Next Monday I’ll be starting a week-long course in Irish at the McCracken Summer School on the Antrim Road, where I’ll be continuing my up-hill attempt to master the Irish language. One of the deepest regrets I have is that I allowed the incompetence, neglect and occasional brutality of my Irish teachers at school to drive me away from the language, and one of my proudest boasts is that even at this late stage I’m discovering its beauty and complexity.
Which raises a question I’ve raised before: why do the unionist/Protestant community here recoil from the language? We’re told it’s because it’s been hi-jacked by republicans but that doesn’t make sense. Nobody can hi-jack a language; it’s there and available for everyone. Yet even the most enlightened of Protestant grammar and secondary schools in the north don’t offer Irish as a regular subject on their curriculum.
My own suspicion, and it’s no more than a suspicion, is that unionists turn from it because a race memory tells them to avoid going native. If you’re part of the colonizing power, the one thing you must guard against is becoming integrated with those you rule. In twenty-first-century Ireland, such attitudes make no sense, and yet the unionist/Protestant population here go on turning their backs on the treasure-house that is the Irish language. They’re afraid that, were they to enter, their otherness would be fatally compromised and they’d be faced with, well, an appalling vista. So they sit outside the treasure-house and either pretend it’s not there or, like Sammy Wilson, throw verbal stones at it.
It’s tragic what insecurity can do to a people, isn’t it?
No pains, no gains.......................................................................
My understanding was that the Irish language was practically saved by Presbyterians on the west coast of Ireland. Generalising by stating that Protestants “turn their back” on the language doesn't seem quite right if the Presbyterians did have that level of impact.
Having said that, I can understand your generalisation.
My background is from families who grew up with a faith allied to the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian Church in Belfast. I went to a state primary school and a grammar school (on the Cliftonville Road!). I grew up with parents who tried to teach me that we should be good to our neighbours not because of what some preacher told us on a Sunday, but because it was the right thing to do. I never understood the antagonism that “catholics” and “protestants” had for each other and could only reconcile it in my head by believing that these people weren't god-fearing at all but had been educated to “hate” just because… just because their parents had…
I don't know who these people are… I look at my politicians and feel sickened… I look at the Shenanigans in certain areas of Belfast and feel despair. I watch the news on television and when Northern Ireland is mentioned, I feel ashamed.
But I was born in Northern Ireland… I didn't create this state – indeed, nobody alive today did as far as I know. Why should I be ashamed? Am I not allowed some national pride? Why should I be denied that?
But… what is national pride? What are borders? What does it matter? Are we not just a small part of the north-west of Europe? A tiny speck on this planet? Won't the border disappear eventually – the Earth will cease to exist at some point, after all. Does it really matter?
For most people, it probably doesn't. For a small minority, it matters greatly… and for what reason, I've probably never understood (from either side).
For me, I want to live happily with my family in a community which can be civil with one another in a place which I'm proud of. Will that ever be possible?
I want to see the Irish Language retained. I am proud of the Irish Language. I am proud to say I'm Irish – even if it is Northern Irish. But I am fed up feeling ashamed of being Northern Irish and from Belfast. Why should I feel “responsible” for the acts of others many years before I was born? Yet I do…
Also… why is it not possible for all people within this island to actually read their history and truly understand what happened and why? When I read my history, all I see is contradiction and no side which can claim to be righteous.
Please be aware that I've written the above without thinking about it that clearly – a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc breathing in the County Kerry air may have had an adverse impact on my ramblings. I may have skimmed over important issues and may not be as coherent as I felt I was while typing!
BTW… I'm enjoying your blog greatly… Your views don't necessarily align with mine but surely it's important that we can appreciate each other's perspective?
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Bain sult as an chúrsa agus ádh mór
Go raibh maith agat, a Pháid…
Hello Steve (or Dia duit, as they say in Irish…),
[I tried leaving this on your website but it kicked everything back so I'll put it here]
I read your response to my blog on Irish with great interest. First, it's surely the longest response I've ever got. Second, it's one of the best-written, despite your modest talk of Sauvignon Blanc and Kerry air. Third (have to stop this counting thing soon), since like many writers I'm a bottomless pit of insecurity and vanity, I can take compliments about my blog for hours on end providing the quality of the compliments is kept high.
For some reason I can't get into my blog at the moment but I do remember one or two points so here y'go:
1. (Damned numbers again) You're right of course about Irish being saved by the efforts of a number of Protestant clergymen. Hence the name of the Culturlann on the Falls Road: MacAdam-O Fiach. That's an enormous debt but I was talking about the great majority of Protestants in the north today.
Your point about the border, along with all earthly things, eventually melting into oblivion is, I grant you, true; but then the same would apply to my marriage vows, babies, old ladies trying to cross the road, whales and the British monarchy. And both of us. But that doesn't get you too far, really: you're still faced with what if anything you should do about it now. I see in your blog that you find political parties that focus on partition impractical – not dealing with 'real politics'. Sorry, I disagree. If you're a nationalist/republican – which I am – guess which – by definition you think that Britain shouldn't be politically or militarily in charge in the north of Ireland. To ask people to ignore that fact in politics is, imho as they say, a bit daft. And those who do are a bit …blinkered. That said, it's of course very important that what they call bread-and-butter politics are engaged in – but what kind of political party wouldn't be capable of giving vigorous attention and effort to BOTH?
2. ( I think it's time for another number) I don't think that saying you want to get on with your life, family, job, etc, and aren't interested in politics, is a valid response. (My apologies if you didn't say that at all – I'm guessing here, from an always-bad and now seriously-bad memory.) I think not only voting should be compulsory but political engagement. If it's left only to those with 'passionate intensity' as Yeats said, we're all doomed.
3. I get a bit twitchy when people talk about democracy in Northern Ireland. The state, I believe, was founded in a seriously anti-democratic way and to cite democracy, GFA or no GFA, as justification for its existence seems a bit wobbly, logic-wise.
4. I have no Sauvignon Blanc or Kerry air to hand, plus I have a number of other things to do, so I'll leave it there. Re republicanism, I'm interviewing a chap called Eoin O Broin before an audience a week from today in St Mary's University College on the Falls Road, as part of Feile an Phobail. He's talking about the Left and Irish repubilicanism, and basically whether Sinn Féin are making republican sense or are sliding towards a right-wing position (see their stance in the south's last general election). You might enjoy it – it's at 12.30 pm as far as I remember. Do prod me with your umbrella if you put in an appearance. Thanks again for the blog response – or Go raibh maith agat,as we say… (That's 'Go row migh ugut' phonetically)
I see the DUP are back attacking the GAA again.
Thanks, hoboroad. I smell a blog….
Thanks for the reply and the kind words.
A point of clarification though… I didn't mean that the partitioning of Ireland shouldn't be a political issue – of course it should. However, it would be nice (for a change) to have the opportunity to cast one's vote based on something other than the tribal issue. That said, I have never missed the opportunity to cast my vote since I came of voting age. I do take an interest in politics and would like to understand the situation better – the history of Ireland wasn't exactly taught to me during my years at school so I see myself as pretty ignorant of the whys and wherefores (as are far too many people IMHO – maybe that's the problem?)
As for prodding you with an umbrella – unfortunately my tour of Ireland will have taken me up the west coast towards Mayo by that stage. I look forward to reading your blog with details of the interviews, however.
I’ve been reading Sean O Faolain’s The Great O’Neill recently, and the suggestion in your last paragraph about a race memory telling Unionists to avoid going native reminded me of an incident reported in the book. I’ve tried to find the exact reference again, but even though I can’t, I think the anecdote is interesting. On one particular occasion during those Elizabethan years of conflict, the natives were victorious over the colonists, and there then arose the problem of what to do with the defeated settlers. I’m not sure who made the decision (not The O’Neill, though), but the plan was to let go those of the settlers who could speak some Irish. Those not able to manage some Irish were not so lucky. A crude plan for brutal times.
From the vantage point of the 21st century, it’s silly for this native to try to attribute motivations to another native who lived over 400 years ago, but it would be nice to think that the person who made the decision to kill or to spare the colonists in some way acknowledged the motivations of those colonists who had taken the trouble to learn some Irish. If it’s hard to get inside the mind of a long-dead native leader, it’s even harder to read the minds of equally long-dead colonists, but it would again be nice to think that they accepted the reality on the ground of the strength of Irish at that time, and realised that they would have to use it to interact with the natives if they were to gain any foothold at all. By doing so, they surrendered nothing of themselves, nor did they resile from the concept of conquest.
But back to today … given my life experiences, my definition of what it means to be Irish must include some ability at the language. I cannot imagine myself as a complete Irish person without the language. Others (even on the same side of the political/cultural spectrum, never mind those with different politics) may disagree, and I accept that. But what I cannot understand is the animosity of sections of Unionism towards Irish. The language is there to be claimed or ignored by those who wish to do either, but to me, those who sneer at it as a leprechaun language let themselves down badly. Can’t you just imagine the shit storm if somebody started sneering at English or suggested that it not be taught in schools?
Thank you Stephen and thank you Anon – I'm truly impressed by the quality of thought and expression in response to my scribblings. Maith sibh!
And thanks as well hoboroad. Where would I be without you??
No problem thanks for the mention Jude.
I think you are reading way to much into it – people just aren`t interested in `foreign` languages – UK, USA and other English speaking nations stand out in this regards
I think Irish was the predominant language of the Irish people for most of their recorded history, and they brought their Gaelic speech with them to other countries, notably Scotland and the Isle of Man where it gave rise to Scottish Gaelic and Manx.
I know Irish, and so what. it doesn't means that everyone should praying on me. LOL)