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.