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Symposium 2008

2008 Irish Studies Symposium: November 3 & 4

Idir dhá dTír/ In No Man's Land. An Irish Language Odyssey in Canada
Dr. Pádraig Ó Siadhail, St. Mary's University

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When the good people of Library and Archives Canada contacted me a few months ago and kindly invited me to participate in this symposium, they asked me to do something on the Irish language. The reality is as it relates to the story of the Irish language in the past, it still remains largely undocumented, though I recognize that someone like Ken Nilsen of St. Francis Xavier University is working on the history of the Irish language in North America and Peter Toner down there is doing wonderful work on Irish-language speakers in New Brunswick, and I hope to see that material published over the next while.

But really, what I've decided to do is to focus on the present day and to look at the situation of the Irish language through my own experiences. And I must say I have a general rule that I detest personal narratives. I sort of feel if somebody starts on a personal narrative they ought to go to confession. They ought to go to talk to their therapist or they ought to write a novel about it, but I'm hoping sort of, well that's my general rule, I'm hoping that this will be the exception to the rule. I also want this paper, however, to be a gentle reminder, and it builds on from what Jerry was saying there, that gentle reminder that the Irish experience in Ireland and abroad, including Canada, has found expression not solely in the English language.

"It's so difficult as a language." … "The standard of teaching is dire, and the teachers are even worse." … "Sure it's no connection with the real world out there." … "We aren't able to use it outside the classroom." … "I hate it." … "It's a waste of time." … "We've spent 13 long years studying it and can barely put a full sentence together or remember more than a few words." These are the sorts of negative comments that I hear annually from my undergraduate students in Halifax, Nova Scotia, about their experience of learning French in school.

The irony is two-fold. Canadian provincial governments, some more willingly than others, pump tens of millions of dollars into French immersion and into French language teaching. Fluency in the official languages of Canada opens up employment opportunities and advancement within the federal bureaucracy. Yet one encounters resistance and hostility towards French due to complex socio-political reasons, including a visceral rejection of anything that has the whiff of compulsion about it.

Second, as Irish people will attest, one regularly hears at home comments about the Irish language similar to the ones above. In the final analysis, the comments speak volumes about human nature and the challenges and difficulties of teaching and acquiring a second language, especially one with the baggage that attaches itself to a language with special status within a jurisdiction and really says very little about French and Irish as languages, per se.

In contrast to the overwhelmingly negative feedback about their years of studying French, I am fascinated by the sorts of preconceived and prepackaged views my students bring along to class with them, not just about Ireland in general but about the Irish language in particular. Indeed, for some of the students, the language seems magical if not downright exotic. A few weeks toiling with grammar and the rules of lenition and eclipse can shatter the strongest illusions and constitutions.

Few students will stick with Irish beyond the first year, but of course that is the trend with language teaching in general these days anyhow. Most importantly, the best of the students will emerge with a working knowledge of Irish, an understanding of the linguistic complexity of Ireland, past and present, and for the majority of the students, I trust, with some of that sense of magic and the exotic still intact.

The teaching of Irish forms core of my teaching at Saint Mary's University. My involvement with the language goes beyond that, however. Irish remains primarily the language in which I write and publish, both scholarly and creative work. In addition, Irish is the language in which I communicate with my two children and that they speak with me, though my wife doesn't speak Irish, and the boys largely speak English to each other.

The Irish-language expression, Idir dhá dTír, literally 'between two countries', was used to refer to emigration in general, but also to the pattern of seasonal migration by agricultural labourers, such as "hokers" (potato gatherers). They spent part of the year working abroad, frequently in Scotland, before returning home to Ireland.

For this commentator, an Irish citizen and Canadian Permanent Resident, who has spent most of the last 21 years living in Canada but with regular trips back to Ireland including extended sabbatical leave there, the expression Idir dhá dTír represents not just the physical experience of residing in and moving between two different countries, but the cultural and linguistic tensions that arise, in particular due to the obvious contradiction of a commitment to Irish while being largely removed from Ireland. Detached from the reality of the new Ireland that has emerged in the last 20 years, while refusing to be drawn into the Canadian mainstream, the result is that one can end up not only being enriched by one's experience, but also trapped in a No Man's Land, hard to move back and reluctant to move on.

When I recall the situation back in 1987 when I first came to Canada, what has happened since is close to a miracle. At that time I'd have to wait for a fortnight after its publication for a newspaper such as Anois to arrive by mail, presuming that it arrived at all. I relied on my family back home to send me tapes of audio material that they had recorded from Raidió na Gaeltachta, the Irish language radio station. Any time I was back in Ireland I'd record and videotape the occasional program in Irish that RTÉ, Irish public television, broadcast in those days. On my return to Canada I'd spend ages coaxing the university media people, who were concerned about copyright issues, trying to coax them to transfer the videotapes from PAL format to NTSC. If you're under 45, this doesn't mean anything to you at all. Frequently the tapes were of poor quality in the new format.

Of course, the information technology revolution has transformed everything. Now I can listen to Raidió na Gaeltachta on live stream. I can watch TG4 programs; two Irish language newspapers, Lá Nua and Foinse, are available in PDF format on their day of publication. I can order books online from publishers and from the specialized Irish language book site, I know that the material will arrive within a week. There is no limit to the resources that are available to assist those who want to sample, to learn and to practice Irish.

The good news for Irish and for minority languages in general is that there's never been an easier time to learn another language. As evidenced by the frequency with which languages are dying off, however, it's clear that technology has its limitations, and it alone is not sufficient to safeguard a language or, with exceptions, to learn a language. The one truly irreplaceable link in the chain in the maintenance and the passing on of a language from generation to generation, from person to person, is the socialization that comes with human contact and communication.

The conference, "Fís Ghaeilge Mheiriceá Thuaidh," (A Vision for the Irish Language in North America), held in New York in May of this year was noteworthy for a number of reasons. It was the first time in living memory that Irish speakers and representatives of local Irish language groups from throughout North America had assembled on the one spot. The event was entirely in Irish. There was a large representation from Ireland, both voluntary and state organizations. The presence of the Irish-based people was potentially tricky. They were there to demonstrate their support for and recognition of Irish language activities and activists in North America, and to showcase opportunities to access funding in Ireland. Yet, they couldn't be seen to dictate how the North American groups should act in the future.

Whatever about the ambitious title and the long-term potential of this idea of a vision for an Irish language in North America, the conference achieved more immediate and modest goals, allowing people like myself to meet others, many of whom I would only have known by reputation or through the web, people who are also raising families through Irish in North America or teaching Irish and encouraging us to build contacts and share resources. It demonstrated that Irish, though a minority language, is also a global language because quite a number of the participants were people who were born and raised outside Ireland, specifically in the United States.

The conference highlighted one particular difficulty which goes to the heart of my works as an Irish language teacher in North America. One cannot compare the situation in a place such as Boston with its longstanding connections with Conamara or New York with its large pool of Irish speakers with a place such as Halifax where there is no community of Irish speakers. My children frequently ask me how many Irish speakers there are in Halifax: the three of us. To that end…and that's a little bit of an exaggeration by the way…to that end…there might be four…to that end I should mention the much publicized and ambitious initiative by Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh and associates to establish a Gaeltacht, a term used to describe Irish-speaking areas, in the Tamworth community in Stone Mills Township and Lennox and Addington county here in Ontario. This is an attempt to provide a physical space for the language, and space is essential for a minority language if it's not to be squeezed out by a stronger language.

One of the main selling points of our academic program at Saint Mary's University is that students can earn credit for completing Irish language courses, but I must admit that I have long been dissatisfied by our approach. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the students have little opportunity to encounter the language outside class, which makes it difficult for them to view Irish as a living language.

The structure of the academic year and requirements of academia add to the problem. If I could free myself from a system that demands exams, grades and tests, I would get rid of textbooks in the classroom setting. Instead, we would have a dedicated space in which we could have, say, a kitchen here, a garden there, a library yonder, a place where we could do, talk and learn in a natural setting, as much as possible. Call it a laboratory. Call it a Gaeltacht or whatever. In the final analysis, I'm talking about attempting to create a space similar to that which I have with my own children when we're at home or out and about.

My two children attend French Immersion schools, or to be exact, a French-language stream within an English medium school, which is the most common form of French immersion in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia can learn a lot from the Ghaelscolaíocht, (Irish-language immersion) system in Ireland where, in general, people have learned that rule number one is that you control your own space. I rarely hear my children speak more than a few words of French outside school, which is no great surprise when you consider that the great work by individual teachers is subverted and undermined daily by a school system where English remains the language of the office and the majority of the teachers, including substitute teachers.

At times I felt that the main outcome of the linguistic experiment with my children is that they know how to ignore me in three languages.

But with all the joys and frustrations with people viewing you as rude or odd or, occasionally back at home in the bad old days, as being politically subversive, two points predominate: One is the rapid understanding by children that language is power, that they can comment on someone, not necessarily, certainly not always, in a malicious way while that person doesn't know what's been said. The other is that language is not merely a collection of words and grammatical constructions, free from ideological and cultural baggage. I wonder what happens when children acquire the words and the grammatical constructions but have limited exposure to all the ancillary elements of language. This is the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night. Meanwhile, my children just sleep on and don't worry about it.

It's no surprise, perhaps, that in my own scholarly work I have been drawn to examine historical and literary figures whose sense of identity and allegiance is complex. The Canadian born political insider and biographer, Katherine Hughes, who after meeting Irish nationalists and cultural activists in London, England, she penned a play in English with Pádraic Ó Conaire, the most important Irish language writer of the early 20th century. Hughes adopted, on occasion, the name Caitlín Ní Aodha, became an important figure in the Irish Republican Propaganda movement in North America and eventually turned her back entirely on Canada. Or, more recently, Piaras Béaslaí, born Percy Beazley in Liverpool, where he spent 24 years before repackaging himself as an Irish-born and bred Irish-language writer and political activist.

And the person whom I'm working on at the moment, James Mooney, of the Bureau of American Ethnology, whose pioneering fieldwork and influential writings such as The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 earned him the title of "the Indian Man," but whose earliest publications were in Irish folklore and who never forgot the fact of his own roots, as the son of Irish-born Catholic immigrants in the United States. While these three individuals, Hughes, Béaslaí, and Mooney are fascinating figures in their own right, I confess that part of my interest in them and the course of their careers stems from my own attempt to make sense of my own situation.

Similarly, I am conscious that living and working abroad has impacted my creative writing in Irish. To date, I have published three novels and one collection of stories in Irish. Rather than bore you by describing them, let me state a few general points.

Not surprisingly, most of my material is set in areas outside traditional Irish-speaking areas. This reflects my own background as one urban-born and raised, and one who's also spent his life, living in cities. Obviously, there are challenges in dealing with a world where Irish is not extensively spoken. One can either end up writing a form of the language that's too literary or, as I think happened in my second novel, Éagnairc, which centres around the Bloody Sunday killing of unarmed civilians by British paratroopers in Derry in January 1972, one can end up attempting but utterly failing to capture in Irish the richness, the coarseness, the subtleties and the humour of working-class Derry English.

As have other writers in Irish, I've tried to extend the range of the novel, as regards form, content and location, with Peaca an tSinsir set in Canada. More recently, as I played and tinkered with the short story as a literary genre, I find myself turning to, returning to, the Irish literary and folk traditions. The short story collection, Na Seacht gCineál Meisce agus Finscéalta Eile, draws heavily on these traditions, though I attempt to marry them with either a contemporary setting or a fresh twist. This change in my writing has not been occasioned by a desire to tap into a bottomless well of material in search of inspiration. It is, I would actually suggest, driven by two factors: Seeking to overcome the above-mentioned obstacles that I face as I sought, or as I seek, to portray life in non-Irish-speaking urban communities, and also an attempt to anchor my material within my tradition as compensation of sorts for being on the outside, or writing from without.

Being on the outside does have its merits. I don't have to concern myself with Irish-language politics, organizations and committees. One cannot exaggerate the relief at this freedom, as there's nothing more soul-destroying than having to put up with the silliness and pettiness that one encounters in language organizations, primarily those of a voluntary sort. So there is a freedom there. Another benefit is a bit of a dubious one. I can write nasty things about Canada and Canadians with impunity, as few here will be able to read my work, never mind having ever heard mention of me. Admittedly, there is only a limited pleasure to be gained from such anonymity and sense of artistic exclusiveness, as I am as vain as the next person and would like to get some reaction…any reaction to my work.

On occasions over the last few years, however, things that I have written with a Canadian connection, believing that the Irish language would guarantee that no one here would read the material, rebounded on me, and I think Jerry White may know where I'm going with this. For example, a number of years ago I had an occasional series of articles in the Irish Times. They formed the basis of my book, Idir Dhá Thír. Sceitsí ó Cheanada. In one article there was a fair degree of comic hyperbole, if not artistic license, in describing how two academics escape from a deadly boring academic conference into that bastion of consumerism and fantasy that is the West Edmonton Mall. Shortly beforehand I'd had the opportunity and privilege…do you hear this, Jerry? Shortly before I had the opportunity and privilege to attend a conference in Edmonton and I had, indeed, shuffled off to the West Edmonton Mall. A while after the newspaper article appeared, I received a postcard from the Conamara Gaeltacht. "I read your piece in the paper," it said. "Was my conference really that bad?"

In the literal sense, my work could be viewed as part of Canadian literature. However, my books are in neither official language. None has been published here. Few have been read here. My target audience is almost exclusively in Ireland. Add to that, that I was not born here, nor am I a citizen, that I am merely a Permanent Resident with an attitude, possibly a bad attitude, and the obvious answer is that my work doesn't fit within the parameters of CanLit at all. Nor does it fit within the parameters of the work by natives, or by non-Anglophone or non-Francophone immigrants, who use one of the official languages rather than their own first languages.

However, my situation is not that uncommon here. Canadian literary critics have come up with broad terms such as "ethnic literature" or "émigré writing" to describe works in non-official languages. But yet, they still seem unsure how to respond to the phenomenon or how to evaluate the material. For example, the Canadian Council for the Arts declares that it accepts applications for funding under its 'Grants for Professional Writers: Creative Writing' scheme, for projects in all languages, but then adds: "(If you submit a writing project in a language other than French or English, you must submit the original text along with a translated version in one of the official languages,)" To which I respond, if I'd wanted to write it in English in the first place, I would have done that.

The lists of negatives of writing in Irish in Canada do not, in reality, in my situation being employed in the university, they don't really include funding issues. But they do include a sense of isolation, of being out on the edge, of not belonging to a community, not so much of writers, per se, but of the community of Irish speakers.

Yes, I speak Irish with my children. Yes, I teach the language at various levels at the university, but both of these situations are ones where I'm speaking the language at a fairly basic level without opportunity to use the language as a spoken medium for discussing the whole spectrum of topics beyond that of routine conversation.

Before I left Ireland in 1987, I'd never taught a class through the medium of English. Now, with few exceptions, I only teach in English. Before I left Ireland I'd reached the stage where I'd been thinking through Irish, where I was living whole areas, reams of my life, through Irish. Now I think through English. Inevitably this affects one's writing. I find myself, at times, translating in my head from English into Irish and then frequently having to adjust the translation to correct idiomatic form of the language. I know this is not an unusual situation when a person is bilingual and that, in reality, all it means when one is writing that one has to be careful to ensure the integrity of the forms used. However, this change in my ability to think in Irish and the increasing impact of English on my thought patterns represents to me not just a personal aggravation and practical difficulty to be surmounted by careful and judicious editing, but an illustration of the basic contradiction in my position of remaining here while writing in Irish.

I am fascinated by a comment made by a man who knew something about contradictions and about being Idir dhá dTír, between two countries and, at times, in no man's land. D'Arcy McGee, addressing Irish Americans in 1866, had urged them to play a full and active role in their new host community rather than to be seduced by wild Fenian plans about freeing their homeland. He described these Irish Americans as being "camped but not settled in North America with foreign hopes and aspirations, unshared by the people among whom they live..." Change the country from America to Canada, move on over 140 years, McGee's description applies to me. Here I am with a good job and a comfortable existence, but I'm still a camper, and a reasonably happy one to boot, I must say.

A citizen is a person who not merely has the legal status but who has an emotional and psychological connection with a place, a person who's invested a part of himself in that place. A camper is one who arrives, who avails of the facilities, who, depending on the humour and the occasion, may contribute to the evening's enjoyment or whine that there's not enough hot water in the showers, but who doesn't really care about the long-term future of the place, for with the dawning of the day he'll be pulling up the stakes, pulling down the tent and moving on to the next location.

While my attitude can appear boorish and ungracious, in reality, of course, I am thankful for the opportunities that Canada has given me. I acknowledge that if I have the freedom and luxury to view myself as a camper it has been earned by the contribution of the Irish in Canada, and I recognize that my children do not necessarily share my view of the world about the importance of language or, for example, the hopes about returning home. A while after returning from living in the Conamara Gaeltacht during a sabbatical leave, I asked my elder boy where he would prefer to live: In Conamara or in Halifax? Halifax, he said. Obviously he and his younger brother would go where we go, but unlike the situation when I first came to Halifax in 1987, unlike the choice that I made to continue writing in Irish, the choice for remaining or leaving is not mine alone.

I don't know for definite how this little sort of family drama will play itself out. We may return. I may be left continuing writing in Irish here, both regretful of what has been lost and grateful for what has been gained. Time will tell. In the meantime, as I exit my tent, check the stakes, and peruse the facilities around me, and as I think of this dilemma of being Idir dhá dTír and in no man's land, it strikes me that there may be the makings of a little story there. We'll see.

Thanks very much.

Session V

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