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Word up for a bright future

Almost all of our immigrants speak good English, indeed, in general, better than ours.

People will tell you that English is not a universal language but if you travel enough, you will be convinced that it is very widely spoken. And seemingly our immigrants begin their English in primary school.

There is a weakness, however: most I have met are very insecure when it comes to writing or reading English. And they ask me how they can improve. There is not any simple answer. There is no book to recommend that will help them. They might be better to go back to the senior books in primary school and try to advance from there.

At present, I am reading a book called Portobello Notebook by Adrian Kenny: it is a very good book but it cannot be recommended for people who are starting out to improve their writing and reading. It is a good book for young people who are facing the Leaving Certificate or their examinations at university. It is a slow book to read because you must concentrate on every word except for the dialogue. It has a great title.

Portobello recalls memories of Greenwich in New York or Hampstead in London or the Left Bank in Paris. It isn't that kind of a book at all. It is largely about the author's life in many parts of the world. When I've finished reading it, I will tell you more about it. In the meantime more advanced students, such as those doing the Leaving Certificate should acquire it and study it, especially the punctuation.

About 25 years ago the Department of Education decreed that grammar should be sidelined: it was fussy and old fashioned. In their wisdom they were following the example given by the other island: the word was out that young people should be allowed to express themselves irrespective of small mistakes. The brains behind this wisdom forgot that grammar is the basis of all languages and that without a good knowledge of it, you cannot express yourself. In the meantime, we have seen standards of written and spoken English in the Republic go down dramatically.

Some years ago there was a great rush to learn French and German. That made sense but not at the expense of English. We are lucky to have it and it would be even better if we had Irish as well. That is becoming something of a dream. In the meantime we must try to improve our English. If that means going back to grammar, so it should.

There are some very intelligent young men and women who cannot spell: it wasn't part of their discipline at school. It is definite that there are good books on the course for the Leaving but I still recommend Portobello Notebook. It is written with great care. Anybody can benefit from it. You can put it in your pocket and take it around with you.

In the meantime, anybody should acquire a small hardback notebook and keep it like a diary: whenever you meet a new word in conversation or in print or wherever, take it down in your book and look up its meaning in a dictionary. And if you acquire only one word a day, you will have over 300 words at the end of the year. And, of course, there are days when you will acquire two and three and more words: then by the end of the year you could have about 1,000 new words. That is a great addition to anybody's vocabulary.

The trouble is that, like many people who start a diary, they lose heart and don't keep it up. Believe me, keeping a diary about most of your life is invaluable. You can look back and see your good days and your bad days.


Cyril Connolly, the great sage in these islands in the second half of the 19th century, used to say that whenever he looked back on his life, he could see no good moments -- only all bad moments. That, of course, was ridiculous. It was self pity. Of course, he had many big moments: he was greatly respected and often quoted in conversation. Incidentally, he was Irish: self pity is part of our mentality.

Very soon we will be commemorating the Rising of 1916. In 1966 RTE went way overboard in celebrating the occasion. It was all good on one side and all bad on the other. Life is never like that. It painted a very false picture.

Patrick Pearse in his speech from the steps of the GPO spoke about the number of times that the Irish people had risen up. He wasn't a good historian. He was falsifying or else he was fortifying the facts. The risings of 1803 and 1847 and 1867 were all pathetic failures. The only rising of any account was that by the men of Wexford in 1798.

What freedom were the men of 1916 seeking . . . The farmers had already got back their land thanks to Charles Stewart Parnell. That was a huge step forward. Home Rule was in the statute book and it would become reality at the end of the Word War. That made sense because the British could hardly withdraw their army while there was fear of a German invasion.

Pearse who had been an ardent Home Ruler pretended to believe that Home Rule would not become law: that was his excuse for starting the Rising.

It was a costly mistake: we have been living with it down to the present day. It divided the Fianna Fail party and the Fine Gael party until we had no real political dialogue. It was rooted in the Civil War.

The year 1922 was the worst in modern Irish history. It was the year of a bloody and barbarous Civil War. RTE's forthcoming celebration will hopefully be more objective and will seek the truths which lie beyond the surface. That may be too much to expect. One thing is certain: the 1966 celebrations helped to start the rise of the IRA in its two guises.

Fogra: Congratulations go to my townspeople on starting a new magazine called Sliabh Luachra Outlook. It began as an advertiser but it has blossomed out and now contains news and features. Praise must go to the printers who have handled many colours brilliantly. Let us hope that this gallant ship will go on sailing for many years