In the midst of the ongoing battle between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and as the British government tries in vain to get the Stormont Executive functioning again, the Irish language has become a point of serious contention between unionists and nationalists.
Sinn Féin’s desire to have an Irish Language Act, a minimum number of Irish-speaking civil servants and Irish taught on the school curriculum amongst other things has been met with revile from their Unionist counterparts. With comments ranging from “curry in my yogurt” to “feeding the crocodile,” the lack of engagement from the DUP is frustrating at an incalculable level. This is especially so from my point of view as a proud Gaeilgeor, and having received my primary and secondary level education through the medium of the language they love to criticise.
That being said I would gladly welcome the first steps in learning the Gaelic tongue. A language has neither a political agenda nor a desire to exclude certain groups from participating. However, Unionist balking at the language is not an isolated occurrence in terms of political opposition to a language, either in the history of Ireland nor the world.
The first example that comes to mind is our Iberian counterparts, specifically the Catalan and Basque languages. Under the oppressive regime of Francisco Franco, both languages were brutally repressed for nearly 30 years in order to quell nationalism in both Catalonia and the Basque country. Despite his best efforts the Catalan language persisted through daily acts of oral repetition despite clear laws against the public use of any language other than Castilian Spanish. The language flourished after his death in 1977.
For their Basque counterparts, the language has been less fortunate and has been in a fight for survival since the late 1800s. Nevertheless, citizens of the Basque country who do speak the language are proud to consider it a part of their cultural identity and dedicated linguists both Basque and non-Basque are determined to see the language survive. Perhaps in this regard the Irish language and Basque are similar; there may not be a particularly large amount of fluent speakers but a burning passion for it will prevent it from dying.
While we have looked at examples of where a language has become politicised it should be highlighted how the political situation necessitates this. In many cases it is to ensure the survival of a language. Repression of languages was part of a systematic method to wipe out certain cultures in order to strengthen the building of empires, which was experienced by many ethnicities under the Russian Empire such as the Ukrainian, Polish and Finnish Languages. These languages along with other aspects of their culture such as music and art were methodically censored by Russia in part of the wider process of Russification, the process of replacing one culture with that of Russia’s.
The former example is something to which Ireland is no stranger to.The Irish language was prohibited in Ireland while under British rule between 1800 and 1871 which came as a result of the failed 1798 rebellion. However the world has long since moved on from empire-building and their preservation. Any language can be learned by any person who chooses to do so regardless of their national or cultural identity. This is why the DUP should have nothing to fear.
The Irish language that we know today is a product of the Gaelic Revival Movement. This cultural movement grew out of a renewed interest in Gaelic culture, sport and tongue. The most notable of these was the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) which saw a formal body formed for Ireland’s traditional sports, most notably hurling and Gaelic football.
There had been previous attempts in the 1840s by a group called the Young Irelanders to preserve Irish stories and legends as a way of ensuring the survival of the Irish identity as the growth of English speakers threatened the Gaelic language. What hampered many previous efforts to preserve the language was the nature of class politics during this period. English was seen as the language of the ruling class and the Irish middle-class associated Gaelic with poverty, evident by its prevalence of native speakers in the impoverished countryside.
The establishment of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) by Douglas Hyde, who would later become the first President of Ireland, and Eoin MacNeill was the most ambitious plan yet. The League’s aim was to promote a sense of Irishness in the people and to fight back against the erosion of Irish culture and a reintroduction the language into schools. Despite the League’s noble aims and Hyde’s wish that it remain apolitical, the organisation nevertheless attracted many Irish nationalists such as Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Since then the League has endured, with its headquarters located on Harcourt Street. It’s primary mission nowadays is to encourage the growth of the language.
The DUP seem to be wary of giving status to the language due to it somehow stoking the fires of Irish nationalism in the North and its aforementioned history of Irish nationalism in general. These fears are grossly exaggerated. If anything, refusing to recognise the language could have this effect, as has been pointed out by the Basque example along with Ireland’s own history. True, for many people in Northern Ireland, the language is a part of their identity. As one student pointed out in this newspaper not two months ago – despite their lack of fluency, their love for the Irish language is unwavering. For better or for worse it is a part of many people’s identity, but it is not an exclusive club.
For Unionists in the North, they can participate without the fear of rejecting their own unique identity. A pledge of allegiance to Ireland, or an abandonment of their British identity is no prerequisite. It is an opportunity for them to bring the peace process full circle and appreciate a culture unique to their own, but one that they can share with their republican counterparts.