Belfast Telegraph

Sign me up gladly for a hate-free Ireland

Unionist Irish language lecturer Ian Malcolm travelled to the Republic to put his name to a new version of the 1916 Proclamation. He says that the centenary of the Easter Rising should be all about commemoration, not celebration

I did something rather unusual for a unionist last week - I signed the '16 Proclamation. And I signed it in Irish. But it was no act of treachery on my part, for this declaration to the people of Ireland was one which everyone, North and South, and of every background could look to as a framework for addressing our challenges and realising our aspirations.

It was a modern reworking of that famous document, read by Padraig Pearse outside the GPO on Sackville Street on Easter Monday 1916 as bemused Dubliners tried to work out what was happening in their city.

But the proclamation I signed last week owed nothing to the concept of blood sacrifice so cherished by Pearse. This new declaration was thoughtfully drawn up by the pupils of Colaiste Oiriall, an Irish language college in Monaghan, as part of a special day of national reflection on the events of 1916 organised by the Republic's Department of Education.

They chose 100 people who they imagined as fitting signatories to a proclamation for our times and it was a great privilege for me to feature alongside the likes of Tony McCoy, Van Morrison, Katie Taylor and Barry McGuigan.

I imagine I was selected for my work in trying to show that the Irish language is something used and shared by both communities in Northern Ireland (not everyone sees it my way: for some it is a tongue of sedition, a cultural tool in a broader struggle).

It was a timely nomination, as the language I love continues to be dragged through the gutter - and I use the term "gutter" advisedly given that the most recent controversy revolved around manhole covers in Ballymena.

Many will recall that a councillor became sorely vexed by the use of the word 'uisce' (Irish for water) on new covers in the town and agitated for their replacement with ones carrying more acceptable language - as in no Irish. I acknowledge that Irish is still controversial for many and I certainly would not downplay the sense of outrage many justifiably feel when they see the likes of 'Tiocfaidh Ar La' scrawled on a gable wall.

I don't like that myself. It means 'Our Day Will Come' and it's a republican battle-cry which has undoubtedly done a lot of damage to the image of Irish as something both communities can enjoy.

But my response to those who might use it has always been a simple one: "Ni Thiocfaidh Bhur La ("Your Day Will Not Come")."

Of course, there are those who use Irish as a weapon and it was frequently deployed as a stick to beat unionists with during the dark days of the so-called armed struggle when "culture" became dangerously conflated with military action.

These are better times, but the acts of republican dissidents, for example, show that some are unable to embrace the opportunities that peace has bestowed upon us. And we encounter sporadic outbursts from our mainstream political leaders that demonstrate the fragility of our progress.

It's worth mentioning, too, that some of those who most vigorously push the language on those who don't want to engage with it are its least-capable exponents.

Anyway, if we're going to remove the word uisce from the street furniture and public realms of our towns on a point of linguistic principle, we'll have to drop a lot more from our vernacular.

Away with Ballymena - we'd have to call it "Middle Town". Coleraine would have to go, becoming "Ferny Nook". Omagh would become "The Virgin Plain". And Groomsport would be "The Gloomy Fellow's Port" (it's a long time since I've been in Groomsport, so I can only speculate on the demeanour of the town's menfolk. And I'll make no further comment on Omagh's meaning!).

We could do the same with surnames: Campbell comes from the Gaelic Cam Beul, meaning "crooked mouth", as gleefully pointed out by some during the Curry My Yogurt episode when DUP politician Gregory Campbell spoke a few words of carefully corrupted Irish in the Assembly.

But those who jumped on that particular bandwagon should be careful, as the name can also be derived from Mac Cathmhaoill, meaning descendant of a warrior renowed for his battlefied abilities!

Seeing as we're at it, let's deconstruct the way we use English here. Let's ditch the likes of "galore" (from "go leor", meaning "plenty"), gob ("mouth"), geansai ("jumper"), brogue ("brog" means "shoe") and "smashing" ("is maith sin" means "that's good").

We could also jettison "smithereens" ("smidrini"), but at least we could hold onto "craic", which is not an Irish word, in spite of being touted as such on a certain TV ad. It's a wonderful term imported into Irish, but re-spelt with a '-c' instead of the '-k', which doesn't exist in the language.

Uisce might be a step too far for some, but we all speak a lot more Irish than we might imagine.

I made some of these points during my presentation at Colaiste Oiriall, although the main focus of my talk was 1916, giving me the chance to point out that this year must be about commemoration, not celebration.

We cannot look at the Easter Rising in isolation, for it was part of a broader sequence of events.

And even as many prepare to mark the Eiri Amach, they cannot overlook the slaughter of The Somme in which so many young Irishmen - of all beliefs and perspectives - died.

Nationalism and unionism of the period were mirror images, eyeing each other suspiciously in a high-stakes game of "-ism" chess: Carson and Craig, Redmond and Mac Neill; Ulster Volunteers and Irish Volunteers; The Clyde Valley and The Asgard.

It was a momentous and turbulent year, which has left its mark on us to this day.

The Easter Rising, etched in the canons of republicanism, redefined Ireland and still serves as a touchstone for those who would take us back to the past.

Yet, the young people of Colaiste Oiriall show us that, while conscious of the importance of the rising, they believe in a shared future.

I'll translate from the Irish of their Proclamation.

"We recognise that the Republic of Ireland sprang from the 1916 Easter Rising, but now we renounce violence and bloodshed, war and violence, both locally and internationally.

"We support peaceful means to resolve disagreements and disputes.

"We utterly reject hatred and hostility.

"We recognise the link between the two parts of the island of Ireland and we hope those links will be strengthened in terms of communication, tourism, education and economics etc.

"That will be to the benefit of every section of the people in every corner of the island."

I have no idea what Pearse or Connolly might have made of it, but I'm more than happy to be a signatory to this 2016 Proclamation.

Let us hope that the old hatreds, nourished and nurtured in our muddied and bloodied past, will soon become uisce under the bridge.

Dr Ian Malcolm is an Irish language lecturer/broadcaster and author of Towards Inclusion: Protestants and the Irish Language (Blackstaff)

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