Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Europe

Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Europe

by Barry McCrea


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ISBN-13: 9780300185157
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Barry McCrea is the Keough Family Chair of English, Comparative Literature and Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame and teaches at the university’s campuses in Indiana, Dublin, and Rome. He is the author of the novel The First Verse, which won the 2006 Ferro-Grumley prize for fiction, and In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust.

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Languages of the Night

Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Europe

By Barry McCrea


Copyright © 2015 Barry McCrea
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19056-4



"The language that my soul speaks is ... Irish." —Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, "Why I Choose to Write in Irish, the Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back"

"—Well, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language." —James Joyce, "The Dead"

James Joyce and the Irish Language

We can find something of a resonance with my great-grandmother's fragment of Irish, in "Eveline," a story in James Joyce's Dubliners. On her deathbed, the senile mother of the eponymous protagonist repeats the words "derevaun seraun, derevaun seraun" (p. 33), apparently meaningless babble that haunts Eveline for the rest of her days. There is no doubt, from the rhythm of the words, and from the common Irish suffix "-aun" (-án) that it was Joyce's intention to make these words mimic the sound of Irish; whether it is pretend Irish as invented in a state of dementia by a non-Irish speaker, or a genuine scrap of Irish distorted in phonetic rendering by the hearer (in this case the daughter listening at the bedside), we do not know. We do know that Joyce's knowledge of Irish was limited, and therefore that if he had wanted to include real Irish words he would have had to rely on an Irish-speaking informant (as he did for words in Finnegans Wake). But, although they sound like Irish, the words "derevaun seraun" do not correspond to any actual words in the language. The many attempts in Joyce scholarship to ascribe real Gaelic meanings to them have been fanciful or ill-informed. Attempts to trace them back to a meaningful phrase in the language is futile for a good reason: the point of the phrase is its lack of meaning. They are a fragment of a lost language and lost world, unmotivated signs that cannot signify in the world they find themselves in. Whatever reality in which they might have had meaning—a vanished historical past when the forgotten language was a vernacular, or the distorted, equally unreachable mental landscape of a senile mind—is gone. They are the form of Irish stripped of its content, representing a pure, radical language loss.

As my great-grandmother's story shows, Irish was spoken more widely as a vernacular in the nineteenth century than we might imagine from surviving accounts. Given how common native Irish still was in the second half of the nineteenth century, many of the older characters in Dubliners would have to have had memories of relatives or older acquaintances whose daily language was or had been Irish. As we shall see, the phrase pronounced by Molly Ivors in "The Dead" shows the emergent Gaelic revival movement entering the consciousness of middle-class, English-speaking Dublin, but these words in "Eveline" are traces of an earlier phenomenon, the disappearance of the language as a native vernacular from most of the country. The words do not stand for any specific memory of the language, or at least not one that we can access, but are a way of registering that faded remnants of vernacular Irish must have been one of the many strands, even if a faint one, running through the collective psychology of Edwardian Dublin.

The turnaround between the abandonment of Irish as a vernacular and the sacralization of the language as the lost tongue of the nation's soul was rapid. Subsequent appearances of Irish in Joyce, other than in the Wake, have to do with the later question of revivalism, when native spoken Irish, far from being an unremarkable part of rural life or of folk memory, had been invested with imaginative and symbolic meanings. After "Eveline," Irish makes its appearance in Joyce's work mostly as an idea rather than as a language. In the opening chapter of Ulysses, when Joyce is announcing the shape of his epic, for example, he makes Haines, an arrogant and clueless Englishman, the mouthpiece of the language revival. In the first pages of the chapter, Buck Mulligan had mocked the Latin mass. The first lines of dialogue spoken in Ulysses, "Introibo ad altare Dei" (1.05), are in Latin, a language that is no longer a vernacular; this blasphemous "mass," which Mulligan enacts in their lodgings using a shaving bowl instead of a chalice, brings up the question of how language and myth are related to everyday life.

An exchange a few pages later about the Irish language can be read in the same vein, as designed to emphasize the fact that Irish, at least in the society where Ulysses takes place, is not the language of the common people. In this incident, the three men in the tower—Stephen, Mulligan, and Haines—are visited by the local milk woman. Haines, a Gaelic enthusiast from England, naively assumes that, by virtue of being an agricultural worker, she must be an Irish speaker. Since they are in the southern suburbs of Dublin, a place that had not been Irish-speaking for many centuries, this is an absurdly ignorant assumption. The ensuing dialogue ruthlessly drives home the fact that in this society Irish is not a vernacular, and at the same time strips the language of the mystical properties attributed to it by revivalism.

A canny financial operator, the milk woman cravenly praises Irish because she suspects it might ingratiate her with the men and perhaps encourage them to pay her the money she is owed. The exchange suggests that English, the living, "fallen" vernacular of Ireland, the venal language of the marketplace rather than that of the eternal spirit, is a source of vitality, if also of commerce:

—Is it French you are talking, sir? the old woman said to Haines.

Haines spoke to her again a longer speech, confidently.

—Irish, Buck Mulligan said. Is there Gaelic on you?

—I thought it was Irish, she said, by the sound of it. Are you from the west, sir?

—I am an Englishman, Haines answered.

—He's English, Buck Mulligan said, and he thinks we ought to speak Irish in Ireland.

—Sure we ought to, the old woman said, and I'm ashamed I don't speak the language myself. I'm told it's a grand language by them that knows.

—Grand is no name for it, said Buck Mulligan. Wonderful entirely. (i.425–435)

The disconnection between Irish and vernacular speech is further emphasized by the fact that the syntax of both the milk woman—"Is it French you are talking?"—and Mulligan—"Is there Gaelic on you?"—are classic examples of the Gaelic-influenced vernacular English of Ireland: Irish is present as a ghost in English. The foreignness of Irish to everyday life in Ireland, its inability to produce lived dialogue and interaction, appears in other places in Joyce's work, too: Molly scribbles random signs on a piece of paper and pretends they are Irish script; Stephen sings a song in Irish to an uncomprehending Bloom, one of the hints of failed communication in their encounter; in the "Cyclops" episode, the citizen, the most damning portrayal of a Gaelic Leaguer, speaks Irish chiefly to his dog, while the dialogue among the men in the pub is another tour-de-force rendering of Hiberno-English; in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Mulrennan goes on a trip to the Irish-speaking West, the result of his linguistic interaction with the native speakers is that "old man spoke Irish. Mulrennan spoke Irish. Then old man and Mulrennan spoke English" (pp. 254–255).

In "The Dead," the last story in Dubliners, however, Joyce gives Gaelic revivalism a more nuanced analysis. In this story, the utopian feelings engendered by a longing for the lost Irish-speaking world make an explicit appearance. On one level, the inclusion of a Gaelic Leaguer, Molly Ivors, as a character in "The Dead," and of a testy exchange about the ideology of language revival between Miss Ivors and Gabriel Conroy, the story's central protagonist, is simply part of Joyce's desire to provide an encyclopedic snapshot of the variety of political and cultural currents in the air at the time. After a youthful moment of hesitation (including an aspirational self-description in the 1901 census as an Irish speaker) Joyce was opposed to the Gaelic revival and its language politics. Yet the revival movement, and the impulses behind it, play a key role in "The Dead" and in its treatment of the modernist crisis of faith in language and signification. One of the story's central preoccupations is the individual's relationship to language. A key problem in "The Dead" is the idea that body and soul do not speak the same language. The first line of the story, "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet"—frequently cited as the example par excellence of Joyce's radical version of free indirect discourse—immediately sets up the problem of a mismatch between language and the body. Almost immediately after this, Gabriel's attempt to engage Lily in conversation goes badly wrong; he asks her if she is getting married, and her answer, "the men that is nowadays is all palaver" once more puts bodies—"men"—and language—"palaver"—in opposition. The question of the gap between one's inner intentions and the words we rely on as a medium to transmit them to others preys on Gabriel's mind as he frets about the after-dinner speech he will have to give to the assembled company later in the evening: "He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure" (p. 203). When he does make the speech, he refers explicitly—if formulaically—to his anxieties about the inadequacy of the language he has at his disposal to embody his thoughts, feelings, and intentions:

—It has fallen to my lot this evening, as in years past, to perform a very pleasing task, but a task for which I am afraid my poor powers as a speaker are all too inadequate.

—No, no! said Mr. Browne.

—But, however that may be, I can only ask you tonight to take the will for the deed, and to lend me your attention for a few moments while I endeavour to express to you in words what my feelings are on this occasion. (p. 203)

Gabriel associates language here with the failure to translate will into deeds; he is reflecting on how one's inner self is not fully native to any language. The idea that one might have to learn one's own language had come up in an apparently different context earlier in the evening, during the dancing before dinner, when Gabriel had found himself involved in a heated discussion with his friend Molly Ivors, a member of the Gaelic League:

[Miss Ivors] said suddenly:

—O, Mr Conroy, will you come for an excursion to the Aran Isles this summer? We're going to stay there a whole month. It will be splendid out in the Atlantic. You ought to come. Mr Clancy is coming, and Mr Kilkelly and Kathleen Kearney. It would be splendid for Gretta too if she'd come. She's from Connacht, isn't she?

—Her people are, said Gabriel shortly.

—But you will come, won't you? said Miss Ivors, laying her warm hand eagerly on his arm.

—The fact is, said Gabriel, I have just arranged to go—

—Go where? asked Miss Ivors.

—Well, you know, every year I go for a cycling tour with some fellows and so—

—But where? asked Miss Ivors.

—Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany, said Gabriel awkwardly.

—And why do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land?

—Well, said Gabriel, it's partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.

—And haven't you your own language to keep in touch with—Irish? asked Miss Ivors.

—Well, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language. (pp. 189–190)

Gabriel's several linguistic frustrations throughout the evening suggest, however, that English may not be his language either. The anxiety and disappointment he suffers before and after his dinner-table speech come from his sense that the language he uses is inadequate to his thoughts, that it fails to carry the meanings and intentions he has in his heart; once embodied in language, his ideas fail and crumble.

In the final pages of the story, he suffers another, more acute sense of the impossibility of communication and communion, this time with his wife, whose inner mental world and past life in the west of Ireland seem as unreachable to Gabriel as the world of the dead. Before he falls asleep that night, Gabriel's mind turns to this and to the other painful failures of communication and connection he has experienced over the course of the evening. Miss Ivors's invitation to go to the west to learn Irish weaves itself through these regretful reflections:

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. (pp. 224–225)

Gabriel's epiphany is partly sparked by the conversation with Miss Ivors about where to go on holidays. By the end of the story, the Irish-speaking West has shifted from being a real place you can travel to and cycle through, where Miss Ivors is planning to go that summer with Mr. Clancy and Mr. Kilkelly and Kathleen Kearney, to being a mystical place where soul and body are at one. Gabriel does not seem likely to become a revivalist; he has been touched and challenged, not by Irish itself, but by the dream of Irish, by the vision of a distant western land where language and thought and feeling would be at one, where all conflict and loneliness would be resolved by the possibility of true communion with others.

The vision of the West that ends the story is the realm of the next world, "that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead," but also a place where full connection with others—what has been so painfully impossible during the evening—would be possible. Irish in "The Dead," the language of "the West," is an imaginary or symbolic solution to the problem of how we are dead to each other and to ourselves, to the problem of failed embodied communication, the gap between words and feelings, soul and mind, the living and the dead. "The Dead" is a story about the tragic limitations of language, about how it fails to connect us, as we wish, to the souls of others, about how our own souls find themselves not at home in it. In the story, Joyce depicts (without embracing) the revivalist dream of Irish as a miraculous answer to these problems: an ideal of a lost, perfect language which would unite body and soul.

"The Dead" takes place in 1904, when Dublin was still in some ways a more British city than it was to become, not yet as Gaelicized in aspiration and orientation as it would be after 1922 when it became the capital of a Gaelic-identified state. "The Dead" takes place in the earliest phase of the merging of the culture of rural Ireland with that of the urban Catholic middle classes, which later set the tone of city and state, and pushed an older, more Anglo-identified Dublin (that of Bram Stoker or George Bernard Shaw) to the wealthy or bohemian margins. "The Dead" registers an early presence of the dying Irish language as a provocative presence in the mind of English-speaking Ireland, and the beginnings of its long afterlife as a dream within it. After Miss Ivors's challenge, from now on, whether he likes it or not, whether he ever learns it or not, there will always be a suspicion, an accusation, an uncomfortable feeling in Gabriel's mind that English is not truly native to his soul, and that Irish could or should or might have been "his" language. Joyce's depiction of Molly Ivors's challenge to Gabriel is an early intimation in English-speaking Ireland that the Gaelic ideal of the West is where their own true spirit resides, and of the idea, which will become so central to the culture, identity, and dreams of independent Ireland—whether one liked it or not—that even if one spoke only English in one's daily life, even if one did not know Irish at all, one's soul might yet speak Irish.

Irish is referred to but effectively never used in "The Dead." It is a mysterious, unspoken language of a far-off "West," in contrast with the all the chatter and different registers of English used throughout the story. Actual words in Irish have almost no presence in the story except for the (slightly inaccurately used) salutation "Beannacht libh." Gabriel's addled thoughts, which reveal the hidden symbolic depths behind apparently concrete things, present the revivalist vision of Irish as an impossible ideal of a transcendent form of language.

One of the deaths referred to in the title of Joyce's story, then, is that of Irish, the death being witnessed, if mutely, at that very historical moment in Tumgesh and Carrowliam Beg, but one that seems far removed from Usher's Island and from the Dublin of the Conroys and the Misses Morkan. Miss Ivors does evoke a place on the other side of Ireland—the Aran Islands—where Gaelic is still alive, but in "The Dead" the West is an idea more than a place, standing, almost by definition, for a distant, mythical location, for somewhere emblematically removed from the social world of the story.


Excerpted from Languages of the Night by Barry McCrea. Copyright © 2015 Barry McCrea. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction: The Great Silence in Carrowliam Beg 1

1 Language of the Dead: The Irish Language in the Twentieth Century 20

2 The Queer Linguistic Utopia of Pier Paolo Pasolini 47

3 Seán Ó Ríordain's Private Language 74

4 The Great Silence in Combray: Proust and Patois 121

Notes 147

Index 171

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