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Irish goes West

Teanga gan tír

‘The Left-Handed Gun’ is not a film that many people will have heard of, let alone seen. It’s a 1958 Western, starring Paul Newman and directed by Arthur Penn. And it was on TG4 a couple of Friday nights back.

TG4’s weekly ‘An Western’ has been a quiet staple of Irish television for some years now. As happens frequently on TG4, the films are screened in their original language, without subtitles. Presumably the thinking is that during the adverts and continuity announcements that intersperse this English-language film, viewers will passively absorb the Irish language, and so the station fulfill its remit.

The wry phrase ‘An Western’ suggests that the Western occupies a regular landmark in a weekly or monthly calendar, as in ‘the Sunday papers’. We understand that the ‘An’ is not making a large categorical claim, as in ‘the novel’ or ‘the youth of today’. We get this, because nearly all of us understand a little Irish, even if it is only the equivalent of the workaday word “The”. It’s a good example of how cleverly TG4 pitches Irish at a population whose feelings towards the language range through hostility, indifference and shame (about the perceived parochialism of the Gaeilgoirism, and about our communal failure to speak the language).

‘The Left-Handed Gun’ is a telling of the story, or rather myth, of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Hollywood has gone over this material dozens of times over the years, and in other versions, Billy the Kid has been played by Emilio Estevez, Kris Kristofferson, Roy Rogers, the famous WWII veteran Audie Murphy and Val Kilmer, to name just a few. Newman’s version of Billy the Kid as a tortured and inarticulate soul is of its time, the late 1950s, and it is reminiscent of James Dean (who was initially slated for the role) or the young Marlon Brando.

Did they speak Irish under those huge American skies? It is difficult to get a clear historical perspective on the Western because it seems now to be such a cultural relic. It goes through periodic revivals — successful titles from 2015 include ‘The Revenant’, ‘The Hateful Eight’ and TG4’s ‘An Klondike’ (there’s that ‘An’ again). But if anything these revivals reinforce the sense of something in need of revival. Of course, the same might be said of that other cultural relic, the Irish language.

The 19th century seems like an awfully long time ago, but trans-Atlantic migrants of the time were highly mobile, flexible and internationalised providers of labour. In the words of historian Sidney Pollard, they were the “shock troops of the Industrial Revolution”.

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The homesteaders, cowboys and bounty hunters of the Western were at the vanguard of industrialised globalisation, long-distance mass transport, users of the innovations of standardised gunsmithing, telegraphy and international postal systems, installing industrialised agriculture to feed thrusting megacities, mining the land and bringing genocidal carnage to its native populations. Westerns, viewed in this way, are stories of modernity, colonisation, dispossession and language death.

Who watches Westerns now? And why?

At least part of the pleasure to be got from them is in their status as relics. An older segment of the viewing public will take comfort in that weekly treat of ‘The’ Western. The films that are broadcast by TG4 are predominantly from the 1950s and the 1960s, and it is not hard to imagine these Irish viewers experiencing a thrill of cinematic nostalgia, and yearning for mid-century American optimism, as they watch these long-forgotten and long-remembered stories. These films are from the tail end of the relatively naive period of the Western, before a wave of revisionist Westerns (for example, ‘Little Big Man’, ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’, ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’, ‘The Wild Bunch’, all the way up to the excellent HBO series ‘Deadwood’) that finally began to acknowledge that the wide open spaces of the frontier were wide and open because they had just been forcibly emptied of millions of natives.

There is a strong sense of a premodern innocence in the dirty-faced boyish violence and strongheadedness that we see in the whiskeydrinking and saloon-fighting, the standing up to magnates and crooked sheriffs, the cattlewrangling, the gunslinging, the awkward kissing of schoolmistresses and farmgirls, and the optimistic setting up ranches and mines. The darkness of smallpox and influenza, landgrabs and broken treaties, massacres and slavery, is exactly the kind of detail that foundation myths of simple heroism and melodrama are intended to blot out of the historical consciousness.

In ‘The Left-Handed Gun’, Billy the Kid is a crazed outsider whose origins are murky. He lies that he is from Kansas City, before innocently revealing that he is a fluent Spanish speaker. This locates him much further to the south, and it makes an outsider of him among the English-speaking white cattlemen, who are led by the gentle, religious-minded ‘Englishman’, who gifts the illiterate Billy a book. When the Englishman is killed, Billy’s chance to enter civilised, book-reading society is taken from him, and the trail of revenge that he embarks on is the entire plot of the movie.

Hunted by the law, Billy takes refuge with a Mexican smith, whom we first see crafting a rifle by hand. The fantasy that the eminently modern, industrial object of a rifle could be made by hand encapsulates the Western’s double task of telling the story of the extermination of non-industrial civilisations by industrialised civilisations, while indulging in the fantasy that the whole thing was a moral encounter that happened in a technological historical vacuum.

But the Western is often a tragedy, and ‘The Left-Handed Gun’ complies in this respect. The Western hero is typically a man of violence who is a social misfit, unable to settle down with the woman who patiently waits for him, and incapable of putting down roots. In the end, he rides off into the sunset or is killed because the fast encroaching modern world does not have a place for him.

Billy the Kid cannot conform, and being an illiterate bilingual is part of his problem because it marks him as uncivilisable and somehow impure. He cannot control his temper, he will not heed the law and he instinctually draws his gun at lightning speed at the slightest provocation. In all of this, he is the diametric opposite of the other Irish-American in the story, the level-headed and wise Pat Garrett, who runs a business, gets married and becomes sheriff. An admirable role model, to be sure, even a positive vision of integration into the American melting pot, but not the hero of a tragedy.

When the new government announced last month that the Arts portfolio had been bundled into the newly named Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht, there were understandable cries of protest and objection from organisations and individuals from Ireland’s cultural and arts sectors. At best, the arts now have the attention of one quarter of a minister. But there was no highprofile protest about the attention that the government gives, and plans to give, to the national language. In fact there were objections, from Conradh na Gaeilge, for example, but that’s so old Europe, as Donald Rumsfeld would say.

And of course there is a world of difference between the Gaeltacht and the language. There are more people using Irish as a day-to-day language in Dublin than in the designated Gaeltacht areas of the state. The language is arguably more vibrant in the Belfast Gaeltacht than anywhere else. But these are awkward, uncomfortable observations that make it difficult to ignore the political nature of both languages on this island. The gaeilgeoir’s frankly political observation Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam – a country with no language is a country with no soul – is still not seriously considered, despite this year’s ersatz rehabilitation of the man who coined it, Patrick Pearse. The deeper real political challenge that comes with associating country and language is that it forces us to confront the unconfrontable, known variously as the national question, the border poll, the British presence. Teanga gan tír, more like.

So it is appropriate that one of the only aspects of Irish-language policy that is positively regarded — TG4 — should play host to the Western. Because by looking at the myths of language, law and modern life that one society uses to describe itself to itself, we may be able to become more conscious of our own.