English and Irish
Arthur Machen (1)
Nobody needs to be reminded of the serious side of the Sinn Fein movement. Whether you are an elderly major-general with a shepherd’s plaid tie, tied by your own hands into a neat bow, a white moustache, and political convictions that would have made Castlereagh seem a Radical; or whether you wear long hair and a scarlet flopping tie and think that Bolshevism is a weak compromise: in either case you know that the Irish affair is a very serious one. But it has its comic side.
Long years ago—I think it was before Sinn Fein had come into formal existence—I read an article by an eminent Irish man of letters. That article denounced the English language. (2)
The writer pointed out that English had become quite hopeless as a medium of fine literature. It was vulgarised in every way. Its fine edges had been worn down and blunted. It abounded with every kind of ungrammatical colloquialism. Wretches—generally known as journalists—had been the worst of offenders, debasing a coinage that was once bright and golden with all sorts of neologisms and unnecessary borrowings from other languages. English, in a word, was out of the question for a man who wanted to do serious literary work; and the distinguished author expressed his intention of learning Irish, a pure, poetic, uncommercialised, unvulgarised tongue. Then, he said, he would write his future books in Irish.
Years after that I met him face to face. I reminded him of the famous article and tried to urge a word or two in defence of the language of Shakespeare—and the novelette. But he would not budge; he said that he held to every word of that article of his. But he is still writing his admirable books in English.
Then—this was also in the long ago of the ‘nineties of last century—I met another and an equally distinguished Irish author. He said nothing about the vileness of the English tongue; and, indeed, if he had argued against English I should have confuted him by quotations from his own poems. But he confessed to me, frankly, that, though he attended an Irish class once a week, he had made but little progress. He is still writing in English. (3)
And then, to quote a wholly undistinguished instance, I myself took it into my head, when I was about 50, that I ought to know the language of my fathers, which happens to be Welsh. So I applied to a Welsh literary friend, and he supplied me with a little pile of Welsh books: grammar, dictionary, exercises, First Reader and such elementary stuff, with a copy of the Mabinogion, the famous collection of Welsh tales, that I might apply myself to it so soon as I got a real grip of the language.
I looked into the Grammar. I mastered the fact that the Welsh for “father” was “tad.” That seemed simple. But, going on, it appeared that under certain circumstances the Welsh for father was “dad.” Well, there was reason in that, too. I seemed to have heard the term on the lips of the “cythrawl Sais”—otherwise, the unpleasant English. But as I progressed further and found that father might also be “thad,” and occasionally “nhad,” I perceived that I was too old. And when it came to addressing the lady of my choice as “nghariad” and pretending it meant “darling,” I broke down. I am still writing in English; or, at least, I hope so.
Still, they say in Ireland that the Irish tongue is being successfully revived; that it will once more become the language of the Irish people. It may be so; but all I can say is that this is carrying not merely self-determination, but determination, very far indeed. That is, if it is proposed that middleaged men shall learn it. If the children are taught Irish from their earliest years, the Sinn Fein dream may be realised.
(1) This short article was collected by Vincent Starrett for his anthology Et Cetera: A Collector’s Scrapbook (1924). In Goldstone and Sweetser, the compliers suggest the probability that it originally appeared in The Evening Standard.
(2) Likely, Machen is referring to George Moore. See The English Language.
(3) Machen may be referring to William Butler Yeats.
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