Welcome to the Celtic Fringe

Welcome to the blog of English 390, The Celtic Fringe.  There are no hard and fast rules about how to use this space, rather just a series of suggestions.  Use it to reflect upon what you’ve been reading for class; use it to post responses to films; use it to explore any subject related to the course (and please feel free to interpret this last suggestion as broadly as you please).

I’ll begin  the game with a few thoughts about how I came to want to teach this course, because it’s not as obvious as you might think.  Yes, my last name is Irish (it means “son of the Church steward” which is rather provocative, really), but I didn’t acquire that name until I was 28, by which time I’d already visited Ireland three times and learned as much Irish as I was ever going to.  So it’s not exactly in my blood. As the Irish like to say, there are two kinds of people in this world: the Irish, and those who wish they were.  I’m the latter.  Oh, I have a dash of Welsh somewhere way back, and a dash of Scottish, in my very mixed Northern European ancestry, but why should either be more dominant than the dash of Cherokee, which is actually a few generations closer?  The answer has nothing to do with ethnicity, actually, and everything to do with reading:  the Prydein Chronicles of Lloyd Alexander and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Kidnapped when I was very young, then Yeats and Dylan Thomas when I was an adolescent.  And then, when I was a first year student at University, I enrolled, very much on a whim (because it sounded so peculiar and intriguing!) in a year-long course called “An Introduction to Modern Irish”, taught by an elderly Jesuit named Professor Sheridan.

To be perfectly honest, it was a dreadful course.  Father Sheridan was about 80 and had been teaching at St. Mike’s (a Catholic college affiliated with the University of Toronto) for a very long time, but he’d been teaching Latin.  It hadn’t really ever occurred to him that teaching a living language would be different from teaching a dead language, nor that teaching your cradle tongue would be very different from teaching a language you had yourself been taught. He was kind enough, but baffled by our bewilderment at the curiosities of Irish.  He expected us simply to learn the differences between long and short vowels, broad and slender consonants, aspiration and lenition (don’t ask!) and apply them accordingly.  One day, however,  someone asked him how you would answer the telephone in Irish. The student felt that the traditional Irish greeting, which we’d been taught was the equivalent of “hello”, “Dia dhuit!” (literally, God be with you), was too long, too formal, and too hard to pronounce.  Father Sheridan was dumbfounded.  There was a long silence, and then he explained that when he was growing up in Connemara, speaking only Irish, before he went away to school and then to Rome and finally to Toronto, there was only one telephone in the whole town, in the doctor’s surgery; he had never “spoken into it” or indeed into any telephone in Ireland, and had no idea how it might have been answered, either then or now.

I think I got a B+ in the class;  I didn’t learn very much Irish, decided to major in Classics, and never saw Father Sheridan again (he retired the following year). What stuck in my mind, though, was the echo of Father Sheridan’s absolutely unadulterated accent, and the image of a world in which the telephone was such a rarity that no one knew how to answer it.  This is perhaps the worst kind of patronizing nostalgia (for perfect, “unspoilt”, semi-literate, pre-mechanized and  pre-Modern society), and indeed that Ireland was long gone by the time I actually got there, the summer after my senior year– but that’s how it started.  That and reading a lot more Yeats, the only Irish poet I really knew for quite a  few years.