The Othering Of The Irish Language And Those Who Speak It

Ursula Ní Shabhaois, writing on her blog “Ag Smaoineamh Os Ard“, reiterates a point that many choose to overlook: the linguistic and cultural rights of the Irish-speaking minority in Ireland should not be wholly contingent on the approval of the English-speaking majority. This is particularly true when it is evident that even the most limited – and limiting – of minority rights are subject to the animosity of influential individuals who display an anachronistic form of anti-Irish prejudice, the perverse legacy of colonial rule on this island nation. It is a small cadre of English language supremacists in the fields of journalism, politics and business who are wedded to a dead culture, one that prevailed when a foreign flag flew over Dublin Castle, and when our indigenous tongue signified active resistance not passive compliance.

Certain well-known newspaper columnists and politicians do not hate Irish – and by implication, Irish-speakers – because of supposed concerns about budgetary restraints, individual freedoms or, risibly, road safety. They do so because they are trapped in a “settlerist” mindset which makes them hear Irish and think of barbarous natives pouring down from the Wicklow mountains to disturb their mental “Pale“. These men and women are not so much “Castle Catholics” as “Castle Anglophones“. Not content with the ghettoising of the Irish language in the education system, where their equally partisan antecedents confined it in the 1920s, they now insist that it is expunged from even that small corner of our national life.

“Over the past few months it seems as though every week there is another negative article being published about the Irish language and/or those who speak it.

…all of these articles have one common theme: The author doesn’t speak the language and they don’t want anyone else to either.

I could write here about the importance of the Irish language to national identity, I could write about the proven benefits of bilingualism, or I could discuss how minority language initiatives encourage community cohesion. I could provide facts and statistics on this too, if they were interested. That said, this shouldn’t be necessary. The protection of minority rights should not be contingent on preferences or opinions.

It makes me angry to think that the Irish language community must continually justify its right to exist in this way. No other minority group would be treated in such a way without being properly challenged to back up their arguments. I can’t imagine it ever being acceptable for individuals to focus on any other minority group and to use their position of influence in the media to belittle and insult that group and to then call it ‘debate’ or ‘discussion.’ Put simply, these articles are attacks on a vulnerable community, under a poor guise of journalism.”

The Irish language is not dead but there are those who are absolutely determined that it should be, men and women seeking to finish an ethnocide began on this island several centuries ago. Christ knows they have plenty of allies. From a report by the Irish News:

“IT cost almost £7,000 for a DUP-headed Stormont department to change the name of a fisheries patrol boat from Irish into English.

Nationalists reacted angrily last month after new agriculture minister Michelle McIlveen revealed the name of the Irish Sea vessel had been translated from ‘Banríon Uladh’ to ‘Queen of Ulster’.

The DUP minister said the decision was taken because the department has a “single language policy”.”

Which is the logic – and aspiration – of the anti-Irish lobby in this country taken to its ultimate form.

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41 comments

  1. They are still Castle Catholics. West Brits chose to exchange their Gaelic Irish identity for a Roman Catholic Briton identity. That’s what you are trying to challenge.

  2. ASF,

    You have little credibility on the issue of Irish. The reality is that you can’t be bothered to learn to speak and write the Irish language well – something you have in common with the vast majority of fellow Irish citizens. You may feel comfort going on about prejudice, anglophone supremacy and ‘settlerism’ but you are actually part of the problem. You are playing your part in ensuring that Irish continues to fade away from generation to generation.

    The fact that someone who is evidently passionate about languages in general and Irish in particularly cannot even SPEAK said language fluently and meaningful provides a glimpse into the sociolinguistic challenges it faces. Most Irish people speak English natively and are indifferent to genuine revival in terms of Irish and don’t see the point in becoming fluently and thereafter speaking it habitually.

    If you cared enough about Irish, you would become fluent, and do your part to revitalise the language before it’s too late. Instead, you’re content to chirp from the sidelines and blame everyone and everything other than your own lack of willpower.

    1. Some fair points, Daniel. I grew up speaking English, learned (or more accurately, gained some knowledge of) Irish through the education system, my mother and in the general culture, found almost zero ways of using it outside of school, worked overseas for a few years and returned home with most of my limited knowledge gone. My halting efforts to become fluent have largely failed. There are many reasons for that, not least my linguistically-challenged brain, but the end result is that I can read some, understand some, but not to any worthwhile degree.

      I am a product of the system rather than an exception to it. In that case I represent a majority of the Irish people, fluent in English, limited or non-existent in Irish, but who wish to see a change in the fortunes of our native tongue. For me it may be too late but for the next generation and the generations to come there may be some hope. In that I disagree with your view. One does not need to join Green Peace to be an environmentalist or concerned about that matter. One does not have to have children to have an opinion on education or schools. One does not need to take in a Syrian refugee to hold the belief that we should be doing more about that crisis. And so on.

      We can all play our part in ways great and small. And that is the point of my tiny online (and offline) efforts to highlight the position of the Irish language and Irish-speakers in contemporary Ireland. If I cannot be fully part of the solution at least I can seek to be not fully part of the problem. If I highlight Irish language issues through the medium of English, which precious few do, if I challenge the accepted narrative through the medium of English, which precious do, then at least I am doing something. It is small, perhaps meaningless in the greater scheme of things, though it clearly has some impact. The few thousand people who visit this website every single day testify to that.

      The challenge is huge but we are not reinventing the wheel here. There have been other languages and language minorities which have come back from the brink. In the mid-1960s sociologists and academics were confident in their predictions that French would cease to exist as a community language on the North American continent within thirty years. Several researchers were certain that Francophones would represent a tiny minority in Québec by the 1990s, mainly an old and dying one. The Québécois took note, politicians and community leaders, and turned that situation around. So it is possible from however poor a starting point if the will is there.

      So, yes, I take your criticisms of me on the chin. They are not unfair. I have tried to become fluent in Irish but I have also largely failed. I don’t disagree with you for pointing that out.

      1. Quite a paradox this, and really I don´t know quite where I stand. Supporting a language is not like supporting most other minorities, at least not when you live in the country where it´s spoken, and where I assume there´d be no objection to you ´joining´ that (sub)culture. Nor is it quite like supporting a fashion in sport or music or some other cultural field. Language is probably unique being both a thing in itself, a body of people and the medium through which that body and their culture is developed and propagated.

        I´d say he´s found your Achilles´ heel. It´s not for me to tell you or anyone else what to do, and since I only know you via this blog I know nothing of your personal circumstances. But since you are clearly a man of the written word, might you not at least learn to read and write Irish?

        A ¨blog of blogs¨ for Irish would be useful in this respect. Does one exist? If not and someone wishes to start one they should probably contact the people behind the Welsh language _blogiadur_ site. I believe they made their system available to the Scottish site _Tìr-nam-Blog_.

        Séamas, for I think half the battle would simply be to find material that is interesting in itself to keep you reading. Just my personal take I suppose. Good luck anyway 🙂

        1. I don’t disagree. There are a few reasons why I have perhaps struggled more than most, and failed more than most, which are personal to me, but yep, that is my mark of Cain. When it comes to fluency in Irish I am a failure. Which is why I see the importance of creating a society different from the one I grew up in and currently live in, one where attaining Irish fluency would be as natural as gaining English fluency from childhood onward for a majority of people.

    2. daniel, i disagree with ASF on this one. I think you’ve made a fairly spurious point, and i’ve come across it in various forms before, usually as the ‘clincher’ when some anti-gaeilge arse has lost an argument about the irish language or culture (i’m not suggesting you are one of those). you don’t have to be part of a minority to care about the rights of that minority. I voted for gay marriage a few months ago, but i’ve never been gay, and i don’t have any plans to become gay. Was i wrong to vote for gay people too be treated as equal citizens like the rest of us? of course not. The Irish language is inherently valuable. Its a treasure. And it should be protected (full stop). ASF makes a contribution towards that and is doing a good job in my opinion.

      1. you don’t have to be part of a minority to care about the rights of that minority
        —————-
        Gay rights and language rights are not the same thing. In order for some people to have language rights the rest have to be coerced into learning that language, but we don’t have to become gay in order for gay people to have the same rights. In order for you to have the right to speak English – I have to learn it.

        So yeah – if you don’t speak Irish then every time you interact with Irish speakers and force them to speak English you weaken the position of Irish and make it less useful.

        Less than 30% of non-Latvians in Latvia spoke Latvian in 1990, now ~90% of them can speak it. Forced monolingualism is the way to go – bilingualism is not going to work. Because as we see in Ireland – only Irish speakers are bilingual. But of course ASF doesn’t have the balls or willpower to suggest anything nearly radical as that or even better act like that himself.

        1. Jānis, I prefer a large carrot and a small stick, rather than the Latvian way of a large stick – and an even larger stick! 😉

          I have suggested in previous posts that if the young men and women of the would-be Republican Resistance, the so-called “Dissidents”, want to really free Ireland then they should do so by walking into a post office in Belfast, demand Irish language service, and if refused sit down and decline to budge until arrested. If the 400 or 500 people under the “Dissident” umbrella were to do that it would do more to aid their cause than inflicting any amount of zero-return death and destruction. However, weirdly, that takes more courage than shooting someone in the ankles or putting a mercury-tilt lunch box under someone’s car. I know from personal experience, using Irish in public – where you become the object of scrutiny and puzzlement – can be quite embarrassing.

          1. But currently you have no carrot. And no stick either. All you want is to somehow force others to do something that you don’t want to do yourself. Do you realise that in a 100% Irish speaking society – YOU would be the odd one that stands out and does not fit in? In Latvia if someone asks me something in Russian I answer in Latvian and if they don’t understand – the conversation is over. Do you want to be treated like that? Because in your dreamland that’s exactly what would happen.

            And btw – it would be very funny to see 500 people who can’t speak Irish demanding Irish language service 😀

            1. I find the presence of Janis in these discussion like the sweet voice of the Devil saying: come over to my side… it is so easy. Just give in and all your worries are over. Just give up… it will feel so good when you stop caring.

              Did nothing ever mean enough that you were willing to go against the current to fight for what is right?

              1. I’m not asking anyone to give up. I’m asking them to be honest and stop believing that you can have a cake and eat it too.

        2. i was referring to supporting the rights of a minority that you don’t belong to, not those rights in themselves. The following should be rights afforded the irish speaking community: The right to interact with the state through Irish, whether that be through the courts, gardai, revenue, passport office, even when being dealt with by the librarian in the library, just like monolingual english speakers are able to. Irish speakers should have the right to have their children benefit from irish language immersion schooling, just as like monolingual english speakers have the equivalent right to have their children educated in english language immersion schools. The above don’t require any english speaker to be coerced, and don’t cost more money. Its a matter of equality, just like gay marriage was an equality issue. It doesn’t require me to be gay, or be an irish speaker.

          “Forced monolingualism is the way to go – bilingualism is not going to work. ” that is certainly the experience in Ireland. The irish state has always imposed and continues to impose the imperialistic policy of forced monolingualism despite there being no obvious advantage. ASF highlights this on a regular basis.

          1. The right to interact with the state through Irish, whether that be through the courts, gardai, revenue, passport office, even when being dealt with by the librarian in the library, just like monolingual english speakers are able to.
            —————–
            This requires either sacking monolingual English speakers that are currently employed in these positions and hiring Irish speaking ones instead or forcing all of them to become fluent in Irish – paying for their language lessons would cost more money. There’s no other way.

            I graduated from Rīga Technical University and there were many Russian speaking professors there. And in order for me to have the right to education in Latvian all those professors had to learn and be fluent in the language if they didn’t want to be sacked.
            So my experience directly contradicts your claims that in order for Irish speakers to have the same rights – no one would be forced to leave their job or learn Irish.

            So why do you lie? Are you afraid of scaring away other English monoglots who might not support your cause, because they fear that they’d be sacked form their jobs or forced to learn Irish? My “turkeys voting for Christmas” was about them.

            Despite fighting for the Irish language rights ASF still has that “dumb american tourist” mindset. He seems to want a country where 100% of people speak Irish, but at the same time everyone immediately bends over to English speakers like him and switches to English as soon as he’s nearby. Due to being a native speaker of the world’s lingua franca he still doesn’t understand the mindset of people who are native speakers of small languages.

            Hate to burst your bubble ASF, but that’s not how it works in countries that speak small languages.

            In your “100% Irish dreamland” you would be excluded, “othered”, and told to go back to England and speak English there. We DO NOT tolerate and respect people who live in the country for years and still refuse to learn the national language.

            How the hell do you even plan to live in a country like that? Do you think that, for example, if you go to a bar and see a group of 5 people speaking Irish and you just go and start speaking English to them they’d be totally happy to all switch to English in order to not exclude you? If some Russian speaker does that in Latvia – we hate that, we tell him to speak Latvian or GTFO.

            How would you plan to be employed in your dreamland? How is a 100% Irish speaking company supposed to act in order to accommodate people like you? Should their project management system, internal communications, meetings and other stuff be conducted in English from now on in order for you to have a clue what the hell is going on?

            So stop believing that you can have a cake and eat it too.

            1. i haven’t lied. There is continuous recruitment into the public service. simply start (and i mean start) hiring irish speakers. i believe that about 25% of the civil service to due to retire in the next 5 years. There you’d have 25% of the civil service able to provide services in the official language of the state by 2021, and they could provide services in english too as they are all bilingual so the state is getting more for its money. And new civil servants are on inferior contracts (lower pay scales and averaged earnings pensions rather than final salary pension schemes) to those retiring. Therefore they would be cheaper to employ and no-one needs to be “sacked.”

              Currently gaelscoileanna represent 5% of schools but cater for 8% of primary school children. so they are working out as more cost effective to the state.

              “Hate to burst your bubble ASF”. Hmmm, really ;op

              1. As far as I know – Irish speakers are not banned from applying for public service jobs right now. So what do you mean by “start”? Should they require Irish fluency and reject everyone who’s not fluent? They already tried that in the past and that rule got repealed.
                And what if there aren’t enough qualified Irish speakers? Language skills aren’t the only requirement – so you’d have to pay for language lessons and train the existing employees.

                And in order to make service in Irish a right not a privilege – 100% of public service workers must be fluent.
                Otherwise ASF will complain again when Gardai will arrest someone who’s speaking Irish in order to get him someone at the station who can provide services in Irish.

                At the university where I studied 100% of professors were fluent in Latvian – anything less is simply not acceptable.

                – Oh, sorry, I don’t speak the official language of the state and the language of the program you’re studying so all my lessons will be in this completely foreign language and you’ll require 100% fluency in it in order to pass.

                Do you think that the above is acceptable? Do you think that a professor who’s like that should keep their job?

    3. Daniel

      If ASF has little credibility on the issue of Irish because he is not fluent in Irish, I assume the exact same logic applies to Derek Lynch, Ian O’Doherty and the large number of journalists who don’t speak Irish but who love to attack the language at every opportunity? I mean, by your logic, if they aren’t fluent, they don’t get a say?

      As someone who became fluent in Irish as an adult, I can fully appreciate the challenges involved in doing so, and why many Irish people who would like to be fluent in Irish never make it. But ASF’s Irish language ability does not in any way invalidate his contribution to the discussion of the Irish language – indeed it is refreshing to see someone argue passionately in favour of the Irish language when the English-language media of Ireland is indifferent, if not largely hostile towards the language.

    4. While I agree that fluency with the language is an important personal goal, I totally disagree that a non-fluent person is morally excluded from working towards the future of Irish. Take, for example, a person such as myself who is learning the language but incapable of reading all but the most simple phrases. I am still very interested in the political and social situation that exists in Ireland and around the language. I am interested in the fight that is going on. There needs to be a media space where this is discussed and accessible. The debate about Irish needs to happen as Béarla agus as Gaeilge.

  3. Hello,

    I appreciate your responses. As it happens, I currently live in Montreal, Québec. Come here and you’ll see genuine bilingualism in action. Something Ireland hasn’t a clue about. (Granted, 85% of Quebec residents are native French speakers, but many people speak 2-3 languages well.)

    My point is that if someone so passionate about Irish cannot or will not become fluent, and is content to be an advocate through English, then what hope does Irish have!? All the goodwill in the world hasn’t helped Irish. The persistence of the ‘cúpla focal’ approach will never lead to revitalisation.

    Imagine how much poorer Irish would be if Alex Hijmans (Dutch) or Alan Titley (Anglophone from Cork) and many others would be had they decided not to put in the hard toil of becoming fluent.

    1. But not all those who were part of the French revitalisation movement in Québec during the 1960s and ’70s were fluent Francophones. Not all those who supported and voted for the Official Language Act (Bill 22) in 1974 or the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) in 1977, which halted and reversed the decline in French, were fluent in that language. Some were monolingual anglophones. At a federal level the Official Languages Act (Canada) of 1969/1988 and related legislation was supported by English-speaking parliamentarians not just French-speaking ones.

      The Irish language movement will not match or exceed the record of its Francophone peers in Canada if it cannot bring non-Irish-speakers with it. There must be some platform where English-speakers are addressed on Irish language issues to counter the persistent negativity and hostility of much of the establishment media in Ireland. This website is a tiny start that others more eloquent and engaged can hopefully emulate and build upon. In any case it was never my intention for a blog originally devoted to Sci-Fi books and movies to evolve into the quasi-political thing it has now become. That took on a life of its own.

      1. Voting for a language that you don’t speak and don’t plan to learn is like turkeys voting for Christmas. Why would I vote for more uncessary problems for myself?

        And people who want others to spend a lot of time and money learning a near dead language while not doing it themselves are hypocrites.

          1. All I’m saying is that you can’t have a cake and eat it too. If you want some language to become more popular – someone has to actually put an effort into learning it and becoming fluent. If you yourself can’t be bothered then you have no right to demand it from others. ASF demands from ordinary Gardai to learn Irish in order to be able once in a blue moon interact with someone who’s speaking Irish, but he himself doesn’t want to do that.

      1. I know, it´s difficult for outsiders to understand all the hypocrisy around the Irish language. Why you wonder don´t they either speak it or forget it … rather than talking ABOUT it all the time in English! The man who made that video can speak Irish as he demonstrated. All it would need is for him to do it every day and he´d be fluent in a month or two. Latvians have no problem (AFAIK) with speaking Latvian, and so on for many other nations that have only regained their independence recently. Whereas Ireland has (mostly) been independent for almost a century now. It really makes you wonder sometimes why they bothered only to be a sort of carbon copy of the UK.

  4. The online contributions of ASF certainly inspired me to become semi-fluent, create social opportunities for Irish speakers in my own area and send my children to a Gaelscoil. We speak some Irish at home every day. Without the inspiration of people like ASF, Bernard Dunne, Des Bishop and Manchán Magan I don’t think I would have gone down that road.
    ASF, you don’t have a linguistically challenged brain – that’s obvious from your ability in English. That said, learning a language as an adult (learning anything as an adult!) does appear to be significantly more difficult than in childhood. Immersion helps in both cases.

  5. I though it might be relevant to link to this similar article that has just appeared about the constant stream of columnists who like to do down Scottish Gaelic :
    http://danamag.org/beachdan-aineolach-a-cur-smal-air-ar-sunnd/
    — —
    OK, I suppose I´d better translate it, I need the practice 😉
    ——
    Ignorance Defiling our Outlook?

    If you´re favourably disposed towards the Gaelic language and culture, what´s your first impression when you read ignorant anti-Gaelic articles; as often as not by established columnists for the Lowland and English papers? Contempt? Anger? Depression? Indifference even?

    Across the months and the years, week after week, blow upon blow. From the same publications and the same reporters; always the same crap getting thrown at us, as though the poor sods had nothing better to do with their time. You know who they are, I´m quite sure : Columnists for papers such as the Daily Mail, Evening Express (Dundee), Dundee Courier, Aberdeen Press & Journal, Stornoway Gazette … and so on.

    This garbage is regularly showered on us like starling dropping from the treetops, and at particular times of year, you might easily find yourself submerged, such is the flood of shite that these unpleasant columnists pour out : Opinions as to the ´correct´ approach to the state of Gaelic, how it should properly be dealt with.

    Generally as soon as any information gets out about development money for anything to do with Gaelic, a critical column appears or another letter of complaint is published. ´Opinions´? Articles? Carefully written on the basis of a little research? No sign of these!

    Can you blame me for not wanting this in my face? It´s not that there´s simply no truth in the stuff they shove under our noses, just that they have nothing at all new to say! Those putrid ´conjectures´ have been sitting there so long that they stink. It´s enough to make you throw up if you allowed it. And it´s us, the Gaelic speakers, who do allow it.

    I think we have two possible choices :

    We could take these poisonous columns and distribute them amongst ourselves, and more generally via social media, so as to give people the opportunity of attacking them. In doing so we need to be aware of the negative effect this could have on the attitude of Gaelic speakers, especially the young. Are these vain commentators really so important that we need to take note of their views every time they appear? Is that not the very thing that would discourage you if you were a pupil in GME?

    As for the second option, what about simply ignoring these harmful articles? These disgusting writers hardly deserve our attention, now do they?

    Is it important for Gaelic speakers and supporters to react to every media article that comes out against the language and its users? Or should we, on the other hand, pay no attention? Would we be best off ignoring them, or should we take them on by writing letters of denial etc. ?

    What do you think? Please write in and let us know.
    — — —

          1. Oh come on, it´s not that weird surely? I can generally get the jist of Irish, even though you seem to like to rip the guts out of every other word. Mind you spoken Irish sounds like you´ve got your mouths full of potatoes, SG sounds a lot ´sharper´, probably all those vikings with their edged weapons 🙂

  6. marconatrix, i had a Scot over one time who thought that written irish ‘gaelic’ look strangely familiar but on hearing spoken Irish (particularly Donegal Irish) was struck by how similar it was. I’m led to believe that man from castlebay will understand as much of the Gaelic/irish spoken in donegal as he will the gaelic spoken in stornoway. In a sense Ireland could be considered the most southerly of the hebridean islands.

    1. Funny, I recently came across an old TV Irish language teaching series ¨Now You´re Talking¨ which used some form of Northern Irish (you can find it on YouTube, but beware, there´s also a Welsh course with exactly the same name!) The feeling I got was … well imagine a triangle where the three corners are Scots Gaelic, Manx and Munster Irish. It felt like it was right in the middle, with bits of all three confusingly muddled together 🙂

      1. I remember seeing that series on repeats (maybe on TG4 in the 1990s?) and I remember how difficult some of the dialect was to follow. The accent made a difference, as with Gaoth Dobhair Irish. However it did have its merits. It brought back some memories anyway.

  7. ASF….. Good points all around… Keep doing what u r doing!….. U r correct… Without support from ‘ English ireland’ ( hearts and minds) then taking back Irish will b much more difficult…. If every school ( or 90% ) was a Gaelscoil, then within 5 years, the language would b back

  8. Irish important…?… Couple years ago.. I was in west Clare pub, midwinter… Discussion came around to Irish language.. Bartender against the language.. Local young man turns to me angrily says:” we should have our own language!.. Every summer, French, Germans, Spanish come in here and speak their own language( but know english also).. When we speak( locals) to each other, we speak in whispers so they can’t hear us !”……….. A people without their language .. Forced to whisper….

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