature of the project at all. Maybe the founding fathers didn't really want to revive the language. Maybe they have not indeed failed on an epic scale, but have in fact succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Go with me on this, as I invite you to consider the personalities of men such as Eamon de Valera, whom we will regard as the archetypal voice of the movement to restore Irish to its position as the first national language - in practice and not just in theory.

Go with me on this, as I ask you to consider that such a man might have been, shall we say, in two minds on this matter? And indeed that both of his minds were inclining towards the view that along with all its other troubles, the last thing this emerging nation needed, was to be routinely speaking a language that nobody in the world including ourselves could understand?

Of course, he and the other founding fathers couldn't say this, in any language - so they had to put together a kind of institutional infrastructure which could keep the gaeilge safely housed, a danger to nobody.

The schools would be crucial to this vision, schools at the time being mostly brutish establishments which would turn the teaching even of relatively easy subjects into the most hellish trials of human endurance - and in case there was any chance that our affection for the language would survive all that, they would make it compulsory, and actually make you fail the whole Leaving Cert if you couldn't get a grip of it.

Now, I ask you, was this the modus operandi of people who wanted Irish to be loved? Or did they perhaps have something else in mind?

Yes, admittedly the twin forces of malevolence and mediocrity are never to be discounted in any of these calculations, but there is a kind of thoroughness to this operation which suggests some sort of coherent intelligence - over time, effectively they converted a language into a commodity, with various "owners" who could use it for their own selfish ends.

Thus you could gain advancement in the public service through Irish, you could get better exams results through Irish, you could in general claim that you were more Irish than other Irish people through Irish, all of which helped to turn what should be a wonderful unifying force into one of division and discouragement - again, we must ask ourselves if this was the unintended consequence of a strategy formulated by fools, or a plan that came together perfectly?

Indeed it's still coming together for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, using the Irish language to divide and discourage.

And by turning it into a commodity, perhaps the visionaries of the new Ireland could see that the various "owners" would now have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion that everything with the language was going very well - because after all, it was going very well for them.

It might not exist in any meaningful sense in the actual world, but in these other worlds of the public service and education and organisations promoting the Irish language, it was a tremendous success for all concerned - indeed I don't think I have ever debated this subject with someone who wasn't to some extent making a living out of it.

So they could be explaining that "it just wasn't taught properly", or that in the census more than 1.76 million people said they could speak Irish, with the implication that one more big push will get us all over the hump and speaking it like it's our mother tongue - quietly ignoring the fact that most of our mothers didn't speak it either.

And when you put it all together, you can regard it as perhaps the single biggest policy failure in the history of this Republic, or you can look at it anew, and ask yourself, as I have done : could anything have gone so wrong, by accident?

Or are we in fact looking here at a triumph of the most spectacular proportions?

If there's any justice, this one album will outlive us all

I can't recall the exact number, it was something like 450. It was used in an ad in Hot Press for Ghostown, the Radiators album which has been reissued in a glorious 40th anniversary edition.

But in the early days of its long and distinguished life, it had allegedly sold only 450 copies - the message of the ad, was that this was an absurdly low number for such a great record, and that if you hadn't already bought it, there was something wrong with you.

Which was true, of course. Though the band themselves hadn't endorsed the ad, and the album had actually sold considerably more - about 1,000 - on import in places like Advance Records, it was not just aesthetically indefensible for any decent person not to possess a copy of Ghostown, it was morally wrong.

How strange that ad seems to us, what a downer, now that everybody is claiming to be a bestseller even before they have gone on sale - now that everything has to be talked up, because apparently everyone wants to buy into success.

That Hot Press ad was inviting people to buy into failure - the Radiators had not failed in their task of making an album, they had succeeded in tremendous style, but the audience had failed to recognise this in large enough numbers for the band to achieve commercial success.

Nor was this by any means the only incidence of Ghostown not connecting with the abysmal realities of the marketplace - if anything, its greatness is embellished by these legends of its misfortune.

The producer Tony Visconti had worked with Bowie and Marc Bolan, and for all their talents, perhaps even they would have struggled if they had faced the kind of hard luck which the gods were throwing at the Rads.

Ghostown was released a year after it should have been, due to money troubles - it was still a special piece of work, ahead of its time. But as Pete Holidai remembers it, the album would have seemed even more ahead of its time if it hadn't come out when your Elvis Costellos and your Blondies were bringing their own specialities to the post-punk party.

Then, with the single Million Dollar Hero bubbling under in the British charts, and being played on BBC Radio One by the likes of Tony Blackburn, the word came that the Radiators would be on Top of the Pops the following week if the record made the top 75.

Naturally there was some distribution problem that week which stopped the single getting into the shops, and blew it for them. And there was more - at a time when the NME was massively influential, there was a review of the album by some hack who just didn't get it. Later it would emerge that Nick Kent, one of the star writers of the NME, loved the album and would have given it a stellar review if he'd been asked, which he hadn't been.

Against all that, Ghostown endures. It is a monument to its creators, two of whom - Philip Chevron and Mark Megaray - are no longer with us. It is a monument to the "450" people who originally bought it.

And I think it will outlive us all.

Brexit's spectacular own goal

Some of us are continuing to invest in Britain.

When the Premier League starts again next weekend, we'll be maintaining our subscriptions to Sky Sports and BT Sports, or some complicated mixture of the two which we don't really understand, which is probably the way they want it.

Not that we mind, as long as our pennies are enabling the stout yeoman Harry Maguire to sign for Man Utd for £85m, one of the many good causes which we have been happy to support over the years.

And it is a sign of the estrangement of the political class from all that is good and true, that the potential effects of Brexit on the best thing in Britain are hardly ever mentioned.

They are prepared to talk about slaughtering millions of sheep for no good reason, but nothing about the Armageddon that looms if Premier League clubs are forced to revert to the ways of the 1970s before those slick Europeans started to arrive in large numbers, with their oh-so-fancy ways.

Indeed, if only David Cameron had been bothered to mention that the Premier League might well be screwed by Brexit, he might still be prime minister and we wouldn't have to be worrying about the freedom of movement of Virgil van Dijk.

It reminds me of Trump's one moment of supreme smartness, when the Scottish independence issue was in play, and he mentioned - as nobody else had - that independence could have a terrible effect on the British Open, which relies so heavily on the great links courses of Scotland.

Even now it is not too late for Remainers to get this terrifying vision into the hearts of the people, of a post-Brexit UK in which every footballer on every team is basically Harry Maguire.

But not as good.

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