Current Affairs History Irish Republican Politics The Irish Language - An Ghaeilge

The Unionist Argument Against The Irish Language Is A Colonial One

At the weekend I was interviewed by a metropolitan American journalist doing some background research into Brexit and the possible (or likely) impact it will have on the delicate post-conflict settlement in the north-east of Ireland. One thing which puzzled him, as he toured the UK-controlled Six Counties over the last few days, was the vitriol displayed by unionist interviewees towards the Irish tongue. He asked me if I could give him a straightforward reason why the British separatist minority on this island are so hostile to its “native language”. The simplest answer was the one he alluded to in his own question. In a colony the colonists, or their supposed descendants, will always denigrate and fear any sign of “native” identity and equate it with “resistance”. Resistance to displacement and dispossession, occupation and annexation, subjugation and humiliation. Unionist antipathy to Irish is born out of political unionism’s awareness of its own precarious existence and its weakening grip on Britain’s first and last colony. The contemporary “culture war” reflects a rearguard action by a retreating invader, a hostile force incapable of agreeing an honourable armistice with its erstwhile enemy.

19 comments on “The Unionist Argument Against The Irish Language Is A Colonial One

  1. Barbara McEvoy

    Absolutely spot on analysis

  2. Graham Ennis

    Very clearly explained! They will never accept the inherent parity of esteem, political rights and human and legal rights, that goes with the (now) majority community demanding basic standards in public life that are accepted everywhere else in the EU. Which is exactly the point. They fear being incorporated into an Irish EU state that maintains and demands these basic standards as a price of membership. Sadly, the Unionist (and minority) community will never accept this, as their entire world outlook is based on 18th and 19th century principles of racism, imperialism, colonialism, and religious bigotry. They absolutely hate the century that they now find themselves stranded in. Well, they are stranded in it. There is no going back to 1914, or even 1967. They are where they are, and they are causing a great deal of trouble and problems for the rest of the population of ireland. In my darker moments, I think in terms of re-partition, with the Nutcases confined to the two counties of the North where they can command a majority, and a strong Isreali style wall built to keep them from annoying the rest of them. Short of that, I do not think there is any other way of dealing with them that will give the rest of us some peace and quite. I think we are at an impass, and the rest of the Irish nation is being held to ransom by a bunch of fascist nut jobs. Enough. Wall them off.

    • Personally I would favour them being ‘redeployed’ to somewhere far far away, where they can act as a token presence for what little remains of the British Empire, ideally somewhere possibly threatened by invasion from a Catholic country. So I think West Falkland would be ideal, if a little unfair on the sheep and albatrosses … When May’s shaky Tory government eventually falls, couldn’t this be dressed up as their ‘reward’ for generations of service to our Germanic royals?

  3. You’re right Sionnach in that there’s an ongoing culture war but every war needs two sides. Unfortunately the Irish language is being used as a cudgel to beat northern unionists in this war, and that, naturally enough, inspires fear and hatred of it in return. That said it’s undoubtably true that the majority of Protestant/Unionist/Colonist stock wouldn’t be fans of it anyway.
    But for every Linda Ervine or Chris McGimpsey who’s happy to accept Irish as a language on it’s own merits there are many Unionists who can’t see past the use Republicanism is making of it in this culture war. It’s a short-term political gain at the expense of the long-term prospects of the language. This appropriation has been going on a long time and the hypocrisy of this false-Gaelicism is very clear to see in the half-assed cúpla focal trotted out by politicians who are happy to sit back and watch the Gaeltacht communities die.
    “The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither a Unionist nor a Separatist.” (Dúbhghlás de hÍde)

    • Since when is a demand for equality being beaten with a cudgel? What utter hogwash.

    • I agree with a lot of that, though arguably the Irish language is a cudgel unionists are beating nationalists with. By denying, denigrating its existence.

      I have criticised SF’s language policies before and I think very little of them, Acht na Gaeilge or no. Compared to the likes of the Parti Québécois and similar they are pretty weak.

  4. My comment is different but related (I hope). My parents would never teach me Romanes (the Gypsy/Romani language) because of fear. Although I’m first generation American, I wanted to learn as much about my culture as possible but was denied the pleasure. Prejudice interferes and rules many of our futures…

    • Very true. Additional languages should be seen as an asset not a burden or a mark of shame. They open up new opportunities, social and professional. Hopefully you will some other path to your ancestral tongue.

  5. There is a more general problem here as well. If you’re a native English speaker, it feels as though everyone else speaks or aspires to speak your language. Not only is there little real incentive to learn other languages, at least much beyond the cúpla focal level, but the whole concept of what it is to have your own ‘heritage’ language and associated culture, totally escapes them. They just don’t “get it”. The notion finds no place to perch in their mental ideas tree.

    So while most folk on the UK mainland find the antics of the Orange Order incomprehensible, neither do they see the point of Irish (or Gaelic or Welsh …)

    Can’t find where it was, but I was reading only yesterday that many of those ‘planted’ in Ulster came from Ayrshire and Galloway where many would have spoken a dialect of Gàidhlig that leaned toward Irish (similar to Manx). And in any case, many NI Unionists would have in fact have had Irish-speaking forebears, at least in the rural areas.

    So in reply to Bradhar, surely the easiest way to ‘de-weaponise’ Gaeilge would be for the Unionist community to take it up and own it too, as I think a few are already doing?

    • That’s true but it won’t happen I think, too much water under that droichead. It would’ve been fairer in his piece for an Sionnach to mention that the Protestant/Planter/Unionist tradition has given more than you’d expect to the language in the last few hundred years. Whatever else you can say about them, they’re great lads for tradition.
      Either way, everyone knows the language brouhaha is only a show. It’s a safe way to attack the other side without bringing race or creed into it. When real action starts to happen Irish will be packed away under the floorboards again with very little fuss from either side.

      • “without bringing race or creed into it” Yes, of course, a clever proxy marker.

        “Irish will be packed away under the floorboards again” You could well be right, but that would be a real pity. Ach có aig tha fhios, bhithidh an abhainn fhathast a’ sruthadh.

    • Yes, its odd that a minority of Scots planters in Ireland would have been at least bilingual Gaelic-English speakers. One presume’s that some of those may have been assimilated by the native population before the move to English. Certain surnames certainly seem to indicate that.

  6. Sharon Douglas

    I am so honoured to know you. Even if it is from afar. Another brilliant piece.

    • GRMA! Always good to get your support 😀 I’m still doing the Ireland-Czech Republic/Poland work trips so struggling to keep up – airports and hotels are not conducive to writing – but I will persist. To the bitter end 😉

  7. Now and then, in less charitable moments, I recall that the French bit the bullet when evacuating from their own nearest colony in Algeria: over 3m were repatriated to France. And, of course, there was bitter opposition from diehard colonial supremacists and their enablers in France. But the French establishment correctly recognised that it would be cheaper and wiser in the long run.

    • Maybe, though I certainly wound’t advocate that course of action for the British legacy colony in the north-east of our island nation. The failure to include unionists contributed to the “Free State” culture and mentality which held sway over the greater part of the country from the 1920s to 1990s. A new Ireland requires accommodation – on both sides.

      That said, I might be signing a different tune post-reunification. Hoisted by my own petard, as it were.

  8. at least they’re not at this sort of thing anymore

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