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Antipathy To The Irish Language Is A Legacy Of Colonialism

Irish is the indigenous language of the island nation of Ireland and has held that unique position for at least the last 4000 years. Beginning with an Indo-European dialect introduced to the country as early as 2000 BCE, modern Irish – An Ghaeilge – developed through a series of steps that linguists have categorised as Proto-Celtic, Goidelic, Primitive Irish, Old Irish, Middle or Classical Irish, Early Modern Irish and eventually the language we know today. For most of the last four millennia it was the majority – and sole – language on this island. It took several centuries of foreign invasions, occupations, annexations and annihilations for that order of things to be violently altered. In the end what turned an ancient native majority into a contemporary linguistic minority was colonialism: political and military, economic and cultural.

It is a telling comment on the modern nation-state of Ireland, following decades of independence wrested from its former overseas’ occupiers, and perhaps a testament to the thoroughness of their campaign of colonisation, that the Irish language, and by extension Irish-speakers, continue to be held in such contempt or disdain. The poisonous legacy of the anti-indigenous sentiments that characterised this island’s history from the Middle Ages onward continues to influence how we view An Ghaeilge. The Irish, as a whole, are perversely bigoted towards those overtly native aspects of their own culture. It is a strange, persistent, and ultimately destructive form of self-racism.

To see it at its rawest one need only look to some of the more extreme opinions of the unionist minority in the country, the ethno-political community which regards itself as primarily British in its identity, many remaining “loyal” to an ancestry they believe can be found among a wave of crusading settlers from Britain to Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries. The evidence of this latent and not-so latent prejudice is loud and clear in the recently published “Consultation on Proposals for an Irish Language Bill“, collated and issued by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the regional administration in Stormont. With 13,000 submissions from the general public on the suggested need for an “Irish language act” in the UK administered north-east of Ireland, some 94.7% of respondents supported establishing various degrees of equality between the Irish and English languages, that is between hibernophone and anglophone citizens. Indeed proposals such as bilingual placenames were favoured by 95.9% of those who took part in the consultation process. Unsurprisingly the most vociferous opposition came from unionist participants, and with a degree of enmity and illogicality that stands in stark contrast to the enthusiasm and open-mindedness shown by others.

Take this submission from local representatives of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, the controversial Orange Order, which despite the inclusion of “Ireland” in its official title apparently believes the country’s native language to be as foreign to it as Polish or Lithuanian. In fact, some of its arguments might lead one to conclude that the Orange Order regards the Polish language as less foreign to Ireland as a whole than Irish.

County Fermanagh Grand Orange Lodge:

The Irish Language is a minority language and should not be given official status any more than Ulster Scots, Polish, Lithuanian, or any other language. In fact languages like Polish, for example, are much more prevalent throughout the population in Northern Ireland currently, and should in fact be given a higher preference for consideration.”

Is the Orange Order’s disdain for the Irish language so great that it would find it easier to accept a Polish language bill than an Irish language one?

The use of the English Language covers the vast majority of the current Northern Ireland population. We do not agree with any provision that would allow the use of the Irish Language in court. Should Irish be allowed, then provision must be made for ALL other minority languages.”

Of course provision is in fact made in the UK-run courts in the north-east for people with little or no fluency in English. It is Irish that is uniquely banned from the court-system under centuries’ old colonial laws enacted by the British.

Equality between English and Irish should not be allowed in the Assembly.

There should be no inclusion of provisions to allow the use of Irish in the Assembly, and current methods should be deemed sufficient… This should include all minority languages, and not just Irish.

The commissioner has no function, save that of promoting one language over another. This is not acceptable in any multicultural society.”

The argument here being that there is no place in the regional assembly at Stormont for any language but English, it is the only acceptable vernacular of government, the law, public services and society. Yet this is somehow a promotional feature of multiculturalism?

“There are no Gaeltacht areas in Northern Ireland… therefore providing for them is simply ludicrous. In what way would the wholesale use of any minority language… add to its economic prosperity, given that English and French, are the two internationally recognised languages, in this respect.”

The Danes, Swedes and Finns seem to find their minority languages perfectly compatible with economic prosperity. As do many other nations. Or does the Orange Order simply want to see a greater use of French alongside English in the north?

“Bi-lingual road names, or signs, are promoting Irish on a par with English in an English speaking country. What about other minority languages, are wee [!] going to have signs written in five or six different languages?”

Irish is the indigenous and national language of Ireland; the road names and signs are in Ireland. Other minority languages in the country are not native to this island, nor would their speakers expect ersatz versions of Irish or already bastardized English names to be further transliterated into their languages.

“Irish should simply find itself alongside all other languages as regards classes. French, German, Spanish, to mention few, are all actually languages that are needed/spoken across the world. Much more emphasis should be given to the compulsory learning of internationally recognised languages…”

Compulsory English? Yes. Compulsory French, German and Spanish? Yes. Compulsory Irish? Unionism says, NO!

The arguments from other unionist parties run along similar lines:

Ballydonaghy LOL 351:

…we do not create such bills for any other minority languages in NI. These include Polish, Mandarin, Ulster Scots, Lithuanian, Portuguese and any other that may be spoken in a casual and non-official scenario.

Introduction to the assembly will be a considerable expense to the tax payer. All members can speak and understand English (we assume…). Do not agree with provision to allow Irish in the assembly. Any use of it should be translated immediately by the user so that it can be recorded in the Hansard, in English.

Irish language hobbyists should encourage the language as they best see fit. It should not be official for public bodies. If someone wishes to learn Irish they can attend a language course.

Many place names do not have an Irish derivation, so Ulster Scots, Norman or other heritages could be lost. …we should encourage students to learn languages that will benefit them in global business as we compete with other nations for trade deals.”

Tullintrain Purple Star Loyal Orange Lodge No. 1969:

We believe that as the Irish Language is a minority language this would be too proscriptive a measure and that the language should not be promoted through legislation any more than other languages such as Lithuanian, Polish, Mandarin…

We believe that English should be the official and only language used in the Courts. Where foreigners without the language are in Court, then interpreters should be employed as is currently the case. It is our view that there should be no rights for Irish in any Court or Tribunal. Any Court / Tribunal within Northern Ireland should only use the language that all except those foreign persons can understand English and no other language should be given equal provision, as it is totally unnecessary.

The current use of Irish by a number of MLAs is in our opinion sufficient, providing they interpret what they say in the English language immediately afterwards.

The overwhelming number of residents of Northern Ireland speak English as their first language and to go down the road of both Irish and English on road signs would only lead to other language enthusiasts, such as Ulster-Scots demanding the same…”

However, lest we be smug about such things, remember what I said above. The self-hating Irish? Do not believe for a moment that such attitudes are confined to the extreme of the unionist minority. There are plenty of people in the majority nationalist community or tradition who feel much the same. They are prisoners of a historical legacy, a cultural and political Stockholm Syndrome, or as others have so correctly put it, the “Super Colonised Irish Syndrome“.

More views on the above issues from,

Slugger O’Toole: Orange Order, Financial Burdens and the Irish Language

The Blether Region: Acht na Gaeilge


27 comments on “Antipathy To The Irish Language Is A Legacy Of Colonialism

  1. The Irish state needs to bite the bullet on this one. The only way to bring Irish back as the main language spoken on the island is to implement a staged eradication of spoken English. This would involve a spoken-English tax on monolingual English speakers; on-the-spot fines for those caught speaking it; an on-going campaign of public shaming of English speakers. Recidivist English speakers and reluctant Irish speakers would, in addition to fines and taxes, suffer the ignominy of wearing gaudy red, white and blue coloured “shame dress” in public at all times. Serious repeat offenders would be required to wear mouth gags that prevented them from speaking at all times, both privately and publicly. Attempts to speak would be remotely monitored and electric shock therapy via the gag would be administered immediately upon a speech breach. Sentences would be imposed by Irish-language courts. Monolingual English speakers would be given time to learn Irish before being removed from their jobs, which would be handed to Irish speakers. English speakers would be encouraged to leave Ireland altogether.


    • Marmaduc, I’m presuming that is tongue-in-cheek?


      • I suppose I am half serious about the eradication aspect, the point being that a tangible effort is required to counter the use of English in everyday life. Irish is at a crossroads, and radical action via discriminatory policies is needed to rescue it. Encouraging Irish is only half a solution. Eradication of English via disincentives is also needed. The tax system would be a useful tool – tax penalties for English speakers, with tax breaks for Irish speakers; higher pay scales for Irish speakers, lower ones for English speakers; better housing, pensions, benefits for Irish speakers. These are radical suggestions and seem highly discriminatory and unfair, but in the end it comes down to how much you value Irish and want to see it thrive, and eventually replace English.


        • The problem with all of your solutions (serious or not) is that there simply is no critical mass of the Irish speakers that could do something like that. Most people that are in power are English speakers who don’t care about Irish. Why would they attempt anything even remotely close of what you’re suggesting? One of the reasons why we can have discriminatory laws against the Russian speakers that are actually enforced in Latvia is that Latvian speakers are in charge and those laws are supported by the majority.


      • Had he been serious he’d have posted in Irish, surely?


    • I know that you’re joking, but in Latvia you or your company can indeed get fined for breaking the official language law.


  2. Of course, Irish (and its sister Scots Gaelic) are part of Orange, Protestant and unionist heritage too.

    When Gregory Campbell made his idiotic “curry my yoghurt” remark over a year ago now, he wasn’t just ignorant of and insulting the identity and heritage of Irish nationalists; he was spitting too on his own Gaelic heritage. The clue to Campbell’s heritage, of course, is a pretty obvious one; his anglicised surname. It was derived from Gaelic; either the combination of “cam” and “béal”, meaning “crooked mouth” or “wry-mouthed”, in Scotland or the family-name Mac Cathmhaoil in Ireland.

    Half of the Presbyterian planters and settlers who arrived in Ulster during the plantation were thought to be Gaelic speakers. When queen Victoria visited Belfast in 1849, even the staunchly-unionist News Letter greeted her with a hearty “Céad míle fáilte!”, whilst the slogan of the anti-Home Rule Unionist Conference of 1892 had been ‘Erin go bragh’. There are plenty of other examples of Protestant and unionist use of Irish and Scots Gaelic in recent history too, which demonstrate it is anything but a foreign language for them; a few of those examples are outlined here by ‘Am Ghobsmacht!’:

    Interestingly, the blog post features two photos of the usage of Irish on Orange Order banners, presumably in recognition (at some point in their history) of their Gaelic heritage. So, why the open hostility now? Like Campbell, not only do they actively fail to appreciate the identity of others with whom they share the island of Ireland (although you can be sure that that is a significant factor in motivating the exclusionary negativity); they fail to even understand their own history (or they’re in denial).


    • Having looked a bit further into it, those Orange Order banners featuring Irish represented a Belfast lodge called Oidhreacht Éireann (Ireland’s Heritage) LOL 1303 that existed in the 1970s. According to Wikipedia (citing Andrew Boyd’s ‘The Orange Order, 1795–1995’), Oidhreacht Éireann “argued that the Irish language and Gaelic culture were not the exclusive property of Catholics or republicans”.


  3. Derek Ó H

    As seen in the debate over whether or not to invite the Irish national football team to a ceremony in Belfast alongside the Northern Irish team, unfortunately this stance would appear to be ‘anti-anything Irish’.A totally regressive, paranoid, and bigoted stance based on the premise that native Irishness is as foreign as any other perceived ‘non-British’ activity in Northern Ireland. It is great to see enlightened Unionists who see no threat from Irish. They see Welsh and Scots Gaelic speakers can still identify with Britishness.


    • Derek Ó H

      By ‘football’ I meant ‘soccer’ and not ‘Gaelic football’ or ‘rugby football’.


  4. Any chance of a full copy of the Boyd Article? Anyone? Mr Boyd got the idea of analysing the iconography of Lodge banners because he was intrigued by the “hidden social history” that they depicted ,


  5. A language is as powerful as by those who wield its use.


  6. Derek Ó H

    Indeed. I don’t think we want to behave like colonists though. Let people speak English if they want to – why shouldn’t they at this stage? But, on the other hand, if people want to speak Irish the state should ensure they have maximum opportunities to do so. Those who didn’t acquire Irish in school should have the opportunity to learn as adults. Educational standards should be raised hugely. There is anecdotal evidence that many teachers do not spend the allocated time teaching Irish, and there is evidence that in many cases when they do they lack the competency required to do so – then you’ll hear Ed Walsh claiming €1 billion is ‘wasted’ on Irish. This billion would be spent on Shakespeare, calculous, religion anyway. Many more primary and post-primary Gaelscoileanna should be opened to meet demands. Serious planning needs to go into opportunities for teenagers and young adults to be able to use the language they’ve learned/used at school. Event’s like Ravelóid this summer are required – even if its ticketing structure is mad/ unaffordable / impracticle for many.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you let people speak English if they want to then there would be no equality,because the Irish speakers would always have to yield and speak English when encountering English monoglots. The so-called language “rights” are a zero-sum game – in order to have the right to always speak one particular language – speakers of other languages need to be coerced into learning that language and always speak it if the other speaker wishes so.
      The Irish speakers can’t have the right to speak Irish in this linguistic environment. They can speak it only if other Irish speakers happen to be around – and because they are so few and far between that’s unlikely to happen very often.


      • This is the conundrum: if we are all polite and don’t make waves or inconvenience anyone, if we behave, we all will slowly drift towards speaking English. This is not limited to the Irish. It is the state of affaires on planet Earth. In order to support our languages against the forces of globalisation, it basically comes down to this individual decision: is will be a stubborn bastard and I will speak this language even though there may be negative consequences.

        How many people want to stand out in their community as trouble-makers? That is what it amounts to. Standing up for your linguistic rights labels you as a shit disturber. People who stand up for linguistic rights make waves every time they press the language option for a call centre, use the website for their language when communicating with the government, continue speaking their language even though there are non-speakers in the room. There are many little battles. They all are important.


        • No – people who stand up for the language rights make websites that have their own language option. It’s ridiculous – I work for a large multinational company in Ireland. Our website is available in 20 languages, but Irish is NOT one of them. It however has languages like Czech, Polish or Finnish.
          So yeah – people in Ireland indeed care more about providing services to Polish or Finnish speakers. So much for standing up for your language “rights”.


        • Derek Ó H

          I would agree that people must be able to speak their own language in the company of a majority who don’t speak it even if it causes discomfort on all sides. Really, this a fundamental step towards accepting bilingualism in principal.


  7. Derek Ó H

    Tá an t-alt sin an suimiúil cinnte. Táim sásta go leor a bheith ag caint criól (an Ghaeilge) na saol gan aon saghas Gaeilge.
    Good articles. I’m happy to be speaking a creole if that’s what urban Irish is. Better than when I had no Irish.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I would not really call those people self-hating. Unlike their ancestors who threw away their own language – those people didn’t throw away anything – they were taught English since birth and they grew up with it – English is their native language and Irish is just as foreign to them as it is to me. They don’t have any hidden “Irish language genes” – if they wish so – they have to learn Irish from scratch as a difficult foreign language.
    They didn’t immigrate and colonise anything (and in most cases – their ancestors didn’t either) – they just were born here in their own country and like everyone else – communicate with others in their shared native language. Why should they switch to other languages? Why should they invest a lot of time and money into learning a language that no one speaks?


  9. “We don’t have time to lose because extremists are trying to erase the identity, because they know that if there is no identity, there is no memory, there is no history”, and “You deprive [people] of their culture, you deprive them of their history, their heritage, and that is why it goes hand in hand with genocide. Along with the physical persecution they want to eliminate – to delete – the memory of these different cultures.” so said Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO, when referring to ISIS.

    Unreformed Unionism seems to be still be in cultural destruction mode with respect the irish language and culture. Alot of that is down to simply seeing Irishness as inferior to Britishness. its a supremacist position. I appears to me that some people in Fine Gael also see things this way too.


    • Derek Ó H

      Really pertinent quote there from chief of UNESCO. The same principle.


  10. But the Irish language and culture aren’t suppressed. And people aren’t deprived of them. I could start learning Irish right away if I wanted to. Most people just aren’t interested in them – and that’s a completely different thing.


    • Untrue, there’s a lot of interest, look at the growth of Gael Scoils, demand can’t be met. A hundred years from now most of the population will be bilingual, fluent in English and Irish, English will probably have precedence but so what, the Irish language and culture will be safe. As for the likes of the Orange order, the brain dead hatred and bigotry they espouse will only continue to erode their influence and relevance. They’re the ones in mortal danger, not the Irish language.


  11. the inability of an individual to access public services in her language, to be defended/prosecuted in her language, to have her children educated in her language, to be arrested for speaking her language, to be ridiculed about her language being a gnomish language, etc, are not a normal state of affairs for an indigenous language to be subject to. the policies proposed (or opposed) by the OO and various unionists are designed to minimise if not eliminate entirely the language’s presence in the public sphere, and that is exactly suppression. That unionism no longer has the capacity to unilaterally control policy doesn’t affect the intent, which is the point i was making, but evidently too subtly for you. And what has the interest of people in learning irish got to with the issue.


  12. Janis,
    my comment above sounds a bit rude on rereading it. i didn’t mean to be rude. also, i actually agree with much of what you’ve said on this thread, but obviously not everything.


  13. I have posted on this subject recently in relation to the Irish meaisín ticéad. I agree with you that it is very often a legacy of colonialism. The more bigoted and less rational the attack, the more likely this is. However, I think we need to be careful here. I do believe that there are people who are quite rational and not in the least bigoted or embittered who feel that Irish can’t be saved. They think that the chance for saving the language has gone and that we should concentrate on English. I don’t agree with them and I believe strongly in the value of the language, but that doesn’t mean the ‘with regret, the language is finished’ brigade are suffering from false consciousness or that they are stooges of British imperialism. There are lots of good reasons for learning Irish and we need to put those reasons out there i lár an aonaigh.


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