An bfhuil Gaeilge agat?

Belfast Irish
What is it about the Irish language that so many unionists hate? Well, the fact that it was a baffling language spoken in prison by republicans is one reason. Another is that Gerry Adams has a habit of breaking into Irish when he’s speaking publicly, and a number of Sinn Fein people often open their speeches with a few words of Irish. Then there’s the fact that Irish has traditionally been the language of the native, an identifier which marks them off from the planter.

All of these are reasons but none of them is a good reason. Republicans also had a reputation for studying a range of political thinkers during their time in prison, but most unionists don’t hate political philosophy. The occasional words in Irish by Sinn Fein people are always inoffensive and often welcoming, which makes those who get annoyed by them look churlish and even stupid. And if Irish as part of Irish culture is rejected because it’s part of Irish culture, that tells us more about the rejectionists than anything else.

And yet the hatred lives on. There was talk at one point that Chris McGimpsey, a good unionist, could speak Irish, but he hurried to disabuse people of any such notion. Not a single Protestant/State school in the north of Ireland offers Irish as a subject or even as an extra-curricular activitiy. And now unionists are furious that £20 million has been secured from the British for the development of the Irish language. Nelson McCausland is quickly on TV, emphasizing that there’s also money for the development of Ulster-Scots, and won’t that be great. The TUV leader Jim Allister accuses the DUP of having promised that nothing would be delivered from Hillsborough for the Irish language and having failed unionism by allowing a £20 million ‘side-deal’ to go through. Republicans/nationalists might point out that this £20 million is a stop-gap to cover the non-appearance of the Irish Language Act promised at St Andrews.

Cut it which way you like, there’s no disguising the vigour of the loathing for Irish that thrashes around in the entrails of unionism. A parallel might be that of a thirsty man refusing to accept a beautifully-chilled beer because he’s noticed an opponent enjoying the same brand ten minutes earlier.

It’s true what they say: the most terrible wounds are those which are self-inflicted.

3 Responses to An bfhuil Gaeilge agat?

  1. Andrew Gribben February 16, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    I went to Friends School in Lisburn, and studied Irish in sixth form. It’s a Quaker school so it’s definitely protestant. Not trying to take away from your point, but I’m sure there are others that offer it too.

  2. Alan in Belfast February 16, 2010 at 11:52 pm #

    A good post.

    As Andrew says, there’s definitely a few “non-Catholic sector” schools offering Irish – but surprising few.

  3. blank February 20, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

    Hi Jude – great post.

    i figure our relationship with the languages of Ireland – ie. how we communicate with each other – shapes how we engage with one another and exchange ideas etc… it’s central to our success as a community of people. Er, isn’t it?

    Promoting language has myriad benefits. So in general terms, Irish is no threat to anyone. And on a personal level, I have no empathy with Ulster-Scots, but again all language holds value.

    But viewing it all in terms of partisan political capital, and not as universal cultural capital, is no use. Maybe the politicos will see that some day?

    I worry about people who are uncomfortable with the notion that Irish language is part of the continuum of Irish history / society, and has a future here. I remember being in a room with David McNarry and hearing him simply (and proudly) state ‘I f*****g hate Irish’. As though troglodytic stupidity makes for a better class of unionist??! What would the future look like if that view prevailed?

    Incidentally, my dad (chris mcg) never could speak Irish. But (like me) he’s fascinated by it. He took a bunch of classes and used it around the house alot when I was growing up. But it got about that he was fluent and he had to correct that. If he had to debunk the idea that he couldn’t speak Irish, it wasn’t to preserve his credentials as a unionist, i think it was more that his interest in it exceeded his ability to use it. I think he got embarrasesed by people rocking up, talking to him in Irish and expecting a conversation, he was never close to being that proficient.

    Geoff McGimpsey