Sunday, March 17, 2013

Passion Sunday and St Patrick's Day

Mass: Judica me, Deus. The psalm that’s normally part of the priest’s prep office at the foot of the altar before Mass. It drops out today. From the gospel: Before Abraham was, I AM. Like the crucifixion, a stumbling block for the Jews and folly to the gentiles. Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.

‘I am.’ That’s this year’s starting point for my yearly talking points about Ireland and Irish-Americans for American St Patrick’s Day, different from the saint’s day as it was kept in Ireland. (In the old country it’s a holy day of obligation and the pubs were closed.) A feature of Irish English that’s a carryover from Gaelic is that an Englishman or an American answers questions such as ‘Are you John Smith?’ or ‘Do you follow soccer?’ with ‘Yes’, but an Irishman answers with ‘I am’ I (pronounced like ‘I yam’) or ‘I do’. Because Gaelic has no words for yes or no.

And with that, here are my points about American St Patrick’s Day and things Irish:
  • Religious fervour in Ireland is cyclical. Partly circumstantial. At the ‘Reformation’ the Irish were Catholic but laid-back about it like lots of Catholic peoples. By around 1800 because of British persecution it remained low-profile. With Catholic emancipation you had a huge religious revival as the church rebuilt, producing the pious Irish and Irish-Americans in living memory, the last of whom are still with us. (The living ‘trad tradition’ at my parish: Fr Brannan from before the council and the grandparents who kept the memory of the traditional Mass.) Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way. (In real life William Shields, a Presbyterian!) Now, due partly to the self-inflicted wound of the council and partly to the secularism from the rest of Europe, that’s waning among the Irish. (The church in England — not the Church of England, different animal — used to be largely immigrant Irish, naturally; now I understand it’s Polish, great hardworking immigrants who are naturally conservative and not into leftist victim identity politics. Much like Polish-Americans, one of our finest immigrant groups.)
  • The English aren’t necessarily the bad guys. Since becoming Christian, Ireland’s always been Catholic, but... at the ‘Reformation’, or King Henry’s schism that brought it to the British Isles, the first people in Ireland to fight to remain under the Pope were... the ethnic English. The government did a good job of hiding the schism from the Irish until it actually became Protestant, then the Irish ‘got their Irish up’ as we say in the States and at least passively fought back (not going back to the old churches now Anglican-owned).
  • Southern Irishmen don’t necessarily hate the British. Of course! What with so much crossover between the two countries. Lots of Irish have family in Britain. Once met an Irishman who was in the RAF after Irish independence. (At Irish independence in ’49, Britain hastily passed laws making Irish citizens essentially the same as Commonwealth citizens in order not to hassle the many Irish living there.) And... as part of Britain, Irish soldiers and sailors helped build the empire.
  • The church ≠ Irish nationalism. The church kept the nationalist movement at arm’s length. The movement had sincere Catholics such as de Valera who legally reinforced the country’s Catholic identity (so no abortion there to this day?) but the IRA for example wasn’t necessarily really Catholic but Communist.
  • The Irish aren’t high-church. Why most English-speaking Catholics aren’t. (Anglo-Catholics adopted practices from France and Italy.) The great Thomas Day explained it. The persecuted Irish couldn’t have a showy religion and, with the great exodus of their people to America for example, exported their low-key, unliturgical style all over the English-speaking Catholic world. That’s why they didn’t fight the council. The yucky ’70s-style guitar Mass is just a version of Low Mass junked up with sappy hymns, their old mainstay. (Just the opposite of what the liturgical movement at its best wanted, congregations singing chant at High Mass.)
  • The Irish weren’t Jansenists. That’s a myth from liberals.
  • American St Patrick’s Day isn’t really about the saint or Ireland. It’s about celebrating all Catholic immigrants’ success in America. Our mini-Mardi Gras, ironically, during Lent. (Purple, not green.) Of course the Irish, being northern European like our WASP hosts and, in many but not all cases, speaking English (many 1800s immigrants spoke Gaelic), have long led the American church. (Interestingly the greatest American churchman last century, Cardinal Spellman, had no use for the Irish cause and identified himself wholly as American.) They rebuilt the Irish church and built most of the American one all around the same time. So even though I have no Irish blood that I know of (the only green I wore today happened to be small stripes on my tie), it’s my holiday too. As Judy Collins sang, ‘Drink a round to Ireland, boys; I’m home again. Drink a round to Jesus Christ who died for Irish men.’


  1. thing about the irish i find interesting is how for as much as they tout nationalism they all speak english and gaelic is spoken by only 30,000 of them on the extreme western coast, rather humiliating imo.

    i tried looking up on how this thorough "englishification" (forget the real word) happened but cant find a satisfying answer - ive read it happened post elizabeth II with the plantation system but i find this hard to believe, other cultures like east ukrainians kept their language despite centuries of moscovite occupation... i think some irish, like a core population in the cities, must have been speaking some sort of germanic going way back(like scandinavian or old english) that allowed english to take over as the main language during plantation era

    anywho respect to the irish and happy st patricks day to them, despite their governments recent actions toward the vatican (which i think may have been needed to further wake up the bureaucrats that something 10 yrs on from the first reports of sex abuse crisis PR must be done for the Church's reputation) the republic is still, and hopefully remains, the most pro Christian nation-state in western europe

    1. I understand that in the 1800s during the big wave of Irish immigration to America, the Bishop of Philadelphia, St John Neumann, needed priests who could hear confessions in Gaelic. My guess is the British tried to suppress Gaelic so of course the rulers' language took over, but, as the Neumann story suggests, its waning is rather recent. The government-started pseudo-famine and consequent exodus of the Irish abroad could have killed Gaelic as the main language. Or simply because it became the world language because of the empire and thus more useful than Gaelic, it took over in Ireland.

      Also, there was English settlement in Ireland going back to the Middle Ages. Remember, I wrote that the first people in Ireland to fight King Henry's schism were English. They lived around the capital, Dublin. Again understandably the rulers' language dominated.

      I understand that when the Irish nationalists became the Irish government, they just about loved Gaelic to death! Meaning they made all Irish schoolchildren take Gaelic and maybe required it for government jobs, yet, unsurprising to libertarians, that government plan backfired; the gaeltacht (collection of regions that natively speak Gaelic) in the west of Ireland's shrinking. As most Americans who've taken high-school French can tell you, being force-fed a language in school doesn't necessarily make you a speaker. Especially if, as in most of Ireland, you never use it.

      But a friend who lived in Ireland told me that among fashionable people in Dublin, learning Gaelic is popular but that's not the same as a living language. (I read somewhere that real Gaelic speakers and hobby speakers have trouble understanding each other.)

      I don't think the Irish spoke an old Germanic language (besides some English) alongside Gaelic. But that idea reminds me of their cousins the Scots. The Scots dialect/language (arguably it's a separate language from English, like Ukrainian is related to Russian but different enough to be a language) branched off from Middle English and has some Scandinavian in it thanks to the Vikings (Shetland and Orkney were Norwegian until the 1400s and the islanders spoke a Scandinavian language, Norn, until around the 1700s). There's Scots, with its own vocabulary, and then there's standard English with Scottish accents, now dominant in Scotland.

      (The tiny Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland are geographically and culturally closest to Ireland; parts have remained Catholic. In English they sound more Irish than Scottish. But I understand Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic aren't that close.)

      I love languages (and localism) and am all for trying to save them. But as I wrote in the post, English gave the Irish worldwide a big boost, and they famously became lyrical masters in speech and literature of a language not originally theirs. Not to excuse persecution but Ireland would be literally poorer today if it didn't speak English.

      By the way until around the 1960s (?) the nationalists/new independent Irish government tried hard to change the country's name in English from Ireland to Eire, the Gaelic name. Of course it didn't take, and throwing away years of worldwide name recognition is foolish. Sometimes it takes (Peking's Beijing, which it always was in Chinese; our transliteration was poor, but part of me hates using the Commie Pinyin spelling) but just like Paris isn't 'Paree' in English, Bombay should still be Bombay (not Mumbai), etc.

      The eastern Ukraine speaks Russian. Ukrainian's in old Galicia, not part of Russia until Stalin grabbed it in WWII. Russian's the elephant in the room of Uke politics; nearly everybody speaks it daily but it has no official status except maybe in the Crimea (parts of Russia that the USSR handed to the Ukraine never thinking the Russian empire/USSR would break up; everybody there's Russian).

    2. Regarding the change in language in Ireland, I have a vague memory of some Irish poet or novelist saying that "the Irish language is buried in the cemeteries of Massachusetts" (I forget the exact line). If you look at a map of the Irish language as spoken in 1840, the language was dominant in about 50% of the country, and would have been spoken as a minority language in most of the other districts as well. The Great Famine, and subsequent waves of migration lasting for more than a century, meant that cohesive Gaeltacht communities were separated and their inhabitants dropped mostly into English-speaking countries. Teaching a child English was a way of securing his economic future, if he should ever have to emigrate and find work in England, America, or New Zealand. For a long time, being a monoglot Irish-speaker was in some ways a marker of poverty and rural backwardness. (The same was true, incidentally, of the Irish traditional music of which so much was played yesterday- until the late '50s, it was looked down upon in Ireland as music for unsophisticated rubes, much the way that many modern American urban-dwellers look down on Country music. Only when expat Irish music acts made it big in America during the Folk Revival did opinions in Ireland change, the reasoning apparently being "If those rich Americans like this stuff, it must not be hick music after all". Perhaps unsurprisingly, American Country & Western music is now hugely popular in Ireland).

    3. That's what I thought about 1800s immigration and Gaelic; thanks. True too about Irish music. I understand that in the '40s and '50s the most popular musical acts in Ireland were the 'show bands', what we call cover bands, doing mainstream American etc. pop from the time. Then there's American Tin Pan Alley 'Irish' pop like 'Clancy Lowered the Boom', played here yesterday but not popular in Ireland.

    4. "I don't think the Irish spoke an old Germanic language (besides some English) alongside Gaelic."

      There actually used to be an Irish language/dialect known as "Yola". It was basically an isolated descendant of the Middle English spoken by the early English colonists in Ireland, which evolved separately from standard English and changed very little over time. I don't know much about it, but I understand that the pronunciation was very close to what you would hear in Chaucer's day. It survived only in a few remote districts, and died out completely at some point in the late 19th century. Very little of it was recorded before it went extinct- just some poetry, short folk tales, and some odd vocabulary.

      "I read somewhere that real Gaelic speakers and hobby speakers have trouble understanding each other... I understand Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic aren't that close."

      According to native Irish-speaking relatives of mine, there's enough mutual intelligibility with Scottish Gaelic to make one's basic point understood (particularly if everyone has been drinking a little, and there is a corresponding drop in the complexity of everyone's sentences), even if a lot of the details get missed. Of course, because Irish survives only in several rural pockets which are divided from each other by vast Anglophone regions, it can sometimes be hard to communicate even between different dialects- Donegal Irish in particular has a strange accent that Connemara and Kerry speakers often find very hard-to-follow, and sounds more like Scottish Gaelic in some respects. As the saying goes, "A language is a dialect with an army and navy".

      The big problem for non-native speakers who learn Irish is that it is so heavily idiomatic- e.g. there is no verb for "to have" or "to own", rather, you must say that something is "at" a person, or that it is "with" a person ("The book is at me" = "I have the book"). When someone asks you for "the thing that you would beat with a stick", it's not easy to know that he means "buttermilk". The other problem is the huge discrepancy between the number of letters and the number of distinct sounds or "phonemes" (also, I am told, a problem for learners of Russian). Standard English has 26 letters and about 30-40 basic phonemes, depending on how you count them. Irish and Scottish Gaelic both have about 18 letters in standard usage (plus a few used only for borrowed words from other languages), and about 60 or more phonemes. Irish Gaelic, therefore, might have three different possible pronunciations of a particular consonant where English might have only one, which can make a mess of a learner's attempts at getting pronunciation correct.

  2. Re: St. John Neumann, the story is that he learned Gaelic himself in order to hear the confessions of Irish immigrants.


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