Coming Home: One Man’s Return to the Irish Language (Michael McCaughan)

Recently, I was asked to write a narrative of a key moment in my career as a foreign language teacher, for an academic publication. To assist me in this, the editor supplied me with models of narratives written by learners about their experiences. Coming Home: One Man´s Return to the Irish Language appears to fall within this category, as Michael McCaughan retells his passionate, but conflicted, relationship with “an Ghaeilge”.
Paradoxically, like many other Irish people, McCaughan finds himself learning his national language as if it were a foreign language, that is to say, from scratch and via the school system, initially. Although this is simply the result of a language shift and, subsequently, a series of flawed linguistic policies in his country, some Irish people appear to feel guilty if they do not manage to become competent. According to McCaughan, this is one of the reasons why Irish learners seem to be forever apologising. They are awed by native speakers, and embarrassed when they have to admit that they only have “an cúpla focal”, only a little bit of Irish. For some of these learners, it is as if they were failing in a patriotic duty, or allowing their cultural identity to get dented.
On the other side of the debate, there are others who, unapologetically, refuse to attempt to become fluent in Irish, like journalist Rosita Boland. She is adamant that this is not to the detriment of her attachment to the nation: “I like even less having my national identity pinned to a language I never use and cannot speak. (…) Am I any less an Irish citizen if I choose to disassociate myself from our “ordained national language”, and state that the English language is actually the one in which I feel at home expressing myself?” (p. 108). Rosita Boland suggests that the Irish language has become a kind of religion for some of the most enthusiastic speakers, learners and activists, like the “Gaelbores” McCaughan also refers to, satirized at an early stage by Flann O´Brien in the novel An Béal Bocht. According to the true Gaels in this story, “we must always discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics” (cit. in McCaughan, 2017, p. 54).
The first chapters of Coming Home are devoted to the individual experiences of McCaughan as a learner after he grows determined to become fluent in what he describes as “a fever”. Mostly, McCaughan analyses his use of the services of the Irish-language national radio station, RnaG, which helps him to practise listening comprehension but also connects him to the rhythms of life in the small rural communities of the Gaeltacht. He also describes the various teaching methods used in the different language schools he attends over the summer, from a relaxed approach to the more structured use of worksheets and Powerpoint presentations. There are many tips for the Irish language learner: CDs of music and language sounds (e.g. “Gugalái Gug”); well-established dictionaries; and text-to-speech tools such as Information is given about dialects and official tests, for instance, Teastas Eorpachna Gaeilge (TEG) at Maynooth. Michael McCaughan completed a degree in Spanish at university and he believes strongly that “anyone can learn Irish” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 37), or, for that matter, any other language: “I am convinced that a personal interest is more important than innate talent when it comes to learning a language. That interest requires a system adapted to your lifestyle and temperament if it is to work. It takes time to find it but once you have it, in whatever form, you have started the journey” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 37).
Michael McCaughan implies that in the Republic of Ireland there is a gentrified teaching industry catering for adult learners who may feel guilty or inadequate, and appear to be stuck at a beginner or intermediate level, starting, dropping out, and restarting. This is precisely the cycle that McCaughan is trying to break. On the other hand, the situation of the Irish language in Northern Ireland is very different, and the chapters devoted to this topic are extremely interesting. The key point McCaughan makes is that the promotion of the Irish language in Northern Ireland is a grassroots movement, led by volunteers working in small communities.
Naturally, McCaughan covers the Irish classes of the Jailtacht, that is to say, the Long Kesh prison, at the time of the Troubles. Notably, a few loyalist prisoners also took Irish lessons, for example, William Plum Smith: “Smith learned about Irish history and began learning Irish. The IRA prisoners offered him safe passage into the Republic ‘cage’ for classes but the authorities refused. Undeterred, Smith sat by the fence and learned his Irish from an IRA member instructing him from the other side” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 185).
Nowadays, there are informal inexpensive Irish language classes and activities not only in Catholic West Belfast, but also in East Belfast, an area “identical to its Republican counterparts in viewing the language as a vocation, an activity that needs to happen regardless of money” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 177). The interest of the Protestant community in the Irish language is in itself part of the Irish heritage, as exemplified by the large numbers of Protestants who enrolled in the Gaelic League since its creation. Remarkably, the Irish language services in East Belfast, Turas, benefit from funding from the Ulster Defence Association club for old boys, Charter NI (McCaughan, 2017, p. 180). Likewise the Irish language centre in West Belfast, Cultúrlann McAdam ÓFiaich, according to its website, is named after two eminent advocates of the Irish language, the former, McAdam, being a Presbyterian businessman from the nineteenth-century (Cultúrlann McAdam ÓFiaich, 2019). In the context of the Good Friday Agreement, all these Irish lessons and outreach activities are a powerful peace resource that breaks down barriers and fosters understanding between communities that had been brought up to view each other as “the other” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 178).
Users of Duolingo may be already aware that there are more Irish learners in their platform than there are native-speakers of the language in the whole world. Michael McCaughan interviews several of these non-Irish learners: Aki, who taught Irish myth at a university in Japan; Matthew, who had started learning Irish in New York; and Rachael, a Canadian who had decided to learn all the languages present in her family background. McCaughan remarks that all of them were very surprised at the way some Irish people dismiss the Irish language: “The attitudes of some Irish people surprised them all. A taxi driver in Dublin laughed out loud when Matthew informed him he was on his way to an Irish language programme in Connemara. ‘Why would you want to do that?’, he said, incredulous. ‘Why not learn a worthwhile language?’ ”(McCaughan, 2017, p. 133).
While there are pragmatic reasons for learning languages, there is also this powerful fever that, inexplicably, takes possession of you and propels you forwards. This fever can stem from a desire to connect with a lost ancestral past, or with a fascinating foreign culture. It can only be fortunate that it is a contagious condition, fostering larger and larger communities of learners.

Cultúrlann McAdam ÓFiaich (2019) This History of Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich [online]. Available at (Accessed 27 November 2019)
McCaughan, Michael (2017) Coming Home: One Man’s Return to the Irish Language, Dublin, Gill Books

Cultúrlann McAdam ÓFiaich:

A mural in West Belfast



The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics (Diarmaid Ferriter)

Reviews of The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics quoted in copies of the book seem very keen to emphasize how important it is to read it in order to understand Brexit. Out of the eleven paragraphs selected, six mention Brexit. This in itself is symptomatic: the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has become noteworthy for the general British public only because of its effect on Brexit negotiations. Otherwise, preoccupation with this region in the UK tends to be scarce, and the general public and electorate appeared to be somewhat uninformed about the history of this part of their country. As Irish novelist Colm Tóibín noted in an interview after the EU Referendum in 2016, “no one in the world would claim it was a campaign run with Northern Ireland in mind. It’s another example, in case we need one, of how little Northern Ireland matters to anyone in Britain” (cit. in Ferriter, 2019, p. 129).
Nevertheless, more and more British people are now paying attention to the impact that the border issue has on the viability of the Brexit project, but many have become more mindful too of the consequences that a disarranged, drastic Brexit will have on the people living on this area. This new awareness can only be positive. In recent months the testimonies of this community and the landscape of the border have been given more visibility on the media. However, Ferriter’s book focuses on Anglo-Irish politics. Anyone wishing to understand more deeply the experiences of the people who live and work on and across the border may wish to read also Garrett Carr’s book The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border, which Ferriter refers to on several occasions, as well as to other writers, poets or musicians. The reality of Irish lives tends to be portrayed by Ferriter through this prism, while Carr engages people in conversation and allows them to tell their own stories.
Ferriter’s focus is thus on the political processes involved in the relationship between Northern Ireland, The Republic of Ireland and The United Kingdom since Partition in 1920. A key argument throughout is the lukewarm interest of the UK government in Northern Ireland, and a lack of commitment to the reunification cause by the Republic of Ireland. For example, on the onset of Partition, Ferriter claims that the UK government was keen to disengage itself from the whole Irish problem, which had been having, in its opinion, a disproportionate effect on the affairs of the parliament in Westminster. For Ferriter, the Government of Ireland Act that brought about Partition in 1920 was “a reflection of the growing determination of British politicians to get the Irish question off its tables” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 9). Interestingly, at that point it was not necessarily assumed by the British side that Northern Ireland would continue to remain in the UK for eternity: “It was envisaged that the new Act would ultimately lead to Irish unity, but if the two parliaments could not agree to come together they could stay in isolation; there would be no forcing of Ulster to join the South but neither was there an assumption Ulster would remain a fully integrated part of the UK” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 8). In fact, according to Ferriter, Northern Ireland would come to have a different status to the other parts of the UK. Early on, there was no conscription or military service; later, the legal situation was entirely different there regarding abortion or same-sex marriage. Ferriter seems rather surprised that the DUP insist so ardently on refusing the Irish backstop because they are not prepared to accept that Northern Ireland be treated differently to the rest of the UK: “Nigel Dodds insisted the DUP wanted a ‘seamless border’ but also wanted, in facing Brexit, to be no different ‘from other parts of the UK’. This was another nonsense; Northern Ireland has always been treated differently from the rest of the UK” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 137). Additionally, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 meant that previous legislation about Northern Ireland was superseded and that Northern Ireland in effect would have “a different constitutional status from the rest of the UK” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 133).
What was the attitude of the newly independent Ireland with regard to Partition? Ferriter’s argument is that from the outset the Irish Free State discreetly washed its hands off the Northern Ireland’s business, whilst on public insisting that it was not prepared to recognise Northern Ireland. The aspiration to reunification was paraded out occasionally in order to gain political votes and reputation, but their attitude appeared rather passive, if pragmatic. As Ferriter points out, admitting the large Unionist population of Ulster within the state would have threatened its stability at a crucial time. Thomas Bartlett in Ireland: A History mentions this idea too: “Partition, along with emigration, were the twin pillars on which southern Irish society would be constructed in the period post-1922. Both of the main parties would continue to denounce them as evil legacies of British rule; but both also guiltily recognised that the first allowed democratic rule to bed itself down, while the second permitted the creation of a society that was both manageable and malleable” (Bartlett, 2010, p. 426). In fact, as part of a nation-building project, partition was also rather convenient in order to develop an Ireland that was truly Irish, without having to accommodate any of those other traits that were also present in Ulster: Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Britishness, Unionism. As Ferriter indicates, “for some nationalists, partition was not seen in negative terms; it could offer an opportunity to generate a ‘pure’ Irish identity uncontaminated by the ‘Black North’ ” (pp. 35-36).
Another issue that would make reunification rather difficult for the state was the fact that Northern Ireland was heavily dependent on funding from the British government. This would prove an enduring theme. According to Ferriter, “at the outset of its existence, four-fifths of the Belfast government’s revenue came from London” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 9). Later on, within the Welfare System, this dependence strengthened: “Britain by 1970 was subsidising Northern Ireland to the tune of £100 million a year” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 77). For the Republic of Ireland reunification would mean a heavy financial burden that may have a serious effect on the standard of living of, as they would see it, their own population.
Ferriter believes that a bigger effort should have been made by the Irish side to win over Ulster Unionists, involving them creatively, somehow, in the Irish project. Instead, the legitimacy of their concerns was dismissed by the Irish state. He calls this “the failure to engage with the reality of the unionist mentality, long an Achilles heel of Irish nationalism” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 17). In his book Ferriter outlines chronologically the difficulties that arose within Anglo-Irish relationships, mainly Ireland’s loosening of its ties with the Commonwealth, its neutrality during the Second World War, and the Troubles. It clearly became imperative to engage in a political process that would bring peace, stability and prosperity. Ferriter covers the diverse political agreements that, although unsuccessful at the time, gradually paved the way towards a political consensus by introducing concepts that would become key building blocks of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement: ideas previously rejected, such as the fact that the Republic of Ireland would have to be allowed in the conversation, or the necessity to accept and respect equally all the different cultural identities present in Northern Ireland.
Given the many difficulties that were overcome by all parties involved to reach agreement and stability, Ferriter is not forgiving of the cavalier attitude of the Brexit supporters who have endangered the situation. He refers to it as “the contemptuous arrogance with which those who championed Brexit had treated the weight of Anglo-Irish history” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 144). However, it would be wrong to consider Brexit the only current difficulty in Northern Ireland, given the depth of the political disagreement over the Irish Language Act. Sadly, the Good Friday Agreement was not the future-proof solution that it was hoped it would be. However, at least the British public is now more aware than ever of the history of Northern Ireland and the role of the border in the politics of the UK and the EU, and, having gained a lot of experience since the EU referendum, is hopefully better prepared to evaluate critically the oversimplified choices and plans posed to them by their politicians.

Bartlett, T. (2010) Ireland: A History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Carr, G. (2017) The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border, London, Faber and Faber
Ferriter, D. (2019) The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, London, Profile Books


Peace Wall in a residential area in Belfast

Celia en la revolución (Elena Fortún)

Hace poco tiempo, mientras paseaba con mi familia un domingo por la mañana, mi madre me dio un discreto codazo y me susurró: “mira, ésa es la que llevaba todo lo de la Sección Femenina aquí”. Este comentario me hizo preguntarme cuántas otras personas que habían detentado modestas parcelas de poder durante el franquismo se hallaban en esos momentos camufladas entre el gentío.
Mi madre ha sido una ávida lectora de las historia de Celia en su niñez, y conserva los libros con cariño, junto con su colección de Antoñita la Fantástica. Muy probablemente el personaje de Celia sea más conocido hoy en día por la adaptación televisiva que se realizó con los guiones de la novelista Carmen Martín Gaite, otra forofa que escribió también estudios sobre Elena Fortún, su creadora. La serie televisiva recrea un mundo de clase media acomodada y de ideología abierta y liberal, pero imprecisa. Si bien no sabríamos determinar exactamente a qué partido político hubiese pertenecido el padre de Celia, el inicio de Celia en la revolución lo revela herido y convaleciente tras haber combatido en el frente de Madrid. Esa dicotomía entre la buena posición socioeconómica, y el compromiso con la defensa de la República, convierte a Celia en un interesantísimo testigo y protagonista de la guerra civil española.
Cuando Celia regresa a Madrid furtivamente desde Segovia tras el 18 de julio de 1936, para cuidar de su padre, registra en su relato su sorpresa de ver las calles de Madrid descuidadas y llenas de gente mal vestida, como si los ricos que tan bien se acicalaban habitualmente hubiesen desaparecido para quizás camuflarse también entre lo que Celia llama “el pueblo”. Ella misma, que además de ocuparse de su padre ayuda en un hogar infantil para huérfanos y refugiados de guerra, se ve transformada de “señorita” en “camarada”. Aunque tiene el buen juicio de callar, le molesta que los milicianos hayan sacado las butacas nobles a la puerta del palacete donde se ha instalado el hogar infantil, para instalarse en ellas mientras hacen guardia.
Resulta a su vez revelador que, cuando el padre de Celia sale del hospital y la familia vuelve a vivir en su chalé de Chamartín, la muchacha disfruta desmedidamente de sus muebles, alfombras y recuerdos personales, limpiándolo todo minuciosamente. Inevitablemente los bombardeos y los refugiados terminan llegando hasta las puertas del chalé, y Celia no puede esconder su fastidio al ver su preciosa casa pisoteada e invadida por gentes extrañas y malolientes:
“Nuestra casa primorosa se ha convertido en un campamento. He cubierto los divanes y butacas con sábanas, he recogido las alfombras y entre Guadalupe y yo hemos quitado visillos y colgaduras.
¡Huele mal la casa! Este hacinamiento de gentes que duermen vestidas produce un olor rancio y repugnante. (…)
Yo procuro inhibirme de todo esto que me produce un dolor sordo sobre la amargura del ambiente…” (Fortún, 2014, IX)
Y sin embargo, a medida de que la situación empeora, Celia se avergüenza de un egoísmo que, a pesar de todo, nunca le había hecho plantearse cerrar su casa a los refugiados: “Mi casita, limpia y arreglada, con alfombras, tapices y cortinas, me parece ya un pecado entre tanta miseria…” (Fortún, 2014, IX).
Las penurias sufridas durante la guerra civil española y la posguerra, desde el hambre y los bombardeos hasta los fusilamientos, han sido estudiados y novelados a posteriori, pero testimonios inmediatos como Celia en la revolución en Madrid, Valencia y Barcelona, o Doy fe (Antonio Ruiz Vilaplana) en Burgos no pueden dejar de conmovernos de una manera diferente: aquí está cristalizado lo que se vivió de verdad. Y es que fueron libros escritos en el momento o poco después (1943, en el caso de Celia en la revolución), y que permanecieron inéditos o se publicaron con muchas dificultades, junto con otros que cita Andrés Trapiello en su introducción.
Como no podía ser de otra manera, el personaje de Celia evoluciona a lo largo del relato, pero sin demarcarse nunca políticamente. En el Madrid de 1936, como ya se ha visto, los ciudadanos de derechas tratan de pasar desapercibidos, como la señora de Orduña, una mujer sorda, que evita salir a la calle y que le dice a Celia durante una visita:
“- ¡Con que han fusilado a Julia y a su hijo! –me dice a voces sin perder su alegría-. Hija, esto es el fin del mundo. (…) Ya pronto entrarán las tropas de Franco y se arreglará todo… Creo que vienen hacia acá. Claro que ellos también van a fusilar en cuanto lleguen… A tu papá, que es un loco como mi hijo Enrique, le fusilarán enseguida, no te quepa duda”. (Fortún, 2014, VI)
Posiblemente Celia en la revolución es una de las pocas novelas de la guerra civil que entrevera notas de humor. Por ejemplo, esta señora, durante esta visita, termina poniéndose pesadísima con unas huelgas que hubo en Salamanca durante la Primera República y que a la jovencísima Celia le parecen antediluvianas.
Este encuentro viene a verse replicado en Valencia, en 1939, cuando Celia se encuentra a punto de embarcar hacia Francia. En una de las despedidas tiene la desilusión de descubrir que, entre un grupo de amigos que la habían ayudado, se camuflaba otra señora de derechas que decide regodearse ante su desdicha y la llama “enemiga”:
“- Sí, tú, mosquita muerta, tú –dice Marcela, riendo-. ¿Es que no eres enemiga de Franco? Pues nosotros somos sus amigos… y mucho más desde que sabemos que va a venir…
Se ríen ante mi cara de asombro”. (Fortún, 2016, XXVIII)
Celia se siente muy defraudada ante estas palabras, y reflexiona así mientras mira la calle por la ventana: “El sol ilumina las aceras por donde pasa la gente, ¡estas aceras y esta gente que ya no veré más…! ¡Y me alegro! Ahora siento alegría de dejar esto… Todos dicen que me quieren, pero aseguran que soy su enemiga, y ellos lo son de mi padre… ¡Mentían antes! ¡Mentían por miedo! El pueblo les fusilaba porque sabía que mentían…”. (Fortún, 2016, XXVIII)
Se trata de un fuerte contraste con la muchacha que siempre había deplorado los fusilamientos que vio en Madrid, y que había rechazado la posibilidad de apuntarse al partido comunista porque para ella lo más importante era la libertad, por ejemplo, la libertad de desear vivir bien y poder disfrutarlo. Y sin embargo, en el relato se constata también el consuelo pragmático de otra amiga, que le recuerda que estas personas “se quedan aquí y tienen que vivir…” (Fortún, 2016, XXVIII).
Este breve análisis da sólo una pequeña muestra de la rica variedad de personajes, ideas y situaciones que Elena Fortún despliega en Celia en la revolución. Si bien puede leerse como un Bildungsroman, asoman en el relato controvertidas posiciones que quizás no hubiesen podido explorarse en obras partidistas: desde el padre de Celia, tan idealista, que le insiste a la muchacha en que no mencione las checas, porque son propaganda franquista, hasta el joven novio, que le explica que, cuando se disponía a fusilar, no era él, no se sentía él mismo. El relato que Elena Fortún hace es lúcido, detallado y descorazonador, y debe constituir una obra muy recomendable para entender la guerra civil española.

Fortún, E. (1987, 2014) Celia en la revolución, [ebook reader], Sevilla, Editorial Renacimiento


Monumento a las víctimas de la represión franquista en Burgos

Reading Porterhouse Blue in 2018

For many university lecturers, late February and early March in 2018 in the UK have been defined by a strike in defence of pension rights. However, beyond this there is also a rebellion of sorts against the current marketization and the managerialism of Higher Education. Most academics want intellectual life to be placed back at the core of how universities are run. However, it is useful to remind ourselves that anti-intellectualism in the world of Higher Education is not something new.
It is easy to feel demotivated at the moment, and reading a campus novel can be a good distraction. One could go for the fun of Starter for Ten (David Nicholls) or the sweet melancholy of Jill (Philip Larkin), but it may be best not to turn to the despair of Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy). The satire of Small World (David Lodge) or Porterhouse Blue (Tom Sharpe) seems in principle like a safer choice, but even escapism can turn sour, leading some readers to anger or scepticism, particularly if they lose their sense of humour.
Porterhouse Blue was first published in 1974, but it feels depressingly contemporary. Things in the UK do not appear to have changed very much. Porterhouse is a fictional college in Cambridge University populated by what nowadays would be called “change-resistant academics”, although the nature of the changes they fear is different. The strength of Porterhouse is not intellectual, but culinary. It has been a very long time since one of their students achieved a First Class degree. The new Master is intent on changing a situation that, however, for some, has already changed too much. For example, for the Head Porter, Skullion, the students have altered beyond recognition: “The young gentlemen weren´t the same. The spirit had gone out of them since the war. They got grants now. They worked. Who had ever heard of a Porterhouse man working in the old days? They were too busy drinking and racing” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 1). The Master soon finds out the root of the problem. Porterhouse is a poor college, which forces them to accept unqualified pupils from public schools in exchange of a college endowment subscription from their families. Here, “austerity” is claimed as a reason to thwart change. As the Master comments, it is actually the rich who tend to use “the plea of poverty” more often (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 7).
Nowadays, such students could have made use of the online marketplaces for essays. We call them essay mills, but in the world of Porterhouse Blue it is the Head Porter who is quite happy to make some additional income acting as an intermediary between penniless postgraduates and the relevant undergraduates. Such a breach of academic conduct is abhorrent to us, but the fellows of Porterhouse turned a blind eye. In fact, for them, anti-intellectualism is to be praised and encouraged: “Together, though never in unison, they had steered Porterhouse away from the academic temptations to which all other Cambridge colleges had succumbed and had preserved that integrity of ignorance which gave Porterhouse men the confidence to cope with life´s complexities which men with more educated sensibilities so obviously lacked” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 18). Their conclusion is that “if a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 18). All this is essential for creating an incurious elite “imbued with a corporate complacency and an intellectual scepticism that desiccated change. They were the guardians of political inertia (…)” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 19). As it is well known, many members of the elite are still educated at public schools and Oxbridge colleges.
In many respects, it is uncanny how familiar the universe of Porterhouse Blue can feel to readers in the twenty-first century. At some point, for instance, the Dean exclaims: “I have never placed much faith in expert opinion” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 21). Ideas akin to “post-truth” can be glimpsed in a “disassociation from reality” typical of Cambridge in which “everyone in the College sought to parody himself, as if a parody of a parody could become itself a new reality” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 5). Interestingly, perennial mistrust of the EU in the UK materialises here already, as mistrust of the Common Market: “He told two amusing stories about the Prime Minister´s secretary and finally, when the Senior Tutor ventured the opinion that he thought such goings-on were due to the entry into the Common Market, launched into a detailed account of an interview he had once had with de Gaulle” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 15).
For tourists worldwide, the spires, turrets and gates of the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford are imbued with romanticism. In spite of the difficult situation that universities and their staff face in the UK, it seems fitting and somewhat uplifting that Higher Education can still be connected to forms of idealism.

Sharpe, T (2002) Porterhouse Blue [ebook reader], London, Arrow Books

Bridge of Sighs, Cambridge

Only in Cologne

Despite globalization and the uniformity of our commercial streets, the Only In series of travel guides by Duncan J. D. Smith proves that cities remain unique and full of surprising discoveries. Tourists nowadays do not want to tackle their sightseeing as a check-list exercise. Travelling is a fulfilling personal experience, and an opportunity to learn about the history and culture of places that nevertheless retain their ultimate mystery because, probably, we will never live there.
A good travel book combining versatility and well-researched content is essential to enhance this experience, and this is precisely what I have found in Only in Cologne. This guide is very rich in historical information, with 84 chapters with such intriguing titles as “Is That Really a Church?” or “A Lighthouse Far From the Sea”. These 84 chapters are distributed in 6 sections: 3 are devoted to the city centre (in case you are short of time or prefer to concentrate on the most well-known areas), and 3 more to the suburbs, where, if you take public transport, you can have “A Taste of the Country” or visit “A Hidden Roman Tomb”. In addition to these sections, there is an introduction by the author, and appendices containing information about opening times, as well as a bibliography, a clear indicator that we have an authoritative guide in our hands.
Potentially, 84 chapters can feel like a lot of information, but it is not necessary to go through all of it, if you don’t wish to do so. The beauty of Only in Cologne is that it directs you precisely to those aspects of the city that you are most interested to see. If you are a railways enthusiast, this book will tell you where to go, including the less obvious sites, as well as giving you a wealth of historical and technical details. You will find what you need if you like Romanesque churches, Roman remains, world cultures, puppets or aviation.
However, you will also find chapters covering the essential sights in Cologne, from the cathedral to the old Gestapo headquarters, the EL-DE-Haus at Appellhofplatz. There are two maps included, as well, although you can supplement them easily with a bigger updated version available at hotels or the tourist information office. There they can give you more information about current cultural, musical or sporting events.
Even though you can dip into the guidebook for what you need, it can be rather rewarding to read it through from chapters 1 to 84. These sections are arranged in a subtly progressive way that gives you an outline of the history of the city. For instance, the site selected to start with (“The Ruins of Colonia Agrippinensis”) tells you about the origins of Cologne as a Roman settlement. Besides, Duncan J. D. Smith does not shy away from the more difficult subjects, such as the history of the Jewish community in Cologne, or the bombardment of the city during the Second World War, but these topics are approached intelligently and sensitively.
Unusually for a travel guide, the personal voice of the author comes through, revealing a deep interest in the places explored and in sharing the experience. The style of writing is clear and engaging, although, maybe, there are too many exclamation marks used to signal the most curious facts.
The guide is very attractive visually, with the addition of unique photos (many taken by the author), and the quality of the paper is particularly good. Only in Cologne is a book made to last, not to be discarded after the journey, a book to be used for future reference and to go back to if you are lucky enough to be able to revisit Cologne.

I am very grateful to Duncan J. D. Smith for providing me with a free copy of Only in Cologne in exchange for an honest review.




Ireland´s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth (Mark Williams)

In Parnell Square, in the centre of Dublin, there is an emblem of the strong interconnection between Irish mythology and national politics. The Garden of Remembrance, created to commemorate those who died in the pursuit of independence for Ireland, features a large sculpture of the children of Lir, designed by Oisín Kelly. As it is often the case with the Irish myths also in literature, the story of the children converted into swans by their jealous stepmother functions as a symbol. It was chosen as a motif because it represents ideas of rebirth and resurrection: after many years dwelling in the lakes and seas of Ireland, the swans are turned again into people thanks to the arrival of Christianity, just as Ireland had also been reborn as a sovereign state in 1922.
Mark Williams, a self-confessed philologist and literary critic, “rather than a historian” (2016, p. xiv), stresses the religious, literary and mythological aspects of his topic, over the political, in an ambitious overview covering centuries, Ireland´s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. His book is helpfully divided in two distinct parts. The first one is devoted to literature written in Irish, focusing on the medieval period, and provides detailed analyses of individual works. General readers outside Ireland are less likely to be already familiar with this material: “The Adventure of Connlae”, “The Voyage of Bran”, “The Wooing of Étaín”, ”The Second Battle of Moytura”, “Lebor Gabála”, “The Colloquy of the Elders”, etc… On the other hand, the second section deals with literature written in English, from around the seventeenth century to the present day. It is structured around key authors and, in the case of the Irish Literary Revival, their interactions. At the end of each chapter Mark Williams, who teaches at the University of Oxford, provides a useful summary to ensure his readers keep track with arguments and developments extended over very large periods of time.
All the written information we have about the Irish gods dates back to the Christian age, as Mark Williams takes pains to emphasize (2016, p.3), and thus what we have truly is Christian authors engaging with what they feared could be viewed mostly as Pagan traditions. Remarkedly, these chroniclers tried to dispel any possible doubts that could be harboured about their own position towards the Irish deities and, to that effect, they pointed out, “(…) though we enumerate them, we do not worship them” (cit. in Williams, 2016, p. 169). For this reason, and as part of the interactions between the old mythology and the newer Christian belief, the process is one of gradually lessening the divinity of these gods. In the earlier stories they appear indeed as gods of gigantic proportions, engaging in internecine wars and altering the geology of Ireland, in a traditional theomachy scenario. However, sometimes they come to interact with monks or saints, and can even, on occasion, be redeemed and humanized, so their souls can reach heaven. On the other hand, as part of the “pseudohistory” of Ireland, these supernaturals may also be noble ancestors of mysterious powers, involved in the formation of the country.
When they do appear as full-blown gods again, it is only to be completely defeated by the humans then inhabiting the land, named Sons of Míl. Ireland´s supernaturals are pushed to a form of internal exile, and they have lived in their hollow hills, called síde, ever since. At this point they seem to become more akin to the fairies of Irish folklore that many readers will be quite familiar with, found in the writings of Yeats and Lady Gregory, for instance. Each community, humans and defeated gods, keeps to “their own Ireland”, splitting the country into a physical and an otherworldly part in a very evocative way that intriguingly foreshadows social and political divisions, between Catholics and Protestants, between North and South, in later times.
The overall picture of the Irish gods that emerges from the medieval literature is one of confusion, vagueness and fluidity well-suited to inspire further literary creativity. As the Celtic Twilight began to glow, in the late nineteenth century, Yeats and others, such as George Russell and William Sharp (writing also as Fiona Macleod) tried explicitly to give corporeal form to these diffuse gods and to imagine what they would have looked like. Similarly, the very protean nature of the Irish deities allowed these artists to recreate them in their work for their own personal agendas and to make them into the symbols of their obsessions. It is argued that, as the Irish supernaturals were effectively neutral, pre-Catholic mythical material, Yeats and other Protestant writers could safely claim them in the process of reasserting their feeling of belonging to Ireland just as much as Catholics did (Williams, 2016, p. 292, p. 300).
There is a lot of very curious information to be amused about in Mark William’s book, although not necessarily related to Irish mythology. For instance, it is believed that Gaelic poets, the filid, used to compose their poems while lying in bed (Williams, 2016, p. 177). Probably, they could only retreat there, not having “a room of their own”. In a similar vein, linguists would be interested to learn that there is even a myth about the birth of the Irish language itself, told in a grammar book, The Scholars’ Primer, dating back to the seventh century. It is paraphrased by Williams (2016, p. 135): “At the disaster of the Tower of Babel, a Scythian nobleman named Fénius Farsaid (‘Irishman the Pharisee’) extracted all the best bits of humanity’s jumbled languages and from them pieced together the world’s first artificial, perfect language: Irish”. Clearly, language as a mark of national identity was already notable in remote medieval Irish monasteries.
There is plenty of amusement too in the sections devoted to the nineteenth century. In a medley of very idiosyncratic intellectuals, there is a married couple who stand out, James and Gretta Cousins. In a marital memoir superbly entitled We Two Together the Irish gods appear to be on a first-name basis with the Cousins. When these deities appear themselves to Gretta, they ask her to pass on their sublime messages “to Jim” (Williams, 2016, p. 423). It can be tempting to view some of these visionaries as childish, maudlin individuals, or even fraudsters. However, Williams does not contemplate the latter, and it must be remembered that occultism was a very powerful current of thought at times characterised by wars, disease and high rates of child mortality.
In modern days, according to Mark Williams (2016, p. 434), the importance of the gods in Irish literature has decreased, whilst they have continued to provide inspiration for writers of popular fiction outside of Ireland. Aficionados of fantasy books will be able to glimpse the Irish divinities in aspects of the fairies in the Shadowhunters sagas by American author Cassandra Clare, or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by British novelist Susanna Clarke. In one of her recent novels, Lord of Shadows, Cassandra Clare conjures up two fairies chuckling over words written by Yeats about their kind: “He didn’t know anything about faeries. Nobody grows bitter of tongue? Ha!” (Clare, 2017, 20: Evermore). Surely, any god would be delighted to see that they are so immortal that they continue to appear in books, both as fictional characters and as objects of academic study.

Clare, Cassandra (2017) Lord of Shadows, [ebook reader] New York, Simon and Schuster
Williams, Mark (2016) Ireland´s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press
Children_of_Lir (2)

The Irish Language in Tim Robinson’s Connemara Trilogy

For the title of the last volume in his Connemara trilogy, Tim Robinson looked to Patrick Pearse and his dream of a “little Gaelic kingdom” nestling in the intricate coves and islands in the southern part of the region. Indeed, Galway County is still part of the Gaeltacht, the area of Ireland where Irish is used by the community on a daily basis. Irish is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, according to its Constitution (BBC, n.d). However, if the population of Ireland, as recorded by the census in 2016, is 4,761,865 (Central Statistics Office, Ireland, 2016, p. 8), only 1,761,420 people declare that they can speak Irish; of those, only 73,803 speak it daily outside the education system (Central Statistics Office, Ireland, 2017, p. 66). 9,445 of these speakers are in Galway County (Central Statistics Office, Ireland, 2017, p. 69). Regardless of all this, a study about attitudes towards the Irish language reveals that 64% of respondents “believe that Ireland would lose its identity without the Irish language” (Darmody and Daly, 2015, p. xi).
Pearse probably viewed his little Gaelic kingdom as a utopia in miniature, a sample of what the whole country could become after the Easter Rising in which he would subsequently take part. In practice, this core of Irishness, ravaged by poverty and emigration, was a bilingual region, English valued as linguistic capital enabling the young to do well when resettling in England, America or Australia. Even nowadays, Robinson (2007, p. 155) mentions the case of a headmistress in his place of residence, Roundstone, who was enduring the boycott of parents opposing the use of Irish as a language of instruction in her school. The Irish language can be for many a part of their national identity, whether they speak it or not; for others, its role is secondary and pragmatism wins the day.
So, how do foreign residents such as Tim Robinson, a Yorkshire man, approach their relationship with Irish, an official language they would not strictly need to conduct their day to day business, a language thus discarded by part of the Irish population but claimed especially as their own by others who do not even speak it? The nineteenth-century writer Dómhnall Ó Fotharta poetically described Irish as “the sweet lively tongue, the strong overflowing tongue, the noble high ancient tongue of our own ancestors” (Robinson, 2009, p.320). Tim Robinson explains that he does not allow his lack of conventional genetic credentials to deter him from learning, loving and owning the Irish language: “I don´t feel excluded, as English-born, even by those ´ancestors´, for to me ancestors are the former inhabitants of whatever ground I find myself inhabiting, and learning something of their language is part of my self-investment in that ground” (Robinson, 2009, pp. 320-321). For Robinson, his Irish language studies are part of the devotion he feels for Connemara, which is connected besides to his personal and professional life: here is his home and his publishing business, Folding Landscapes.
The Irish language is also essential for Robinson´s primary project, the creation of maps of the Connemara region. The Irish toponyms are almost physically interlinked with the places they give name to, often constituting their detailed descriptions or providing clues to what they used to look like in the distant past. On other occasions they allude to the myths and legends with which the indigenous population at the time attempted to explain striking anomalies in the terrain. An extreme example is the placename Muckanaghederdauhaulia. Robinson unpicks this to mean ´the hog-back between two arms of the sea´ (Robinson, 2012, p. 275). In fact, the anglicization of Irish toponyms, a sinister part of the colonization process, deprived them of their true nature, and they became meaningless, whimsical-looking words that appear neither English nor Irish: “Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off from a tree. And frequently the places too are degraded, left open to exploitation, for lack of a comprehensible name to point out their natures or recall their histories” (Robinson, 2007, p. 81).
As Robinson travels the land on foot, by bike or extracting lifts from friends and like-minded people, we see him chatting in English or Irish with parties of pilgrims or archaeologists, with residents he questions about placenames or holy wells in their area, with men who row him from island to island. The trilogy is permeated with the gratitude he feels for the welcome of the people of Connemara, who correspond with him about obscure stories and offer cups of tea when he knocks, drenched, on their front door, a traveller like of the olden days. This must have developed in him a strong sense of belonging, making all the more painful the occasional hostility he encounters on the road. Robinson recalls, in that sense, an experience he had in the 1980s when exploring Connemara for the first time. He greeted a lady who was working in her garden, in Irish, but she noticed his English accent and “turned away grumpily, saying, ´We got rid of the Protestants a long time ago´” (Robinson, 2012, p. 130). This animosity clearly has stayed in his mind for a long time, and reveals that English people might come across prejudice even when they are so integrated that they have learnt to speak Irish. A shared language does not always ensure communication: accent and/or culture can sometimes come in the way, creating conditions in which one of the interlocutors may not desire to interact at all: in this case, the legacy of colonization appeared to be still part of the local culture. Robinson digs deep into this local culture in that chapter of his book, researching the history of religious conflict, in the specific area, that lies beneath the negative reaction of the lady he greeted.
Although Robinson claims not to be a linguist, he has such an affinity with the Irish language, and such a deep knowledge of its culture, that he is able to speak about it in an almost philosophical way. Towards the end of his project, he selects two words that hold special meaning, acting in a way as metaphors of the key elements in Irish culture: sean (´old´) and siar (´westwards or backwards in time or space´) (Robinson, 2012, p. 380). They are also the pillars of his trilogy, where he recounts for his readers the history of the landlord families, the geological movements that occurred in Ireland at inconceivably ancient periods of time, or the feats of the early Christian saints that take on a veneer of mythical heroes. In this journey backwards, there is a plenty of occasion for retelling the stories of many Irish language writers, teachers, singers, activists and enthusiasts. They are brought together by Robinson as a committed community reaching out to one another even across the centuries, gathered like those who visited the grave of the traditional singer Joe Éinniú (or Joe Heaney) in 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of his death (Robinson, 2012, pp. 128-129).
Despite all this, Robinson might be pleased to hear that, as an Irish language learner, he is not representative of things old, not in the least. In fact, it turns out that, as indicated by John Walsh and Bernardette O´Rourke (2017), “there are now more new speakers of Irish than native speakers”. These experts look outside the Gaeltacht for the future of the Irish language, towards the rest of Ireland, the United States and international online communities (Walsh and O’Rourke, 2017). After all, when people choose to study a language, to become their votaries (Robinson, 2009, p. 324), they develop a form of belonging beyond ancestry or national politics.

BBC (n.d.) Languages across Europe: Ireland [Online]. Available at (Accessed 23 November 2017)
Darmody, M. and Daly, T. (2015) Attitudes towards the Irish Language on the Island of Ireland [Online]. Available at (Accessed 23 November 2017)
Central Statistics Office, Ireland (2017) Census 2016 Summary Results – Part 1 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 23 November 2017)
Robinson, T. (2007) Connemara: Listening to the Wind, London, Penguin Books
Robinson, T. (2009) Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness, London, Penguin Books
Robinson, T. (2012) Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, London, Penguin Books
Walsh, J. and O´Rourke, B. (2017) “Census show we must rethink our approach to Irish and the Gaeltacht”, The Irish Times, 7 April [Online]. Available at (Accessed 23 November 2017)

Speaking of Universities by Stefan Collini: A Review

In between marking assignments, preparing lectures, adapting to practical changes in our institutions and generally supporting our students, teachers at many British universities have been spending a sizable part of our time attempting to keep up to date with the new higher education policies: reading summaries and articles in newspapers and blogs for academics; collectively worrying and swapping information in professional forums; in many cases thinking also about the future of our own school-age children. For those of us much in the periphery of the decisions and the procedures, Stefan Collini can offer a more thorough and systematic overview of the situation, in Speaking of Universities.
In early June 2017, Collini hardly needs to warn us about the dangers of the marketisation of universities: the process has been underway since 2010. Students are heavily in debt already, and the landscape of university towns is much changed, with educational institutions buying a lot of property and doing it up in order to rent it to undergraduates and thus keep as much of the loaned money as possible: added perks such as gyms or a luxury-finish are part of what Collini calls the “amenities arms race” (2017, p. 34), as students weigh the advantages of competing campuses. Top educational managers seem to be accepting of the marketisation, adopting the adequate speak and looking for ways to survive and prosper in the new environment. Collini makes much fun of common managerial phrases, such as “commitment to excellence”, “seamless student experience” or “performance indicators”. Importantly, Collini reminds us that such corporate jargon can quickly become normalized, and even internalized by staff, while we lose sight of what really matters in our job (2017, p. 217).
However, there are less familiar arguments in Collini´s book, around the funding of research. Collini claims that current government policy is actively abandoning ´the Haldane principle´, ´which lays it down that government, though providing the funds, should have no direct say in what research is undertaken, since that decision is better left to the research community itself´ (2017, p. 198). Naturally, the traditional independence of universities is at stake here, not just politically but also academically, if governments begin to interfere in the direction of research depending on trending economic and commercial aims. Collini argues that research teams should be encouraged to do whatever research it is that they do best. Research is open-ended, he points out, subject to chance and unexpected outcomes sometimes, changing direction as a result. Researchers, not politicians, are the better judges of where resources and time need to be placed at each stage.
Nowadays, academics spend a lot of time and effort providing paperwork and evidence for the Research Excellence (yes, that word again) Framework, a costly, self-feeding, bureaucratic exercise in itself. As part of it, academics have to prove that their research has social and economic “impact”. Universities have to present data because the government desires to make them accountable: they have to prove their worth. Collini is adept at demonstrating that the quality of university education and research is not necessarily quantifiable in numbers. For instance, a research team may be very efficient at disseminating the results of their projects, in social media or the community, thus producing some form of “impact”, becoming “visible”, but, does that imply that their research is “good”?
Similarly, students are bombarded with questionnaires asking them to what extent they are satisfied with their teachers, the facilities, or the overall “student experience”. In fact, as Collini very cleverly remarks, higher education in a way aims to develop “dissatisfied” individuals, people who will think critically and question given assumptions: ’User dissatisfaction may sometimes be an important sign that genuine education is happening´ (2017, p. 40). Good students will not automatically accept knowledge handed down by robotic teachers. Good students will engage with their teachers in a collegial open-ended quest in their chosen discipline. A tutorial, just as a research session, will not always follow the lesson-plan or the curriculum to the letter. Failing to pursue an intriguing question posed by a student because it is out of the scope of that particular tutorial would be wrong. For Collini (quoting Robbins), as for many of us, what is truly vital, and not only in higher education, is ´the element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding´ (cit. in 2017, p. 116). That is to say, education is not a nice finished product that you can buy with money, but little effort on your part; it is not a tool that you find useful in life and thus feel generally satisfied with. The marketisation of universities goes against the core of what they are for.
For a book published in 2017, Speaking of Universities manages to avoid the word Brexit very successfully. This reticence is disappointing, but it might be due to the practicalities of the editorial project. On the other hand, Collini does bring up Jeremy Corbyn’s intentions to abolish student fees. Attentive followers of the electoral campaign may have been drawing parallelisms between Tory higher education policies and their proposals for social care. As Collini points out, ‘once the current system was introduced (…) it ought to have been obvious first, that fees would rise, and second, that the terms of the loans would be changed’ (2017, p. 283). It must be for that reason that the official guide for students states that ‘you must agree to repay your loan in line with the regulations that apply at the time the repayments are due as they are amended. The regulations may be replaced by later regulations’ (cit. in Collini, 2017, p. 143). In the same way, the new terms and conditions relating to social care will be likely to be changed.
At present, the government is actually spending more money on university funding than it used to do; more than it predicted it would, due to an error: ‘it calculated that the initial expenditure on loans would more or less match current expenditure on the teaching grant’ (Collini, 2017, p. 98). This is because It also thought that the Office for Fair Access would ensure that ‘fees would be kept down to the desired average level’ (Collini, 2017, p. 98), when in reality it had no authority in the matter. However, even if the government is spending more money than it did when it gave out the teaching grant, now it is providing credit, which is cosmetically categorized as an asset in their accountancy books. There is the possibility also of monetizing the debt book in the future. This high degree of uncertainty should probably be the main worry for parents, students and recent graduates around the country.
Collini deserves praise and encouragement for taking on the case of universities in this book, and for modeling a range of persuasive writing styles for that purpose. For instance, in a speech delivered at Leiden University in 2015, he emphasises the internationalism of knowledge and research in higher education. Discoveries are made to be shared and built upon on by others, not to be held in exclusivity or sold for a hefty price. International collaboration is vital for universities, and in the whole of the UK they face many obstacles in the near future due to the immigration policies of the current government and to the restraints that Brexit may bring about. Such internationalism is actually core to the role of universities. For Collini, our obligation at present is to be the custodians of the university institution itself, which constitutes a cultural and intellectual tradition as a whole, globally, because ´each university is only part of the world of learning: none of what they provide for their students would exist except for the work of many people over many generations in many other institutions´ (2017, p. 239). We would be letting future generations down, if we were to be negligent in the defense of universities. Thankfully, the sheer extent of the concern that many academics are articulating at the moment reveals that there is no dereliction of this duty.
Collini, Stefan (2017) Speaking of Universities, London and New York, Verso

Queen’s University, Belfast


Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society (1893-1910) by Timothy G. McMahon

In 1892 Douglas Hyde gave an influential speech at the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin exhorting the Irish people to fight against the Anglicization of the country. According to him, it was imperative to promote the Irish language in order to strengthen the Irish national identity. Consequently, the Gaelic League was funded with an aim to stimulate spoken Irish and Irish traditional culture. It was the belief of their leaders that the language would help to unify the Irish citizenship in spite of their different religious denominations, as well as set them apart from Great Britain. Hence, the Gaelic League was a logical product of a historical time when Ireland was striving for some form of independence from the United Kingdom, through Home Rule or Republican movements.
Timothy G. McMahon intends to dispel some myths or misconceptions that appear to have surrounded the study of the Gaelic Revival. Most importantly, the author establishes through the quantitative analysis of its membership that it was composed from the very start of, in a large part, lower middle class citizens; it was not an elitist movement. It had been argued that these aspirational, discontented members of society joined the League in bigger numbers at a later stage, hence accelerating the politicization of the League. This theory proved to be rather convenient, as it would mean that the Irish case developed along the same lines as other European nationalistic movements. For scholars of nationalism, this amounts to more evidence for their paradigms.
However, Timothy G. McMahon settles that all sectors of Irish society joined the League, paying the small fee required or making bigger donations: clerics of all religious denominations (largely Catholic, though), Protestant “persons of importance” who in some cases even opened their Big Houses for events, women who were entrusted to use Irish in the home and bring up their children with Irish values, business men, artisans, clerks and working-men… Even more, the population in general benefited from the social activities organized by the Gaelic League, and McMahon argues that, if unsuccessful in producing a massive population of fluent Irish speakers, the organization did contribute to the creation of an Irish national identity.
The author paints a delightful picture of the activities of the Gaelic League. This was an organization of volunteers mostly, with a few full-time paid organizers, but it comes across as a hub of energy; one of their objectives was to break social stagnation, in particular in the countryside, where there were fewer opportunities for entertainment and self-improvement. The Gaelic League fought to introduce Irish as a subject in schools, and they also offered evening classes. There is an inspiring image of children and older people working together in the classroom; in some cases the younger pupils were the more competent, in others the senior native speakers helped others with pronunciation and taught them old songs and poems. Nevertheless, Mc Mahon reminds us that most people joined the League for just some time and persevered in their studies only to a small degree; there was more demand for learning materials for beginners than for advanced learners. Still, the League also ran Irish summer colleges where more competent and devoted students trained to qualify as Irish teachers, and this was crucial subsequently in the Irish Free State.
The social activities of the Irish League included “feiseanna”, festivals consisting of competitions (essays, recitation, song and story writing, dancing) and evening concerts. Their fund-raising week was set off with an impressive parade in Dublin, in which many businesses and associations took part. They had close connections with temperance movements and local industrialists. The leaders of the League and some clerics of importance addressed the crowds with speeches about the importance of Irish values and traditions. To the reader all this feels arresting and vivifying, and it comes across as nice experiences for the Irish people at the time.
McMahon makes a good job of explaining the reasons why the League was least successful precisely in the Irish-speaking areas, the Gaeltacht. Due to their history, these regions were more economically deprived, and Irish-speaking families living in poverty in the remote countryside relied on their children to emigrate and send them money in order to survive. English was then “linguistic capital”, and the Irish language was undervalued. Besides, the League established itself in small towns and often appealed to notables for help to set up branches. In some cases, there were tensions between the peasants and money lenders who used exploitative practices. Paradoxically, by associating themselves with “town”, the Irish League came to be viewed by Irish monoglots and native-speakers in the Gaeltacht as an alien institution.
Grand Opportunity is a broad, scholarly introduction to the activities and influence of the Gaelic League in Irish society between 1893 and 1910. McMahon has researched a very wide range of primary sources, written in English and in Irish. Each chapter focuses on a specific area (clerics, social origins of the members, “feiseanna”, the Language Week processions…), but the book lacks a historical introduction to the birth of the institution and an initial outline of its activities. Grand Opportunity includes lots of anecdotes (the League’s protest about the difficulties posed by the GPO to deliver letters addressed in Irish comes to mind) and personal stories that make the reader eager to learn more about some of the individuals mentioned, in particular, women. Maybe in the future McMahon will extend his research in this direction, providing us with more biographical studies of key leaders and organizers of the Irish League.

Cambios de código lingüístico en Patria de Fernando Aramburu

Si en el año 2014 se estrenó la película “Ocho apellidos vascos”, el 2016 ha visto la publicación de dos obras que suponen un acercamiento más serio a la historia y cultura recientes del País Vasco: el ensayo El eco de los disparos de Edurne Portela y Patria de Fernando Aramburu. Edurne Portela ha criticado la banalización comercial que supuso “Ocho apellidos vascos”, y que en su día produjo cierta división de opiniones, pero no se trata de algo excepcional. En la literatura y el cine de Irlanda del Norte abundan los tratamientos cómicos de la época de los Troubles y sus posteriores repercusiones, aún latentes: desde novelas como Eureka Street de Robert McLiam Wilson, hasta la película “Whole Lotta Sole”, tan similar, en cierto modo, a “Ocho apellidos vascos”. Cierto es, sin embargo, que este tipo de sátira se halla fuertemente arraigado en la tradición creativa irlandesa, e incluso, posiblemente, británica.

Patria contrasta vivamente con esta clase de obras. El humor es escaso; si acaso, socarrón. La vida es dura y gris para las dos familias protagonistas, incluso en una sociedad, la vasca a finales del siglo XX y principios del XXI, que se presenta como relativamente acomodada, social y económicamente. Aramburu contrasta las experiencias de estas dos familias para abarcar, aunque sólo sea en cierta medida, lo que eufemísticamente llamamos “el conflicto vasco”. La una, tiene a un hijo en la cárcel por delitos de sangre cometidos como militante de ETA; la otra, perdió al padre, que fue asesinado cuando se negó a pagar el “impuesto revolucionario”. Lo interesante es que ambas familias habían sido amigas, en un pueblo pequeño cercano a San Sebastián, pero su relación se vio emponzoñada paulatinamente cuando una de ellas se enriqueció gracias a su empresa de transportes, y la otra se adentró en la órbita del nacionalismo vasco abertzale y la lucha terrorista.

Como apunta el título, un aspecto central de la novela es cuál es exactamente la patria vasca, y quién puede llamarse verdaderamente vasco. Este es un aspecto común a muchos nacionalismos, en particular, aquéllos sostenidos por oposición a otros. Para algunos de los personajes de Patria, en particular, Miren, la lengua es uno de los elementos que determinan la pertenencia a la nación vasca. Según indica Kurlansky, “the only word to identify a member of their group is Euskaldun – Euskera speaker. Their land is called Euskal Herria –the land of Euskera speakers. It is language that defines a Basque ”. (Kurlansky, 2000, 1: The Basque Myth).

Cuando la hija de Miren, Arantxa, empieza a salir con un chico llamado Guillermo, el nombre castellano ya le lleva a la madre a exclamar: “- ¡Guillermo! ¿No será guardia civil?” (Aramburu, 2016, 12: La tapia). A pesar de que ha nacido en el País Vasco, Miren no lo considera vasco porque sus padres son salmantinos, y no habla euskera:

“-Muy vasco no es.

– Aquí nació, antes que yo.

–Hernández Carrizo y no habla euskera. Si eso es ser vasco…” (Aramburu, 2016, 89: El aire en el comedor).

Cuando empieza a vérsele por el pueblo, la gente comenta: “Es un maqueto. No hay más que verle la cara. Y no habla euskera” (Aramburu, 2016, 36: De A a B). Es muy curioso constatar que una de las jóvenes le habla en vasco precisamente para constatar que o no lo comprende, o responde en castellano. Esta es una de las ocasiones en que los vascoparlantes cambian de código lingüístico en la novela: “(…) cuando me lo ha presentado Arantxa le he hablado y el tío no se enteraba, y hemos tenido que seguir en castellano” (Aramburu, 2016, 36: De A a B).

Años después, Miren no le hace esa deferencia a su yerno en los almuerzos dominicales, e insiste en que Arantxa le traduzca sus frases a su esposo:

“A menudo, hablaba con él por mediación de Arantxa.

– Pregúntale a tu marido si quiere más garbanzos.” (Aramburu, 2016, 89: El aire en el comedor)

Es decir, Miren se niega a cambiar de código lingüístico, a pesar de que ello dificulte la comunicación. Esta actitud contrasta con la de sus nietos, niños bilingües, que, sabiendo que su padre no entiende el euskera, en dichas comidas se pasaban “sin darse cuenta al castellano” (Aramburu, 2016, 89: El aire en el comedor). En este caso, el cambio de código lingüístico obedece a una necesidad de comunicación, a la vez que a razones afectivas, puesto que tratan de incluir a su padre en la conversación, no de excluirlo. Para los niños, el uso de la lengua no viene determinado por nociones nacionalistas o ideológicas, sino prácticas.

Fernando Aramburu parece apuntar a que las generaciones más jóvenes empiezan a minimizar o ignorar las connotaciones políticas de sus opciones a la hora de utilizar uno u otro idioma. Por ejemplo, una adolescente taciturna, Amaia, emplea euskera o castellano en apariencia arbitrariamente, con el objeto tal vez de incomodar o confundir a los adultos para los que estas cuestiones son tan importantes: “Le hablabas en euskera, te respondía en castellano; seguías la conversación en castellano, se pasaba al euskera” (Aramburu, 2016, 94: Amaia). El cambio de código lingüístico en el caso de Amaia también trata de dificultar la comunicación, rompiendo en cierto modo el pacto comunicativo incluso cuando ambos hablantes son bilingües. Es un gesto desafiante que aspira a desalentar al interlocutor, quizás con la finalidad de acabar cuanto antes la conversación.

No obstante, puede que Aramburu pretenda mostrar simplemente que los hablantes más jóvenes en general, y no sólo los de hoy en día, son más flexibles. Quizás por esa razón, al describir las primeras épocas de la amistad entre Miren y Bittori, se nos indique que las muchachas “se arrancaban a conversar en euskera, pasaban al castellano, vuelta al euskera y así toda la tarde”. (Aramburu, 2016, 14: Últimas meriendas). Entre muchos hablantes bilingües, los cambios de código lingüístico son a menudo espontáneos y no responden a una razón concreta. Un término específico puede espolear el cambio, sin que luego se vuelva a la lengua que se había empleado anteriormente. Sin embargo, podría destacarse también que Miren y Bittori probablemente se movieran en aquella época, aún la franquista, en círculos de menor politización abertzale de la población vasca en la vida diaria. De hecho, en otro momento de la novela Arantxa recuerda cómo lloraba su madre por la muerte de Franco, y no precisamente de alegría.

Décadas más tarde, Bittori y su esposo, el Txato, se ven amenazados por ETA y excluidos de su comunidad, a pesar de ser euskaldunes. Cuando ETA abandona la lucha armada y Bittori se decide a regresar al pueblo, el cura, un hombre perteneciente a la órbita nacionalista abertzale, la visita con el objeto de averiguar cuáles son sus intenciones. En esta situación, Bittori insiste en dirigirse al cura en castellano, en lugar de euskera, con el objeto de marcar su territorio y distanciarse de su ideología: “Le respondió/ordenó, tuteadora, en castellano, que pasara”. (Aramburu, 2016, 25: No vengas). Un rato más tarde, el sacerdote se resigna a cambiar de código a su vez:

“(…) pero ella, las pocas veces que intervino, tiró con desafiante resolución hacia el castellano, de tal manera que don Serapio, en un claro gesto por quitar aspereza a la situación, desistió de emplear el euskera”.(Aramburu, 2016, 25: No vengas).

Bittori no es el único personaje que se pasa al castellano para desmarcarse de una posición ideológica con la que no está de acuerdo. A raíz de un atentado que tiene lugar en el pueblo, Arantxa explica a sus hijos que los autores del crimen son “hombres malos”. Cuando Miren se encoleriza al escucharla, Arantxa “agresiva, desafiante, se arrancó a hablar en castellano” para defenderse (Aramburu, 2016, 89: El aire en el comedor).

Las situaciones lingüísticas aquí descritas revelan la diversidad del País Vasco. En dicha sociedad bilingüe, parece poco realista definir a un vasco sólo como eminentemente euskaldun, y es muy probable que, salvo en los ambientes más puristas, en la actualidad la gente elija también otra clase de aspectos adicionales que les permitan identificarse como vascos.

Por otro lado, las naciones viven contiguas a otras, y con el tiempo experimentan una inmensa variedad de cambios históricos y socio-económicos. La afluencia de inmigrantes latinoamericanos al País Vasco es ejemplificada en Patria con el personaje de Celeste, la persona que cuida a Arantxa después de su accidente. También ella, casi recién llegada, cambia a diario de código lingüístico, pero por razones afectivas, aprendiendo las palabras tiernas que Miren le dirige a su hija durante el aseo matinal: “Celeste repite con entonación andina lo de egun on y se ocupa de las piernas” (Aramburu, 2016, 16: Misa dominical). Estos inmigrantes son paralelos a los maquetos que personificaban los padres de Guillermo, pero, en un ambiente político más benigno, son libres para añadir nociones de euskera a su repertorio lingüístico, sin tantas connotaciones políticas.

Patria cuenta una historia muy triste, a años luz de los ambientes dicharacheros de la película “Ocho apellidos vascos” y la serie televisiva “Allí abajo”. Sin embargo, no está exenta de optimismo y apunta a una reconciliación nacional. El análisis detallado de las diversas situaciones en las que los personajes pasan del vasco al castellano, y viceversa, parece corroborar dicho optimismo, ya que los jóvenes, y los recién llegados, optan por una o por otra más espontáneamente, por razones comunicativas o afectivas, y no ideológicas.


Aramburu, F., (2016), Patria, [ebook reader] Barcelona, Tusquets Editores

Kurlansky, M. (2000), The Basque History of the World, [ebook reader] London, Vintage

Cartel trilingüe en el País Vasco