The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

An teanga once again?

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 18 September 2004

Is Irish dead, moribund, or alive? James McCloskey, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, tackles this question in his bilingual book, Guthanna in Éag: An Mairfidh an Ghaeilge Beo?/Voices Silenced? Has Irish a Future? (Baile Átha Cliath/Dublin: Cois Life Teoranta, 2001. 5.99 pounds/7.60 euro. ISBN 1-901176-24-X). I found his musings far too rambling—even within the small scope of 51 pages in either language—around the world rather than addressing Irish itself. His title misleads: only chapter six and an epilogue focus upon Gaeilge. Yet, this intercontinental context has too often been neglected when addressing Ireland’s language question, and his counter-parochialism exemplifies how contemporary linguists can apply issues of language death, transmission, and recovery learned over the past century—often after the Gaelic Revival—as anthropologists, missionaries, professors, and activists began to encounter many more of the approximately 6,800 languages still surviving the century after the founding of Conradh na Gaeilge. Yet, half of the world’s languages will not survive this century, experts predict. In expanding and resisting imperialism, strategies of how people encode a wealth of meaning within a particular means of expressing their worldview in a microcosmic means of preservation and progression.

Far too often, McCloskey warns us, these specific structures by which a people conveys its understanding of their—and our—world can collapse suddenly. ‘All that is required is one short period of inattention or complacency or deliberation, and the community can find itself with a generation of children none of whom speak the older community language. With that single break in the chain of generational transmission, language and all that goes with it, becomes a walking ghost.’ (39) For many, Irish and otherwise, a whiff or romanticism clings to the notion that one language deserves special recognition. Consider the furor over the recent proposal that a new housing development in An Spideal give preference in its 18 units to Gaelic speakers. Placed against the context of losing so many more areas of the Cois Fharraige gaeltacht to the influx of holiday-home buyers, the suburbanisation of Barna just west of Galway city, and the relentless struggle to keep Irish as a community language despite hundreds of years of anglicisation, the preference attempted by the Spiddal subdivision to me seems far too little. I recall a currently in-print guidebook writer who pointed out enviously in the Connemara section how many of the houses admired by the visitor would have been built with the largesse of a government foolish enough (so the implication went) to lavish funds upon wealthy residents in turn hoodwinking bureaucrats by keeping up the impression that the folk of Carna and Camus were native Irish speakers.

Looking at the maps on you many think the guidebook’s bias might not be very inaccurate after all. Estimates bandied about this year suggest that only about 30,000 out of the supposedly 90,000 counted in na gaeltachtaí are actually fluent. Many parents still insist that their children learn English to the neglect of Irish, bolstering McCloskey’s claim about how quickly “walking ghosts” can be summoned. Looking for recordings in Roundstone of a sean-nós pair of women singers I had heard on RnG, the youngish clerk chatted with me about how that area of the coast—still marked on newer maps as part of the Conamara Gaeltacht—had lost the Irish, and the tongue was only to be spoken down by Carna, Carraroe, and nearer the Cashel RnG station. Travelling from my mother’s native Salthill towards the next town of Barna, I noticed that the sign signaling entrance into the gaeltacht had been whitewashed over. I wondered: was this, like the arrival of a Curves women’s gym franchise into the rapidly constructing town, a portent of the collapse of which McCloskey describes, or an ironic comment painted by rebel natives that the frontier of Conamara’s historically Irish-speaking coastal strands had no longer deserved the designation of a reservation?

McCloskey, speaking of what often the modern world does to natives, tells poignant anecdotes about the ongoing extinction of California’s Indian languages, once numbering in the hundreds. He mentions that younger folks wish to regain the language soon after the last fluent elders have died. It reminded me of Manx and Cornish today, the efforts of revivalists to continue—as with Manx so with some of the Indian tongues, newer learners trying to hear the ghosts speaking from the taped archives of the dying old ones. Practicality often determines the fate of the minority languages’ decline; the author counters this assumption, encountered in Ireland for much of our history, that English brings with it the jobs, the security, and the necessity Irish, in its tales of poverty, cows, and decline, never will.

He points out that for a newer generation raised with the gay poetry of Cathal Ó Searcaigh, the eroticism of the woman writing as ‘Biddy Jenkinson,’ and—I add—the eclectic music of Dublin’s Kíla or the updating of native vocal stylings by Inis Oírr’s Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola, the concept of Irish as backward needs serious revision. The stereotypes afforded Irish: the Brothers beat it into me, they taught it worse than French, I studied ten years and cannot ask you the time in it—these I trust will fade as the coercion that darkened the Dublin government’s attempt to revive the language by the means it inherited from the colonial British: to hammer a language into its subjects gives way to the creation of Belfast and Dublin urban enclaves of Irish speakers. McCloskey reflects that the process of creolisation common whenever two or more languages collide under cultural and class pressure and the necessity to create a hybrid way to communicate may also colour whatever version of Irish survives outside the Gaeltacht.

The author also notes that the construction of urban areas where the language can thrive has offset the decline in the native areas, so that numbers of those actively using Irish have remained consistent. Music and literature incorporating Irish and other influences may dismay purists, but consider how the bouzouki has invigorated traditional tunes, and how writers like Eilis Ní Dhuibhne, Antoine Ó Flatharta, Joe Steve Ó Neachtain, and Ré Ó Laighléis accurately capture the mix of English into Irish in their drama and novels.

As McCloskey observes, this may be a far cry from an-Athair Peadar Ó Laoghaire, but I recall that the priest—as part of his nationalist activism—learned Irish to better inspire his fellow citizens to regain a pride in their present by reading material suited to their own conditions—late nineteenth century—by giving them his novels and his autobiography, which themselves had to leap out of dialectal obscurity to assist the majority—then as now—who needed help to learn, re-learn, or hold on to Gaeilge. The new hybrids, McCloskey informs us, are part of an inevitable maturity of Irish, not a sign of its decay. I’m leafing through Dialann Ocrais: Diary of a Hunger Strike, published in 1991 in Andytown by Foilsiú Feirste—a play in Irish but plenty of Bearla by Peadar Ó Sioradáin.

It shows, of course, an element McCloskey elides over in his short study. Irish has been, like many ways of expression, derided and destroyed due to its rebel stance. It refuses to buckle despite the unrelenting homogenization that pushes against any who stand up or stand out. This drama, too, perhaps more vividly for many Blanket readers than tales of Cois Fharraige, conveys McCloskey’s ultimate message of defiance and hope for Irish. He admits that for the next century the language is in the top 10% of “safe” languages. Why? It’s spoken by more than 100,000; it has the support of a nation-state. We may scoff at the latter measure of security, but we must admit that many within the past century have followed Fr. Peadar, Dr. Hyde, and all the rest who found an answer to the man who challenged Pearse when he came to his adopted Ros Muc cabin and proselytised among the natives that they should preserve their language. ‘What good’s Irish beyond the “burnt house?’’’ (An teach dóite=Maam Cross: the eastern limit of their Conamara Gaeltacht) one challenged the Dublin blow-in. Republicans, a few loyalists, and nationalists of all shades in-between have responded to the native’s challenge (or, in trendier colonial studies jargon, “the subaltern talks back”).

Like McCloskey, I too find causes for inspiration. Oideas Gael—full of wonderful cultural, language, and musical programs each summer in Donegal’s Glencolumbkille represents a late-flowering bloom of the co-operative movement prepared by Fr McDyer to save his community half-a-century ago. Foghlaim on the county’s Arranmore island also symbolises a district’s determination to share its heritage with others and to ensure employment for its nourishers. Litriocht sells Irish books on-line from this same locale. Conamara continues to lose jobs to global competition in its local fishing and farming, while globalisation in turn opens up its districts to incomers who often place learning Irish low on their practical priorities, further weakening Irish as a community language. Schools and parishes decline in these rural areas; emigration may not be as far away as before, but the magnetic pull of the housing estates to those unhappy or unable to continue a rural level of sustenance keeps the towns booming and the villages declining.

On the other hand, urban gaelscoileanna attest to the power placed in the future by parents, often with little or no Irish themselves, who wish to revive the language which in so many of our cases had been—as the author cautions—a chain so easily broken by our past generations, willingly or not. The shift from rural to urban, so much a part of the last century and so much a cause of language death, presents linguists with, McCloskey concludes, a surprising exception. Irish, contrary to rumors, survives as a means of inquiry into technical fields (witness what you can learn at NUI Galway in it), a way for Internet users to chat, a boon for learners needing sophisticated software (look up GaelTalk), a fascination for curious non-Gael enthusiasts, and a reason for publishers Cois Life/The Liffey Press to print McCloskey’s bilingual ideas--sent 6000 miles away.

The diaspora--long belittled by more-national-than-thou fanatics in republicanism, the language movement, and the supposed know-it-alls as a realm of green-beer gullible tourists, foolishly returned Yanks, and barstool revolutionaries--turns out in the case of the native tongue and theoretically first language of the lower 26 as a repository of the faithful. Those who choose to learn Irish, who have not been forced to endure it at too early an age, may never gain the fluency or ease granted often to those raised with it. But it’s time that we all recognise that for Irish to flourish, all of our efforts deserve respect.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

19 September 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Get On With It
Dolours Price

Who Pulled the Strings
Eamon McCann

Can of Worms
John Kennedy

British Terror in Ireland
Kevin Raftery

Big Snake Lake
Eoghan O’Suilleabhain

'Ulster Britishism' or the Myth of Nationality
Liam O Comain

An Teanga Once Again?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Converting Waste into Value
Liam O Ruairc

Scargill Speaks In Belfast
Anthony McIntyre

NIPSA, the Most Important Workers Strike in Northern Ireland in 20 Years
Davy Carlin

12 September 2004

Standing Down
Mick Hall

Life in the Party
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Is There a Peaceful Way to a Peoples Republic?
Liam O Comain

Rising to the Top of the Hate List
Fred A. Wilcox

Books Not Bombs
Mary La Rosa

Fighting for the Right to be a British Drug Dealer
Anthony McIntyre

Document Stamped 'Secret'
submitted by Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh

The Final Insult
Starry Plough Editorial Collective

Tensions Escalate as Loyalists March Through the Ardoyne
Paul Mallon



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