Well, the trip to Ireland is over and I’m back on campus (well, almost. I’m in the airport waiting for my flight). It was an amazing experience, and I have a new appreciation for people who are multilingual. The Irish language is particularly fascinating to me, not just because of my general interest in all things Irish, or because of its linguistic peculiarities, but because it was and is such a highly charged social and political issue. For generations, English was the language of the oppressor, and Irish was discouraged or even banned outright (although this appears to have begun after Elizabeth’s reign, according to my research thus far). The government of the new Irish Republic naturally tried to bring back the language, and this movement has sparked mixed responses. Today language instruction is mandatory in school, and you have to pass a scrúdu bheal, or oral exam, to get into university. Businesses in the Gaeltachts and other areas receive government funding in return for speaking Irish. Not all Irish citizens approve of this, and if you tell an Irishman that you’re learning his language, your most likely response is a look of disbelief, followed by an incredulous, “why?”
After a rather discouraging several hours at Trinity College, I was feeling a little less than enthusiastic as I approached the National Library in Dublin. I got there early– so early in fact that I had to wait outside while they opened up for business. It turns out that even public government buildings operate on Irish time here (that is to say, 10-20 minutes behind schedule). Once they were ready for me I went in, and proceeded to get my second readers card of the week. This one came complete with a horrible ID picture that they took in the gift shop, but without a chain to hold it around my neck, as they happened to be out that day. Oh well.
Went to Trinity College to get my readers card and visit their manuscript room. I did my homework and checked their website before, both for procedure and to explore their online catalogues. It turns out you have to go to the main library to get a readers card, and then the card lasts for a year and gets you access to the library’s books, including their manuscript collection. They don’t have all of their manuscripts online, but there are a fair amount available, either to read via transcript, or else listed by collection and/or topic/description. In my particular case all I could discover ahead of time via internet was that they had a manuscript that addressed 16th century Ireland, so when I emailed ahead to make an appointment, I requested that manuscript. Upon arriving at the library, I had to go to the main library first to get my readers card, then to the manuscript reading room to see the document in question. It was actually very exciting going to the manuscript room, because to get there I had to go through the Long Library. I don’t know if any of my readers are familiar with Trinity College Library, but the Long Library is where they keep Brian Boru’s harp and various and sundry other articles of AWESOMENESS! I got to go right past the ropes that keep the tourists contained and continue down the stairs, up the elevator, and across the hall to the reading room. Once there, I was asked to leave my bag outside, taking in only my notebook and a pencil. The manuscript was brought out and placed on a foam holder, and weighted strings were brought over for me to use to hold the pages down. Because it was paper I wasn’t required to wear gloves. Once I was all set up, I had to try to make out what I was actually looking at– reading 16th century manuscripts is harder than one would suppose, even if they’re in English! Unfortunately, this particular manuscript didn’t have any bearing on my research, but it was still an amazing experience, and it was a great introduction into the world of manuscripts and scary prestigious libraries.
Well, the program in Carraroe is over. I can’t even begin to describe the depth of my despair. Lol. Learning Irish (It’s called Irish, not Gaelic, although in Irish the term is Gaeilge, which is probably the cause of the confusion) is one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted, but also perhaps one of the most rewarding. The number of native speakers of Irish is diminishing every year, and it’s wonderfully exciting to be part of the movement to keep it alive. However, it has proved to be an incredibly difficult language to learn. Aside from the absolutely ridiculous spelling and untold number of unpronounced letters and vowels strung together, the Irish also conjugate their prepositional pronouns in addition to conjugating their verbs. It is truly incredible how complicated this language manages to be, despite several government attempts to simplify it. The last of these was in the 1950s, and all I can say is that I’m glad I wasn’t learning Irish then!
Well, it’s the end of my first week here in Carraroe, or An Cheathra Rua as it is known an Gaelge. We’re right in the middle of the Connemara Gaeltacht, which means an area where Irish is still spoken as the primary language. While I’m not scheduled to begin attacking the archives until my class is over in 3 weeks, I’ve already made some progress searching them out online and I’ve double-checked all the requirements and made sure I’ll be able to get what I need when I make it into town at the end of the program.
Being here has been a fascinating experience, even after just a week. Our bean a teach (house mother) Bairbre is wonderful, and very helpful whenever we have questions. The Gaeltacht is by definition a place where the old traditions are still very strong, and the continued struggle these traditions face to survive makes for a very interesting parallel to my research regarding the Tudors and the Irish bards of the 16th century. A guest lecturer visited the school the other night and spent a fascinating two hours addressing the question of Irish literature in translation. His thesis seemed to be that because Irish was relegated to the rural, outer edges of Ireland beginning around the 15th-16th centuries, they missed out on the printing press, and consequently faced a huge disadvantage in the literary field for the next four or five hundred years. He discussed well-known literary figures from Ireland who wrote in the English language, as well as outlining the history of the movement to begin writing and publishing books in Irish, and the limited success of said movement. the literary genre that first began to make headway in Irish was that of the autobiography early in the 20th century. It occurred to me that their might be a connection between the personal nature of such books in the 20th century and the praise poetry of the Irish bards. Perhaps it was this personal acknowledgement of the Irish as a people and as individuals that the British objected to. This is obviously not the whole story, but it might be something to consider in my quest for the truth.