Gael in Wonderland

The Third Policeman

by Flann O'Brien
Picador, 200 pp., 60p (paper)

What, and where, is Gaelic? It is a language which has long been spoken, and which is still spoken, in three different forms, in western communities of the British Isles, and the literature of that language has not ceased. In the rest of Britain and in America, a descent from Gaelic stock is common enough: nevertheless, in these quarters, the language and the literature are barely acknowledged to exist.

Gaelic is spoken, and is officially approved and enjoined, in the Republic of Ireland. It is spoken by some seventy to eighty thousand people, in the northwest of Scotland and in the Western Isles, but is Greek to all but a few of the inhabitants of the Scottish Lowlands, where I grew up. The language is also spoken in Wales. In none of these three regions is it in the best of health, but, as I say, it is still spoken, and in a variety of ways: spontaneously, officially, pacifically, polemically.

The zeal which led to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 has yet to lay down its arms, and the translations from the Gaelic which I shall write about have been published at a time when it might seem reasonable to claim that the Gaeltacht, the Gaelic hinterland, is engaged in a terrorist war in order to drive the British out of Ulster and to do away with Protestant supremacy there. In the later nineteenth century—at a time when, in Scotland, the British state was attempting to stop the mouth of the Gaelic language once and for all—Irish nationalism meant an allegiance to Catholicism and to Gaelic culture, with its sports, brotherhoods, and bishop’s blessing, and the survival of that culture has been influenced by political factors which include the tradition of irredentist violence associated with the IRA. This does not mean, however, that the present IRA are the voice of the Gaelic hinterland. They stand no chance of being elected to power in Ireland itself, and they have no real following among the Gaels of Scotland and Wales.

What happened was that the Gaels were taken into the British Empire, and that some broke away from it again: their exit is still in progress, and may be thought to have outlasted that empire. Literary history follows the flag. Such works are full of nationalistic feeling, and of a feeling for empires. So it’s not surprising that the neighboring literatures of Gaelic Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are sometimes invisible to historians of British literature, and that the very names of the principal Gaelic writers are probably unknown to many members of those university departments of English in Britain which, since the Second World War, have shown so keen an interest in the literature of the American Empire. Scholars tend to forget what their empire has destroyed, but they do not forget what is due to other empires, and in the 1950s British literary historians decided it was high time they had schools of American studies. I…

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