Scary Eire

Irish Belongs To Everyone On This Island Nation

 

Scary Eire
Scary Éire

An alternative view on the Irish language and Irish-speakers in modern Ireland from the viewpoint of a member of the British Unionist minority in the north-east of the country, albeit an unusually sympathetic and supportive one. Journalist and academic Ian Malcolm writing for the Belfast Telegraph:

“On Remembrance Sunday I wore my poppy and my fáinne side by side. And I wore them both with equal pride. One demonstrates my love of Irish and the other the importance of remembering those who died in conflicts so that I could have the right to speak my language.

I’m Protestant, unionist and British and proud of all those things. But I’m also very proud to be an Irish speaker, and have been for 20 years. Speaking Irish has not turned me into a Catholic, nationalist or republican.

I’m not someone whose recently taken an interest in Irish, because it’s becoming “trendy”, or “fashionable”. In a way, I’ve been a speaker all my life, but started to learn “for real” at a time when it was still seen as a slightly dodgy thing to do.

There is no cultural, historical, or other reason why Protestants and unionists should not speak Irish. Indeed, for centuries they did.

Even as English was displacing Irish as the language of the people all over Ireland, many Protestants held on dearly to something they cherished.

Conversely, leading Catholics and the Church were often to blame for accelerating the decline and Daniel O’Connell (the champion of Catholic emancipation) urged his followers to abandon Irish.

There is, however, an underlying and unsettling refrain which suggests that unionists and Protestants are possibly disloyal or even untrustworthy if they speak Irish.

Not true – I have never voted for a party without a “U” somewhere in its title. And why should I? Being an Irish speaker should not change one’s beliefs or core values.

But things are changing. There’s less of that negativity and Protestants no longer have to “sneak off” to a Catholic area to learn Irish. The vibrant Skainos centre in east Belfast – where I have spoken often – shows that we are moving forward.

I myself run the Hidden Ulster course at Stranmillis, where people from both communities are learning about the language.

I explain our shared Gaelic heritage, tracing the history from the Celts (who were neither Protestant nor Catholic) to the present day.

When Irish was first spoken on these islands there were no nationalists and republicans, or unionists and loyalists.

What really interests my students is what I call “living Irish” – that’s the language that’s around us all in our everyday lives.

It’s unusual for me to trouble the page in English now. I became a journalist on leaving school, but after many years of hacking decided to do a degree in Irish at Queen’s, before going on to do a PhD in sociolinguistics.

And I’d have done none of that had it not been for Irish, the language I love. No one in my working-class family had even dreamt of university until I went to QUB, after tutoring myself for two A-Levels in the space of six weeks.

Now, virtually everything I do involves Irish in some way. I still write, but most of what I write is in Irish – even cheques. The language is something that has changed my life in many ways, but it has not changed those core values.

As a Protestant – and unionist – I see no contradiction in also being an Irish speaker. After all, I’ve “worn the T-shirt” and, literally, written the book.”

On a side-note one should mention the Ultach Trust, a non-profit organisation that has done more than any other to facilitate an interest in the Irish language by northern Unionists and/or Protestants. In a recent cost-saving measure the government of Ireland shamefully withdrew state-funding from the Ultach and other some other groups, in the process effectively destroying one of the corner-stones of cross-community Irish language teaching and activism in the north-east of the country. It is simply incomprehensible that any rational government policy directed towards reconciliation on our island nation could be enhanced by denying Unionists access to Irish in a politically neutral environment. But then the Dublin establishment is as committed to that national objective as it is to the Irish language itself.

Slugger O’Toole examines the current efforts to persuade Unionist political leaders to end their blockade of Irish language rights at the regional assembly in Stormont and features a Facebook posting by Linda Ervine, someone who has been transformed by the news media into the public face of politically non-aligned Irish-speakers:

“This Tuesday 2nd December at 11 am on the steps of Parliament Buildings I will be presenting a letter to representatives of the main parties. The letter calls for fair treatment and respect for the Irish language. It outlines the disappointment and anger caused by divisive and insulting comments about the language and calls for the introduction of an Irish Language Act.

Our current political system lacks integrity and many display a moral cowardice. That is why I have taken this step. I pray that my message will not be distorted and will be received gracefully.”

Meanwhile some more evidence of the benefits of bilingualism for the human condition – and brain.

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26 comments

  1. There is a long tradition of Protestant involvement in the Irish language revival – Samuel Fergusson’s scholarly work in the 19th century, Douglas Hyde chairing Conradh, various missionaries..translating the Bible into the vernacular, and even the Orange Order once had an Irish-language lodge! But, even if none of the above were true, the focus should be on the language’s cultural importance, rather than political point-scoring! Good luck with the blog.

  2. There is a long tradition of Ulster Protestant involvement with the Irish language revival – Samuel Fergusson’ s scholarly research, Douglas Hyde chairing Conradh, various missionaries translating the Bible into the vernacular, and even an Irish-language Orange Order lodge in the past! But, even if none of the above were true, the focus should always be on the historical and cultural importance of the language, rather than political point-scoring! Good luck with the blog.

    1. I agree with that, paulculloty82. As much as the Irish language is tied up with my own Irish republican politics I recognise that most people see it as simply another means of communication, a language like any other, free of political or ideological connotations. To them speaking or learning Irish is no different than a Danish person speaking or learning French or German. It does not imply a change in national identity or citizenship. It just happens that Irish is the language that is indigenous to this island or territory. And such an attitude is the right one to have in any normal society.

      Of course nothing is quite as simple in Ireland and there are caveats. In the United States some Americans view Spanish as an alien tongue, an invasive one, and refuse to speak it or have it spoken around them (or in their businesses, organisations). The “English as the national language” campaign is stronger now than it has ever been. Irish is the Spanish of “Northern Ireland” in that sense (though of course it is actually the Navajo or Sioux).

      Focusing specifically on the Unionist and/or Protestant community I would strongly favour separate funding by the British state to encourage Unionists to discover the language for themselves free of any politically awkward connotations presented by Irish or joint-government funding. The Ultach Trust certainly deserved such a consideration. Unfortunately the British have left the Irish government and the various nominally all-Ireland agencies to oversee all that.

      If that were not possible then perhaps through the European Union?

      1. The Irish language is not a belief.
        The Irish language is not a religion.
        The Irish language is not an ideology.
        The Irish language is not a political party.
        The Irish language is not a political view point.
        The Irish language is not a badge of citizenship.
        The Irish language is not a member to any group.
        The Irish language is not a method of teaching.
        The Irish language is not a school subject only.
        The Irish language is not a teacher who punished you.
        The Irish language is not a pedantic grammarian.
        The Irish language is not an examination.
        The Irish language is not a competition.
        The Irish language is not a bigot.
        The Irish language is not just mine.

        The Irish language is Indo-European.
        The Irish language is Celtic.
        The Irish language is Gaelic.
        The Irish language is literature.
        The Irish language is prose.
        The Irish language is poetry.
        The Irish language is song.
        The Irish language is place-names.
        The Irish language is personal-names.
        The Irish language is among the oldest languages in Europe.
        The Irish language is the oldest written vernacular language in Europe.
        The Irish language is a language with a long literary tradition.
        The Irish language is a language of Ireland.
        The Irish language is a special means of communication.
        The Irish language is a standardised language before even the English language arrives.
        The Irish language is a language shared to Scotland.
        The Irish language is a language brought to European monasteries.
        The Irish language is another way of viewing the world.
        The Irish language is a living language.
        The Irish language is a body of words peculiar to the island of Ireland.
        The Irish language is a system of rules peculiar to the Celtic world.
        The Irish language is an influence on thought.
        The Irish language is an influence on perceived reality.
        The Irish language is a bond with other Celtic speakers.
        The Irish language is a bond with Ireland and Britain.
        The Irish language is a great heritage.
        The Irish language is available to every tongue wishing to play its music.
        The Irish language is yours.

        1. Is it on purpose that this poem has the shape of a heavy machine gun ? Just joking, of course (a bad joke, I know… 🙂 ). Just to pick up on the last line: the Irish language isn’t ‘mine’ as such, since I am a blow-in, however it does belong to the people of Ireland. Of course, while one community is often criticised for not relating to Ireland as its own island nation, it is also fair that this same (unionist) community is often made to feel as though it is somehow less Irish than the other native community of the island. This is often the feeling I get from the unionist community (who are the majority in my small town). I am well placed to hear the views of the local unionist population, because I work for the local newspaper, so they basically come to me with their (frank) views every day. And it is interesting that someone like Graham Norton, who grew up as a Protestant in southern Ireland, never felt that he truly belonged to his native land. When this kind of view is expressed by someone as liberal as him, it can’t be as easily dismissed as the right-right pronouncements of evangelical ‘norn iron’ preachers. Anyway, the point is that the Irish language is linked to Ireland as an island, and that the sense of ownership of the language is commensurate with the sense of nationhood within that land.

        2. (another slight mistake, aargh… I just review my posts more thoroughly. Séamas, can you remove the previous version of my post, and just leave the version below? Thanks!).

          Is it on purpose that this poem has the shape of a heavy machine gun? Just joking, of course (a bad joke, I know… 🙂 ). Just to pick up on the last line: the Irish language isn’t ‘mine’ as such, since I am a blow-in, however it does belong to the people of Ireland. Of course, while one community is often criticised for not relating to Ireland as its own island nation, it is also fair to say that this same (unionist) community is often made to feel as though it is somehow less Irish than the other native community of the island. This is often the feeling I get from the unionist community (who are the majority in my small town). I am well placed to hear the views of the local unionist population, because I work for the local newspaper, so they basically come to me with their (frank) views every day. And it is interesting that someone like Graham Norton, who grew up as a Protestant in southern Ireland, never felt that he truly belonged to his native land. When this kind of view is expressed by someone as liberal as him, it can’t be as easily dismissed as the right-wing pronouncements of evangelical ‘norn iron’ preachers. Anyway, the point is that the Irish language is linked to Ireland as an island, and that the sense of ownership of the language is commensurate with the sense of nationhood within that land.

  3. To benefit from bilingualism you don’t have to study Irish.
    Spanish, German, French or Japanese are much more useful.

    1. give it up, jānis – for crying out loud… – ‘tír gan teanga, tír gan anam!’

    2. On that basis, Jānis, why speak Latvian? Why does Latvia not adopt English as it’s first language and German as its second? Or go for broke and adopt the largest dialect of Mandarin Chinese?

      1. A serious question:

        Why should two (or more) native English speakers invest a lot of time and effort into learning an obscure foreign language and then try to (badly) communicate in it if they already have a common language that they both understand at a native level?

        We – Latvians, don’t have to learn obscure languages to communicate among ourselves.
        We can do it in our native language.

    3. Tell that to Hezbollah and the Israeli Army..Both of whom have been known to spaek Irish Gaelic on their Radio Net.

      1. P.s The Irish Defence Forces when they are on UN Missions also use Irish in places like Chad, The Lebanon and Kosovo etc.
        It works better than the German Enigma machine to ensure secure Comms !!!!!!

  4. Will you stop with the anti Irish sentiment?
    Every comment from you has a go at Irish, think of something else to say please!

      1. That’s true – I’m totally trembling with fear. :O

        I just like to play the devil’s advocate 🙂

  5. Ian Malcolm appears to be somewhat conflicted, but perhaps he is not. Maybe I think so because I would be, were I in his shoes. It was not too long ago that even the English living in Ireland who dared to speak the “local language,” faced harsh punishment. The eradication of the language and the traditional customs was a top priority of the English occupation for most of its duration. The suffering of those punished for these “vile crimes” alone would make it difficult for me to reconcile Unionism and the speaking language. But then I view this subject more from an Irish than an English perspective as well. Were I English or felt English, as many unfortunately appear to do today, I would probably also not have a problem with wearing the poppy. As I am not nor do I feel that way, to me, it represents an affront by virtue of it being inclusive of the remembrance in honour of those fallen while violently suppressing (including culture and language), burning, raping, murdering, and killing my ancestors and their fellow countrymen. I do know it also stands for those poor souls that decided to take on the fight against the Nazis, which was a truly noble endeavour, I choose to honour those and the ones confused enough to believe in the greater good to serve the Empire in World War I (only those who did so without serving as its henchmen in Ireland) separately. Many dear and near to me disagree with me on the latter as it freed English troops to serve in Ireland, but I also was young once and can see how easily one can get suckered into something like that, especially when it also pays well by comparison.

  6. I remember Ian Malcolm very well, having met him at an Irish language college in Donegal many years ago. In fact, that was near enough 20 years ago, so I can confirm what he is saying in his article in having a long-standing interest in studying the language. At the time, I believe he was working for the Newsletter, and a double-page article written by him about the Irish language, published in that newspaper, was actually on display in the college. Ian was also a very jovial and popular individual who was the life and soul of the party, after the classes. I remember that everybody took to him, including people who had strong republican views (I knew of one particular person in that case). Ian Malcolm is right to recall the outrageous “every word of Irish is another bullet in the cause of Irish freedom” comment. It is as offensive and appalling as the recent “curry my yoghurt” carry-on. I for one despise both statements equally. People should be mindful that there are extremists on both sides of the divide.

    In my small unionist town, I was once invited for dinner by the minister of a small church, with marginal representation in Northern Ireland (no, it wasn’t the Free Presbyterian Church!). It is a very dour church, with a staunchly unionist clergy. Yet, the minister’s wife, a native of the Isle of Skye, was very proud of the fact that she was a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic. In that sense, she was at complete odds with the kind of people she would have rubbed shoulders with in her church community, since she cherished a linguistic heritage which pretty much everybody else in her congregation, by virtue of being ultra-conservative Northern Ireland Protestants, had absolutely no time for…

    1. All fair points. I think Sionnach’s past postings though show that the Irish language is not inherently sectarian, nor is Republicanism an exclusive value system. In fact, it’s not just schooled Anglicans (Graham Norton) but many Christian Brothers’ Boys and Loreto Girls, emigrating in the 80s, and rejecting the conformist ‘meon’/ catholic mindset..!

      http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/episode/graham-norton

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