Gaeilge más féidir: Reflecting on Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh’s Language, Resistance and Revival

I began this blog with the intent of using it to meditate on questions of language and literature in my life. The Irish language is, unquestionably, both a central piece of my own linguistic awareness and a lightning rod for complicated emotions among those who do (or purposefully don’t) speak it. Indeed, its long and storied past inspired Translations, the Brian Friel play from which I took my epigraph. Irish, Gaeilge, is curiously invisible to the outside world, spoken fluently by a relatively small number of Gaeilgeóirí. Yet its mark on those who use it seems more emotionally indelible than the sway of many other languages. Perhaps this influence is due to the language’s tie to a very specific identity and sense of belonging, perhaps to the precariousness of its continued existence. Whatever the reason, suffice it to say that Irish inspires some remarkably strong feelings.

It is strange to me to think that I began to learn Irish in earnest almost three years ago. The time seems both implausibly short and impossibly long. In that period, I have made many Irish-speaking friends and developed an immense respect for the language movement. While in the United States Irish can seem like an obscure hobby or a way of clinging to a fast-disappearing ethnic identity, in reality it is so much more than that. It belongs to a broader network of threatened languages, and like each and every one, it is valuable for both its beauty and its embodiment of a Weltenschauung other than that of colonial and neocolonial powers. The language belongs first and foremost to the Irish, but Irish Gaeilgeóirí have been remarkably welcoming of the interest shown by the diaspora and the broader world community in their language. I have come to see Gaeilge as a precious tool, snatched from colonial destruction only by Irish resilience and resistance.

Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh takes up the theme of resistance to colonial oppression in his newly-published Language, Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland. This work gives a brief history of both the Irish language movement and Irish republicanism (and particularly prison resistance), portraying the two as intimately connected throughout the twentieth century. While he includes a brief account of earlier history, Mac Ionnrachtaigh is most interested in the role which language-based resistance in Long Kesh prison has impacted cultural and political movements in the North of Ireland. The greatest strength of this section is undoubtedly the wealth of first-hand testimony which the author has gathered from former inmates and internees, a feat partially enabled by the fact that the author’s father, Terry Enright, was himself interned at Long Kesh. Language, Resistance and Revival thus provides a uniquely intimate account of the role which the Irish language played in the prison experience of republican internees and in their later reintegration into the outside community.

Mac Ionnrachtaigh’s book is both academic and unabashedly political. The theory-heavy first chapter draws on all the classic authors on colonialism and decolonization (Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Ngugi wa Thiong’o) as well as a range of Irish academics with whom I am less familiar. Although this section served to illuminate the author’s political vision for the book, I found it to be unnecessarily dense, due in part to a dearth of paraphrase and synthesis. While I deeply sympathize with a young academic’s need to justify everything s/he has to say, I do think that Mac Ionnrachtaigh could have put more of a personal touch on this theoretical exposition. The casual reader might wish to skip ahead to the more engaging personal accounts of later chapters, perhaps returning to the theory after gaining a handle on the practical details of the argument.

In spite of certain points of academic density, Language, Resistance and Revival engages earnestly with what the author perceives as the challenges currently facing the entwined republican and Irish-speaking communities of the North of Ireland. I had the pleasure of meeting Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh at a launching event for his book which took place in Amherst, Massachusetts this past spring; I was deeply impressed with him both as an academic and as an activist. His passion and his optimism for Gaeilge as a means to liberation shone through even better in person than on the page. Ultimately, it is people like Fergal who inspire me to keep working with and for the Irish language, because they remind me that it is neither irrelevant nor an impossible dream. I can claim no language other than English as my own, but I will gladly work on behalf of a community who has accepted me as warmly as have the Gaeilgeóirí.

Book cited: Mac Ionnrachtaigh, Fergal. Language, Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland. London: Pluto Press, 2013.

Reaction: Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism

I was first drawn to Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism (by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden) because of its title. Puppets? Religion? Italian names? It all sounded fun and vaguely creepy. Of course, the cover illustration of an angel with a demon looming behind didn’t hurt, especially with its beautiful combination of comic-book drawing style and religious iconography. As I flipped through the rest of the novella, I noted with regret that it was only sparsely illustrated in black and white, although these pictures too had their charm. But something else drew me in—the idea that puppets could be used to comment on free will in a religious context. In this, the book did not disappoint: as the jacket description hints, these puppets are not content to follow the dictates of their master. Yet even in the midst of their rebellion against their creator, we are led to ask—could they truly have done otherwise? Or was this simply in their nature?

I have read some reviews that criticize this novella for its uneven pacing. The buildup, they say, overwhelms the relatively terse climax. In some ways, this is true; we find out little of what happens to the characters in the aftermath. But in my view, the time spent getting to know those characters—Father Gaetano, Sister Victoria, Marcello, Sebastiano—is not wasted. Indeed, their struggles add to the book’s thematic exploration of faith and its loss, freedom and duty in a time of suffering. Should a man who entered the priesthood only to please his mother feel himself bound by his vow of celibacy? How can a child who has lost everything in the war love the god who allowed it to happen?

Beneath these questions lies one central quandary: if God made us, shaped our nature, then is it truly our fault that we rebel, or are we simply enacting that nature? Although I am an atheist, this question still fascinates me. It was fresh in my mind prior to reading Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism, thanks in large part to my friend Emily Atkinson’s work on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. This Renaissance drama, with the makings of a morality play but the shape of a tragedy, offers Faustus up as a hero of sorts, in spite of his obvious transgression of God’s law in summoning the demon Mephostophilis. Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of delight, and although there are many points at which he tries to turn back, he proves unable to do so. As Emily points out, it seems that his very nature precludes true repentance: Faustus, whether he will or no, is bound to Hell.

In much the same way, Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism leads us to question to what extent these characters—and puppets—have control over their transgressions, and how much is dictated by the nature given them by their creator, their puppet-master. Why make humans capable of curiosity, rebelliousness, even brutality, if not to see them use those things? In supposedly giving us free will, God gave his puppets the means to cut their strings—and then expected them not to.

In my opinion, this lovely little book is at once an exploration of and a parable for post-war disillusionment with God. Its setting, Sicily in the months following World War II, allows for an unusual perspective on a place profoundly impacted by the war. As might be expected, the characters grapple with the brutality they have witnessed and wonder how a just God could allow such a thing. The puppets, too, struggle with their god. Father Gaetano makes puppets whose nature it is to fight with one another (David and Goliath); he makes one of unshakeable faith and loyalty (Noah), and another destined to lead a rebellion against his creator (Lucifer). Of all the puppets, it is only the clown Pagliaccio, never altered by Gaetano, who acts with both independence and integrity. The other puppets existed before, as well, but Gaetano has changed them, and they now view him as their god. Pagliaccio can see the man for what he is: a force for change, but no deity.

While Mignola and Golden’s book is not unequivocally atheist, in depicting a crisis of faith, it calls on readers to reexamine their own beliefs. All this, while maintaining a simple, enchanting style, and clocking in at less than 200 pages! My sense is that it would be as inviting for children as it is fascinating or adults. Although it poses some difficult questions, these are not heavy-handed, and one could easily read it simply for the satisfaction of the story. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism is not a great book, but it is a good one. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a short, engaging read—possibly followed by a longer period of thought.

Works cited:

Atkinson, Emily. “‘Whither should I fly?’: The Limitations of Man, Magic, Language, and the Universe in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.” BA honors thesis. Smith College, 2013.

Mignola, Mike and Christopher Golden. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism. Illustrated by Mike Mignola. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2012.