Jenny Farrell reviews Tomás Mac Síomóin's The Gael Becomes Irish: An Unfinished Odyssey, Nuascéalta, 2020.
“The Gael Becomes Irish”is Tomás Mac Síomóin’s latest publication, and it continues his epic effort to detail the almost unfathomable effect that colonisation has had on the Irish psyche and culture. By doing so, he must be seen as on a par with the ground-breaking work of Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, who revealed the disastrous psychiatric and psychological effects of such colonisation. While Memmi and Fanon wrote their revolutionary studies at a time of liberation struggle from physical occupation, Ngũgĩ and Mac Síomóin trace the minutiae of the long-term consequences of colonisation.
Both highly respected writers of fiction and non-fiction share a particular interest in the linguistic and cultural aftermath of colonial domination. By doing so, they tread on many toes, especially of those who have accommodated themselves with the status quo, deeming it the modern and rational thing to do. These people, in such diverse places as Kenya and Ireland, share an astonishing similarity of wishing to emulate their oppressors.
Mac Síomóin’s “The Gael Becomes Irish” is a companion volume of his 2014 landmark study “The Broken Harp”. In this, the author presented the decline of Gaeilge as one of the most sinister outcomes of colonisation, aided by the Catholic Church. This thorough destruction resulted in a post-colonial trauma, which, according to the author, transmits the colonial condition via DNA structures and has given rise to something akin to Stockholm syndrome. The loss of language and all that this entails in terms of history, culture, and world-view leads to the adoption instead of the coloniser’s Weltanschauung, in which the victim remains a ‘loser’. Such denial of ancestral language echoes Ngũgĩ’s writings, to whom such rejection seals the accomplishment of the imperial goal. Mac Síomóin also applies Albert Memmi’s thinking to Ireland’s inability to assert itself internationally, as exhibited by Ireland’s catastrophic surrender to EU austerity.
Mac Síomóin links all this to class. Language, culture and identity stand most in the way of those who need to ape the coloniser. In a profit-driven world, language revival “would receive short shrift, being seen as totally ‘surplus to requirements’”. Cultural disinheritance of entire peoples is aided by removing history from school curricula, paralleled by an indifference to natural heritage, destroyed with equal zeal.
Central to Mac Síomóin’s Socratic style of debate is the future of language and literature. Interestingly, while Ngũgĩ started out writing in English, having been educated in the British tradition, and as a matter of profound protest turning to his native Kikuyu, Mac Síomóin’s trajectory has been different. He started out writing in Gaeilge. However, like other Gaelic authors before him, such as Liam O’Flaherty, for a political writer audience matters and to reach a wider audience, indeed to circumvent a certain disdain on the part of the administrators of Gaelic literature for ‘dark’ stories, Mac Síomóin has translated some of his work into English.
In “The Gael Becomes Irish”, Mac Síomóin investigates the rapidly decreasing value of Gaeilge and the Gaeltacht in contemporary Irish life. One of the main obstacles as he sees it is Official Standard Irish, a storehouse of archaic forms, foisted on hapless learners. In this context, he puts forward the need for a simpler modernised Irish, based on current Gaeltacht usage, an approach that has been successfully used to revive other endangered languages such as Hebrew. Indeed English itself lost its genders and many of its inflections in the historically short transition from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English during the time of the Norman conquest, when French was spoken by the upper classes and English by the ordinary people. Absence of grammatical rulebooks boosts the speed of language development. Mac Síomóin gives the example of the Belfast’s tiny Bóthar Seoighe Gaelteacht as an example of success. An appendix details suggestions for a simplified grammar. However, he is not confident about the implementation of such new rules, or indeed the survival of Gaeilge.
Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin, and works as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. She is the author of Revolutionary Romanticism - Examining the Odes of John Keats, Nuascéalta, 2017.