The Dean's Diaries: The Dean's Erse

The Dean's Diaries: The Dean's Erse

by Prof D.W. Purdie
article from Tuesday 26, August, 2014

Office of the Dean:
St Andrew's College,
King George IV Bridge,
Edinburgh EH1 3TD

       It was off to Ireland last week,leaving the College in the hands of the Bursar and Rector. I was heading west into the Gaelteacht, the term (also used in Scotland) for the Celtic linguistic and cultural heartland. Co. Sligo nestles in the north-west corner of Ireland cosseted by vast, empty, Mayo to the west and loch-studded Donegal to the north, while the UK, in the shape of Co. Fermanagh, is a few miles up the road in the direction of Belfast. Our destination was Sligo itself, self-styled as ‘The Gateway City’, home of the annual W.B.Yeats Summer School, attended by students and scholars from all over the world. 

Yeats was born in Sligo and, according to a plaque on a backstreet house, so also was the father of the late, great Spike Milligan. The anarchic wit and verbal pyrotechnics of the Great Goon live on in the memory of all who first heard him, Peter Sellars and Harry Secombe, on the ‘wireless’ as a 1960s radio was known. Indeed, I still have a copy of his picaresque novel Puckoon which is actually a menace right now, because I am afflicted by an ‘ear worm’ from it. On an endless tape riding round my head goes the tune from: ‘The Time we went to Rothesay – O !
You all know how it goes: Dirrum ado, ado a Day, dirrum a do a daddy O…
It is to this haunting air that Dan Milligan, hero of Puckoon, cycles along an Irish lane, carolling:

            Ooooh, ’tis I had a Judy in Dub-elin Town;
               Her eyes was blue – and her hair ’twas brown;
            In the Phoenix Park sure I got her down,
               And I…
sadly, the climax of this haunting aria was lost as Milligan’s bike turned a corner of the road.

  I first visited the Republic of Ireland in the 1970s, the primary purpose being to attend the Ireland – Scotland rugby International at the Lansdowne Road ground. However, the preamble to this   was a golf match against the DUGS, the Dublin University Golfing Society, the contest usually taking place in pounding rain and galeforce winds over the formidable links of Portmarnock outside Dublin.
On one occasion as we arrived there, rain squalls were battering the clubhouse windows, propelled by the winds of a young hurricane. Said I to a famous old caddy named, if I recall aright, Patrick Maguire,
    “ Paddy, can we play golf in this? ”
    “Jaysus now we could,” says he, “if 'twas only the rain. But the wind… Sure, ’twould blow a tinker off his missus!”
The Irish have a facility with language, especially in simile and metaphor invention, which no other race of these Islands can match. It partly derives, I believe, from the silver of their own native tongue. This is the ancient language known popularly as “The Irish” or “The Gaelic”, but whose correct title in linguistics is, wait for it, Erse.
 
   Some years ago, Erse was to cause consternation at the publishers Messrs Collins & Co., who were issuing books for readers refreshing foreign language skills. This was the famous ‘Brush-up’ series: Brush-up your French, German, Serbo-Croat etc. Then they came to Ireland… and chickened out: Brush-up your Irish Gaelic was the tame result. 
 Being non-Germanic and indeed Celtic in origin, Erse is very different from English. For example the affirmative “yes” and the negative “no” are virtually unknown. If you say to an Irishman:
    “Sir, are you Seumas Cormac O’Malley?” then if he is, he will say proudly,
     “I am, surely!”
Ask him, however, if he is Seumas Dermot O’Malley and he will say, “Surely I am never any such t’ing!”  

     Erse also contrasts dramatically with the Romance languages, derived as they are from Latin. A famous example is Prof. Brendan Kennelly’s response to a Spanish academic visitor to Trinity College, Dublin.  He wanted the Gaelic, i.e. the Erse word for the state of mind and work-postponement, known in Iberia as Manãna.
     “Ah, well now, said Brendan, “we have several words that are close – but d’you know, there’s none that quite conveys, well, the same sense of urgency…” 

    In the Erse, the sometimes spectacular divergence between the spelling of a word and its actual sound can also be a trial for the uninitiated. For example, Dublin’s port of Dun Laoghaire manages to be pronounced Dunleery. This produced a splendid Limerick, itself an Irish gift to literature;
         There was a smart man from Dun Laoghaire
              Who propounded an intrestin’ theoghaire
         That the language of Erse,
         Has a shortage of Verse,
              ’Cos the spellin’ makes poets so weoghaire….

    Indeed the very word Erse can itself cause confusion. Some years ago I was in Ireland as one of two External Assessors at a Professorial appointment board. This was at UCG – University College, Galway – at which splendid institution all candiates for Chairs must demostrate at least some facility with the Irish language….
  The Board being convened for the interviews, the Dean said, 
    “Now, gentlemen, we will proceed to assess the academic, scientific and clinical attributes of each of the four candidates. When we’ve finished with each of them, he’ll be taken next door, as required by our Constitution, to have his Erse examined.” 
At this, there was a visible start from the other external assessor, an English academic of great renown. Clearly unaware of the linguistic sense of the Dean’s remark, he said urgently to me, sotto voce,
    “Did he say what I think he said; about the candidates having their – you know – examined ?”
I confirmed that this was indeed so.
     “My God,” said he, wonderingly, “they are thorough over here…” 
Some time later, the successful candidate was brought back in to be congratulated, his Erse having clearly passed with flying colours.
I then set off for Scotland, naturally via Dublin and, in due course of course, the golf course – of Portmarnock....

 

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