Sunday, March 11, 2007

Gabriel Rosenstock's "Beginner's Irish"

I rated this five, the other Amazonian three stars. I liked it, obviously, for its snappy style, compact coverage, and varied entries on the historical and cultural context, as well as some introductory lessons. A CD about 45 minutes is added to the 2005 printing; the text is unchanged. The disc offers what I suspect from the mellifluous and slightly bemused accent to be Rosenstock himself and a comely lass engaging in the dialogues from the lessons, with vocabulary, proverbs, and prepositions as used in sentences all enunciated at a fairly rapid but pleasantly rendered pace. Nice combination by this bilingual poet and translator in Poundian fashion from all sorts of languages with another Eastern-tinged sensibility.

I think Rosenstock's half-German, from of all places Kilfinnane where my family and I enjoyed our stay in nearby Derragh summer of 2002. Obviously a happy hippie. Michael Hartnett was born down the hills in Newcastle West (home of Ballygowan water and a pizzeria and chipper storefront on a rather grim high street where we stopped in to get some non-Irish Irish cuisine, desperate. A man there hearing our accents told us he'd fought with the Army in 'Nam.) and he wrote that his grandmother I believe had some Irish. I wonder how long it took Irish to fade from use in these once isolated mountainy regions, such as where Joyce's Irish-speaking native chatted with the UCD student in Portrait? The old man was from these Ballyhouras, was he not? Hiking up to what to me looked like a quarry one bright day, but according to what I read somewhere I cannot verify on my shelf is a giant Iron Age dún.)

The Kilfinnane shopkeepers were a lovely couple, he Egyptian, she Irish, who had lived in Southern Cal before returning to Ireland. The village's grand ancient fortress was walled off for repairs, but McCarthy's Funeral Parlor and Pub was what I remembered most, as well as the friendly youths who helped me back out the car from the main street and the statue there to some doomed '98 patriot there hung. Derragh in fact was the site of a battle in that same war.

I cannot parse the intricacies of grammar or usage to nit-pick as some Irish speakers might be able to do--a habit that intimidates those of us less fluent. This book, however, is for the latter category. As a refresher or a starter, this whets your appetite not by plunging you into the usual "Dia duit" conversation but a gradual grazing and nibbling about. Instead, the long history of this language--the oldest vernacular outside of Greek and Latin surviving in Europe--a look at male and female names, and the role of the language among tourists and in Ireland allows the reader to get a feel for the contexts within which today's learner will progress.

Rosenstock, of German-Irish parentage by the way, is a noted poet, critic, editor and translator. His wit and enthusiasm make this an ideal starting-point for not only those who wish to learn Irish but those curious about how the language works, what its grammar and vocabulary look like, how simple conversations might go, and what its proverbs and colloquialisms reveal about the native Irish character.

Rather than dive into another twenty-lesson textbook like Michael O Siadhail's admirable but daunting "Learning Irish," my advice is to begin here, see if you like the language, and then go on to the more linguistically oriented tapes and series.

A good combination with "Gaeilge agus Failte" by Annette Bryne, a colorful workbook and 2-CD package aimed at adults learning the basics who come to Ireland from elsewhere-- although G & F is more for classroom use, an independent learner can benefit from the cultural approach of Rosenstock mingled with the activity-oriented exercises in Byrne; Rosenstock does not include many true exercises in his lessons.

Another lack for the learner needing reinforcement or a bit more substantial preparation in the basics also accounts for the demotion of a star. Perhaps to appeal to the widest audience, almost no phonetic equivalents for the sounds of the Irish alphabet are given, since Scots, Aussies, ESL readers, and Americans might all say the sounds differently. Too often, Irish texts assume a learner with a standard English (as in the south-of-Britain version) dialect/accent. This avoidance, while admirable on one hand, detracts from a learner's "ear," necessary for anybody needing to get a grasp of the peculiarities of Irish pronunciation. Still, you can read and get a feel for the layout and mentality of the language here and gain a valuable foundation upon which to later sound out...

Adh mór; good luck!

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