The beautiful writing of Dubhghlas de hÍde in traditional Irish script
The beautiful writing of Dubhghlas de hÍde in traditional Irish script

From the BBC a story that reminds us that many people on this island owe a loyalty to a nation whose roots run far deeper than any modern nation-state (or Occupied territories):

“It was a letter written in a shaky hand by an 85-year-old man and his kind words warmed the hearts of a fledgling Irish language community in east Belfast.

He had been born in Armagh 85 years ago and now lives in Derry, he wrote in fine Old Irish script.

He likes to keep up with home and he read in the Armagh Observer about how the loyalist community had connected with the Irish language. It heartened him.

It is “our lovely language” said the letter writer – and he included a cheque for £100 to help someone else learn Irish.

It was a gesture that touched Linda Ervine’s heart.

She started classes in September at the East Belfast Mission – from one class, the project has grown to five classes.

She takes her work out into the community telling them about the hidden history of Protestants and the Irish language.

Since Linda became Irish language development officer at the East Belfast Mission last September, interest has grown. Her classes include an inter-generational one where all ages can learn together.

Linda’s love affair with the language began after she discovered from censuses that not only did some of her own ancestors speak Irish but that it was also widely spoken in several of the streets in east Belfast.

In the same week that the Armagh man wrote to Linda, Gaelchultur in Dublin sent learning resources worth £100.

“Cluain Ard and the Ultach Trust have also been very good to us. People are so generous,” she said”

Looking at the image of the letter accompanying the BBC piece, penned in traditional Irish script, I am struck yet again by the grievous harm that was done to the continuity of the living Irish language when the Irish print and manuscript alphabets were forcefully abandoned alongside the civil service-driven spelling “reforms” of the 1940s and ’50s. Suddenly an entire generation of adult Irish-speaking men and women found themselves cut adrift from the familiar written form of their language. Likewise, looking back from the early 21st century, literally thousands of Irish books and manuscripts published in the 18th, 19th and early to mid-twentieth centuries have been rendered all but illegible to most contemporary Irish-speakers due to the artificial changes in the language. And all in the name of bureaucratic efficiency. Would the Greeks abandon their ancient alphabet in the name of illusionary cost-savings? A hoax story that recently ran wild on the internet proves that they most certainly would not. But then the Greeks have a pride in their language and culture, a sense of collective ownership that the Irish simply do not.

Related to the issue of allowing faceless bureaucrats to decide (and implement) state policy one is struck by the lack of support from the Government of Ireland for the language initiative in Protestant East Belfast. While this is a delicate matter surely some mechanism could have been created to facilitate direct funding by the Irish state of this most welcome of cultural developments? Perhaps a joint initiative with the British government or via the auspices of the Iomairt Cholm Cille (Columba Project), the body overseeing co-operation on Gaelic-related matters between the Irish and Scottish governments?

As we look for imaginative ways of fostering and growing Irish national identity in the north-east of Ireland can there be anything more genuinely Irish than our indigenous language? And if that can take root again amongst our fellow Irishmen and women, even those who have a sense of Irishness somewhat different from our own, is that not a venture worth supporting?

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8 comments on “A Letter From Irish Ireland

  1. Feirsteach

    I’m open to correction but I assume as a Development Officer that she is in fact in receipt of funding presumably from Iontaobhas Ultach http://www.ultach.org, one of the orgs. funded by Foras na Gaeilge (and potentially risking an ending of that funding in the coming months), which is funded 75% by the Irish gov. and 25% by the Northern Assembly’s DCAL.

    • Indeed I would assume so as well. Personally I would reform the whole system of funding/support but that is a matter for another day. I am not sure how much confidence one can have in the Foras. But then I would have a Roinn na Gaeilge and a minister with a cabinet seat rather than a Foras na Gaeilge. But that might be too “Québec-like” for the “lip-service” powers that be.

      I would place the growth of Irish speakers from a Protestant and/or Unionist background in the north-east of Ireland as a matter of national importance. One that deserves extra funding over and above agreed budgets. That is why I suggested the Iomairt Cholm Cille as one mechanism of “filtering” such a focus of attention and support.

      After all we have invested over 100 million euros in the budget of Bord na gCon since 2000. That include the 11 million euros for 2013. If we can find tens of millions of euros for dogs surely we could find a million a year for an initiative geared to the particular needs of the Irish-speaking Protestant/Unionist community?

  2. Seamas,

    Many thanks for the shout about the discussion we’re having over on my own page and Cleenish’s great post. I hate shameless plugs but if you’re readers are interested the 2nd part of it is up now and all are welcome to comment as always.

    http://footballcliches.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/a-nation-once-again-part-2-of-a-guest-post-from-cleenish/

    GRMA,

    FC

  3. Peadar Ó Lorcáin

    Sionnach: Excellent post there – teaching of Gaelic script could easily be reintroduced in early primary classrooms judging from Nuacht TG4 piece last week where Chinese script and oral phrases were being taught to young children in Kerry – truth is unfortunately that the inherent low self esteem among those over-30yrs of age in non-English languages generally (but Irish in particular) truncates any genuine interest they might have in the artistry of Gaelic typography and manuscripts – you’re right, this is in the absence of leadership at central and inter-governmental level and shouldn’t have to cost any additional funding – where there’s a will, mar a dheirfinn! – Áth mór, Peadar

    • Agreed. My mother grew up as a fluent West Cork Irish speaker but is lost to the contemporary version of the language. She came of the last, last generation for whom the pre-Caighdeán Oifigiúil spelling and script was a reality. With all the drive for reform in the 1950s to ’60s no one thought to stop and ask what was being lost. One looks at some of the beautiful 18th and 19th Irish books captured on Google knowing that such works may be effectively indecipherable to future generations of Irish speakers.

      • Peadar Ó Lorcáin

        Sionnach: Thanks very much for that – perhaps the language isn’t entirely lost in future years due to the advances in technology and accessible web databases – of course the still limited technology available will never do justice to the anthropology, folklore and linguistic inheritance that is still present not just on this island, but among an ageing diaspora worldwide – indeed the ultimate insult to these older native speaking emigrants (ironically by some gaelophobic Irish republicans) is that “Irish is a dead language” – shameful!

        • Back in the 1990s I had several encounters with quite an influential (Provisional) Republican whose only ideological aim was a British withdrawal from Ireland and the creation of a left-wing All-Ireland state. He had zero interest or regard for the Irish language and indeed viewed it as a potential or unwanted impediment to reunification. He was not alone in that view. Needless to say we did not exactly get on.

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