Irish Prose Composition
by Peadar Ua Laoghaire (1902)
The True Model.
In the beginning of this movement for the revival of the Irish language Dr. Henebry wrote an article and published it. He called it “A Plea for Prose.”
At that time every person who tried his hand at writing Irish turned at once to Irish verse. No one seemed inclined to write a word of prose. As a matter of fact, no one was able to write Irish prose. Models of Irish versification were at hand in abundance. There was no specimen to be found of good Irish prose couched in the living speech of the people.
Dr. Henebry’s plea was responded to. Thoughtful people at once realised the fact that if the language was to be brought again into general use Irish prose should be written. People do not transact their household business, nor their business at fairs, through the medium of poetry. Those thoughtful people began at once to practise the writing of the language in the shape which would render it suitable for the purposes of every-day human intercourse. The result is that we have now quite a number of good prose writers.
It would be difficult to estimate and to enumerate the opposing elements which those writers have encountered and overcome. The best way to make that estimate is to go back to the first efforts they made and compare those efforts with the work which is done at present. Those writers had to begin by disengaging their minds from the influence of English constructions, from English syntax, from English modes, both of expression and of thought. The work of disengagement had to be continued most unremittingly. If ever it happened to be neglected, if the influence of the English ever succeeded in asserting itself, the work was so far spoiled. There is hardly anything in literature so ugly as Irish prose written like English prose.
Up to this the attention of Irish writers has been directed chiefly to the avoidance of English modes of thought and English syntax, as far as phrases and sentences were concerned. The writer addressed himself to the task of taking care that his phrases should be really Irish phrases, not English phrases made up of Irish words, and that these phrases should serve to make up really Irish sentences. That is, that the Irish phrases should be set in the true Irish order, not in an English order. Take, for example, the following English sentence:—
“That man who was here yesterday is in Cork to-day.”
I translate that sentence into Irish by:—
“Tá an fear san a bhí anso inné i gCorcaigh inniu.”
All these words are genuine Irish words. All the clauses, taken separately, are correct Irish clauses. The sentence, taken as a whole, is not Irish. The order is English. The true Irish is:—
“An fear úd a bhí anso inné tá sé i gCorcaigh inniu.”
Fairly good progress has been made by our Irish writers, up to the present, in ridding their minds of English influences, as far as words, clauses, and sentences are concerned. It is time for them now to direct their attention to wider fields. Individual words, clauses, sentences may be all strictly Irish and perfectly free from English taint, and still the plan and structure of the essay which these words, clauses, and sentences go to make up, may be built in accordance with purely English models. That is the difficulty which we are now face to face with, and a very serious difficulty it is. The great trouble is that we have English models constantly before our eyes, while we look in vain for true Irish models. I am afraid that some of us have our minds unconsciously filled with the desire to emulate those English models. When we wish to write an Irish story, the first thing we think of is some English story, and we feel that our effort would be a success if we could produce something as good as that English story. We examine the mechanism of the English model. We find the fundamental elements few and simple. Some one falls in love with some one. Some third party comes in to act the role of obstructionist. These are the three leading pieces on the board. We are at liberty to crowd on the pawns ad libitum. Then, and this is the absurdity to which I wish to direct special attention, we can fill page after page of our book with interminable descriptions of landscapes which never existed, of morning and evening sunrises or sunsets which were never seen except in our imaginations, and not very distinctly even there, with torrents upon torrents of “human feelings” which no human being ever experienced; and so on, and so on.
If I wished to misspend my time I could take up one of these outrageously unnatural English “classics” and translate it, sentence for sentence, into faultlessly grammatical Irish. What would be the result? An Irish-speaking person, who does not know English, could not listen to the reading of that story with patience for five minutes! He would break out with the exclamation, “Ar airigh éinne riamh a leithéid de ráiméis!”
Then why do English readers gloat over this ráiméis? Because real literary intelligence does not exist in the mind of your average English reader. English taste is vitiated. It has become an incurable dipsomaniac. It will swallow with avidity any sort of liquid, provided there is excitement in it. Are we to take that vitiated taste as our guide? Are we to cater for the dipsomaniac?
“Then what am I to do?”
If you have a story to tell, tell it in a straightforward, direct fashion. Begin at the beginning of it. Give me the narrative of its details in a natural, consecutive form, taking care that causes produce their natural effects, and that effects follow from causes which are by nature capable of producing them. Don’t bother me with your landscapes, nor with the “feelings” of your actors, nor with their passions. Don’t analyse their minds and hearts for me. If you tell me exactly and correctly what they did and said that is all I want. I prefer the analysis to be left to myself.
In the old Irish story of the Eachtra rí Tuatha Luprachán (by-the-by, Swift must have stolen that story for his Gulliver), the King makes a speech. Here it is: “An bhfeacabhair riamh rí dob fheárr ná mise?” All his Liliputian courtiers answer “Go deimhin ní fheacamair.” That question and that answer give me a better insight into the character of both king and courtiers than whole pages of descriptive eloquence could give me. Tell me the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story. In doing so consult your own judgment and don’t mind your English models.
If you wish to write a good Irish story never read an English novel. Even those which are called “Standard” ones are false. The “realities” of human life, which they present to the readers are not realities. They are caricatures. There are no such people in real life as those we meet with in the standard novel of the present day.
But the chief point for use to consider is the nature of the language in which they are written. I fear there are some of us who would be inclined to say, “Oh, if I could write a book like that!” If you could write an Irish book, like any one of our standard English novels, exactly like it, in language, style, structure, plot, characters, you would have produced a literary monstrosity. The Irish language, put to such a use as that, would be like a great, strong-minded, vigorous, muscular man, suddenly become an idiot. The Irish language is essentially strong. The English of the present age is essentially weak. It is worn out. English writers of this age, in order to appear original, have to become quaint, or, what some of them find easier, they have to become vague. The paths of plain common-sense are so beaten that it is impossible to do anything original upon them.
“To-morrow for fresh fields and pastures new.”
There are no longer “fresh fields” nor “pastures new” for the present English writer. The only thing he can do is to say the same old things in a shape whose newness is its quaintness. This quaintness consists in a certain straining of the words out of their natural sense. For example; will any person tell exactly what Tennyson meant by:—
“Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.”
What exactly are the owl’s “five wits”? How are they “warmed”? Probably the poet has some idea in his own mind as to what he meant. It would never do to state it in plain English. There would be nothing original in that. Probably the plain English would be not only plain but mean. So a certain “dignity” is given to the conduct of the “white owl” by describing it in fantastic and unintelligible language. If any person will have the patience to read Emerson’s Essays, he will be able to form some idea of what this straining of language away from its obvious meaning is able to do.
English readers have become so inured to the nebulousness which is the result of this violent straining that it does not offend them very seriously. In fact they rather like it. There is a certain pleasurable effect in it. It acts upon their minds like a mental opiate. There is a certain lazy mental enjoyment in it. It allows them to think in a vague way. It does not put them to the labour of defining their thoughts.
The whole body of English written speech, both poetry and prose, down even to the literature of the newspaper, is impregnated with this disease of vagueness, this using of words for the purpose of expressing a sense more or less different from their natural sense.
That is a great fact which our writers of Irish have to look very steadily to. That is one of the facts which cause English when translated into Irish, to come out as unmitigated nonsense. Just imagine what would be the result of translating into Irish that couplet about the white owl, “warming his five wits”! A translation of the whole volume of Tennyson’s works would be just the same. A translation of Emerson’s Essays would be just the same. A translation of the leading articles of our newspapers would be just the same. If anyone doubts it let him try one of them, and see how it will look in Irish.
“What good, then, is your Irish language if it is not able to take up and treat of intelligently, the matters which are treated of every day in our English newspapers!”
Of course it is able to take up these matters and treat of them intelligently; but with this difference. Instead of English vagueness you will have Irish distinctness. Take up one of our English “Leading Articles.” It fills a column and a half. Read it through carefully. Compress it so as to get rid of the froth. Write out all that is substantial of it in your native Irish speech. You will probably have a quarter of a column. Perhaps not so much.
“But if I am to fling out of view all the present-day recognised standards of literary English composition, what am I to set up instead of them? I cannot get on without a model of some description. I cannot make a shoe without a last. I cannot build a wall without something to guide my head and eye. What am I to do?”
Sixty years ago the Irish language was spoken in this country by the masses of the people. In the mouths of those “illiterate” peasants the Irish language was as copious, as rich, as efficient for the expression of human thought as ever the English language was in the mouth of a Gladstone or a Burke.
If the Irish language, which was then spoken by the people, had been written down in Irish books, we would now have splendid models of Irish prose composition. It was not written down in books. We have our Banims and our Griffins, our Levers and our Lovers, pretending to give us true pictures of what Ireland was in their time. But they have not given us the faintest glimpse of this great and copious language, which embraced within it, and which alone was capable of exhibiting to others, the true character of our people. They never turned their eyes where they would find the true Irish character, and they went and invented Irish Dogberrys to gratify the prejudices of English readers. Why did they not write the language which the people spoke, and teach the people to read the books? Banim and Griffin must have known the language. Carleton certainly knew it well. Scores of the gentry of the country knew the language thoroughly. Why did no person take it and write it down exactly as it was spoken?
These are questions which people are beginning to ask with persistency. As the movement advances they will be asked with still greater persistency. Under the indignant repetition of these questions, I think the fame of our “great Irish novelists” will soon become a very mean sort of fame. They devoted their lives and their talents to the erection of a huge fraud, the construction and exhibition to the world of a frivolous “national” character which had no real existence, and the careful and effectual hiding away of the great, strong, deep, real national character, of which the great, strong, real national language was the only possible explanation. Our “Irish novelists” will soon stand in the dock, charged with a very ugly crime against their own country.
We must do now exactly what they neglected to do. The work is more difficult for us than it would have been for them. But the work is still capable of being done. They had the genuine Irish speech around them in all directions. They were up to their eyes in it. Their chief difficulty was to escape from it. They were surrounded in all directions by native Irish speakers, whose Irish speech was full of its ancestral strength, variety and lucidity without any taint of the English crippling influence. We are not so advantageously situated. We have two classes of Irish-speaking people to deal with. Those who speak both Irish and English, but whose minds have not been educated in either. We cannot take their Irish as the model for our Irish prose. But there are still living amongst us people whose speech is the real, genuine Irish, as it was spoken before English was heard in the land. That speech is the model we must work upon if we wish to write good Irish prose. Of course those Irish speakers themselves are not able to write Irish prose. Their minds are not educated. They have the words and the constructions, but they have not the thoughts. And whatever thoughts they have, they do not know how to analyse nor how to arrange them, nor how to make them flow and lead on to some ultimate purpose. But the speech itself, which comes out of their mouths, is eminently capable of being used for the most subtle and discursive operations of a mind which has been educated.
Any person who wishes to write good Irish prose must look for his model in the mouths of those Irish speakers. Having found his model he must take good care not to let his mind get drawn away from the model by any of the thousand and one suggestions which will be sure to come pouring in upon him. Here are a few of them:—“Unify your spelling,” “Avoid words which have been borrowed from the English,” “Avoid those words with the tails,” “Avoid provincialisms,” “Make your Irish ‘respectable,’ like English,” etc., etc.
Suggestions such as these, coming from people who certainly mean well, but who have not the remotest idea of what they are talking about, have been a great stumbling-block to our movement.
No. Stick to the model. Reproduce the model with truth. On any account do not clip or pare it. It will take all your skill and all your intelligence, and all your judgment, no matter how clear-headed you may be, to do full justice to the model. If you succeed in doing full justice to the model your work will have in it the principle of life and of growth, that principle of life and growth which has kept the language living and blossoming through all these centuries. If you go clipping and paring at your model, to satisfy those suggestions, your work will be like a hedge which is skilfully clipped and pared, but whose roots are not in the ground. It is very nice now, but where will it be next year!
This is absolutely true. The language must be fostered and cultivated wherever its roots are still living in the soil. That is its only chance of continued life. When it grows and spreads the different sections will naturally unite and become assimilated to each other. It will be time enough then to proceed to the work of clipping and pruning. The pruning will then do no harm. It would kill the plant now. What we want now is, instead of cutting anything off, to make the plant sprout more copiously and more vigorously, in every direction in which its native forces tend.
If you wish to write good Irish prose, just look at a piece of English prose, and say to yourself, “My work must be entirely different from that, at all events.”
The first step towards getting on the right road is to get off the wrong road.