Off the Shelf: In the Language of the Oppressor, from Ireland to Ukraine

The Wicklow Way in Ireland. (Joe King/Wikipedia)
A look at The Broken Harp by Tomás Mac Siomóin, and other books.

About a year ago, Charles Cooke changed our occasional friendly lunches into recruiting sessions. He asked if I wanted to come write for National Review Online. This change to our routine was fine by me. I wanted excuses to eat together with him more frequently anyway. It helped that while he was making the pitch, he was picking up the bills. I told him how a decade earlier William F. Buckley had invited me to pitch National Review, after he had caught me teasing him in the pages of Washington Monthly. It seemed right that I finally should finally come around.

When you take a new job, you start to game things out. You think about the kinds of things that will be part of your life in that new job. A different office, new colleagues. What could I expect? I started a list. One item: More “fights” with Kevin Williamson. This was near the top of the positives column. The quotation marks were there around “fights.” I like Kevin most when we disagree. Also on my list of things to expect: Corrections from Ramesh Ponnuru in The Corner. I didn’t mark that as a plus because Ramesh can be counted on to be correct. He doesn’t let you get away with anything.

I had little dreads, and hopes, too. I was the only conservative writer at my last outlet, so I rarely had competition for picking topics. Would I be able to adjust and still keep the gaping maw of the Internet filled with “content” written in my own hand? Maybe, I suggested, I could write a casual column about the books I was reading. Charlie nodded. I was also hopeful that coming to National Review would make it easier to write a book. For the simple reason that editors at the publishing houses would think to themselves, People at NR are always writing books.

And so it comes to pass. Almost a year after coming to NR, I signed on to write a book. The announcements in the publishing trade press have a funny format. “National Review senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty’s MY FATHER LEFT ME IRELAND, a meditation on belonging, fatherhood, and nationalism, relayed through the form of letters to the author’s Irish father.” So, thanks to Charlie and NR.

And along with news of the book comes my first casual books column. My own book project partly explains what I’ve been reading this week. The Broken Harp, by Tomás Mac Siomóin, and Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language, by Darach Ó Séaghdha.

In fits and starts in recent years I’ve been trying to improve on the cúpla focail (couple of words) from the Irish language that I had been given as a child. Irish — don’t call it Gaelic — has been dying for centuries, but it hasn’t quite died yet. Scholars now talk in terms like “linguicide” about the English policies aimed at discouraging the use of Irish and its subsequent decline. But it lives on in a handful of mostly coastal towns, perpetually dying, and perpetually subject to a number of state-backed revival schemes. I take lessons now over Skype from a young man who learned it growing up in Donegal. He tries to impart to me the very specific dialectal pronunciation, vocabulary, and rhythm of this remote part of rural Ireland. He says he wants me “to speak like a proper sheep shagger.”

Along with the surprisingly early inclusion of Irish in language-learning apps, such as Duolingo and Glossika, Motherfoclóir is one of the things that in recent years tempts you to believe that Irish is having a run of good luck. The book grew out of Darach Ó Séaghdha’s Twitter account @theirishfor. And like the Twitter account, the book is a a compendium of loosely connected but entertaining observations about Irish vocabulary and the history of the language. Stuff like “a bromaire is someone who farts a lot or a self important boaster. “ But unlike the Twitter account, the book is laced with sweet passages of memoir. It feels like part of a long, almost generational struggle to make the language feel winsome, fun, and inviting, not some kind of holy relic saved to remind you to suffer greatly on account of your birth.

Motherfoclóir would be fun for anyone who likes trivia of language and linguistics, or who has an Irish background and wants to know something about the “céad míle fáilte” decoration near his front door. It gives you clues into the mysteries behind the way Irish people speak the English language, often with traces of Irish grammar.

But it’s not just fun. Almost alone among the many books I’ve read that have talked about the decline of the language, or its place in Irish history, it was this one that came up with the most arresting description of how it went terminal:

The success of the project to anglicize Ireland seems like a fait accompli now, but was only achieved through years of persistence and one botched effort after another; arguably it only succeeded because of the tragic accident of the Famine. It’s as if someone spent years trying to cut a tree down and one day woke up to find it had been struck by a bolt of lightning.

It’s at this point Thomás Mac Síomóin comes in. My teacher recommended The Broken Harp and it is one of the most provocative books I’ve ever read. Mac Síomóin defends the theory that different languages preserve different understandings of the world and that the loss of linguistic diversity amounts to the destruction of whole ecosystems of culture. And although John McWhorter and others deny that a “worldview” comes baked into a language and its conventions, trying to learn a Celtic language makes me believe otherwise. In English we describe our feelings by saying “I am tired.” But Irish relies heavily on prepositional pronouns. Translated literally, it would be something like “Tiredness is on me.” Is it really crazy to think that growing up with one grammar might bequeath a different understanding of our emotional life? I don’t think so.

In English we describe our feelings by saying ‘I am tired.’ But Irish relies heavily on prepositional pronouns. Translated literally, it would be something like ‘Tiredness is on me.’

Mac Síomóin is one of many Irish writers, from across the political spectrum, who have turned to the Marxist critical theorist Frantz Fanon to understand the history of Ireland. Fanon believed that formal political liberation was only the first step for anti-colonialism. What was just as desperately needed to reachieve national freedom was to expunge the colonialist’s stereotypes and worldview from the minds of those formerly subjected to their rule. Mac Síomóin believes that so far Ireland has failed to achieve this second liberation — and that even though it had independence, its new class of intellectual and political leaders continues to replicate, in national policy and culture, the prejudices of its former colonial masters: denigrating the Irish language, Gaelic culture, and fundamentally distrusting all native energies and ideas as second-rate. This second life of colonization, the author holds, gives the Irish their peculiarly double-minded attitudes about their own country and national traditions. At once dismissive and sentimental, he calls the people who suffer from this mentality the “Super-Colonized Irish.” In some ways, Mac Síomóin follows the lead of the eminent modern historian J. J. Lee, who ventured similar thoughts at the end of his book Ireland, 1912–1985.

But Mac Síomóin pushes much further into extraordinarily controversial territory. Trained as a biologist, he looks into studies of trauma and epigenetics and asks whether the persistence of self-denigrating Irish habits, what he calls the “Super Colonized Irish Syndrome,” has a biological component that makes attempts at reviving the language impossible. It’s a theory I’ve wondered about myself, whether political trauma or enslavement actually degrades people and their descendants for generations. It’s an awful thing to contemplate. In the Korean peninsula, the effect of the North Korean regime has made North Koreans physically shorter and created a split in the phonology of the Korean language. North Koreans who escape to the South often experience their life as a visible minority. In the Irish case, Mac Síomóin theorizes that this syndrome may even explain the meekness with which the Irish consented to the terms of the Troika after their financial collapse, compared with the Greeks, who put up a much stronger national resistance. The Irish suffer from a broken national tradition, and therefore a broken national spirit. The Greeks, who never entirely gave up their language one from their conquerors, had greater reserves of strength.

Does political trauma or enslavement actually degrade people and their descendants for generations? It’s an awful thing to contemplate.

I’m not sure I can believe that. But, I also know I don’t want to believe it. I think the accidents of history do most of work in explaining these differences. But I agree with Mac Síomóin that the Irish language is more vulnerable to death than we realize, and its death constitutes a real a loss for human culture, a calamity for Irish people in particular.

This week, even when I try to get away from Ireland, I run into unspeakable tragedies and languages changing. Consider this passage:

Where are you now, park benches of Lwów, blackened with age and rain, coarse and cracked like the bark of medieval olive trees? Generations of penknives have etched girlfriends’ names on you, now perhaps the last reminders of old crones buried in Janowski, or Łycxzakowski cemetery. Where are you today? Who, and in what language is now carving their lovers’ initials on you. Or maybe in one of the many harsh wartime winters you were stolen away for firewood, and in the flames that consumed you, all those people’s hearts hissed their last. Let’s not slobber over the benches, because we’ll soon find that it’s not them we’re drooling over, but ourselves.

That’s from City of Lions, put out by Pushkin Press last year. It is made up of two essays about the same city in two different eras, and under two very different regimes. The first, My Lwów, is by Jósef Wittlin, from New York in 1946. The second, My Lviv, is by Philippe Sand, written in the present day.

The Lwów of Wittlin was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and before that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was known as a major center of Polish, Jewish, and Ukrainian learning and commerce. It’s diversity was bewildering even for a more imperial Europe: “Diversified, variegated, as dazzling as an oriental carpet. Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovian ‘through and through.’”

City of Lions seems to fit into a small canon of books that document wistfully these golden moments before 20th-century calamities. A few of these books are on my list to read this year: The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European, by Stefan Zweig. And The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield.

Contemplating the old city Wittlin knew, Sands in the second half of the book “could see it truly as a firmament of bright colors in fiery competition, feeling the parry and thrust of the ‘red-white,’ the ‘blue yellow’ and the ‘black gold’, the tensions between the Polish, Ukrainian and Austrian.” But “successive occupations worked their mischiefs.” Sands comes to Lviv from outside, as someone whose family traces back to the city, and to the awful conflicts therein.

It wasn’t just the occupations that changed the city but the Lvovians and Lvivians themselves, working mischief. The city is now firmly considered the cultural capital and beating heart of Ukrainian nationalism. In a chilling passage, Sands recalls the reaction to the talks he gave and the students who might come up to him afterward. “‘Your lecture was significant for me personally’, I would be told quietly. I understood what was being said: ancestral origins, especially if they were of a Polish or Jewish hue, were not matters to be proclaimed from the rooftops.”

Modern Lviv gets put on the list of hipster travel destinations, as a Paris of Eastern and Central Europe. An affordable one. This book, which is lovely to hold and to spend a long afternoon in, would have you searching it for ghosts.

Although Motherfoclóir was a treat, the books this week were enough to put me into melancholy overall, which comes rather easily for me. So too, the odd glimpse of summer temperatures earlier this week, followed by the usual grey February. I think melancholy must end soon. Some German history books are waiting for me next week.