Belfast Telegraph

Irish language debate... is it really just a case of mistaken identities?

If we looked at how little effect the native tongue has had in the Republic, people might not be so quick to put a badge on it, says Malachi O'Doherty

Irish language speakers protest in Newry in February over the issue of an Irish Language Act
Irish language speakers protest in Newry in February over the issue of an Irish Language Act

Is the Irish language the special preserve of the nationalist community, something they are happy to share with as many others as will take it up, or is it equally the preserve of everyone?

Certainly, there is nothing stopping anyone who wants from learning it. You can't own a language.

Yet clearly unionists believe that it is a badge of republicanism, something used against them.

Imagine a situation a few years from now, say after an Irish Language Act, when Irish language street names go up in east Belfast and Rathcoole.

It would be nice to think they would be warmly received, but they won't be.

For unionism, Irish belongs to the other side and the flaunting of the language would be as welcome in loyalist areas as the Irish tricolour.

And some nationalists go along with this distinction, identifying Irish more with one community than the other.

You hear it in the argument that the Irish Language Act is required as a mark of respect for identity.

Patsy McGlone of the SDLP was happy to use that word on The Nolan Show last week when we debated the issue.

But if nationalists are telling unionists that the language is about identity, are they not just confirming the understanding of unionists that Irish belongs more to one community than the other?

Would the language not be better served by ideas of identity being kept out of this whole debate?

Essentially, republicans and nationalists are making contradictory claims about the Irish language.

They say on the one hand that if you don't respect that language, you don't respect their community, on the other that it belongs to us all.

When you compare the past goals of nationalism with the current ones, you see why the language might be so important to this current generation.

The ideology of Pearse and de Valera had three strands: national independence, Catholicism and the Irish language.

For now, national autonomy has been compromised on with the Good Friday Agreement, republicanism no longer wants to identify as Catholic, so what else is left to proclaim as distinctive?

Ireland, like India, a hundred years ago, felt that it had to preserve language and religion to define itself as different from Britain. Fostering Irish was a clear strand of the traditional republican project. Gan teanga, gan tir. If you don't have a language, you don't have a nation.

For Pearse and de Valera, it was unthinkable that an independent Ireland would not have Irish as its first language. Yet where de Valera got a state in which to establish that, he failed.

Proponents of the language also say that Irish belongs to everyone. Unionists have only to wake up and realise that the language is theirs and then they will be keen to learn it and love it.

After all, the names of the places in which many of them live have Irish names, like Enniskillen, Ballymena, Shankill, Rathcoole.

This echoes another traditional argument of nationalists, that the unionists suffer from false consciousness, that they are really Irish, not British, and have only to shake off the fog of prejudice and they will suddenly want a united Ireland, too.

That second argument has come to be recognised by most nationalists as patronising and blinkered. They still use it when it comes to the language though.

The unionist fear seems to be that there is some truth in this; why otherwise be wary of the language at all?

But some unionists and migrants from other countries are learning it, as they are learning Irish dance and music. That isn't turning them all into republicans.

Culture spreads if people like it or see a value in it. There can be nothing more English than Coronation Street, or Manchester United, but they are eagerly absorbed by the world, as indeed is the English language. Hence de Valera is spinning in his grave.

There is a particular advantage to non-English people learning English, however; it is the language of international discussion and of the best of modern literature. Most Europeans recognise that you can not be properly educated without it.

Native Irish speakers have to acknowledge that, too. Irish can never replace English for them.

So the appeal of Irish, outside the community which has fostered it as a mark of identity, is inevitably limited.

Those who promote Northern Ireland's football team face a similar problem. They argue that it is for everyone in Northern Ireland, but clearly not everyone cares to be a supporter.

In divided societies, markers of identity are divided between communities and they become contentious, even when their proponents eagerly wish that they wouldn't.

Oglach McGuinness understood this enough to try to win unionists' admiration by respecting their symbols. In the end, it didn't get him very far, as he acknowledged himself.

Arlene Foster now wants to talk to the Irish language community.

She wants to separate that community from Sinn Fein and the SDLP, find out if it has concerns she can meet without having to take the word of political parties for what that community wants.

What she will find is that that community is diverse, bonded only by the language itself, and includes people who think that Gerry Adams walks on water and some who wish he would sink.

Foster has come a bit late to this, because she did not take seriously the demand for an Irish Language Act, saw no merit in the case, thought of it as republicans simply trying to score a point against unionists.

She responded as a unionist would to a perceived symbol of a rival community.

She saw republicans wanting to eclipse the Britishness of Northern Ireland by having street names similar to those in Dublin: Sraid Dun na nGall, Bothar na bhFal.

Some of the Gaelic names are far more lyrical, by the way, than the English originals, but that hardly matters when language is a badge of contention here.

Republicans blamed the waning of the language on Britain, but in time, the people themselves demonstrated the slackness of their interest.

IRA prisoners learnt Irish in jail, so that they could communicate without prison staff understanding them, as well as assert their separate identity.

But republicans themselves have problems with the language legacy. A country that cared for its ancient language, like Israel, was well able to revive it and make it the primary medium of its journalism and literature. Ireland was not.

Thousands of children of my generation learnt Irish in schools, had our first kisses after ceilidhs, "shone up our fainnes with Brasso" and promptly forgot all we had learnt when we left school.

Many joined the civil rights movement and made no mention of language rights in their claims.

Perhaps unionism would be more convinced of the value of this language to us if more of us spoke it. But then our distinctiveness as a culture would only further unnerve them.

Perhaps they would be more assured of the unlikelihood of it diluting their Britishness if they saw more clearly how little effect it has had in the Republic.

Perhaps those who love the language most should be most concerned to get rid of its identification with an identity.

That might free up their prospects of spreading it and keeping it alive.

Belfast Telegraph


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