We Are 42% - Gaeilge Anois!

In yesterday’s Guardian newspaper the journalist and political activist Ellie Mae O’Hagan argues that the Welsh language should be part of the school curriculum not just in Wales but in other parts of the island of Britain too. Since “England and Wales” are essentially treated as one constitutional and legal entity under British law it is perfectly valid to question why the second most-spoken and officially recognised language in the co-joined region, Welsh, is not also taught as a subject in English schools.

“Adam Ramsay, as part of Open Democracy’s Scotland’s Future series, has written a series of pieces in favour of independence – many of which have hovered over the questions of British identity. In one piece, he lambasts no advocate Danny Alexander for being blinded by “bombastic British nationalism”.

I’ve loved reading these pieces by Ramsay (though I make no argument either way about independence here), but I take issue with his criticism of British nationalism. To me, what Alexander is defending is not British nationalism, but a type of English nationalism that sees Britain as a “greater” England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as subordinates whose cultures exist as only anachronistic novelties. I’m sure that’s what Ramsay was driving at in his piece, but that’s not British nationalism, it’s English nationalism, English entitlement – and Wales is suffering under it too.

There are many economic, social and cultural reasons for Scotland’s yes campaign to have reached such an unexpected level of success; but from my Welsh point of view I suspect that one reason must surely be frustration at the way that the English domination of Britain has led to the marginalisation – if not jingoistic ridiculing – of Scottish and Welsh identity. Our unique cultures and languages are habitually erased in favour of an umbrella Englishness.

It’s time to end the English domination of Wales and Scotland, regardless of outcome of the referendum in September. To do this, I propose schoolchildren take part in compulsory lessons in Welsh and Scottish studies, during which they at least learn how to speak basic Welsh. I don’t see why not: Welsh is an official British language, the oldest language in Europe and the most common in Britain after English.

Many will write this off as a ludicrous proposal, but in doing so they reveal, to quote Ramsay again, “something fascinating about the nature of British nationalism – how it is so ubiquitous as to be unnoticed; so hegemonic, as to go unchallenged.” After all, nobody would find it ludicrous to expect Welsh and Scottish schoolchildren to learn the English language and English history, and to imbibe English culture as a necessary result of its dominance.

If the Scottish people do vote no in September, Westminster should not take that as a validation of English empire. For the good of the many component parts, languages, and cultures that make up Britain, it’s time for something different.”

Typically the Comments beneath the article are full of Greater England derision for a “useless” and “dead” language that “no one” speaks. As pointed out on ASF before the Anglophone supremacism so often displayed in Ireland has its natural home (and origins) in Britain and more specifically in England. There is no language but the English language, there is no culture but English-derived culture. Given that the Welsh and Scottish (Gaelic) languages all have official status in Britain the argument that they should take their place alongside the de facto and vernacular language of the state, English, is overwhelming. Teaching British schoolchildren some knowledge of all the national languages that share the island of Britain, English, Welsh and Scottish (and Cornish too) is a threat to no one except the most intolerant expansionists of Greater England. Of which there are too many.

Meanwhile here in Ireland our national language continues to be denigrated and ridiculed by a state and political establishment that deliberately failed to revive it as the speech of the majority and now wishes to kill it as the speech of the minority. The broadcaster and radio producer Cuan Ó Seireadáin points out the farcical and dishonest nature of recent government actions for the Irish Central.

“Serious questions about the judgement of Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny are being posed this week after his attempt to recover popularity by reorganizing his government last Tuesday backfired spectacularly, sparking off protests, a social media storm, tetchy scenes in the Dáil, and almost universal criticism in the press.

It is the unprecedented appointment of a non-Irish speaker to the position of Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht that has caused the greatest uproar.

Gaeltacht is the name given to the last pockets of territory in the remote south, west, and northwest of Ireland where Irish is still the primary language of communication.

Recent studies have shown that unless drastic action is taken, the gradual decline in population may mean that, within fifteen years, Irish could disappear as the default language of communication in those areas.

The Minister for the Gaeltacht is tasked with helping to reverse this trend, as well as improving economic conditions in the Gaeltacht. As part of his duties, he regularly meets with representatives of the Gaeltacht and other interest groups that are doing their best to keep Irish alive.

Until now, those meetings were held in the Irish language. From now on, residents of the Gaeltacht will be forced to speak English to the Minister.

The symbolism of an Irish government Minister with responsibility for helping to preserve and promote the Irish language forcing those in his presence to switch to English is unprecedented and bizarre.

The Irish Daily Mail’s front page headline “AN INSULT TO IRISH SPEAKERS” was echoed in The Irish Times, which dropped its usual reserve, and, in a blistering editorial broadside asked:

“How could Taoiseach Enda Kenny have appointed a junior minister with a special responsibility for the Gaeltacht, who lacks an essential qualification for that job – fluency in the State’s first official language? And how could Joe McHugh, who is the Minister of State with that responsibility, have accepted the portfolio? Mr McHugh is hopeful that he can quickly master the language and he yesterday invited the public to “join him on his journey” as he improves his knowledge of the language. Good intentions are, however, not good enough at this level.”

Conradh na Gaeilge, the democratic forum for the Irish speaking community, was quick to respond, and organized a flash protest outside Enda Kenny’s office within 24 hours of the appointment. The protest was well attended and supported by the leaders of all the opposition parties.

The appointment of a non-Irish-speaker to the position of Minister for the Gaeltacht is the latest example of a worrying tendency by the current government to disregard the civil rights of Irish speakers, despite widespread sympathy for their plight. In February Conradh na Gaeilge organized Lá Mór na Gaeilge, the largest and most successful Irish language Civil Rights protest in 50 years, which was attended by 10,000 supporters.

It is difficult to interpret Kenny’s selection of a minister who is incapable of communicating with residents of the Gaeltacht and those who are choosing to live their lives through the medium of Ireland’s oldest and first official language as anything other than an insult – to the 10,000, to the Gaeltacht, and to Irish speakers everywhere.”

5 comments on “Equal In Any Language

  1. I have to agree with the first point made above. If the BritNats really were just that, rather than EngNats, then they would recognise what Tolkien called “The Senior Language of Britain”. The Welsh have been fighting a long drawn out rearguard action against the English, first politically, later culturally and linguistically. The official boundary of Wales is really arbitrary, it doesn’t make much geographical sense or linguistic sense either. It wanders about like a drunken sailor for much of its course. In a sense Welsh is as much part of ‘England’s’ heritage as Scots Gaelic is in lowland Scotland. In most places they predate English (less true for Gaelic) and just as Glasgow has many Gaels, so cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol have always had a great many Welsh people.


    • All true. With Welsh officially recognised (in Wales) via the Welsh Language Act of 1993 I would suggest at the very least some elements of Welsh language classes in English schools. There is no need to establish an elaborate curriculum of Welsh language education or strive for fluency and bilingualism. Simple lessons introducing English pupils to Welsh and allowing them to develop some familiarity with it would be enough.


  2. Meanwhile here in Ireland our national language continues to be denigrated and ridiculed by a state and political establishment that deliberately failed to revive it as the speech of the majority and now wishes to kill it as the speech of the minority
    And what is that “establishment”? Martians? Or just ordinary Irish people?

    Private sector just ignores the language COMPLETELY.

    Nothing in my workplace is in Irish – absolutely nothing.

    What do you expect from people like my coworkers?

    All your logic sounds like – “It rains because the streets are wet”.

    Government does not give a shit about Irish because people don’t care about it not the other way around.


  3. The comments to the Guradian article are of course as expected, except perhaps that there are so many of them, although you only need to read a sample here and there, the ‘discussion’ never goes anywhere. And of course the response simply confirms the astounding levels of ignorance and sometimes outright hatred the English have for Welsh. Now Welsh is not anywhere near extinct. Over half a million people claim to speak it in Wales (those elsewhere in the UK aren’t counted), and there are books, magazines, websites, local newspapers etc. etc. In other words it appears to be a perfectly ordinary modern European language, if a small one.

    One reason why the English aren’t “good at languages” is because they live isolated on an island, yet they share that very island with the Welsh and have done so ever since they (the English) arrived some 1,600 years ago. So there’s this excellent linguistic resource sitting right next to them that the ignore, seemingly wilfully ignore. Or if they do notice it they make silly jokes about it and can’t seem to accept it as a ‘real’ language. There must be a research project there for someone, just trying to figure out how and why these attitudes came about.

    And then of course these attitudes get transferred to the Welsh themselves. In a country where the language is ‘normalised’ as they say, you see it everywhere, not just on official signs but in shops and private businesses and so on, you get a bit of that in Wales but it’s still limited and patchy. The problem with the official bilingual policy is that it leaves nowhere that is all Welsh. And giving English parity in the remaining heartlands (Y Fro Gymraeg) probably does more damage than spreading a thin layer of official token Welsh over long-anglicised regions. I don’t know the solution, but apparently in Belgium for example bilinguialism means in the Flemmish half everything is in Flemmish (yes, even advertisments and ‘for-sale’ signs), and the French bit is all French, with just a narrow zone and the capital where the two overlap. I think the same is probably true for Switzerland too.

    Ireland is in a worse state linguistically than Wales, despite being further from England and having had almost a century of independence. Jānis, you seem somehow disappointed by the Irish, can’t say I blame you. Yet from a British/Irish perspective it seems like a miracle that any of the languages and cultures in the Baltic region have survived at all. You only have to look at the history, both ancient and recent. Yet there you are, three small nations each with its own thriving language. Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth (despite everyone and everything) as the Welsh would say. Some time ago I was looking into the fall of the USSR, and came across a video of the resistance in Rīga, and they had this banner reading, “Par jūsu un mūsu Brīvibu!” (for your freedom and ours). Now the ‘your’ obviously referred to the Russian troops, but when I first saw it I took it more generally or perhaps more personally, and thought as Celts, this other collection of small nations and cultures in the opposite corner of Europe, where is our freedom?


    • So there’s this excellent linguistic resource sitting right next to them that the ignore, seemingly wilfully ignore. Or if they do notice it they make silly jokes about it and can’t seem to accept it as a ‘real’ language.
      Despite the fact that we have been living next to Estonians and Lithuanians for centuries.
      Very few of us actually speak those languages.

      We always learn the largest foreign language that’s currently around and communicate in that instead.
      At first it was German, then Russian and now it’s English.


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