Friday, February 26, 2016

"The Irish Ark," Still Afloat?

At the end of Alexander Sokurov's 2002 film Русский ковчег ("The Russian Ark") the camera follows the crowd as it languidly flows from the last great royal ball in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. We eaves drop on a couple as one says to the other "It's as if I'm in someone else's house."

It always struck me as a very poignant statement, and something that could have deep resonance for an Irish person. Although the comment is off hand, it seems the director, Sokorov, was talking about how Russia for long years had tried to ape the manners of Europe, as opposed to following its own path. Ireland, on the extreme west of Europe, could be said to have a similar conundrum-is it possible to live so close to England and Europe and still remain distinct? W.B. Yeats once said that "Ireland was part of Asia until the battle of the Boyne (1690)" If there was any truth in his sentiment, does much of this "other country" remain?

To give an example of how different a world view Ireland can have (even now), lets take the analogy of the new Amazon prime series "The Man In The High Castle." The series is based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. For a western viewer from the U.S. this is a fantasy series of what might have been. In it, the Germans won WWII and control the Eastern half of the United States, the action takes place in the 1960's. For an Irishman (or at least one such as myself) this is very easy to imagine, because, in fact, we are living it today (though the timeline of invasion is rolled four hundred odd years on, rather than twenty). Of course, Southern Ireland achieved autonomy within the British Empire in the 1920's and finally declared the long sought Republic in 1948, but that is a tale for another day. We have, as the character in the Russian Ark said, been living in "someone else's house." And in a more insidious way than how Russian royalty affected European manners and custom, the country, language and people of Ireland itself have either been erased or systematically transformed into the other.

© Amazon Prime
When the poet Eoghan Rua O' Súilleabháin is press ganged into the British Navy in the late 1700's, we find a great example of where the best of Irish culture lives after two hundred years of British colonial rule. Eoghan, while Irish was spoken in Munster, was the most lauded and loved of Irish Gaelic poets. After being captured by Crown forces he finds himself in the belly of a British Navy vessel fighting for his life in "The Battle of Dominica." O' Súilleabháin, the quintessential Gaelic poet, eager not to survive but to prosper, writes the immortal ballad "Rodney's Glory." In the first flushes of the glory of a British victory, Eoghan is brought up on deck where he is congratulated for his verse by Admiral Rodney himself. Enamoured with Eoghan's ballad, Rodney asks the poet "what does your heart desire?" Eoghan "An Bhéil Bhinn" (of the sweet mouth) asks to be discharged but this isn't allowed. Eoghan responds "Imireochaimíd beart éigin eile oraibh"  (we'll play some other trick on ye). The Irish officer by Rodney's side says "I'll take care you will not." Eoghan is instead reassigned to infantry duty in England, from where he soon is discharged. Here we see what the highest of Irish culture has been reduced to-the jester, the impish rebel, fighting within an Empire of propaganda. Fluent in Greek, Latin and Irish he finds himself writing an English ballad in the hopes of a rise in station. The last line of the song is perhaps the most poignant and pertinent-

"Success to our Irish officers,
Seamen bold and jolly tars,
Who like darling sons of Mars
Take delight in the fight
And vindicate bold England's right
And die for Erin's glory."

Another O' Suillivan, Philibín Ó Súilleabháin Beara, is perhaps one of the better example of the fight against the one world view that emanates from England and long covers Ireland. Philibín was a noble Irishman of the 17th century. After the disastrous "Battle of Kinsale," as a teenager, he watched his father hurriedly build a boat to cross the Shannon river as the O' Sullivan clan were harried and assailed in the long "March Of O' Sullivan Beara." They were attacked, not just by English forces, but by Gaelic clans, who when the tide of victory had turned, sided with the Crown forces. Philibín's father was a nobleman in the retinue of the last free leaders of Gaelic Ireland. The whole clan-men, women, and children, marched the length of Ireland, eventually escaping to permanent exile in Spain. Incidentally, 1000 souls began the march, 34 completed it. Many died, some settled along the way, their descendents still line the route. Philibín became a scholar on the continent and was commissioned by the Spanish Government to write a scholarly response to Topographia Hiberniae (written by Giraldus Cambresnsis). The writings "The Natural History Of Ireland" became his life's work. Topographia is a particular piece of propaganda from the time of the Norman Invasion. It is brought to prominence again, in the early 17th century, for the express purpose of justifying the Elizabethan conquest. In it, the author, Giraldus, denigrates the Irish lack of culture-

"Their want of civilisation, shown both in their dress and mental culture, makes them a barbarous people."

Woman of Connacht embracing a goat, Joanna of Paris embracing a lion, Rooster. Topographia Hiberniae (Topographia Hibernica), c 1196-1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f.19v, The British Library

"In the northern and most remote part of the country, Ulster, they practice a most barbarous and abominable rite in creating their king. A white mare is led into the midst of them, he who is to be inaugurated, not as a prince but as a brute, not as a king but as an outlaw comes before the people on all fours confessing himself a beast. The mare being immediately killed and cut in pieces and boiled, a bath is prepared for him from the broth. Sitting in this, he eats of the flesh which is brought to him, he is also required to drink the broth in which he bathes."

"They are given to treachery more than another nation." "They inhabit another world, and are thus secluded from civilized nations, they learn nothing, and practise nothing but the barbarism in which they are born and bred, and which sticks to them like second nature."

Ceremony at "The Rock of Doon," according to Giraldus Cambrensis.
Philibín's writings, on the other hand, are a loving litany of "The Natural History Of Ireland." In a battle of words, he responds beautifully in Latin to Giraldus. It must be admitted, some of this writing is written equally as florid and unbelievable as Giraldus's!

"In Ulster their are two fountains, in one of which if people wash they never go grey. In the other, two trout lived for many ages: one was killed by the English, the other appears today; both, they say, were the favourites of some saint."

The book (like many Irish manuscripts) was languishing on foreign shores (in the university of Uppsala, Sweden) until it was recently translated into English by yet another O' Sullivan, Denis C. O' Sullivan! The book was published for the first time in 2009, by Cork University Press. That translation is just the first volume of Philbín's writings. Topographia, an influential tome, has been in print since 1602. It was dedicated by Giraldus to King Henry II in 1187, two years before the King's death.

The book of this period that sums up the struggles for power and propaganda most, perhaps, is so called "Gentle" Edmund Spencer's "A Present State Of Ireland." Spencer, a darling of Queen Elizabeth, writes the book in the form of a conversation between two Englishmen. They discuss what is to be done with Ireland. A plan is formulated therein for a final and proper, conquest and pacification of the country. The "Wilde Irish" as descendants of "the barbarous Sythians" need to be tamed by whatever means possible. Spencer suggests "famine" as one of perhaps the best means for subjugating the "wilde" population. Under the heading of "Western history," a current online history resource states "Spencer's genocidal views on Ireland are brutal and incredibly disturbing, but that does not detract from the rich body of poetry he has left us."

For four hundred years previous to the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, the country went to and fro between Norman and Gaelic Ireland and to greater and lesser extents the Normans were assimilated. After the Battle of Kinsale (1601) though, a slow and deliberate destruction of a culture that is as foreign to most Irish now as Asia is, began in earnest. Concurrent with the plantation of Virginia in America, England's first successful plantation in Ireland was undertaken in Ulster, heretofore Ulster had been the most Gaelic part of Ireland. Loyal servants of the crown were told "Why toil ye in the fields of Virginia?" They answered the call in droves and settled the land of the displaced native Irish whose leaders had recently left for Europe in "The Flight of The Earls." In the 1620's, during the "contention of the bard's," the poetic class who were so deeply woven in with Brehon law convened, and argued old arguments as to who were the rightful leaders in this new Ireland. Unbeknownst to themselves their world crumbled around them and they became (in circles of power) increasingly irrelevant. As they wrote and sung in praise of O' Brien or O' Neill, they were slowly driven to the bogs, rebels took to the hills, and they never came out, nor down. Ireland's population was almost halved in the Cromwellian wars. The country was truly subsumed by the bigger picture from then on, from this point forward it was always trying to emerge from out of others shadows.

In 1798 inspiration was taken from the French to forge a modern egalitarian republic, this was another sad failure. 50 years later the country was stripped to the bone, the famine left very little of the power and beauty of the older culture. With the removal of the penal laws then the decimation of the Famine, the Catholic church dug in and took their place alongside the Anglo-Irish power-base and Church of Ireland, keeping the status quo and promoting English as the lingua franca. Another fifty years and the Irish nation is born out of the shadows of civil war and rebellion-marching onward with the church in tow. And now that the Catholic Church is gone, or at least resigned to a nominal power, what is left? Who now is holding the reins?

You hear in 2016 voices who denigrate those who took part in the 1916 rebellion, some, think little of those tried to steer us back on our own path at the beginning of the 20th century. What we need are alternatives voices in Ireland, Europe and beyond. Not the same tired world old Ireland grew into from the Battle of Kinsale until the first decades of the 20th century.

Even forsaking and dismissing "Old Ireland" as a distant dream of a fairer world "the power of the bard and the veneration of the harp," it is important to say-its not that it was better, or worse, but it was us. And it is something that has been denied to us, and if we can salvage parts of it or restore others then, that is only right. In 1921 Arthur Griffith said (when urging the Dáil to ratify the treaty negotiated with the British in London at the end of the War of Independence)-

"That was what they brought back, peace with England, alliance with England, but Ireland developing her own life, carving out her own way of existence and rebuilding their Gaelic civilisation broken down at the battle of Kinsale."

Now, when we look at this statement it seems antiquated, if this is what they were fighting for, then, "for what died the sons of Roisín?" Yes, we can say that the world has moved on so much since this time, but, in truth, the same circles of power exist. England still has her monarchy and wealth born from centuries of the graft and grit of hollow colonial enterprise, the U.S. still has its interests and Empire, the question is-what has Ireland? Who and where are we to look to for guidance in this sea of sharks? Is it outlandish to say "ourselves perhaps" or "others of our likes around the world?"

If we can say that Griffith's Ireland won the civil war and carved out its new space, it seems pretty clear that "Gaelic" Ireland had nothing to do with the new country that emerged. The state failed radically in its attempts (if they were attempts a-tall) to reinstate anything of Gaelic Ireland. Instead lip service was given to Gaelic Ireland as the modern (so often anglo) world rose up and grew even stronger all around.

Diverging, the Irish for speech is béarla, which appropriately, more often means "the English language." We can imagine the first meeting of Gael and Gall (foreigner), and the Irishman saying cén sórt béarla atá á caint aige? (What speech is he talking?) or more likely nach aoibheann an saghais béarla atá á labhairt aige? (Isn't it lovely the speech he is talking?). The first beginnings of the slow rush to the new caint/tongue. There is a long tradition in Ireland of love of the foreign. Maybe it comes from being at the edge of Europe without ample alien stimulation, anything new is looked on with fascination. This is a beautiful part of the human condition, the beauty of diversity. But displacement and conflict have a different gravity, and that is what occurred in Ireland, through hard centuries of colonisation. Imagine the poet, Dáibhí Ó Brudair, in 1680-spawned of the old ways, living in the new. He tells the conundrum as well as a man can. For then, and hundreds of years after him, English represented getting on in the world, progress, money, privilege, power. And it still does. With Irish learning, came love of it, but that alone. Surely these days are over? And you might say what does it all matter? But think-a figure like Shakespeare is still a huge figure in the English speaking world, half a millennium on. In Shakespearian Ireland (a country renowned for the written and spoken word) poetry and music were integrated with law in a way now completely foreign to us. Ó Brudair (born 10 years after shakespeare died) was pining for that old order that had just collapsed. In that order his likes would have been integral to the system rather than marginal. This marginalisation still continues. Heres a few verses of O' Brudair's.

O It's best to be a total boor
(although it's bad to be a boor at all)
if I'm to go out and about
among these stupid people.

It's best to be good people,
a stutterer among you
since that is what you want,
you blind ignorant crew.

If I found a man to swap
I'd give him my lovely skill.
He'd find it as good as a cloak
around him against the gloom.

Since a man is respected more
for his suit than for his talents
I regret what I've spent on my art,
that I haven't it now in clothes.

Since happy in word and deed is each boorish clod
without music or metre or motherwit on his tongue,
I regret what I've wasted struggling with hard print
since the prime of life - that I might have spent as a boor.

Illustration from "O' Bruadair by Michael Hartnett"

Returning to speaking of lip service! It is in the mouth of language that battles of the mind are won. So, in this meander, keeping the focus on language won't go astray. And although I write in English, I take solace from the fact that this too has become the Irish condition (or maybe always was)-an understanding of absurdity, the duality that caint (talk) can be béarla. That a mick can be a muck, or at least its tail. Mise 'gus tusa is eireball na muice. 

Although Irish is the first national language of the country in law, and a vessel that carries the soul and story of the Irish, not one Irish Gaelic university exists, not one town is Irish speaking. In this way it makes it so hard for people to find day to day worth in it, to engage with it on a daily basis. Scattered throughout the country are many native Irish speaking poets, writers, mathematicians and indeed any other profession you can think of. If the will was there in the government, a university could be developed. Indeed it should be developed, it is farcical and truly "Irish" as the English say, that we have not one Irish speaking University. Woe too, that one town, or God forbid! a city, could become truly Irish speaking. As Edmund Spencer said so long ago "The tongue being Irish the heart must needs be Irish too." We seem incapable of being truly Irish and truly modern, this is a self perpetuated fallacy and farce that has went on way too long. Where Gaelic used to mean Irish, it is now a faded niche, certainly not the people and the language that Griffith imagined not so long ago. When we talk of Gaelic in modern Ireland we talk of something marginalised, or perhaps a marketing gimmick to sell to the yanks. It is a type of relic that is brought out to venerate in solemnity, at worst it something to denigrate at inopportune moments as the old joke. We love or lampoon it, then wheel her back into the closet to resume her slow death. Rebuilding a country after centuries of colony is new and difficult work. Ireland is in a unique position as the only British colony in "the old world." We should be a guiding light in the sea of sharks-too often we are a lapdog for the old story, the old powers.  

In fairness, something of our own old world exists all around the country, but it is still the Hidden Ireland, the old Ireland, it is seldom the new Ireland. If we think of language as one of these battle grounds, in some ways, there is a much good will in the country towards the Irish language. According to the 2013 Irish census, 1.7 million people supposedly can speak Irish (though their competency is surely limited). The key is, they don't, and won't. Why? is the question that needs to be asked.

Returning to "The Man in The High Castle." Even in that alternate U.S.A. where the Nazis reign, English is still the spoken language, not German. The protestant ascendancy class who ruled over Ireland for 400 years could, in many ways, could be compared to the upper tier of society created by the Nazis that we see in the aforementioned series. For many centuries, the whole of the catholic gaelic majority of Ireland was effectively barred from having any influence over the running of their country. Under the penal laws, a Catholic couldn't, for instance, own land, vote, or even receive an education; he couldn't own a horse worth more than five pounds. In reality, in its brief reign, the evil vision of "The Third Reich" detracts from perhaps as cunning wrongs perpetuated by the British Empire around the world, and in Ireland over long centuries. Ireland was under that yolk too long, and like every colonised country since time began-some sided with the invaders and some took to the hills. I'm not positioning Britain again as the enemy, far from it, what I am suggesting is we don't follow them in their assigned or manifest destiny, that we neither, cosy up to the mould they moulded for us over long centuries. I'm saying maybe we should look to ourselves again, now that we can. To end with another conundrum, now that freedom is won? What is it? What do we do with it?

Is Ireland destined, like the Russian Ark to forever sail? Or are our roving days over? Unlike the "Russian" Ark, it seems we sail in a vessel other than our own. And what's to come of that? And why ask these questions? Well the answer there is, if not now, then when? 

A View from "The Russian Ark"

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