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,