Once the learner of a language has acquired an interest in that language, the next requirement is a good bilingual dictionary; then it becomes necessary to find out how the nuts and bolts all fit together, so a grammar textbook becomes a necessity. In 2005 I started with an English language primer ‘Teach Yourself Irish’ which I found to be simple, clear and comprehensive. Then when I had started studying for a diploma in Irish in Maynooth University I bought ‘Cruinnscríobh na Gaeilge’, another excellent beginner’s guide to a very difficult tongue. Some of the elements that learners have difficulty with is the VSO* system, as opposed to the SVO of the English language, which is simpler. Inflection of words also complicates matters and having two genders doesn’t help, but some languages, Russian for instance, has three.
Irish is the oldest vernacular language after Greek, so learning Old Irish entailed a great deal of hard work but a lot of pleasure, and no small amount of pride in the achievements of our ancestors, who created a literature of great distinction shortly after the coming of Christianity in the 5th century brought writing to Ireland, literature which is highly regarded and prized wherever great art is appreciated. So several good textbooks were required to help my studies in Old Irish.
But it was in the study of Modern Irish that my magpie tendency came to the fore. I love old books and so, among the practical grammar books to help me with my studies, I also collected a few old curios, designed to help and encourage previous generations. Shortly after Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) was founded in 1894 they brought out a series of small handbooks to try to arrest the decline of Irish, which Douglas Hyde and other far-seeing people saw as imminent. The booklets were written by Rev. Eugene O’Growney and sold in their thousands; my copy says on the cover ‘Five hundred and second Thousand’. The editions I have date from 1918 and cost sixpence. I have a couple of school text-books from the thirties and forties, printed in the old typeface with its own distinctive lettering, with dots over letters to denote lenition. One of the best is a very small booklet written by the playwright Mairéad Ni Ghráda, which consists of just 48 pages, 24 leaves, but it is a gem. These books are not old enough to be antiquarian or rare enough to be valuable, but I treasure them nevertheless.
Doing a quick count, I find I have just under twenty grammar books of various types and styles, and if I had absorbed even a hundredth part of their contents, I would be a happy man. Alas, buying a rule book does not transfer the knowledge therein to the owner’s brain, however eager he or she may be. But we’ll go on learning, the journey is worth it.
*VSO= Verb, Subject, Object.
SVO= Subject, Verb, Object.