Mind your language

  • 13 December 2006
  • test

Political weapon, tool of the elite, torture for schoolchildren. Caoimhghín Ó Croidheáin's thoughtful study is a welcome critique of the demotion of the Irish language. By Eamon Maher


Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane in Saipan. Everyone has an opinion on it, often one that is informed by a negative experience of the way Irish was taught, or the favours bestowed on those who were proficient in the language in the form of extra marks in state exams or secure jobs in the civil service. Then there are those who, like myself, believe that our national language is an integral part of our identity and that, in an era of mass globalisation, cultural specificity should be jealously guarded. In a thoughtful preface, Michael Cronin notes: “As the world faces into the prospect of linguacide on an unprecedented scale, the local lessons of Irish have global significance. As more and more languages are forced into extinction... by a small clutch of major languages, then how societies or governments or communities try to deal with these pressures is of importance to every inhabitant on the planet who sees language as an inalienable right rather than as an optional extra.” Ó Croidheáin points out from the outset that while most people genuinely appreciate Irish “as an important symbol of cultural distinctiveness”, there are others who “have considered the language important as a means for fulfilling particular political objectives in the past and may do so again”. With any issue as emotive as one's national language, there is always scope for jumping on the bandwagon for ideological or political purposes. The fact that Ireland is a former colony of one of the great world powers, England, always made the language of the coloniser difficult to resist. But, as Ó Croidheáin points out, we could quite easily have decided to be a bilingual society, a path followed by some other EU states. In this book, the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o argues how in the colonising process the languages of the captive nations were “thrown on the rubbish heap and left there to perish.” Ngugi, in a move reminiscent of the Limerick poet Michael Hartnett, bid farewell to English in favour of his native tongue, Gikuyu. He refused to buy into the view that associated Kenyan languages with “negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment”. Joyce was aware the particular form of Hiberno-English he used was different from that of the coloniser, but by adopting the ‘acquired speech' he developed a new and remarkable language. The ghost of Gaelic has never been completely eradicated from the distinctive and original way in which the Irish use English: undoubtedly one of the reasons for the flowering of our creative writers. In the 19th century, Matthew Arnold chose to see the Irish people as “feminine” Celts and the English as “masculine Teutons” in a dialectic that conveniently placed the Irish in a position of subservience. Part of the colonial project involves the control of a people's culture (of which language is a major component) and, according to Ngugi, determining the tools of self-definition in relation to others is one of the main methods of mastering the mental universe of the colonised. Douglas Hyde, in his 1892 speech on ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland', “heralded a qualitative change in the struggle to maintain and develop the popular basis of support for the Irish language”. Hyde argued that the process of ‘de-anglicising' was not in any way a protest against what was best in English people, “but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English”. The work of Conradh na Gaeilge, so energetically promoted by Hyde and Eoin MacNeill, at times flirted with radical nationalism. One particularly acrimonious issue was whether there could be an Irish literature in the English language. In addition, some wondered whether it was possible to “create a separate Irish cultural identity which would, at the same time, include Irish men of different traditions”. The romantic image that developed among the new Catholic bourgeoisie of the life of the Gaeltacht inhabitants neglected the harsh realities with which they were faced. The Catholic church also saw potential in this simple lifestyle. Ó Croidheáin writes: “The ‘spirituality' of the Gaeltacht and the spirituality of Catholicism merged in the depiction of the people of the Gaeltacht as morally superior despite widespread poverty.” Irish was often used as a political weapon by elements within both church and state to further their own aims. Thus, after the 1916 Rising, language became the site for conflicting political ideologies. On the thorny issue of language policy, Ó Croidheáin skilfully displays the lack of a coherent approach adopted by successive governments. Compulsory Irish, various white papers and reports – all these ultimately failed in their objective to optimise the use of the language in society. The main point made by Ó Croidheáin in this regard is that “the promotion of the language falls back on voluntary organisations in the absence of legislative powers to ensure its development as a living language”. Legislation that fosters a view of Irish merely having a utilitarian value for the better educated has not served the language well. This value has been eroded in recent years to such an extent that a recent IDA poster campaign fails to even allude to the language spoken in Ireland, so widespread is the perception that English is the official language in this country. Ó Croidheáin argues that it is through politics that the status must be changed: “The Irish language will be best served by that politics which does not necessarily applaud it for its symbolic role as the main vehicle for Irish identity but rather creates the environment for it to grow and develop.” This book is a welcome critique of how Irish has been demoted to the status of a “language from below”. Ó Croidheáin's book could see a debate begin, free from the ideological and political restraints that have plagued the language's progress in the past. Eamon Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in ITT Dublin (Tallaght) and the author of a number of books.