Tír gan Teanga, Tír gan anam?

Féidhlim Mac Róibín argues that the bitter attitude towards the Irish language is rooted in deep national self-doubt


Identity politics are universally fraught.  

Ireland is not alone in having bitter disagreements in relation to language policy; however, it is unusual that the disagreements do not form along the lines of two cultural traditions, but that rather the intensity of the debate represents a highly internalised and conflicted notion of nation, tradition and identity.  

Contentious Debate

Recently, a student from the Gaeltacht was forced out of his job in a bar in Cork because the owner prohibited him from speaking Irish with other Irish speakers on the staff and with customers who wished to speak Irish.  

The manager claimed to have received complaints about Irish being spoken in the bar, and the barman refused to accept the condition that he only speak English, and was subsequently fired.  

For such a small story, the coverage and level of commentary on social media was immense.  This has become predictable where the Irish language is concerned; similar levels of controversy have arisen when Irish speakers seek access to public services in the first official language of our state, or when the Government used Google Translate on the website of the 1916 Celebrations, or when the suggestion is made that Irish be removed from the compulsory Leaving Cert.  

The barman in Cork was instantly labelled a trouble-maker; people claimed that the pub was “not the place” for Irish to be spoken, and Irish speakers were accused of trying to impose an identity on the “rest of us.”  

The Status of the Irish Language

The Irish language has had an ever-changing – though consistently powerful – image in Irish politics since before the Famine.  Until the late 19th Century, Irish was a symbol of destitution in Ireland, with parents and teachers going to brutal lengths to see that children abandoned the use of Irish and used English, so that they would fare better by emigrating to England or America.  

From the 1890s onwards however, the efforts of an eclectic group of academics and enthusiasts mushroomed into a national movement to preserve Ireland’s identity in terms of language, music, sport and literature.

The quest to assert a distinctive way of life for the Irish nation, which would no longer seek to ape Englishness to achieve respectability, gave birth to a political revolution.  

For many at the time of the Irish Revolution, Irish represented, as Yeats put it:

“a tradition of life that existed before commercialism, and the vulgarity founded upon it; and we who would keep the Gaelic tongue and the Gaelic memories and the Gaelic habits of mind would keep them … that would spread a tradition of life that makes neither great wealth nor great poverty [and] that makes the arts a natural expression of life…”

As Ireland in the 1950s became economically stagnant and plagued by emigration, Irish was again seen as an obstacle to modernity and a relic of a naïvely romantic vision of independence.  With the emergence of the Language Freedom Movement, hostility towards the official promotion of Irish became a prominent and extremely divisive theme in politics.  

In addition, as violence in the north intensified, an interest in the Irish language was quickly stereotyped as inferred support for Provisional IRA republicanism.  

Interest in Irish reaches new levels

However, Ireland became more secure about its nationhood as it has became more prosperous; economic strategy was no longer tied to the UK, the Peace Process began to deliver stability and Ireland discovered it had more to offer the world than a constant stream of young emigrants.  

On foot of renewed national self-confidence, Irish regained an image as a positive and fundamental element of our living national culture.  

Demand for Irish-medium education soared; an Irish language TV station exceeded everyone’s expectations – people set up sports clubs, music societies, community radio stations and social groups, all with the key difference that they were conducted through Irish – the movement became one of youth, energy and creativity as Cumainn Gaelacha on university campuses thrived; and the number of people who speak Irish increased in every new census.

The importance of identity

Yet there is still the residual and unwavering bitterness towards the language on the part of some. People insistently use terms like “dead language” and “on life-support” when all the indicators show the opposite.  People who are twenty years too young to have experienced corporal punishment refer to Irish being “beat into me as a child.”

People report that Irish has been of no use to them after it was “forced down their throat” at school—a charge that is never made against any other Leaving Cert subject, few of which are of direct practical benefit.  

The divisions surrounding the Irish language are not solely a matter of language, but the frontiers of a conflict over Irish identity as a whole.  There has always existed in Ireland a notable sense of disavowal of Irish nationality, accompanied by a hesitance towards the political concept of Irish independence.  

Daniel O’Connell – himself a native Irish speaker – implored “respectable Roman Catholics” to become “West Britons” in order to attain the clout and prestige associated with the British Empire.  

Uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge amid the prideful celebrations of the 1916 Rising, participants of the Rising were mocked and jeered by many of their compatriots.  The notion that Irishmen and Irishwomen could unilaterally declare the sovereignty and independence of their country was, their detractors thought, neurotic and absurd (a view advanced by former Taoiseach John Bruton today).

The existence of a trend of self-doubt and pessimism is not be surprising in the Irish experience. Ireland was successfully colonised for centuries by cultivating the idea that nationhood had nothing to offer people, and the sooner it was shed, the sooner the lots of the people would improve.  This mantra has been used by the most prominent colonial powers, leading to similar internal conflicts of nationhood.

In his poetry, PH Pearse wondered “what if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell / In the house that I shaped in my heart.”  

While modern Ireland today is far from Pearse’s dream come true, it is a house that we would not have without the actions and sacrifice of Pearse and his contemporaries.  We must question whether formal independence was worth the terrible price that so many paid if it is not lived by the people through an independent and living culture.  

We cannot claim that Ireland should be independent if Ireland is not a nation, and the single most powerful statement of Irish nationhood is the Irish language and the traditions associated with it.  

If Irish people in 2016 define aspects of life which are “not the place” for Irish to be heard, and where the national language is reduced to being a hobby of a few enthusiasts with time on their hands, Ireland’s independence is hollow; a tragically incomplete dream of dead patriots.