Some years ago, I read about an anonymous former participant of the blanket protest who recalled a visit from an RTÉ Irish language reporter. He remarked upon her “terrible elitist attitude toward the language” and, in particular, her claim that the brand of Irish which developed in the H-Blocks made her shudder.
He quickly retorted, “When you hear the Gaelic in here you’re hearing it as a living language. It’s spoken and evolving in a natural environment. Your Gaelic is put in a glass cage as a showpiece. We have a living language. Yours is an artificial thing. For you it’s an academic achievement, while for us it’s something that lives, and that comes from our day-to-day situation”.
I was reminded of this short anecdote at the beginning of the week as I, for lack of a better term, shuddered reading Ruth Dudley Edwards’ take on the politicisation of the language in the Belfast Telegraph. The inherent elitism of that unnamed RTÉ reporter from the late 1970s wafted over the words of Edwards’ column like the curried yoghurt that her headline warned us against.
Yet, unlike that reporter, Edwards’ apparent lack of proficiency in Irish embraced a number of head-scratching assertions and historical blunders. Taking the liberty to speak for all Irish speakers with “southern ears”, she quipped about the ugly, harsh sound of the Ulster dialect in comparison to the more melodic sounds of Connacht or Munster. As an Irish speaker, I don’t think I’ve ever come across such rubbish from anyone who actually speaks the language regularly, no matter their location.
The bulk of her ire however, tellingly appears to be reserved for Gerry Adams, whose Irish she says, “isn’t good enough to do a substantial interview”. She further points out his linguistic deficiencies by asserting that “Even Leo Varadkar, who learned it only recently, speaks it better”. Now, no disrespect to Leo Varadkar, because whatever his level of Irish may be, he has made a laudable effort recently to bring about an awareness of the language as an inclusive rather than exclusive medium. That being said, anyone with even a passing interest in the language is aware that Adams can, and indeed has, done a number of interviews in Irish-language media over the years, and is well able to hold his own. By comparison, Varadkar has given few if any off-the-cuff “substantial interviews” in Irish.
To this point, a quick online search turns up a video from a 2012 session in the Dáil, in which Adams and former Taoiseach Enda Kenny engage in a back and forth completely in Irish. In the clip which lasts nearly ten minutes, Kenny commends Adams for his introduction of Irish into the debate, before lightheartedly noting that, while he agreed with his choice of language, he wasn’t so sure about his opinion on the matter at hand. This scene presents a stark contrast to Edwards’ unfounded claims that Kenny’s superior level of Irish had all but snuffed out Adams’ attempts at its use since his move to the Dáil in 2011.
Furthermore, she makes an erroneous claim that Kenny and his colleagues in “the south” interpret the use of Irish as a “discourteous” attempt to “put non-Irish- speakers at a disadvantage”, which eventually resulted in Adams reserving his use of Irish for the Sinn Féin “faithful”. Though, again, this assessment doesn’t stack up factually.
Surely Edwards recalls the 2015 instance in which Kenny, not Adams, was accused by TD Mick Wallace of intentionally embarrassing him by refusing to speak English during a session for Leaders’ Questions ? Kenny defiantly answered the claim of the bewildered Wallace by reminding his colleague that “this is our national language”, before reiterating that he should make use of the available translation headset if he can’t comprehend it. Yet, I suppose this example was less “discourteous” or “aggressive” because it was delivered in what she deems the “musical” sounds of Kenny’s Connacht dialect.
Turning her focus to the Irish-language community more generally, Edwards went on to discuss the fact that in the Northern context, those who spent time in prison tend to have a solid working knowledge of the language. In many cases, this is true, especially for those who were on the blanket protest. Although, one thing should be made clear. Their embrace of the language was not a result of the “generosity of the Prison Service” as Ms Edwards states, but rather in spite of the abuses and inhumane treatment endured by many on a daily basis.
Though perhaps her most curious claim is that in terms of Irish, “those we might call the civilians tend to have the least”. If this is the case, are the 6,000 students currently enrolled in Irish-Language-medium schools in Northern Ireland not counted among those that we “might call civilians”?
Regardless, Edwards’ framing of the language along the antiquated lines of decades gone by is a gross oversimplification of the Irish-speaking community today. In the last week of February, for example, a diverse cast ranging from drag queen Ru Paul to actor John Connors showed their support for the language. But hey, maybe this quirky duo too has ‘sashayed’ its way into the IRA leadership, and is now involved in some elaborate new republican language scheme.
On a hopeful note, Edwards commended Linda Ervine’s ongoing work in teaching Irish to east Belfast loyalists, remarking that this will hopefully lead to their “taking ownership” of the language. While Ervine’s efforts should undoubtedly be commended, it is time that we move past this sort of rhetoric to describe them. The language, now, belongs to no one. Contrary to what Noel Whelan said in a recent Irish Times article, it is simply incapable of being ‘weaponised’. It’s the old and native language of this island and it cannot belong to anyone more than anyone else.
Has it been politicised in the past ? Absolutely. Since the time of the Fenians and the Young Irelanders before them, the language has been present in the political arena in one form or another. It has also simultaneously existed outside of that arena, in everyday interactions.
While combing the archives recently, I came upon a fascinating letter from a Protestant antiquarian, George C Mahon, to the Gaelic scholar and militant nationalist founder of the Fenian Brotherhood, John O’Mahony. Written in the mid-nineteenth-century, the majority of the exchange deals with Mahon’s curiosity at the origin of his surname and other Irish language words. Yet, in the opening of the message, he addresses the elephant in the room – his counterpart’s political activities.
He notes with great angst that many Protestants in Ireland, himself included, fear that the proposed policies of the Fenians, if successful, would lead to their demise. Historically, there is no way of knowing O’Mahony’s response, as the return letter has been lost to time. Yet for years the two men, who had little to nothing in common aside from their interest in the Irish language and its preservation, kept up a warm correspondence with one another. Modern Irish history is littered with such exchanges, and no, O’Mahony never tried to subversively dupe Mahon into becoming a Fenian.
As the example of their unlikely friendship conveys, the language has the capability to build mutual understandings and bring about dialogue where it mightn’t otherwise exist. This is the sort of historical framework in which Ervine’s work could, and should, be viewed. Not through the sort of tit-for-tat lens of cultural superiority peddled by Edwards.
In both playing upon long-held tropes of elitism and stoking the current flames of discordance, Ms Edwards has done an equal disservice to not only Irish speakers in “the south” but also both communities of the north. Echoing the earlier anecdote, her views should be placed back in a glass cage as a show piece.
Though, in a nod to her final suggestion to Gregory Campbell, “if he had any imagination”, that he should engage with rather than dismiss the language, perhaps she should brush up on her own Irish and start a column with an Irish- language news outlet like tuairisc.ie or nos.ie ? You know, as she says so easily about Campbell, just to “give us all a good laugh”.
Pádraig Ó Mathúna