In April, I was back in the classroom for the first time in 2021, as the schools re-opened post-lockdown after the Easter holidays. I was teaching a Transition Year media class, and we were reading an article on discrimination against Travellers in access to work, housing and education.  The students were horrified by the stark, inarguable story told by the statistics. This is a topic that leads to tense discussion, in an area where strong farmers and people from particular local towns have always been vocal, active and unembarrassed in their expression of anti-Traveller sentiment. We tried to steer clear of the kind of confrontation encouraged by ‘debate’, instead using creative writing in response to videos or articles. It wasn’t perfect, but it bypassed some of our worst urges to polarise.
When we got to the second half of the article, the students who had volunteered to read started to falter. ‘What does any of this even mean?’ one of them asked. He had waded through paragraphs of quotes from politicians and experts featuring phrases like ‘incumbent on us’ and ‘proactively extend the hand of outreach’ before coming to a halt on ‘a role for Government in terms of showing leadership on this.’
The rest of the class were equally bemused, and suspected that none of the fine words and roundabout phrasing amounted to a promise to actually do anything, other than ‘showing leadership’ and ‘providing clarity’, and everyone agreed that none of those things actually counted as actions. ‘Why do people talk or write like this?’ I asked. Students suggested, in bits and pieces, that it was so that they could sound like they were going to do something, while not tying themselves to doing anything too specific that could be checked up on. That talking about action was easier, and made for better media coverage, than the complicated, messy business of working out what needed to be done, and then doing it. We wholeheartedly, unanimously agreed for the first time all year, so we celebrated the accord, and a rare sighting of the sun, with a walk around the hurling pitch.
Abstract language as a substitute for, or even an impediment to, action, is as Irish as spuds or sexual hang-ups. Almost 100 years ago, as he was assuming the role of one of Ireland’s first Senators, W. B. Yeats lamented that ‘Ireland is ruined by abstractions […] every thought made in some manufactory and with the mark upon it of its wholesale origin.’ We still do our remembering wholesale, and our planning in the abstract, couched in stock phrases free of verbs in the active voice.
The woman in that article is not purposely obfuscating, at least I don’t see any reason why she would be. She’s just using language following the conventions of Irish public life: volubly saying nothing meaningful. Meaningfulness is a fraught quality in its own right, with every utterance so open to interpretations. Anyone who’s had a conversation with a fellow human being will have known moments of sighing ‘That’s not what I meant at all.’ This isn’t only Prufrock’s complaint. It’s the condition language subjects us to and vice versa. This frustration is not, however, the condition of the speaker of the stock phrases of Irish public life. The language of ‘endeavouring’ and ‘seeking accountability’ flows freely, in a way words wrestled with sweat and feeling into an attempted alignment with the actual world do not. These discourses offer a simulation of discussion; they sound like plans, or even calls to action, but when you wave away the clouds of abstract nouns, you find that the few verbs left are subjectless, and pitifully unequipped for action.
This is, of course, a universal quality of public language. For the most part, it forms a frictionless, liquid flow of platitudes that gestures in the general direction of actions that could potentially be taken. It is not a uniquely Irish property of language. Indeed, Donald Trump’s inability, or unwillingness, to adapt to the flow of acceptable political language was an early marker of how he would go on to bulldoze the entire landscape shaped by that flow. Yet there are reasons, some political and historical, some linguistic, to suspect that the Irish are unusually fluent in action-deferring abstraction.
On that April afternoon in the prefab, before releasing my charges into the fresh air, we returned to one section of the offending article. In the lines ‘it is about having access, presence and participation in the venues and arenas where discussions, decisions and social policy-making that impact on us all are taking place’, we counted the abstract nouns and tried to find a verb pressing them into action. It seems that it is about having three abstract qualities linked with access, in two unspecified locations where a further three abstract nouns denoting discourse are happening. What teenager, not to mention member of a historically underserved and vulnerable minority, whose life expectancy, living conditions, and levels of educational attainment are catastrophically poor, and falling, has time for so much hot air? The environmental consequences, alone, don’t bear thinking about.
The following week, one of the girls told us that her mam had told her that there was only one Traveller man over the age of 65 alive in South Limerick at the moment. We fell silent at that. Even the boys whose every point over the past few weeks had snaked back to their grandfather’s large farm, and robbing. For once, we had no words. Not ‘incumbent’, not ‘proactively extend’, not ‘live that diversity.’ Nothing.