Feckin’ Parentheses (A Note on Irish Rhetoric)



I just got into my mom’s place a couple of days ago.  We stayed up until two in the morning last night, talking, sipping on Jameson’s, and talking.  Mom has always had the gift of gab, but since Dad passed away two years ago, she’s got more to say than ever.  This is probably because my father was usefully employed as a ‘round the clock sounding board for forty years.  Mom has since had to find new places to put her words.  As Dad got older, he said less and less.  He could speak and speak well when he needed to, but he was far more comfortable as a listener.  That’s the way Dad’s people are.  The older you are, the less verbal flexing you need to do.

But Mom is Irish.  They’re drunk on words and there’s no sobering up with age.

I’m not sure where I fall on the ethnic verbosity scale, but I know I’ve inherited a lot of strategic and stylistic traits from Mom’s people.  And as I was talking with her last night, I was suddenly made aware of one of the more prominent of those traits.  In Irish discourse, it’s parentheses all the way down.  Perhaps with his stream of consciousness writing, Joyce was onto something that was distinctly Irish just as much as it was Modernist.  But that’s not quite it, is it?  The sorts of digressions and dead ends modeled in stream of consciousness writing are merely Irish talk gone wrong.  When done well, the Irish style is deeply and deliberately recursive.  The Irish paragraph is not built up from a foundation, but rather continuously stretched inward with extraneous information.  If you could draw an Irish paragraph, it would be a cone instead of a block.

As far as Chomsky is concerned, recursion is the sine quo non of human language.  Recursed phrases are the hyperlinks of the spoken word: “Donny’s rabbit, whose previous owner is his ex-wife who thinks the rabbit is mean to children, is perfectly gentle with Donny’s new wife’s children.” The recursion in that sentence supplied us with additional information, but it was also rhetorical.  The claim that Donny’s rabbit is gentle with his new wife’s children is rather unremarkable since we don’t usually think of rabbits as being particularly mean to children anyway.  Recursed phrases serve the larger sentence in which they are embedded.  But in Irish rhetoric, the location of the remarkable information gets moved to those embedded phrases.  Coming from my Mom, the truly interesting part of the above sentence would have been what Donny’s ex-wife thought.  The bit about the rabbit being gentle with kids would just be there so that the really interesting part wouldn’t seem like a non sequitur.  Or perhaps it’s a diversionary tactic, a way of embedding a slight against the rabbit’s previous owner into another point which is only slightly related.  In my experience, Irish insults are not darts from the shadows but the parts of a story you almost overlooked.  The point is that, in Irish rhetoric, the truly noteworthy stuff is found inside of parentheses.

I’m not sure why that is.  Maybe it’s the legacy of the seanchaí and their grand sagas, which would have been replete with self-contained and already well-known tales inserted into the larger narratives, and which provided rich, thematic touchstones for the listener.

Covert insult or deferred focus, the Irish parenthesis is everywhere in my speech and writing.  Often without knowing it, I’ll pan my way through rivers of text just to get to a single, double, or even triple parenthesis.  This can be off-putting to listeners and especially to readers, so I redistribute those parentheses into footnotes and appositives as artfully as I can.  I’d like to think I do that out of empathy for my audience, but perhaps it’s because of that most prominent pair of Irish Catholic traits: loss of self-control and crushing guilt.  Either way, whenever I do look at anything I’ve written in the past, I jump right to the parenthetical stuff.  It’s all that’s worth watching on rerun.




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