Following on from reports that an Irish-speaking employee was forced from his job at a business in Cork because of management demands that he use the English language only, Aodhán Ó Deá has written in the The Journal on his experiences of discrimination as a minority Hibernophone in a majority Anglophone country:
“…the idea that it’s wrong or rude to speak Irish is something I hear quite a lot.
On a personal level, I made a choice to speak Irish wherever I could about eight years ago. I wasn’t brought up through Irish but I was speaking it more and more with friends.
With this decision came an unexpected fear for me; what will people think if I speak Irish publicly? I spoke it in my personal life all the time, but what about asking for services or seeking advice in Irish that are supposed to be available in Irish?
Under the Official Languages Act, the library, the Revenue Commissioners, the Gardaí and hundreds of other services are supposed to be available through Irish.
To my surprise, most people are very welcoming; they understand you are just trying to speak your national language.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes people will say I’m rude, arrogant or that I’m just trying to be smart. Interestingly enough every single person who says this to me is Irish themselves.
I’ve never really had negative feedback from people of other nationalities; most of them have their own languages, and they understand that there’s nothing wrong with speaking your language in your own country.
We must be one of the only countries in the world where you can be considered as rude purely for speaking your own language, even when you try to be as nice as possible about it. How is that ok?”
Of course the opinion piece has drawn the usual negative reactions, especially in the notorious right-wing bear pit that is the Journal’s comments’ section. Many have focused on the standard refrain of the belligerent English lobby:
“The Irish language was beaten into us!”
Which is complete and utter nonsense. Corporal punishment has been banned in Irish schools since 1982 and has been a criminal offence since 1996. No one under the age of forty has ever experienced any type of physical chastisement in a school in Ireland, and if they have done so they should be in the High Court seeking damages from the institution concerned and the department of education.
Up to the late 1970s corporal punishment was part of the disciplinary procedures for many schools across the country. So yes, some people over the age of forty may have had Irish “beaten” into them. But they also had English, maths, geography and history “beaten” into them too. Those subjects and others were taught through the same methods as Irish. So one can equally say in Ireland:
“The English language was beaten into us!”
Except that in this case the claim is literally true. Put aside the determining historical factors of foreign invasion and occupation, colonisation and annexation. Gloss over, for one moment, the effects of externally-imposed ethnocide and linguicide. Let us focus instead on the school system alone, as introduced into Ireland by the British authorities in the early 19th century. The primary – and avowed – purpose of the National Education Act of 1831 was to make good English children of bad Irish children, and one of the primary mechanisms of that forced conversion was the removal of their native language. By stripping the younger generation of their identity Britain’s colonial rule on this island nation could be made more effective – and enduring – than anything achieved through fire and sword, plantation and displacement. Consequently the sole and only language of education in the National Schools was English.
However, the British did not act alone in this grand scheme of linguistic homicide. The Roman Catholic Church, and in truth, some parents, willingly cooperated with the foreign authorities in Dublin and London, each for their own reasons. The church hierarchy in the 1800s (and much, much later) saw Ireland as a backdoor to the United Kingdom and its empire; a Catholic salient in the Protestant bastion which could be used to bring England back into harmony with Rome. The indigenous language and culture of the Irish was an impediment to that great task which needed to be overcome. The peasantry on the other hand saw English as the language of government, of law and order, of food on the table and a roof over one’s head. To speak English was to become English. It was to gain acceptance as a master not as a figurative slave. For the same reasons that Roman Catholics converted to the Protestant faiths in the Great Famine of 1845-52, to simply survive, so too did the native Irish slowly and forcibly abandon their nationality as it had been known for millennia.
That is when the beatings took place in the schools in Ireland. Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th, school children were forbidden to speak in their mother tongue. If caught speaking Irish, reported by the teachers or informed on by fellow pupils, they would have a stick hung around their neck, the feared bata scóir or “tally stick”, into which notches were carved every time they were discovered to be speaking the forbidden language. At the end of the day or the week they were beaten in accordance with the number of notches on the tally stick, by the staff or by their parents. In some cases the local priest or Protestant minister would be informed so that the family could be privately or publicly chastised. And the beatings were horrific. Whip-like canes or knotted ropes were used as the child was held down by one or more adults depending on their age or willingness to fight back. In the case of the schools these punishments were often carried out in front of their classmates as an example to others.
So don’t talk to me of the Irish language being beaten into the people of Ireland when the English language was tortured into us by an alien church and state!