An Bhfuil Gaeilge Agat?

One of the most startling aspects of the Cassidy Scandal is the number of people who have argued in favour of Cassidy while pretending to a knowledge of the Irish language. As we have said, a few Irish speakers who genuinely do speak Irish have supported Cassidy. In the majority of cases (Joe Lee, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir) there seems to be a social link between these people and Cassidy, so they cannot be regarded as impartial.

However, in many other cases, there is a tendency for Cassidy’s supporters to exaggerate the amount of Irish that they or others speak in order to further their ridiculous claims.

We have already looked at Cassidy himself. Cassidy, on his own admission, had absolutely no Irish at all until he was in his late fifties, when he inherited a pocket Irish dictionary and started leafing through it. Over the next few years, he plainly failed to acquire even the most basic knowledge of Irish grammar and pronunciation. His attempts to produce Irish phrases are embarrassingly bad.

Then we have others whom Cassidy claimed as fluent Irish speakers. For example, using his sockpuppet of Medbh, he claimed that Alexander Cockburn was a fluent Irish speaker. Cockburn was raised in the Cork town of Youghal, and no doubt some of his education would have had an Irish component. But he then went to an English public school and spent most of his adult life in America. If he was fluent in Irish, none of the obituaries mention the fact.

But the main group of people claiming a knowledge of Irish are those in reviews who claim that they speak the language and can therefore judge the merits of Cassidy’s ‘research’. Let’s take one example. On Goodreads, for example, we find comments like this:

I know Irish. I speak Irish. It’s always bothered me how so many Irish words sound like English words that are similar in sound. AND those English words have NOTHING to do with a similar English word like “Raspberries.” Now I can sleep at night. (The book makes so much more sense if you can speak “as Gaeilge.”

This is very badly written, (well, they would sound like English words that are similar in sound, wouldn’t they?) and is plainly nonsense as there is no Irish phrase which sounds like raspberries. Cassidy’s claim is pure invention and I don’t believe that this individual invented Cassidy’s absurd candidate (roiseadh búirthí) independently before reading the book. This also comes from someone who gives a list of their other books on Goodreads, which include things like Buntús Cainte, Book 1 (an elementary text for someone learning the language). Of course, this person may be a genius who acquired a fantastic knowledge of the language in the year and a half between reviewing Buntús Cainte and reviewing Cassidy’s book, though the fact that he seems to take Cassidy’s ideas seriously suggests to me that his knowledge of Irish is much more limited than he claims.

Others say in their reviews that they have been learning Irish for a year, or that they are students of the Irish language, and so are in a position to confirm Cassidy’s claims. The fact is, Irish is a very difficult language. It takes people years of study to become properly fluent in the language. After a year, and possessing a few dictionaries, people might be in a position to confirm that, for example, uath exists and dubh exists and roiseadh exists and búirtheach exists. It’s a long way from that to being able to make a reasoned judgement about whether phrases like uath dubh or roiseadh búirthí are likely to make sense to a genuine Irish speaker.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Irish is wonderful and I like the fact that people are keen to learn it. However, having studied a bit of Buntús Cainte really doesn’t qualify anybody as an expert in Gaelic linguistics. This addresses one of the fundamental problems of the whole Cassidy Scandal, the idea that there is no special skill involved in linguistics and that amateurs like Cassidy who don’t speak Irish or know the grammar or know how to pronounce the language have an equal right to pronounce on word origins with genuine experts who have genuine qualifications. Just occasionally, people who are amateurs manage to make major contributions to scholarship (people like Susan Hendrickson or Grote Reber). It’s not unheard of. The difference is that these people work with and through the consensus developed in their field to make a new contribution and they work very hard to do it. The other big difference is that these people are generally respected by established experts in their field.

That’s because genuinely gifted amateur scholars like this engage in discourse with experts and provide genuine evidence of their talents, unlike Cassidy who couldn’t even be bothered learning the basics of the Irish language before rushing into print with this ridiculous travesty of a book.

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