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On a Hyde-ing to nothing over the language debate

Published 27/10/2008

I was in Roscommon last week to attend an annual conference held in memory of Douglas Hyde — Roscommon’s most famous son, Protestant, Irish speaker and first president of an independent Ireland.

The theme was “Amú in Aistriúchán” (Lost in Translation) and while the talk was mainly about the place of Irish in the Republic — a contentious enough issue often enough — the theme is one that is easy to transfer to the North and our ongoing debate regarding the use, mis-use or non-use of Irish. (Choose one and delete as appropriate.)

The wonderful thing about people like Douglas Hyde is that they challenge our preconceptions of what culture means. People are complex and nuance is everything. The way in which we like to force allegiance on people here does not always accurately reflect their real cultural make-up and interests.

How do the DUP, for example, deal with the legacy of Douglas Hyde or indeed with local Protestants who speak Irish? (And they do exist.) They ignore them and promote the fictional Ulster-Scots as an antidote to Irish. Ironically, the fact that Hyde spoke Irish and that others from a similar religious background continue to speak the language offers the DUP an opportunity out of their cultural cul-de-sac and one for which they might yet be grateful.

Similarly, were Hyde alive today, I doubt that he would rush to embrace Sinn Féin and their vision for the language; the butcher’s bill for the bragging rights in Irish would be too much for him to bear.

Regrettably, as far as our two biggest parties are concerned, Hyde’s vision has indeed been lost in translation and in a blizzard of boorish soundbites.

We are all the worse for that and should the debate over Irish continue to be one that is allowed to polarise our views (indeed encourage that polarisation), we will all end up on a Hyde-ing to nothing.

Belfast Telegraph

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