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Medieval Discrimination In A Modern Ireland

We'll have none of that Irish shite here! You're Irish! So speak English!
We’ll have none of that Irish shite here! You’re Irish! So speak English! (Íomha: An Timire)

The 14th century Statues of Kilkenny are generally remembered as one of the poorer attempts by the British state in Ireland to maintain its authority over this island nation during the Medieval period. They were a body of laws passed in 1366/7 to prevent the erosion of the distinctive identity of the Anglo-British colonists in the country and their assimilation into indigenous Irish society. It essence their purpose was to stop English men, women and children in Ireland becoming Irish men, women and children. Of course their prime target was the Irish language, that most obvious sign of Irishness.

“Whereas at the conquest of the land of Ireland and for a long time after the English of the said land used the English language, mode of riding and apparel, and were governed and ruled, both they and their subjects called Betaghes, according to the English law… now many English of the said land, forsaking the English language, manners, mode of riding, laws and usages, live and govern themselves according to the manners, fashion and language of the Irish enemies; and also have made divers marriages and alliances between themselves and the Irish enemies aforesaid; whereby the said land and the liege people thereof, the English language, the allegiance due to our lord the king, and the English laws there, are put in subjection and decayed, and the Irish enemies exalted and raised up contrary to reason…

Also, it is ordained and established that every Englishman do use the English language, and be named by an English name leaving off entirely the manner of naming used by the Irish; and that every Englishman use the English custom, fashion, mode of riding and apparel, according to his estate; and if any English, or Irish living amongst the English, use the Irish language amongst themselves, contrary to the ordinance, and thereof be attained, his lands and tenements, if he have any, shall be seized into the hands of his immediate lord until he shall come to one of the places of our lord the king and find sufficient surety to adopt and use the English language…

…no difference of allegiance shall henceforth be made between the English born in Ireland and the English born in England, by calling them English hobbe or Irish dog but that all be called by one name…”

Over 600 years later it seems that little has changed as the Supreme Court of Ireland has enacted a new Statute of Kilkenny for the 21st century: Irish-speaking citizens have no constitutional or legal right to be judged in court by Irish-speaking juries. In contrast English-speaking citizens have every constitutional and legal right to be judged in court by English-speaking juries. In fact it has been revealed that the Court Service of Ireland screens potential jurors to ensure their fluency in the English language. However it is not permitted to screen potential jurors to ensure their fluency in the Irish language. In other words English-speaking defendants are legally entitled to judgement by English-speaking jurors but Irish-speaking defendants have no legal entitlement to judgement by Irish-speaking jurors! From the Irish Times:

“While the State had instituted an informal screening system to ensure jurors in Dublin have an adequate command of English, it had argued it would be unlawful to operate such a screening system in the interests of producing a jury with an adequate understanding of Irish…”

How is this anything but discriminatory in form and practice? It places the rights of English-speaking citizens above those of Irish-speaking citizens. It places Irish-speaking defendants in court cases at a disadvantage when on trial if they choose to be tried through the medium of Irish in front of English-only juries who will require translators to follow the proceedings. Furthermore given the levels of antipathy towards Irish-speakers in society the very real possibility that some jurors will hold hostile views towards Irish-speakers will inevitably prejudice their trials.

What is any of this but a Statute of Kilkenny for the 21st century? Even some members of the Supreme Court are aware of the anomaly as pointed out by Justice Adrian Hardiman in his judgement, the only one of the five judges to express dissent at the decision of the court:

“Peadar Ó Maicín, the appellant in this case, is a citizen of Ireland who lives in Galway. He is a native speaker of the Irish language, that is Irish is his first language and he has spoken it continuously since he was able to speak at all. He subsequently learned English. He was reared and educated in Rosmuc in the Connemara Gaeltacht.

…part of what is implied by the constitution of this State as a bilingual State, by Article 8 of the Constitution. If that is impractical, or really cannot be done for reasons of resources, or for any other reason, then the position may be addressed by the Oireachtas, pursuant to Article 8.3. But, absent such action by the Oireachtas, the bilingual nature of the State requires that the Tribunal of Fact understand the evidence as it is given. I believe that in any other State that proposition would be regarded as axiomatic, as it clearly is in Canada, on the basis of the information summarised elsewhere in this judgement.

I have already quoted with respectful approval Clarke J.’s statement that:

“It follows that those wishing to conduct official business in Irish do have a right, derived from the constitutional status of the Irish language, to have their business conducted in Irish.”

If that statement was unqualified then there would be no difference of opinion in this case. But it is immediately qualified as follows:

“However it equally follows that that right is not absolute and must be balanced against all the circumstances of the case (not least the fact that the great majority of the Irish people do not use Irish as their ordinary means of communication) particularly the fact that other citizens are entitled to conduct their business in English as an official language, and also any other competing constitutional interest which may arise.”

As we have seen, this is not the first time where the rights of an Irish speaker are diluted by reference to alleged competition with the rights of English speakers.

This formulation and approach appears to me to ignore the fact that the effect of Article 8 is to render Ireland a bilingual country. This means that there must be parity of respect for each language and its users. Mr. Ó Maicín’s right to use the Irish language is in no way affected if the defendant tried before him, or the defendant after him, opts to take his trial in English. Equally, the rights of those English speakers are in no way affected by Mr. Ó Maicín’s opting to take his trial in Irish.

As we have seen, both the constitutional composition of the State, and the current policy of the State, is one of bilingualism or as the current policy document calls it “functional bilingualism”.

We have represented to the European Union that Irish is in use as a vernacular language in the State. I simply cannot understand how such a representation could be made if it is impossible for a citizen to have a trial in this “vernacular” language in the Courts established by the very Constitution which constitutes the State a bilingual polity.

Ireland became a bilingual State not because, as in some countries (Belgium, Canada, India), there were severe conflicts threatening the very existence of the State on the topic of language use, but as a deliberate choice. It was enshrined in the Constitution also as an act of deliberate choice. Once enshrined in the Constitution, the language provisions became part of what the Judges promise “to uphold”. That promise is to “uphold the Constitution”, not to “uphold it as far as may be reasonable in present day conditions, as perceived by them”.

If it is thought that it is now simply too difficult to uphold the Constitution in the manner identified by the various cases cited in this judgement, it would be more honest to amend the Constitution or to legislate in the manner permitted by Article 8.3. But neither of these are for the judges to do: action on them must be initiated by one or other of the political organs of government.”

[With thanks to Cuan Ó Seireadáin for the link to Justice Hardiman’s written judgement]

12 comments on “Medieval Discrimination In A Modern Ireland

  1. What a shame. It seems like Ireland is currently in the grip of an existential crisis or a crisis of confidence as a result of the economic crash, with thoughts of ‘poverty’ stalking the minds of a recently very prosperous nation perhaps re-kindling old feelings of ‘inferiority’ towards the mother tongue and all that it represents? Old habits die hard. Someone needs a good kick up the jacksie.

    Not sure you’re right to refer to the 14th C Statutes of Kilkenny as the work of the British state. The English state surely? As a Welshman I take exception!


    • There is definitely something turbulent rumbling away in Irish popular culture at the moment. Perhaps it is, as I have argued, the growth of an urban and metropolitan Irish-speaking population which is causing “kick-back” from those Anglophones who cannot come to terms with such a situation? The closet example is the reaction of some militants and extremists in the British minority community in the north-east of Ireland to the changing demographics there. They cannot abide equality or parity of esteem with a Nationalist community that in percentage terms is almost on a level with their own. The near 50/50 division is breeding new tensions within Unionism, new militancy, new violence.

      As Irish-speaking citizens and communities in Ireland assert their legal rights the long-standing discrimination of the Irish state towards them is under challenge. Old practices of bigotry are now under the spotlight. What was once accepted as the norm can no longer be so.

      I meant “British” as in England/London of course. I know many Welsh people rightly wish to have that word back as their own. Along, perhaps, with the lost lands of Lloegr 😉


      • The only people that can provide those rights are the Irish speakers themselves.


  2. There are in fact parallels to this in Wales, e.g. resentment of a growing urban Welsh-speaking ‘elite’. The more I look into the situation in both countries, the greater the parallels seem to be. Issues of confidence, speakers who aren’t users of the language, official lip-service, disintegration of the few remaining heartlands … Also apparent is the contrast with other oppressed or formerly oppressed minorities, Basques, Latvians … Now if only we really understood the poisonous nature of English …


    • Russian/Soviet invasion of Latvia can be compared to barbarian invasion of Rome.
      Less developed nation occupied and oppressed more developed nations.
      That was not the case with British colonialism.
      I’m not saying that colonization was a good thing – Brits of course were not saints, but it was not all bad – they introduced new technologies, language, common law, education and so on.

      Soviets/Russians on the other hand just wrecked the Latvian economy, deported and oppressed our people, etc..
      Soviet occupation gave us absolutely nothing good – we remember Soviet times as a nightmare and don’t want them back.
      That’s why we don’t even think of using Russian as our first language.
      That’s why we removed all of the Russian signs.
      That’s why we do not want to give that language official status.
      And that’s why I don’t speak Russian in Latvia at all (although I understand that language quite well).

      From what I have seen here in Ireland – looks like that most of the Irish people think that English language and culture are superior and they want to be like English themselves.
      It almost looks like that most of you think that English did you a favour by colonizing this island.


      • And Ireland didn’t have its own ancient civilization? The Irish were already adapting their language to the Latin alphabet when the Germanic peoples who were to become the English were still living as diverse groups in northern Germany, southern Denmark, the Netherlands and western Sweden.

        If the Latvians had lived for centuries under Russian rule do you believe that the average Latvian would be any different from the average Irish person in how they would view their own nation?

        The British did nothing for the Irish that we would have not done for ourselves. We still live with the legacy of the British colony on our island nation. And it is a poisonous one.


        • As a civilisation Eire was light years ahead of many others in the world.
          Roma knew exactly why Eire had to be conquered and why TaRa was laid bare and the so called snakes- female energy driven out.
          So much of our his/her story destroyed and hidden.
          Ireland as a nation is a deeply traumatised one with many living like anyone would in “Stockholm syndrome” bonded with their abusers in order to survive.


  3. Jānis,

    The English invasion and occupation of Ireland pre-dates the Russian/Soviet invasion and occupation of Latvia by many, many, many centuries. I imagine that has something to do with the generally ambivalent Irish attitudes and behaviour towards their mother tongue! (plus of course the rise of American popular culture via Hollywood in the last century).

    The English were, and are, in no way superior to the Irish. Just different. Don’t forget that the Irish had a major role in making Christians out of the pagan Anglo-Saxon English after they decided to move to Britain to live.


  4. It wasn’t the English (Anglo-Saxons) who invaded Ireland in 1167, it was the Norman-French, the same people who invaded England in 1066 and proceeded to swiftly and savagely conquer that country, much more swiftly and savagely than the long drawn out conquest of Ireland. There are striking similarities in the lead-up to the two invasions, the making of a propaganda case, the acquiring of Papal support, etc, and, of course, they went on to extend their conquests as far as Southern Italy and Sicily. The English, long before 1167, were themselves a conquered people and it took until the 14th Century before their language was fully adopted by the new ruling elite.


    • By 1169 the Norman-French had become Norman-English or perhaps more correctly Norman-British. I ceratainly agree with everything else you say. The English of Shakespere are not the English of Beowulf. The change in language and culture was quite profound. Something my English friends recognise though few of their countrymen do.


      • But aren’t ‘nationalities’ always constructed, the question is by whom. Btw Willy the Bastard had quite a few Bretons in tow along with his Normans. I don’t know if there are any traces of them in Ireland.


    • 1172 Eire and all her people were given as slaves by the Pope to King Henry 11

      First white slaves to Barbados etc, families split up and sold off.

      Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.

      Cromwell- Jesuit connection.

      As usual, on all his campaigns, Cromwell consulted closely with his Jesuit advisers:

      Hence why Cashel was so important for the Queen to visit, yet how many asked why she visited there a while ago- on orders from Pope.

      See who can answer that?


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