Not Merely Free But Gaelic 1916-2016

In August of 1915, Patrick H. Pearse, future president and commander-in-chief of the Provisional Government and Army of the Irish Republic, wrote a character study of the late Fenian revolutionary, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, where he stated with approval that the latter was:

“…not only ‘extreme’, but he represented the left wing of the ‘extremists’. Not only would he have Ireland free, but he would have Ireland Gaelic.”

This acknowledgement of the importance of the Gaelic language and culture for progressive politics in Ireland at the start of the 20th century was repeated in Pearse’s speech at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery, where tens of thousands of men, women and children from across the island and beyond witnessed a heralding of the Easter Rising of 1916:

“…this man almost alone in his day visioned Ireland as we of to-day would surely have her: not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well.”

For Pearse and the revolutionary generation the Irish language, its protection and restoration after centuries of persecution and near extermination, was the ideological glue which bound a broad and disparate movement together. Even James Connolly, whose hesitancy on the native tongue was summed up in characteristic style in 1898, “You cannot teach starving men Gaelic; and the treasury of our national literature will and must remain lost forever to the poor wage-slaves who are contented by our system of society to toil from early morning to late at night”, was willing to acknowledge a decade later that political radicals followed where the language activists led. To be Irish-speaking in the early 1900s was to be of the anti-establishment fraternity, to be a dissident in thought and action. It was no longer the language of the rural peasantry alone, the serfs of church and colonial state, but had become the adopted speech of the urban intelligentsia, of people who made common cause with the disenfranchised of the West. Through the Gaelic League, the single most important conduit for change in Irish society for a generation, Catholic, Protestant and Jew, agnostic, atheist and pagan, found a joint home and purpose. People of all backgrounds and classes, from the workshop to the Big House, rubbed shoulders in the pursuit of language learning, teaching and above all, living.

One of the first acts to bring Patrick H. Pearse to public prominence was his 1905 defence of an Irish-speaking trader in court who had been arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary and fined for using his name, Niall Mac Giolla Bhríde, on a commercial sign. The presiding High Court judge in Dublin, Nigel Huntingdon-Smythe, informed Pearse, working as the man’s barrister, that he would not tolerate people either speaking or writing their names in a “foreign” language. The twenty-six year old lawyer-turned-teacher saw this judgement as a confirmation of the United Kingdom’s continued usurpation of Irish rights, and that no compromise or advancement could be possible under the then constitutional arrangement between the two island nations. Over the following decade he would gradually abandon his casual support for John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the illusionary promise of so-called home rule itself, as he accepted that only a sovereign republic would give the people of Ireland the social, economic and culturally prosperity they deserved.

However, despite its central importance as a motivating force for the 1916-23 revolution, the Irish language has been largely, and notably, absent from this year’s centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising. The ceremonies and events of 1916-2016 have been almost entirely through the medium of English, and while some speak of “unfinished business” in relation to an all-Ireland republic, the greatest potential for real change lies in the establishment of an all-Ireland Gaelic republic. Yet, as we have witnessed in the recent, inconclusive general election, no political party of any stripe has brought forth a truly progressive policy on linguistic equality, or even avowed its support for the restoration of an Irish-speaking majority on the island. Instead they have echoed the same lip-service and petty acts of tokenism that we have witnessed in the centenary commemorations of the last several weeks.

So here is a “radical” suggestion for 2016, a constitutional amendment to mark one hundred years since the Fenian visionaries set out to make a reality of their hopes and aspirations. Let us update Article 8 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which governs the place of the Irish and English languages in the state, by removing any ambiguities about the importance of the former in the constitution.

“Article 8:

8.1 The Irish language as the national language is the first official language.

8.2 The English language is recognised as a second official language.

8.3 Provision may, however, be made by law for the exclusive use of either of the said languages for any one or more official purposes, either throughout the State or in any part thereof.”

As can be seen above, sub-article 8.3 has become something of a linguistic trojan horse through which the English language has become the default language of government in Ireland, a situation only slightly ameliorated by the enacting of the Official Languages Act of 2003 (and the knowingly farcical “language schemes”). Clause 8.3 and the related legislation flatly contradicts the intent of 8.1 where Irish is defined as the first language of the state. So I propose an amendment along the following lines:

“Article 8:

“8.1 The Irish language as the national language is the first official language.

8.2 The English language is recognised as a second official language.

8.3 Exclusive use shall be made of the national language for all official purposes by the State, and its promotion shall be a priority of the State. However, until such time as the national language is in the majority, the State may legislate for the simultaneous use of both official languages for certain limited purposes, though the primacy of the national language must be recognised and demonstrated at all times.

8.4 No citizen shall be prevented in learning, speaking or conducting their private or public business through the national language anywhere in the State.”

What finer way could we pay immediate tribute to the men and women of 1916 than by raising the Irish language, their language, to a position from which it can fulfil their dream by becoming the majority tongue of the peoples of the island of Ireland?

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13 comments

  1. I wish, I wish. Who could argue, against such a cause, except those to whom the survival of the 3000 year old language and literature, with all its deep history, is a standing rebuke, every time they open their mouths. Those of the Anglophone persuasion now seem bent on eradication, humiliation, and forgetting. What a tragedy.

  2. 8.4 No citizen shall be prevented in learning, speaking or conducting their private or public business through the national language anywhere in the State.”
    ———–
    So does this mean that saying that you don’t speak Irish and ask someone to speak English will be anti-constitutional?

    1. It would apply to services, though the terminology can be honed down. Essentially that is the situation in places like Catalonia, Québec, etc. What are the Latvian arrangements? As I understand it a Latvian-registered business that refuses to engage with Latvian-speaking customers would technically be acting illegally if it only dealt in Russian.

      I offer the suggestion as a jumping off point for others to suggest their preferences/ideas for different or better wording.

      1. Yes, that’s correct. It’s possible to report such businesses and can get fined. And that also applies to labels on products that are sold in stores (if there are any labels, markings or instructions – they must be translated in the national language). And that applies to all the documents, signs and other info that’s not displayed to the public if it’s related to workplace safety, public health, security and the like. For example – there are no “Fire Exit” signs in Irish at my workplace. In Latvia that would be illegal.

        So yeah – your proposal in practice would require at least basic Irish fluency from private sector employees and especially from self-employed people. For example – if a plumber arrives to fix an Irish speaker’s toilet he must be able to deal with him in Irish if the client so desires.

        1. I mean – those businesses can get fined – there’s a govt organisation whose task is to assess the language skills of private and public sector employees and fine them if necessary.

  3. An excellent idea. I wasted my school days as do a lot of young men and women by not trying harder to learn my native language. Something I will regret for the rest of my life. In my defence if I had been stopped and searched by our overlords and spoke in Irish there would have been the possibility that my talking days would have ended there and then. So the Brit plan to eradicate the native language from Ireland is not that long past. But I feel there is still time to reverse hundreds of years of abuse if the will is there. But it will all depend if the notion can be turned into a vote catcher.

    1. It can´t be achieved in isolation, it would have to be part of a wider movement to re-establish the concept of Ireland as a separate nation in people´s perception, along with the sort of non-aggressive national pride that places like Latvia (for example) have. It could of course be a powerful tool in achieving such a perception.

      I may be wrong, but despite all the token Gaelic and the tricolours, an English-speaking Ireland somehow doesn´t feel like the self-confident independent European nation it deserves to be.

      It´s feels like a sort of annex to Britain …

      1. There is a lot of truth in that, Marconatrix, though often that “Britishness” is among certain classes and categories. Travel beyond the Anglo-American Pale, even now, and a different Ireland is still visible, albeit driven to the edge of extinction.

  4. Practically speaking though … the last government engaged in a systematic downgrading of the few, mostly symbolic, ‘privileges’ Irish is afforded. I’m convinced that only the strong personal convictions of Éamon Ó Cuív stopped the government before that from doing something similar.
    So in 2016 – Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla 2003 is undermined at every turn, Straitéis 20 Bliana is an ignored shambles, Údarás na Gaeltachta is a sad joke, Foras na Gaeilge is underfunded, undercut and mostly used to keep ‘the North’ happy. The Gaeltachtaí are failing at last, it’s strong men and women bought off or turned off. The cúpla focal of official Ireland has squashed us.
    It’s a million to one chance, but it might just work … if a small band of dedicated volunteers were to rise against this oppression, ready to face the opprobrium of millions …

    1. Odd article, some truth but a lot of supposition. Pearse proved that the relationship of Irish to the UK state was not that of Welsh. Nor would it ever have been. Irish is still illegal in the British-administered courts of the north-east, right now in 2016. The language is still not taught in schools as part of the standard curriculum. Bilingualism is largely absent from the public services. Bilingual signs are rare and contentious. Would Irish have fared better under Britain’s continued colonial rule? Demonstrably not.

      1. It’s not official in the north because even those who wanted to kill in the name of united Ireland could not speak the language. If no one can speak the language then no one is going to demand any language rights.

  5. Hah, yes an obvious flaw in the article allright and one that’s pointed out in the comments section.
    However (for the sake of argument) if the whole 32 counties had remained British then Irish would have a greater influence presumably .i.e. not a Protestant state for a Protestant people, as well as having some strong Gaeltachtaí to fall back on – I think the Sperrins Gaeltacht was practically dead at that stage.

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