The secret they hid


As faithful readers of this blogsite will know, I’ve stopped doing guest blogs (and comments) for a range of reasons. However, I feel compelled to reproduce this piece with the kind permission of its author, Richard Irvine. In my judgement, it is an outstanding piece of writing in both content and form. 

My mother hailed from ‘the Field of the Yew Wood’.  She never told me that, no one from the small village of Ahoghill (Achadh Eochaille) where I spent each weekend until I was a teenager ever did.  Likely they didn’t know.

Other things they did know but never said.  My great grandfather, master of the village Orange Lodge and a widower remarried in his sixties – a Catholic woman – his son never spoke with him again.

That son, my grandfather, and later also Lodge Master, similarly went on to marry a Catholic.  Cycling out one Sundayto Carnlough he met the woman who would be his wife of thirty years.  I never once guessed she was raised a Catholic (she ‘converted’ to Presbyterianism upon betrothal), that knowledge only came long after both their deaths.

No Irish was ever spoken in our house.  Or consciously spoken – craic, brogue and no doubt many another solitary adjective or noun slipped through, but I lacked, and still do lack knowledge of the etymology.   My mum described Irish as that ‘ould palaver’; my aunt, more brutal, switched off the television whenever Irish was spoken.

The Irish language for me was the incomprehensible, the sinister and the secret.  On holidays in Donegal my mum muttered of fenians when shop assistants addressed her in that ‘ould palaver’.  At election time our arch enemy, Gerry Adams, to the unsuppressed fury of my parents, stumbled and tumbled over its ‘barbaric’ syllables in party political broadcasts.  His linguistic audacity adding insult to the IRA’s literal injury.

At Queen’s University in the 1980s similarly suppressed outrage permeated my Protestant brethren at the then bilingual policy of the Students’ Union.  In anger, confusion and insecurity we mocked and derided the unpronounceable signs upon the union’s walls.  Inscriptions of disloyalty and exclusion.

In, of all places, the Irish Language Centre, the Culturlann MacAdam O’Fiaich on the Falls Road, I, as young man, recall audibly expressing dismay that all of the posters were in Irish.  I was overheard, and unhelpfully a courteous and confident and similarly young man pointed out to me that I could address my ignorance by attending one of their many Irish language classes. He was polite and welcoming.  I said nothing, but I was affronted.

And that is the point.  The Irish Language to me, and the vast majority of my peers, was never a real language – rather it was a treachery, a plot and a Machiavellian political scheme of the disloyal and the dangerous.  And worst of worst, masquerading under the guise of culture it assumed a form we could not comfortably call out.  Liberal, open minded and cultured, we young university educated Protestants could embrace music, literature, art and language from all over the earth but could not embrace Irish.  Such is the self-mutilating denial of the insecure.

Of course, Irish was never the affront I took it as.  It was my culture that supplanted Irish, burying it in the peremptory administration of imperial bureaucracies and commerce. 

I cannot relate to the dislocation and alienation native speakers must have experienced.  I do not know the history of the language.  I am told many Protestants were native speakers too – I have no sense of validation – I have never met a Protestant native Irish language speaker.  Yet I do recognise the loss.  I do feel the narrowness of my inheritance; I do hear the fear and calculated disrespect in the scornful mockery of Gregory Campbell’s ‘Curry my Yoghurt’.  I share that fear too, inculcated before consciousness – part of my job lot of Ulster Protestant identity.

Irish is not my language.  I doubt that in middle-age I have the energy and tenacity to learn it, and yet it is part of my story too.  Its denial says too much about the iron fear we Protestants have lived in for too long.  With courage, Arlene Foster could have acknowledged this too.  She and her party had the chance to lead and make solid the shallow path forged by Protestant Irish language activist, Linda Ervine, sister of the late PUP leader David Ervine.  

Like Ervine, Foster could have realised that in opposing the Irish language we oppose a part of ourselves.  Sadly, she, like so very many of my community, failed to realise that no loss was involved here, nor political horse trading due. Lacking any appraisal of value, we saw in Irish not a gift and endowment, but a ‘weaponised’ concession in a long ‘cultural war’.  We saw no language, just republicanism – and we have always opposed that.

A comprehensive Irish Language Act would have enriched and healed us all – restored to us all the poetry that resides in ‘the Field of the Yew Wood’.  Instead we continue to reside, literally and politically, in the stunted location of a place without translation.

                                                                             – Richard Irvine

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