My Identity Is Not Negotiable

Tá An Réabhlóid Ag Teacht! The Revolution Is Coming!
Tá An Réabhlóid Ag Teacht! The Revolution Is Coming!

For the last decade and more I’ve worked for a company in Ireland that is a major subsidiary of an international corporation with several different facilities in the country employing large multinational workforces. Through my role in that company I’ve worked with or met literally hundreds of people from Britain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Nigeria, Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, China and many other nations. During all that time and all those people my Irish name and surname has never been an issue, has never been an obstacle, has never been seen as anything unusual. Even native English-speakers from outside of Ireland, be they British or American, simply accepted it as just another name amongst dozens or hundreds they may have encountered in non-English languages during their careers.

The only people who have ever made an issue of my name during my working life, or more particularly the combination of a forename and surname in the Irish language, have been Irish people. Again and again I have been challenged by Irish people for having an Irish name. Again and again Irish people have stumbled over its use, casually mispronounced or misspelled it, ridiculed it, disparaged it, tried to force assumed English “translations” of it on me or otherwise expressed that “attitude” that all Irish-speakers in Ireland would recognise. Not everyone, by no means, and not the majority. But certainly enough to make it noticeable, enough to make it at times a source of anxiety, frustration or anger.

But have I responded in kind? Have I tried to restore the surnames of colleagues from Ireland to their original Irish form or Irishify peoples’ names? Have I mispronounced or misspelled anglicised Irish names or non-Irish names? Of course not. Like most citizens of Ireland with a combination of forename and surname in the indigenous language of Ireland more often than not I have simply let the petty insults and hurts pass by. It is strange how quickly one can become inured to such things, how quickly one learns to live with casual discrimination when it has been a feature of all of one’s adult life. So in an international company where pained efforts are made to correctly spell and pronounce non-English names, where a recognition and respect for multiculturalism is written into the HR rules, I have become over the years an occasional target for a militant anglophone few.

However I have always known that my experiences are the experiences of many, many others in Ireland and that they reflect something greater and wider in Irish society  Marcus Ó Buachalla, sports journalist and member of the PR firm Pembroke Communications, has a lengthy article on The Score examining the discriminatory practice still favoured by some Irish news and current affairs media of anglicising Irish names and surnames. In effect inventing or assigning English language names for men, women and children with Irish language names:

“IT WAS EARLIER yesterday morning and the text read loud and clear. “Irish Times tar éis ainmneacha Choláiste Eoin a aistriú go béarla…

The text was from my brother and like me he is a former pupil of Coláiste Eoin in Stillorgan, the Irish language secondary school.

The text went on some more but the gist of it being that a colleague of his, and parent of one of the current pupils in Coláiste Eoin, had spotted that the write up in the sports supplement which should have referred to her son, his team-mates and his school referred to another team altogether.

The school name was right. The opposition was right. The final score was right; a two-point win for Kilkenny CBS.  Yet this was not the Coláiste Eoin team that had left Stillorgan for an away game in Clonad.

Instead of Dara Ó Gallchobhair, it read Dara Gallagher. Colm O’Neill I presume must have referred to Colm Ó Néill. I could go on but I think you can probably see where I am going. One to 15 all had very different names to the official team list as provided to the matchday referee and to media.

It brought me back. In 1998 as a student in Coláiste Eoin, the school was asked to provide our names in English ahead of an All-Ireland colleges semi-final. We refused to do so. This was our starting 15. These are our names.

The repercussions were not significant but rather than being a nice memento to keep, the matchday programme of that day is but a token of the win over Coláiste Chríost Rí. No team photo. No introduction from local journalists like Niall Scully or Kevin Nolan outlining our journey to date. We were ignored apart from the team sheet but that was enough for us. Twenty eight names agus gach ceann as gaeilge.

I felt so strongly about this back then that I wrote to The Irish Times and my letter was duly printed. Would you ask for an English translation of Francois Mitterand I asked? Or Nelson Mandela? Clearly some would back then and still would to this day.

I feel as strongly about this issue today as I did in 1998 and my emotions are the same but at least in 1998 we had the chance to take a stand. These lads did not. Your name and surname is more than just a title. It can often mean something. It can be a name handed down through the generations, a tip of the hat towards a lost friend, sibling or parent.

This isn’t about being an Irish language speaker nor am I on another gaeilgeoir rant. It is however absolutely 100% about standing up to an attitude that seeks to embarrass Irish language speakers into turning their back on the language.”

In the words of M. John Harrison:

““Identity is not negotiable. An identity you have achieved by agreement is always a prison.”

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7 comments

  1. Every time I hear news like this I am shocked and bemused every single time. I always used to get confused why some Irish people had no interest in their language but it confuses me more that a ridicule takes place regarding it. A strange pomposity it is to have groups of people effectively fighting against their own language
    buíochas le Dia roinnt daoine iad a choinneáil Gaeilge beo
    Is breá liom é le mo chroí go léir

    1. I agree. Anachronistic British colonial attitudes that belong in British colonial Ireland. Not 21st century Ireland.

      If some anglophones in Ireland completely reject the Irish language and culture, fair enough. Good luck to them. They after all have the upper hand now. But why attack those who take the opposite view? Again it is never anything completely explicit in terms of bigotry, though I have been aggressively queried by a former manager as to why I live in Dublin and that if I want to speak Irish that I should “…go somewhere down the country” where it “belongs”. That was an interesting argument. I also had a former job where the person interviewing me asked me what my “real” name was and then spent several minutes suggesting that I change my surname to a “normal one” as this would be better for my career prospects and wouldn’t deter perspective employers!

  2. “Britain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Nigeria, Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, China and many other nations.”
    Is Britain a nation?
    I hope you pronounce my name correctly.

    1. Point taken, Robat! 😉

      I would certainly take care to ask you for the correct pronunciation if unsure and if communicating with you by email or adding your name to documentation for business purposes I would ensure that the spelling was correct. And I certainly wouldn’t challenge you for having a name in the Welsh language or query why you couldn’t have a “normal” name (which is ironic in my case given that I work in a company where employees have forenames and surnames from a wide range of non-English speaking nations, none of whom would ever be dare challenged or queried in such a manner).

      If I was someone who forcefully proselytized in my daily working life on behalf of the rights of the Irish-speaking community I could understand some anglophone Irish people reacting adversely. But I simply don’t. And why should I have to? Maybe that is the problem?!

  3. In fairness to the GAA, I think all team sheets have to be in Irish – that was always the way in the past anyway. But to the substantive point of the piece – the Irish for whatever reason have the least self confidence of any people I have ever met. We must be the only country who when pointing out something that is silly say ‘ that’s Irish’. There is no other version of this I know in any other country/ It is probably a combination of our nearness to a larger cultural entity and the old chestnut of our post colonial background. But it is aided and abetted by the sort of creature who ends up in the main media outlets like RTE, Irish Times etc (who for all their faults are still better then imported British tabloids) who encourage this.

    I ws reading that Sky TV in their coverage of the Irih soccer game were again referring to the UK mainland (as against what I am not sure), but the clear inference is that Dublin was part of the UK, but some off shore bit. How would it be in Britain if a French commentator was saying mainland France – inferring London was only an off shore bit of France. We couch our lack of confidence in pretend confidence – we say, sure it is only a name, we know what we are – but do we?

    1. I have to say the “that’s Irish” expression is one of the few inanities that will infuriate me. It is so psychologically revealing of the Irish cultural mindset that it hardly needs further comment.

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