During the revival of the French language and culture in Québec in the 1970s and ‘80s it became noticeable that the stronger, and more widespread, the language became the stronger and more widespread the opposition from English-speakers. It’s was almost an inverse law of language revival in a bilingual context. As the minority community increases, and gains more social and political standing, so hostility to it from the majority community increases in direct proportion.
As long as the minority language remains that, and is publically seen as such, the majority seem content to simply ignore it (or if feeling fairly liberal, indulge it to a certain extent). But as soon as the minority threatens the absolute power of the majority, even if it is only a perception of a threat, then let loose the dogs of war.
That is certainly the case here in Ireland where the enormous strides made over the last 15 years in Irish medium education, broadcasting, equality legislation and social participation and “prestige” for the Irish speaking population of the country has led to an arguable “Anglophone backlash”. At a political level this can be seen in the moves by the Fine Gael – Labour Party coalition government to undo civil rights legislation for Irish-speaking citizens by threatening to rewrite the Official Languages Act of 2003, which puts into law a form of limited equality between Irish and English speaking citizens when accessing state services or resources, and abolishing the office of the Language Commissioner, the legal authority which oversees the implementation of that law (often in the face of fierce hostility from sections of the civil service which have simply refused to comply with their legal duties in this area).
In the Irish news media, particularly in the print media, the increased hostility towards Irish speakers is now sinking to the level of “hate speech”. Hardly a week passes without some story or opinion piece denigrating Irish speaking men, women and children in this country. This has spilled over into online discourse where the sort of violent and abusive language once confined to the anglophone extreme has become the norm amongst many contributors and commentators on Irish-based news or current affairs websites (thejournal.ie and politics.ie are both noticeable for their lack of sanction against anti-Irish bigotry).
The language of Anglophone supremacism in Ireland is almost uniform in its abusive nature. The same terms crop up again and again. Irish-speaking citizens, even children, are the “Gaeliban” (a crude play on the word Taliban). They are:
“backward”, “primitive”, “anti-modern”, “anti-global”, “opposed to multiculturalism” (an ironic one that), “petty minded”, “tribal” (a favourite term of abuse), “bog-savages”, “living in the Dark Ages”, “living in the past”, “medieval”, “extremists”, “fanatics”, “fascists”, “Gaelic Nazis”, “crypto-terrorists”, “hobbyists”, “militants”, “elitists”, “working class”, “rural class”, “upper class”, “uber-nationalists”, “racists” (not sure how that one works!), “bigots”, “child abusers” (a recent addition to the list), “liars”, “cheats”, “frauds”, “remnants”, “recidivists”, “lazy”, “indolent”, “arrogant”, “two-faced”, “deceitful”…
Do I need go on?
Lately we’ve been told that Irish-speaking men, women and children aren’t even Irish. No: they are “Gaels”. Their language is not Irish: it is Gaelic. And the Irish-speaking regions, the Gaeltachtaí? They are “Gaelic reservations”.
I wonder do these people, these modern English-speaking, English-reading, English-thinking Irish men and women know that their terms of abuse for Irish-speaking people apes that of the English colonial rulers of Ireland in times past? Not just for Irish-speaking people in Ireland, mind you, but for all of the people of Ireland. Have they become the new Anglo-Irish of 21st century Ireland? No longer defined by religion, or wealth or status, or even colonial ethnicity but simply by language and culture?
Is Ireland now divided between a small, Irish-speaking Native Irish minority, and an overwhelming, English-speaking Anglo-Irish majority? And what of those who look to both? A confusion of labels exist here with no easy guide to aid our understanding. It is not a matter of ancestry, since all ancestries in contemporary Ireland are blurred, but rather of identity, and often self-identity. One can choose to identify one’s self as indigenous Irish, irrespective of one’s actual background, simply by identifying with Ireland’s native language and culture and regarding it as your own. Arguably then the opposite must be true. That one can reject such a label and instead identify with Ireland’s Anglo-Irish (and increasingly Anglo-American) language and culture and see oneself in that context.
So, two communities, some of whom at least are diametrically opposed.
But at least we can see we are not the only ones who experience this. For as the Welsh-speaking population of Wales has grown, and asked for equal standing with its English-speaking peers, it too has faced an increased chorus of opposition. And the same confusion of identity exists. As In Ireland some Welsh people (correctly) claim that they and their ancestors never spoke the native tongue, no matter how deep their roots in the country, so why should they speak it now? Others, whose great-grandparents may well have spoken no other language but Welsh, still reject both language and culture as “alien” to them. In this Ireland and Wales face almost identical dilemmas (the irony of all these Hourihanes and Kennys hating the Irish language and culture is not lost on many of us, especially given the eager embrace of the de Buitléars and Rosenstocks).
In Wales this tension has exploded once again (and with greater furore than the time before, a sure sign of escalating “identity conflict”). From WalesOnline:
“FORMER Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy has warned that “excessive” spending on Welsh language schemes and untimely demands on public bodies and private firms at a time of tight budgets could damage the progress made on the Welsh language in the past decade.
The Torfaen MP issued a statement after reports yesterday about proposals under consideration to extend translation of Assembly proceedings to the written records of every meeting at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
In fact the translations referred to above will cost in the region of £95,000 (not the £400,000 claimed by Anglophone critics of the policy), but that hardly matters. The truth is not the point here. This is simply yet another manifestation of the struggle for supremacy between Welsh Wales and English Wales in what is likely to become an increasing feature of politics and society in the country (just ask the people of Québec and Canada).
In Wales indigenous speakers are in a far stronger position than their cousins in Ireland. Which is why the Anglophone supremacists here have stepped in before the “natives” get any more uppity than they already have. Bye-bye Language Commissioner, bye-bye full Official Languages Act, bye-bye Irish medium education, bye-bye Gaeltachtaí, bye-bye civil rights legislation and equality for Ireland’s Irish-speaking citizens and communities.
So long and thanks for all the Gael.