History Politics The Irish Language - An Ghaeilge

Ireland’s 800 Year Culture War

An Ghaeilge
An Ghaeilge!

Recently a trilingual Danish acquaintance of mine, somewhat familiar with Ireland, asked me why is it that most of the political leaders of the British Unionist minority in the north-east of the country are so vociferous in their antipathy to the Irish language and equal rights for Irish-speaking men, women and children in the region. The simplest explanation I could give was also the most obvious. Irish is the indigenous language of the island of Ireland, a language tied up with two thousand years and more of Gaelic civilization that predated the British invasions and colonisations of our country, and which for centuries existed in parallel with and in opposition to the British settlements on this island-nation. It naturally became a symbol of native resistance to foreign rule and a target for extermination along with those who spoke it. For some in a community who believe themselves to be descended in the main from those self-same British invaders and colonisers Irish-speakers remain the ultimate bogey-men, the hewers of wood and drawers of water who could at any time rise up and turn on the bringers of British rule and British civilization.

The extreme if influential fringe of the British Unionist community, along with their numerous media apologists in Ireland and Britain, hate Irish and hate those who speak Irish simply because it reminds them of some uncomfortable historical truths. Truths they would rather see redacted from the history of Ireland and of western Europe. Invasion, occupation, colonisation and annexation are hardly attractive qualities to have in the record of any people’s history. Genocide, linguicide and culturecide do not make for media-friendly spin. So its best to simply censor them from the record, to follow the route of a Stalin or Pol Pot and begin with a Year Zero. The history of “Northern Ireland”  began in 1921 and naught but a few notable battles proceeded that. Hence the whiter-than-white boys and girls of NI21, the newest liberal Unionist party in Ireland, disparaging (the wrong sort of) history and memory as they gear up into action.

So the Irish language and associated culture or any sense of an indigenous Irish identity, however tenuous or however open and all-encompassing, must be crushed under foot. Ground into the dirt. There can be no compromise, no sharing, no outreach. This is the ultimate “culture war”, one that goes to the very heart of Irish nationhood on the island of Ireland.

Much of the ideology of political Unionism as expressed in Ireland is clear: British identity is English-speaking, English-reading, English-thinking. Anything else, anything other, is foreign and alien. The Irish language by virtue of not being the English language is contemptible, repulsive, inferior. Irish-speakers by virtue of not being English-speakers are contemptible, repulsive, inferior. The age-old anti-Irish racism of British colonial culture on the island of Ireland is what drives the hatred of Irish among a cadre of Unionist leaders and their immediate followers. Ancient wars, ancients feuds, ancient blood-letting.

While some may believe we have moved on from those times they are fooling themselves. 21st century Ireland is still the same battle-ground as 12th century Ireland. The war is all around us.

16 comments on “Ireland’s 800 Year Culture War

  1. However the powers that be south of the border are hardly falling over backwards to promote Irish, beyond a little ceremonial tokenism. To give a simply example, any place name in the RoI containing ‘King’ or ‘Queen’ was entirely wiped off the map and replaced with the Gaelic equivalent, (even when most folks probably couldn’t pronounce it?) Dún Laoghaire, Cobh, Laois … , why not restore the native names everywhere as is generally done whenever a country frees itself from colonialism? If English speakers could manage the names listed above why not Baile átha Cliath, Corcaigh, Gaillimh … ?? Put it on all the signs and the maps and that’s the name of the place, happens all the time elsewhere, what a missed oppertunity.

    • Agreed on all points. The “culture war” theme doesn’t just apply to the British Unionist minority in the north-east who understandably have their historical baggage and wish to fight for their “British culture” in a non-British land. I get Unionists supporting English, even wishing it to have supremacy over Irish. I don’t get Nationalists thinking the same. But they do.

      I touched upon that very subject of nomenclature here.

  2. James Todd

    I’d like to point out that it’s ideology and illogical paranoia that’s the driving force behind Unionist hatred here, not ancestry. I’m sure I don’t need to point out (but will anyway) that the head of the notorious Shankill Butchers was an Irishman by the name of Hugh Murphy. My own surname implies that my family came to Ireland during the Plantations, but my ancestors were Roman-Catholics living in the Bogside. I’m not denying that British ancestry might have a positive correlation to Unionism, but I think that a lot of people overestimate it.

    Anyway, back on topic, it’s unfortunate that Unionists feel so threatened by Irish-speakers and Irish culture. There’s no real reason that British communities wouldn’t be able to maintain their culture and language in a unified Irish-speaking Ireland. As Unionists point out all too often, Polish emigrants don’t seem to have any issue preserving their unique identity and language.

    • A very fair point, James, and I will amend the wording to something slightly different.

      In relation to your last points I wholly agree and I would be the very first person to state that the linguistic, cultural and religious rights of the British Unionist minority in the north-east of Ireland, reunited or not, should be given legislative recognition. No one wishes to “force” Unionist to speak Irish. But no one in Ireland should be forced to speak English either. One aims for a balance of equality and rights.

  3. It’s so heartening to know that the Danish visitor was given such a balanced analysis of Unionist attitudes, so nuanced and free from crude stereotyping (forgive my sarcasm). The leader of the Shankill butchers gang was Lenny Murphy, not Hugh as stated by another contributor, though his main point was, obviously to highlight his Irish surname. I was interested to learn recently, through one of our Sunday papers, that Jamie Bryson, of flags fame, is fairly closely related to James Bryson, a prominent 1970s I.R.A. man, their gt-grandfathers were brothers and, indeed, their physical resemblance is striking. Small world!

    • James Todd

      Lenny Murphy was born Hugh Murphy. He changed his name to Lenny because he thought that Hugh sounded like a Catholic name, especially considering his Irish surname.

    • Hi, Ginger.

      In relation to my friend from Denmark he has visited this country several times over the last decade, including the north-east, as part of his comparative studies on early European religions (principally Germano-Scandinavian and Celtic). He also has an interest in the general history of Ireland (he has written a piece analysing the post-conflict similarities between the Irish and Finnish civil wars of the early 20th century since part of his family were originally Swedish-speaking Finns). My explanation of course was in far greater detail than outlined in the blog post here and subject to far greater questioning. It was not a sermon 😉

      Stereotyping of any kind was I hope kept to a minimum as indicated in the post. Note that I was asked “…why is it that most of the political leaders of the British Unionist minority in the north-east of the country are so vociferous in their antipathy to the Irish language and equal rights for Irish-speaking men, women and children in the region“. This was his question and his framing (the actual words were “Unionist leaders“, “the north” and “Irish-talkers“). I do not think it is inaccurate to claim that the majority of Unionist political leaders in the north-east are hostile to Irish-speakers and their language.

      I also wrote that many of the “…more extreme elements of the British Unionist community, along with their numerous media apologists in Ireland and Britain, hate Irish and hate those who speak Irish“. I specifically termed those people as an “extreme” separating them from the majority of ordinary Unionist-minded people.

      Again in relation to this bit: “The ideology of Unionism is clear: British identity is English-speaking, English-reading, English-thinking.” Hardly a novel claim to make in relation to the north-east of Ireland (or indeed to Britain and British nationalism in general). I was talking specifically of “ideology” not of Unionist communities as a whole.

      No one, least of all I who actually shares “Planter” ancestry through my Fermanagh great-grandparents, denies the mixture of ethnicity that goes into the modern Unionist/Pro-Union community (or Irish people as a whole). We are all a mix. Nothing I wrote detracted from that. If the sentence “For a people descended in the main from those self-same British invaders and colonisers” is taken as too narrow I will certainly amend now to something, as you say, more nuanced.

      Any time you wish to contribute something of your own, if you can find the space to do so, please feel free to contact me by the blog email. I will happily publish views from the Unionist/Pro-Union community or rebuttals of anything I have written.

  4. Hi Seamas, apologies for the shameless plug but if you and your readers are interested a new and final post on the SDLP is up on the blog, wp.me/p1eiVW-oe


  5. Sinéad Rohan

    An Soiscéal Naofa De Réir Lúcáis! [tinyurl.ie/b69] — Irony lost on this guy as he sloppily sites the “murder machine” on scambridge.ie/the-road-to-a-yellow-pack-public-service [tinyurl.ie/b6a]

    “…as a matter of urgency we should forthwith, and discard the nonsensical objections of the vacuous patriots who are talking through their liathroidi on the issue, abolish the Irish language from the curriculum, why are we wasting 15000 hours on such tripe that has done nothing for economic progression is actually statistically being spoken less by even those in Gaeltacht areas today and whose language test in the Civil Service is now an embarrassing joke with people from Japan becoming fluent as Gaeilge overnight, people who never heard of Irish or Gaeilge, lets face facts shall we , this White Elephant is costing us millions in terms of the money that is being spent teaching it, we have a language station that is not watched by the majority in this country and who have no interest in the language , have never spoken it and never will, it is not the language of business in this country at all, English is, therefore if we are really serious about getting full employment we need as a matter of urgency to abolish this eliphint ban for ever and bring in an English oral at junior and leaving cert level, make it compulsory that english conversation be practiced on a daily basis by students from the age of 4 so that by the time they leave school they can actually interact socially with their colleagues as is required in the real world, in the real world we dont require knowledge of the Irish language whatsoever, time and again employers are saying that they wont recruit graduates principally because graduates social communication skills are not adequate for the particulars of the jobs concerned, do we really want to compromise our future prosperity on the rock of hollow patriotism which is getting us nowhere ie persisting with a language that is utterly obsolete and irrelevant, it would be much better to invest that time in training future generations in the skills that matter such as interpersonal skills and communications skills, which no are not just commonsense or come naturally like anything they must be practiced,like anything they must be taught properly in schools and they are not and certainly were not taught properly…”

    • Sinéad Rohan

      Posted on scambridge: ‘Sinéad Rohan says: Tragic ironic you siting ‘murder machine’, Luke (tinyurl.ie/b6a) — there’s a bigger picture that’s lost on you: current job market and state’s education system has far greater behemoth in submission to FDI’s — “zero hours contracts” (http://tinyurl.ie/b6b)’

  6. Sinéad Rohan

    Noticed this book recently and ocr’d relevant passages which are striking considering “Luke” and his entry mentioned above on scambridge website who falls into perennial trap on confusing “the Irish language” with a post-colonial corrupt bourgeois theocracy (apologies for taking so much of page!)

    Blanshard, Paul, ‘The Irish And Catholic Power : An American Interpretation’ (The Beacon Press, Boston, 1953), pp 131 – 6

    The “Green Elephant”
    “Next to Catholicism the most important force in the segregation and isolation of Irish culture is the Irish-language “revival.” This venture in cultural nationalism, which Arland Ussher has called a “Green Elephant,” is embarrassing to most Irishmen and is the subject of furious under-cover controversy. The controversy has become especially bitter in recent years with the introduction of compulsory Irish into both Catholic and Protestant national classrooms.
    The Irish Constitution makes Irish “the first official language” of the Republic and describes English as merely “a second official language.” Then the Constitution adds: “Provision may, however, be made by law for the exclusive use of either of the said languages for any one or more official purposes, either throughout the State or in any part thereof.” The leaders of the language movement visualize a day when Ireland will adopt a program dispensing altogether with English as an official tongue. Their campaign for the language is coupled with violent attacks on English culture and fervent appeals to “the Irish soul.” “When a nation like the Irish loses the language that has been spoken in Ireland for well over 2,000 years, without one day of intermission, that nation loses in greater part her heart and soul,” says Dr. James Devane in the Irish Rosary. “It is true that the nation may live on, but its present, its past and its future change. It breathes a different air, lives under different skies, looks back on an alien past and forward to a changed horizon. It thinks in the language of the people whose tongue it now speaks. It talks with the larynx of a gramophone, and thinks with a papier mache mind formed out of the pulp of a foreign printing press.”
    The movement for Irish was started in the days when it did not seem likely that Ireland could win independence from a superior military power by political agitation alone. Cultural independence seemed a feasible alternative, and it was recognized that agitation for the revival of a native Irish language could be used as a supplementary weapon against British rule. Although Daniel O’Connell was quite unenthusiastic about the revival of Irish, his successors who captured the nationalist movement after he was dead made it into a Gaelic movement. With Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders of a century ago, the language revival was a mixture of starry-eyed nativism with shrewd political propaganda, designed to foster simultaneously hatred of the British and respect for all things Irish. The advocates of Gaelic did not stop to think that if their movement actually succeeded it would cut Ireland off from many of the world’s richest cultural sources. The language reformers produced extravagant eulogies of the literary treasures waiting for the Irish people if they would return to their ancient tongue.
    Actually, there is almost no literature worthy of serious study in modern Irish, the language which the reformers are still attempting to revive. There is an Irish language with a considerable treasury, old Irish, which was the tongue of the Irish people of the countryside for a thousand years – but nobody has spoken it for centuries. In order to appreciate the treasures which still exist in that tongue, a scholar would have to master material as different from modern Irish as ancient Anglo-Saxon is different from modern English.
    Modern Irish is a living, native tongue in only six tiny and remote sections of Ireland’s west coast and in one tiny area in the extreme south. The Gaeltacht – the section where the language is indigenous – is not only small, but largely unlettered and desperately poor. Although its language is rich in local idiom, the region is nothing more than a backward cultural pocket whose survival as a language pool is entirely accidental. The region is too small to be used for the promotion of a general revival. Even its own newspapers are printed in English, and its business dealings with the outside world are conducted chiefly in English. Its young people, who are brought up to speak Irish exclusively in their schools and homes, listen enviously to the English language of the radio, and attend the English-language cinema. They are anxious to master the only linguistic tool which will help them to secure work in the outside world, and few of them share the sentimental notions about their language which the professional revivalists attempt to spread. They are leaving their Gaeltacht homes at a more rapid rate than the young people of any other section of the country.
    In spite of these unpleasant facts, many Irish enthusiasts have adopted the concept of the national language as a barrier to cut off the Irish people from non-Catholic culture. The Irish politicians, during the struggle for independence, seized upon the language concept as a political weapon, and after 1921 the Free State wrote a drastic bilingual program into law. Under this, nearly all government documents must be bilingual, and nearly all public placards and notices must be either bilingual or exclusively in Irish. Every employee of national or local governments must pass an examination in Irish to secure a civil-service post, and every student in the national schools must study Irish for several years. In practice this means that the language is used as a tool of discrimination against all foreign-born applicants for government posts and, to a certain extent, against native Protestants who are less enthusiastic than the Catholics about mastering Irish.
    The most important, and most disturbing, fact connected with the language revival is that hundreds of schools in many sections of the country teach all of their subjects in Irish. By this practice the whole tempo and quality of Irish education are adversely affected. Every recognized teacher in a secondary school must show fitness to teach in Irish. Thousands of elementary students and one-fourth of all secondary students attend schools where the rule of the exclusive use of Irish is in force. In Dublin some of these schools have actually attempted to hold Greek classes in Irish for children who speak English exclusively in their homes. In the lower grades of Dublin’s primary schools the infants are given “learning” only in the native tongue. Even in the Abbey Theatre, the younger actors whose contracts have been written in recent years must have their names printed on the program exclusively in Irish. On the streets of Dublin the street signs and government office titles must be in both Irish and English, and occasionally the English is omitted.
    The government spends huge sums in subsidizing and promoting Irish, particularly in the schools. National University students who choose Irish as the medium for the study of a subject in the classroom are required to pay only half of the standard tuition fee. Secondary schools which choose Irish as their medium of instruction are also favored with special government grants. I have visited normal schools, taught wholly in Irish, where virtually all the students came from English-speaking homes and were being trained to teach English-speaking children in a tongue which was as unnatural to the teacher as to the children.
    The language revival, as a frank Irish Catholic critic once declared in the Dail, tends to make Ireland “illiterate in two languages.” This critic, Deputy Frank MacDermott, denounced the language policy of the government as “90 per cent eyewash,” and pointed out that to require young children to learn their basic school lessons in a language with which they are not familiar is “to tie a millstone educationally around the necks of those unfortunate children, to befog them, to close their minds, to put a premium upon what is vague and slipshod.” The influential Jesuit Irish Monthly spoke out in 1949, denouncing Irish primary education in the cities as “a dull, dreary round of memory tests and monotonous repetitions that kill all interest and initiative. … The majority think and try to think in the language of their homes, and have to parrot all day in a tongue never heard anywhere save within what they soon evaluate as the prison walls of a school…. This is not education … the dreary day is often terminated by the escapism of juvenile delinquency.” G. A. Olden, writing in the Irish Times, has been even more frank:
    “The revival of Irish has led to more boredom, bad blood and nauseating hypocrisy than any of our national aspirations. Let it be spoken “consciously and for pleasure” and we may yet live to see the day when it will cease to be the bane of the Civil Service, the sneaking embarrassment of innumerable T.D.’s (members of the Dail), and the innocent cause of more sullen antipathy than the other subjects of the school curriculum put together.”
    I am convinced that 90 per cent of the educated people of the Irish Republic secretly agree with these quoted opinions, but they dare not speak out for fear of being branded anti-Irish and anti-Catholic. The official proponents of the language are a little like the losing presidential candidate in the hour before he admits defeat in an election: all the candidate’s friends know that he has been beaten, but no one is permitted to acknowledge the fact openly until the candidate himself accepts defeat.
    It is the compulsory aspect of the government’s program in the schools and the civil service which has aroused the deepest resentment. Although a great many people now read some Irish, and about one person in five in the Republic speaks it a little, it has not gained in popularity in recent years, and the proportion of the people who actually speak it has increased only slightly since 1921. To an American ear it seems harsh and unmusical. Although I have heard many speeches in Irish, I have never heard anything in the native tongue which sounded easy and natural, except one well-rehearsed play at the Abbey Theatre. The politicians who learn enough Irish to make short and stumbling speeches in the language never seem to enjoy the painful performance, and the audiences enjoy the experience even less. The children who study Irish in the schools soon revert to English as the working language of their lives, and in the Dublin area about one-third of them forget it almost completely. This is quite understandable, since their books and newspapers are almost entirely in English, and since their conversation is in English. The small Irish sections in the daily newspapers are maintained only as a matter of form, and the books published in Irish constitute a very small and unattractive library.
    In spite of the tremendous campaign of government promotion and the financial favoritism granted to schools that adopt Irish, the inescapable truth is that the language is rapidly dying, and this fact is almost universally admitted privately by the leaders of both church and state. There is, as Arland Ussher says, “no thought whatever being produced in Irish.” No one, of course, would oppose the study of Irish as a special language of culture like Latin; but its use as an exclusive or major medium of reflection and communication seems to be doomed. The leaders of the Church seem almost ready to accept this basic fact, and it is generally admitted that they are cooling off in their championship of the language. There are many good reasons why they, as Catholics, should cease to advocate Irish. Catholic education in the Republic is already completely segregated education, and the Catholic children do not need an additional linguistic barrier to protect them from English Protestant “paganism.” In the meantime Ireland, as the Catholic missionary center of the English-speaking world, must use English in its program of missionary expansion, and English happens to be the language of the United States, where Irish priests and nuns are finding fertile fields of employment. Accordingly, although the priests continue to pay lip service to the Irish language and to denounce English literature, they preach their sermons and write their books in the language of the Protestant enemy. No one is quite ready to admit that the language revival has become a national farce, but the Church is foresighted enough to adopt a realistic policy in private.”

    Blanshard, ‘The Irish And Catholic Power’ (1953), p 237

    “The physical contrast between Catholic and non-Catholic elementary schools in the North is striking; it begins with the difference in buildings and goes through the entire range of educational values. The schools built by the educational authorities are likely to be modern, clean, and efficiently operated. The schools controlled by the Church are likely to be old, dirty, and overcrowded. Nominally the teachers in both systems must attain a certain minimum standard of training, but the spirit of the two systems is notably different. The amount of academic freedom in the Catholic system is approximately nil. Although the catechetical instruction in the Catholic schools is theoretically limited to half an hour daily, in practice it may be extended indefinitely. Since the priests appoint the teachers, and the bishops rule the whole system, any Catholic teacher maybe discharged instantly for religious non-conformity; employment tenure is no more secure for Catholic teachers in the North than in the South. But in one respect Catholic elementary education in the North is vastly superior to that in the South. Irish is taught in the North, but it is never the medium of instruction. The curriculum itself is taught in English; the children, therefore, frequently understand what the teacher is talking about.”

    Blanshard, ‘The Irish And Catholic Power’ (1953), p 274

    “When the magazine Holiday, in December 1949, carried a brilliant analysis of modern Ireland by the famous Irish author Frank O’Connor, who was once a supervising librarian for the Irish government, he was subjected to a barrage of criticism in both the Irish and the American Catholic press. A plan for the widespread distribution of the magazine by the Irish government was quickly cancelled. O’Connor had been indiscreet enough to say that Ireland “contains slums you have not seen the like of elsewhere in Europe”; that there is a “scandalous decline in general standards of literacy” as a result of the concentration on the Irish language in the schools; that the priests are “all powerful”; and that 289 of 535 Galway school children examined at school had dirty heads.”

    • That was fascinating and wearily familiar. Has anything changed in sixty odd years? I find myself of late increasingly wondering if the effort to gain greater rights for Irish-speaking citizens and communities and the formal integration of the indigenous language of Ireland into the weft and weave of the modern Irish state and nation is beyond hope? That comes on the back of reading stuff written in the 1970s about Irish and where people thought it might be and what they could achieve by the turn of the century. It’s almost a case of running fast to stand still. Very disheartening. It darkens one’s mood and thoughts. Sometimes I believe change is possible. One looks at the encouraging effects the minimalist Official Languages Act had (albeit now lessened and diluted). And we can see what has been achieved in Québec and Catalonia through popular democracy tied to language revival and support (driven in fact by a small minority of determined politically-minded language activists in both cases).

      Then at other times one is driven to despair thinking that no change is possible by the current means of begging, pleading and cajoling. That as long as Irish-speakers are mute, powerless and “harmless” nothing can be achieved of worth. If 32 County Republicanism had not acted as a vortex sucking in dissatisfied or questioning youth what would radical Irish-speakers have achieved for themselves in the anglophone Irish state by now? Would they have gone down the road of a Gaelic-focused Saor Éire or maybe a Front de libération du Québec?

      On Frank O’Connor I only recently became aware of his ambiguous relationship with the native tongue.

      • Sinéad Rohan

        Thanks very much Sionnach: I was riled up to be honest almost like Fionnán Sheehan! :p url.ie/ifb0 – url.ie/ifb2 – Very interesting links you sent on there and to be honest for the year that’s in it I’d be half-and-half hopeful/pessimistic about the language and the nation state. We’re too passive, too accepting, though talking yesterday with my 85 year old Fianna Fáil Daid and his conviction that without the EU there’d be/have been another war: unbelievable. That’s like saying there was no third world war (only minor ones like Korea and Vietnam!). We’re screwed, federally screwed! :/

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