Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Why we should take heed of poet Longley's words on the Irish language

As another year ends, scholar's Irish language remarks challenge us to rethink our tribal ways, says Fionola Meredith

Belfast poet Michael Longley has called on unionists to embrace the Irish language
Belfast poet Michael Longley has called on unionists to embrace the Irish language

The days between Christmas and New Year have a curious, other-worldly quality all of their own. The wild excess of gift-giving and feasting is over, but most people are still off work. If you venture outside you find the roads are almost empty, apart from die-hard spenders rushing to the post-Christmas sales - as if there hasn't been enough spending already. There's nothing much to do except eat leftover turkey sandwiches or sip another glass of Baileys, if you still have the stomach for it.

These quiet days are a good time for reflection, for weighing up the past year and looking forward to the next one.

Which is why, in this post-Christmas lull, the humane thoughts of Michael Longley are particularly welcome. The renowned poet, now in his 79th year, has been talking to the BBC. In a wide-ranging interview with William Crawley he examined many aspects of history, culture and identity. But the comment that has grabbed the headlines - perhaps inevitably - is Longley's claim that unionists "should embrace" the Irish language.

"We're very lucky on this island to have two languages," Longley said.

"It should be something that unionists should embrace and indeed they did - the United Irishmen, the northern Presbyterians in the 1790s were among the most vigorous promoters of the language. I think a lot of anti-Irish language unionists don't know what they're missing."

In the interview Longley expressed particular disgust at the DUP's Gregory Campbell's crude parody of the Irish language in 2014, when he addressed the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly with the phrase: "Curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer." Longley said he loathed the "mocking of this beautiful language".

"A healthy society, a healthy political scene would celebrate Ulster-Scots and especially the Irish language," he said. "It is such a huge loss if humanity loses a language."

The poet is not coming at the issue from the perspective of an Irish language activist; indeed, he does not speak Irish himself. He said that he'd been promising himself to learn it for the last 60 years but had never got around to it.

Rather Longley, drawing on a lifetime's experience, is making a plea for tolerance, for open-mindedness and receptivity to ideas and beliefs that are not one's own. It is not a revolutionary plea, but it is a necessary, timely one. And it goes far beyond these shores.

This year has seen political discourse thoroughly debased during the rows over Brexit. The vote to leave the EU has unleashed the worst characteristics on both sides: rampant self-interest, dumb sloganeering, petty brinkmanship and - running throughout - the wilfully deaf ear of political intransigence.

The extremity of the language being used is appalling: there has been repeated talk of stabbing, hanging and suicide. For instance, I'm in profound disagreement with Prime Minister Theresa May on most issues, but it's revolting to hear her described as "on her knees" in Brussels, enduring a "kicking" from EU leaders.

Since when has it been acceptable to use violence against women as a suitable metaphor for political humiliation?

Politicians and large sections of the Westminster commentariat have clearly lost the run of themselves.

It's as if the worst of Northern Ireland politics - the thuggishness, the ignorance, the utter lack of collegiality, except when it comes to strategic carve-ups for mutual benefit - has been magnified to a national level.

Longley makes a reasonable point about unionists and the Irish language.

Instead of treating Irish as some kind of totemic bugbear, to be feared and resisted at all costs, it would be healthier, as well as smarter, for unionists to sidestep the republican provocations and actively celebrate the rich linguistic heritage we all share.

Likewise it would be great if republicans and their hangers-on in other political parties felt able to view unionists as something more than blundering bigots, morally and socially rooted in the 17th century. But the world would have to shift on its axis for these radical things to happen.

It would require a country-wide transfusion of confidence, generosity and imagination on both sides, and that's exactly what we haven't got.

With Brexit as a backdrop, and all the viciously polarised tribal politicking going on as a result of that, what chance does a potentially resurrected Stormont have?

Longley's voice is a cry in the dark, at the darkest time of the year.

For things to change, and begin to get better, more of us need to start listening.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph