The last week has seen a round of PR hullabaloo and government press spinning to publicise Imagine Ireland, a government-backed initiate from those happy folks at state quango Culture Ireland, the purpose of which is to mark a, ‘year-long celebration of Irish arts in the United States in 2011’. The project has actually been running for some months now – but apparently no one noticed (what with matters like general elections, mass emigration and IMF/EU diktats to worry ourselves about).
As kultur fests go this new one is not as objectionable as some and in general I favour this sort of thing. Every nation should celebrate its culture, and the arts can be one of the prime manifestations of national identity, both as nations see themselves and sometimes as they see others. For Ireland our most celebrated area of artistic endeavour has traditionally been seen in the written word: we have produced some of the finest writers, playwrights, songwriters and poets in Europe. Yet here is a problem, at least as far as the Imagine Ireland initiative is concerned. Looking at the project as whole one gets the impression that Irish literature is at best only some two hundred years old: and entirely in the English language. Yet, as we all know, real Irish literature is in fact some 1500 years old: and in something called the Irish language.
The (expensive looking) Imagine Ireland website is entirely monolingual. No Irish here, all is English (besides a few sentences from actor Gabriel Byrne in his statement as Ireland’s Cultural Ambassador in the US: no surprise from someone who actually has a genuine commitment to his native language – a pity the rest of the Imagine Ireland folks seem to take a different view). Any press statements or publications I’ve seen are also English-only. It would seem Imagine Ireland is really about English Ireland: an Anglophone celebration of the artistic endeavours of Ireland’s Anglophone community. No matter that the 42% of the population who belong to the Irish speaking community (and the 80%+ who associate with or regard the language as their own) are paying their hard-earned taxes to support this costly jamboree.
A couple of Irish language poets and writers hidden away in an English language sea? Sorry, a bhuachaillí agus a chailiní, no place here for you. You’re not part of our Ireland.
In reality Imagine Ireland is nothing more than an unambiguous F.U. to Ireland’s large Irish speaking minority. Irish Ireland is not even in second place to English Ireland in the mindset of the Imagine Ireland team. It hardly exists at all. Of course one could argue (and no doubt they would) that since the Imagine Ireland project is aimed at the English speaking US market they would naturally cater to the language of that county – English. However I wonder would the French, for instance, be so lacking in linguistic or culturally pride to eviscerate any celebration of their culture in the United States by celebrating it entirely in a language not their own and with not a single reference to the language of the French people – French?
Of course, all this is hardly surprising since the Imagine Ireland project comes from the state-sponsored functionaries at Culture Ireland. Charged with promoting, with our tax money, Irish culture at home and abroad, this government agency seems to be similarly culturally blind (ironic, no?). Oh yes, English Ireland and the English culture of Ireland is well represented. But Irish Ireland, and the Irish culture of Ireland? Err, not so much.
Well, in fairness, there is the logo, which has the obligatory cúpla focail underneath the Culture Ireland text (Cultúr Éireann – whey for bastardised Gaelicised words when perfectly good Irish words exist in the first place). And… erm… well, to be honest that’s kind of it at least as their online presence goes. The gove.ie website for Culture Ireland is entirely in English (despite all the promises of equal parity for the two language communities making up the nation envisioned by the implementation the Official Languages Act of 2003: which most of our public bodies spend more time – and money – fighting than implementing). The press releases and documentation are all in English (bar a handful of Irish application forms).
Culture Ireland? Yes, that is true, we’re all for that now. Cultúr Éireann? No, sorry, we’re not really into that sort of thing.
One of the main reasons for the existence of the agency Culture Ireland is to exploit the ‘culture tourism’ that contributes some 1.8 billion euros to the Irish economy every year. Okey-dokey. But what, may I ask, is the point of telling all these tourists to come to Ireland to experience our culture and something completely different from what they can get at home or elsewhere in the world, when all they are experiencing is an English language culture – no different from what most of them have left behind them? They arrive at Dublin Airport, or Shannon, or Rosslare seaport, and spend a few days or weeks in a foreign country – where everyone speaks, reads and writes in English and where there is a MacDonald’s on every street corner. Foreign? These Irish speak English, write in English, and all their tourist places are, well, English.
Except… Well, except of course that this is not the full, or even real, story. For there is another Ireland (the Hidden Ireland, as famously phrased). That is the real Ireland, where the Irish speak, incredible as it might seem, Irish. And where they also read and write it too, and where all those tourist places have, well, their Irish versions as well.
Ireland’s English language culture is barely (in real terms) 200 years old. Up to the Great Famine of the mid-1840s the majority of the population of the island of Ireland was Irish speaking. It is only in the last 150 years that that has changed (yet, 42% of the population remains Irish speaking – albeit behind doors or between themselves since the public opprobrium and discrimination they face from Ireland’s English speaking community is so onerous as to make even the bravest of souls take the path of least resistance – and speak the tongue of the majority). Before that time the nation was majority Irish speaking, and for most of its history entirely Irish speaking.
So 150 years of English speaking versus some 5000 years of Irish speaking? The organisation Culture Ireland in fact represents and promotes just over 3% of Ireland’s cultural heritage. Let’s say that again so that we fully understand it. Ireland’s English language culture represents 3% of Ireland’s cultural history. Ireland’s Irish language culture represents 97% of Ireland’s cultural heritage.
3% versus 97%? A bare 150 years versus some 5000 years? Yet who is the winner here? But of course, the 3% that represent the recent era of the English speaking majority on this island. Is this fair? Equitable? Or even moral?
Why am I, as an Irish speaker, as one of the 42% of the population that is Irish speaking and who for 97% of the last 5000 years was part of the majority on this island, paying for the culture of the 58% of the population who have been in the majority for 3% of that time? Why is the Irish speaking community – the historic native majority here – subsidising the English speaking community? And at our own expense?
Even more notable is the fact that over half of the English speaking community here, despite their monolingual English status, regard the Irish language as their own, as part of their heritage too. So why are they paying for the English language and culture in Ireland to supersede what they regard as ultimately their own language and culture?
Who decides these things? Who decides in government or the civil service where our monies go? Well, of course, the English speaking Anglophone establishment. It is the English-speaking Irish who favour themselves over the Irish-speaking Irish, and in an all too familiar story, try to write Irish Ireland out of the history of our country. And out of the present narrative of our country too.
For them Ireland without the Irish is no non sequitur. Imagine Ireland? Imagine an Irish Ireland.