The Irish language and the Northern Irish identity

Northern Irish students should embrace their contribution to Irishness, however complicated

My fluency in Irish is almost as woeful as Trump’s in English, but Irish has always been an important part of my life. Many of my family are native speakers and I spent most of my summers in the heart of the Gaeltacht in the Dingle Peninsula.

Being from Northern Ireland, I could have taken it as a subject for the GCSEs and A Levels, but that would have meant restricting my university choices. More recently, the Irish language has become a political football in Northern Irish politics, as just another crude way of identifying which tribe you come from: Nationalists are Roman Catholics who play GAA sports and speak Irish, and Unionists are Protestants who play rugby and speak English.

Coming to Trinity and being suddenly surrounded by people who can speak the language well has been simultaneously lovely, and alienating. I love hearing it around college, its musicality such a precious and irreplaceable part of our heritage. Although, as Kavanagh said, “Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder,” and perhaps Irish only sounds expressive and exotic because I don’t understand it.

My dad once told me that “I’ve an awful headache and I’m going to bed with a cup of cocoa” sounds pretty dull and mundane. But, using Google Translate, it comes out as “Tá tinneas cinn uafásach orm agus tá mé ag dul a chodladh le cupán cócó” in Irish which, to the untrained ear, sounds like something magical from Tír na nÓg.

Despite my affection for the language, it has led to a feeling of alienation on many occasions. It brought the  internalised insecurity many Northern students face to the surface: I know I am Irish, but am I as Irish as you?

If Irish were compulsory in the North, of course, I would be on the same level. But maybe if it wasn’t compulsory in Ireland many of you would still speak it, so maybe this is just my lack of dedication to my culture, my fault for not learning the language in my free time.

At school. I found the normal teenage struggles to be challenging enough. I was trying to maintain good marks,  while managing a normal social life. Taking on an extra subject might have been too demanding.

I grew up in a village, a couple of hundred metres across the border, drenched in Irish culture. The wildfire conversations and activities all concerned the local GAA teams. I watched my family crowd around the television to scream at matches.

I remember the early memory of a primary school teacher making us all learn how to spell our names in Irish, my aunt leading her choir ‘Cór na nÓg’ in mass every Sunday, my granddad saying toasts in Irish every evening at dinner.

I spent the rest of my time in a, well, very Roman Catholic grammar school. I never questioned the validity of my kind of Irishness until coming to college. Until then, it was made absolute by my unquestionable belonging to one of the two sides of society Northern Ireland supposedly consists of.

All at once I noticed the sterling in my purse, the “UK” at the bottom of my address, was asked if I’m an international student, remembered someone I encountered at an American summer school who described his view of Northern Ireland as “the part that England owns,” and the vague otherness of my accent which leads to Dublin coffee shops spelling my name “Grease” or, on a good day, the slightly less off-putting “Greece.”

Whether it be someone saying something to me in Irish even though they know I don’t understand, reading the body language of people speaking it to each other when I am trying to participate, or simply their disappointment upon learning I don’t speak it, Irish triggers the unsettling feeling that arises when I can’t bond with people over the Leaving Certificate or Debs nostalgia. Am I as Irish as you? Are we really the same? Why don’t I feel a sense of belonging with those I’m supposed to?

Northern students have a hybrid identity, used to being asked questions like, to quote my old Trinity Hall Assistant “arden, “Are you Catholic/Nationalist/Republican/Protestant?” Language is just one factor in defining identity; I love Irish, but I don’t have to speak it well to love it.

I’m reminded of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When Stephen Dedalus feels patronised by an English priest because of his use of local dialect, he asserts that “the language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine’’.  As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argued, language is both a memory bank of culture and a tool of colonial subjugation.

These ideas manifest in the work of many great Irish writers. In “The Ministry of Fear”, Seamus Heaney articulates the self-consciousness he felt in his youth regarding his pronunciation of English, he remarks that “Ulster was British, but with no rights on / The English lyric”.

When I read the poem, it reignited my unease with only speaking English. I started to believe I was betraying the very culture that defines who I am.

I discovered that many of my friends were unaware of the DUP until they heard of Theresa May’s billion-pound deal with them. These friends were from both the Republic and from England. It poses the question, if I am less Irish for speaking only the language of the coloniser, are you less Irish for knowing only about the portion of the island which affects you?

These are not questions that can be answered easily but they must be asked if we are to understand the kaleidoscopic nature of Irish identity in a truthful and all-encompassing way.

My older brother was at Trinity too and while he loved his experience here, he warned me of the common apathy concerning everything north of the border. This led to him becoming more ardently nationalist and solidified his perception of his own Irish identity.

I grew up hearing news about Stormont and the Dáil, whereas many people I’ve met in college think we have bodily autonomy and marriage equality, so that says it all. I’m not suggesting you must be an expert in Northern Irish politics to be Irish. But if you claim to be Nationalist, and sing songs on Harcourt Street about the dream of the 32 counties, perhaps you should know more about those 6 you pine after so amorously.

Most of my friends in Trinity speak Iris  and I admire them greatly for doing so. I wish I had studied it in school and I plan on learning it eventually. But Northern Ireland’s frustratingly complex and fascinating perennial struggle with identity is ultimately different. I can’t think of a solution to the problem but maybe it lies somewhere within embracing the differing contributions to Irishness.

We have a personhood contingent on politicising where we come from, one that doesn’t exist without constant reiteration that we are Irish, both to ourselves and the world around us. That in itself, is a new factor in defining identity, and we should embrace it for the passionate patriotism it represents.