One Semester, Mastered

This week marked the end of my first semester at UCC studying the MA in Early and Medieval Irish. On the one hand, it feels bizarre that I’ve already been living here in Cork for more than three months. On the other hand, the semester occasionally felt endless, and by the end of it I was very ready for a break…

Of course, inevitably I don’t now have a month to do absolutely nothing — I’ve two assignments due on the eighth of January, an article deadline of the eighteenth, translation to do for my thesis, and a number of personal projects I want to get done. But there’s still a certain freedom that comes from no longer having classes, and knowing that I made it this far, including surviving three in-class tests (one of which is continuing to haunt me with the knowledge of mistakes I probably made).

Returning to academia after two years has been an odd experience — no stranger than I imagined, but still, there’s been a lot of flailing around as I try and figure out what the expectations are and how to meet them. Part of this is that UCC is a wildly different institution to Cambridge, and so how I’d approach things at Cambridge doesn’t necessarily carry over to how they’re done here. (Going from an 8-week term to a 12-week one was rough in itself!) And of course, there’s the fact that I’ve moved to a new country and am living alone during a pandemic that’s seriously curtailing the amount of in-person socialising that’s happening.

But I was expecting that, and honestly, I’ve been lucky — the tiny class sizes on my course have meant we’ve been able to continue with face-to-face teaching for the majority of modules. Without that, I think I’d have struggled a lot more. It’s given me a chance to meet most of my fellow MA students and get to know them on a level that would have been a lot more difficult via online classes, but also, at the most basic level, it’s given me a reason to leave the house and an opportunity to speak to other humans, which I might not otherwise have had.

Even if some of the rooms on campus are so cold I started bringing a blanket to class.

Still, it’s been a strange semester. At times it felt weirdly easy — without the weekly essays that haunted my undergraduate years, the workload felt a lot more manageable, and without in-person societies, I had a lot more time to myself. That’s probably why I wrote two novels this semester, a first draft of one and a second draft of another, although I’ll admit that was also a desperate attempt to keep reality — and therefore anxiety — at bay. As we accelerated towards the end of term, though, my decision to spend November and early December writing frantically caught up with me, with three assessments and two assignments looming. Turns out that’s the disadvantage (?) of not being constantly stressed throughout the semester: it takes you by surprise when it does come.

I still think I benefited from not feeling like I was constantly drowning, though. Don’t get me wrong: I learned a huge amount in Cambridge, and there are some advantages to the supervision system. But with my health, the non-stop pace of it and the impossibility of taking a few days off here and there to recover always ended up screwing me over.

There are also some things that the Cambridge system didn’t prepare me for, on a more subject-specific level. Yes, we translated a lot of texts in language classes, so to have gone from covering five different texts in the course of a year to spending all semester on two pages of one story felt like a shock. But when it comes to doing things in depth, and specifically, doing grammar in depth… oof.

See, I never really got the hang of Old Irish grammar. The textbooks seemed to be written with the assumption that we’d have done Latin or some other language with a case system; that we’d understand what a preterite was and what a predicate was and why they weren’t the same thing; that we’d know why it mattered for a word to be an o-stem or a u-stem, etc etc. It never clicked. It wasn’t until last year that I found out what those stems even mean and why it was relevant (while studying Modern Irish, and encountering declensions).

But that was okay, because the way our course was structured meant that language and literature exams were combined, and my literature essays were usually good enough to make up for the fact that I don’t really understand verbs and have never memorised a paradigm in my life.

Pain and suffering, in the form of revision for my Old Irish exam.

And even if I had understood it, or learned it in enough depth… well, that’s the kind of thing we’d have done in first year. Which was now six years ago. Not to mention the fact that my mental and physical health were such a disaster — undiagnosed autoimmune conditions will do that to you — that most of 2015 is a blank in my memory, so frankly, if I ever got the hang of the subjunctive, I’d have lost it a long time ago. That’s a fun thing to realise — that you literally have to relearn things from the ground up because it’s not just ordinary forgetfulness that’s done for them, but the result of ongoing brain fog and the effect that has on your brain. Plus, you know, I couldn’t actually read during undergrad: me and my orange glasses are trying to make up for lost time now that I’ve been given the gift of reading slowly.

And the way UCC approaches Quin’s Old Irish Workbook is to nail those grammatical concepts in a lot more depth — and while it’s useful and important and will probably solidify my skills a lot, I’ve sometimes felt I’m scrambling to catch up. Because while I can just about keep on top of the new concepts we’re encountering, anything that was in the first half of the textbook (here covered in beginner’s Old Irish, and in Cambridge, covered more rapidly in the first term of first year) is still, largely, a mystery to me. Thus when the textbook triumphantly proclaims that the long-e future uses the subjunctive endings and so we don’t have to learn new endings, I can only stare at it dismally and wonder if there’s some kind of magic spell I can do that will transform me into the kind of person capable of memorising paradigms.

And I’m trying. In particular, I’m trying not to say that I can’t do grammar. Just that I haven’t yet found a method of learning it that actually works for me. Which, okay, you’d think after six years that if there was one I would have figured it out, but I’m attempting positivity here, go with it.

So yes, I have probably spent a fair amount of this semester staring in despair at my too-pristine copy of Strachan’s Paradigms and sensing that probably, after this many years, it should look somewhat tattier (don’t worry, I’ve managed to mess up the cover a fair bit by now). It’s probably had more use in the past month than it did in the entire four years of my undergrad studies, because it turns out, when you don’t race through the material at a breakneck pace in order to cover as much as possible as quickly as possible… you actually have to learn it properly.

Funny, that.

But, for all it’s shown up what I don’t know, my first semester here has also given me the opportunity to use what I do know — I gave two lectures for an undergrad module about gender in medieval Irish texts, introducing them to gender and queer theory and talking about Cú Chulainn’s unconventional masculinity in the Táin, which is the kind of thing I can talk about until the cows come home. I’m miles ahead with my thesis — and only my thesis, but it’s still a win — as a result of having spent about a year and a half thinking about it before I even got here, and my supervisor keeps warning me that if I’m not careful it’ll turn into a PhD thesis in terms of length/scope, which… yeah. Is anyone surprised?

Plus I’ve had the chance to tackle palaeography, which was completely new to me and which I regretted not having taken it in undergrad. My experiences of rare books as a librarian were handy, but for the most part it was all new info, and in the space of one semester, insular minuscule has gone from an impenetrable code to something I can pretty much read (slowly) (with help from lists of abbreviations). There’s something very satisfying about sharing my screen with my parents on Zoom so I can show them the manuscript I’m working with and explaining the letters to them, like I’ve cracked some kind of cipher.

A glimpse of RIA D.IV.2, the focus of my palaeography assignment

And I guess, most importantly, I’ve survived. Living completely alone (no housemates) for the first time, in a city I’d barely visited, in another country, during a pandemic, when my mental health was rocky to start with — it’s a lot. And there’ve been some darker moments. But for the most part, I’ve been doing a hell of a lot better here than I was earlier this summer when I retreated to my bed in Cambridge and spent weeks as a depression slug. Having a focus has helped. Making new friends has helped. Learning new things has helped. Teaching others has helped.

I miss dance (my tiny one-bed isn’t vastly suited to it). I miss seeing my family and friends back in England. I’m not going home for Christmas because it doesn’t feel safe, and that’s going to be pretty tough, too. But it’s been a much better semester than I feared, and a much more normal one, too, for which I’m very grateful.

So here’s to surviving, and to a few more days of procrastination before I actually sit down and do those assignments — because if one thing hasn’t changed, it’s my approach to deadlines.


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