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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Say it in Breac n’ English

Part One of Four

Seaghán Ó Murchú • September 25th 2004

Taking liberties with Marianne Faithfull’s rasped album title, her frustrated delivery and resentful lyrics resound with a bittersweet resonance--as bearla about an gaeilge--throughout these lucky thirteen contributors to Ciarán Mac Murchaidh’s ‘Who Needs Irish?’ Reflections on the Importance of the Irish Language Today (Dublin: Veritas, 2004. ISBN 1-85390-777-4. 14.95 euro. 192 pp.). This collection allows us, as the anglophone majority, to listen to a debate among those speaking our minority native language. Repeatedly, Irish-speakers within these pages insist that Hiberno-English, along with cultural nationalism, cannot sustain any distinctive Irish quality for long within our homogenising society. While critics (as recently as Tom Paulin in his 1983 Field Day pamphlet ‘A New Look at the Language Question’) have asserted over the past century that blarneyising the conqueror’s tongue could keep English green, Mac Murchaidh’s volume presents us with the failure of Irish as our national vernacular, with the nearly non-existent recovery of any area by a consistent, daily, Gaelic-using majority--even within one area of Dublin or Belfast. My judgment does not ignore the passion with which each contributor argues a case for the language’s survival. Realistically, however, they must confront a realisation that Irish as a community language chosen by even the small remnant in and out of na Gaeltachtaí may vanish due not only to government malfeasance but our own indifference to passing on this dazzlingly expressive means of distinction. You may counter that the death of Irish has long been loudly and prematurely pronounced, but statistics on recent usage within Gaeltachts offer little solace to those optimists awaiting a mass rejection of the language in which you and I write about the condition of a language we barely speak. Why do these essays appear in English? Practically, hearings on the viability of Irish need our attention, not to be sequestered for only judges or a few privileged informants.

As I noted in The Blanket in reacting to James McCloskey’s Voices Silenced/Guthanna in Éag, whether Irish remains moribund, dead, or alive remains contentious; McCloskey’s assumption that it will be within the safe top ten percent worldwide among languages due to its hundred thousand fluent users and government stewardship in Mac Murchaidh’s book receives a nod in passing but also a tilt from more than one skeptic. In this review article, I will summarise each of the thirteen essays, delving deeper into many of them, as, making my way through, many volleys ricocheted and dovetailed over its print.

Alan Titley, when prefacing Dermot Bolger’s 1986 anthology The Bright Wave/An Tonn Gheal, argued how Irish-speakers anticipated postmodern ennui for centuries; the twilight bards of the 17 and 18th centuries stared down existentialism long before Kierkegaard or Sartre. Here, Titley continues to address Irish angst: ‘we have never resolved our identity crisis after the retreat of the language.’ (21) He introduces a common lament from his co-respondents: ‘The final act of language change is always the result of a long series of blows and thumps and softenings-up. We got it in the neck so often that the words fell out of our throats. We presumed that the job of getting them back would be quite easy.’ (20-21) I quote Titley twice due to his inimitable command of both languages—he’s a fearsomely erudite and contentious critic—and for his pithy autopsy on the demise of the Gaelic Revival, compulsory Irish, the malaise of the Free State, and the hypocrisy of those working under Dublin’s mismanagement for eighty years as its patients flatline.

His ironic aubade conveys the mental landscape after the first flush of sunny triumph over the Gall warmed enthusiasts in the 1920s and 30s towards conversion to the Gael:

‘The great talk of a new dawn dribbled back to a wet-grey afternoon in an everlasting Toomevara.’ (17)

Why did the matchmaking of the Free State fizzle into a damp squib? Titley’s vague, but he reckons that by WWII, the honeymoon was over. The necessary energy needed to make the arranged marriage with Peig and Paudeen’s offspring faded into the reality that Mags and Pat had to get real jobs in the city and forget rural reveries within which too many revivalists had remained irrelevant, idiotic, or impoverished.

Although she makes no mention of her father, Desmond, Kate Fennell grew up in the Conamara Gaeltacht thanks to Desmond’s determination in the 1960s and 70s to leave Dublin and organise with the Ceárta Síbhialta civil rights movement there. As a republican, he helped the early Provisionals draft the Éire Nua federal scheme, and wrote as Freeman for An Phoblacht. He later left the West, although his friend and fellow agitator Bob Quinn continues to write and make films from there. After a contentious spat with RTÉ, Gay Byrne, and the arbiters of Dublin 4, Fennell endures self-imposed exile in Italy. I add this context to Kate’s account, as its quixotic resolution repeats (sans the cisalpine retreat) the struggles familiar to so many readers of The Blanket, who, caught up in the possibility of change, gave the prime of their lives to a cause that may have now embittered many formerly true believers. Alienation, as Kate learned, came along with an teanga. Learning Russian and Slavic languages, she feels more at home with their frontiers, near the Black Sea of legendary Celtic ancestors, than Britain or Central Europe. Like her father, she has called many places her home, but savours her childhood blas with its intimate delight that English cannot replace. More emotional than linguistically, she proclaims that the ‘sound of Irish seems to be locked in the subconscious mind of our people.’ (27) It beckons conversers into a deeper affirmation of pride, of trust, and of a common treasure, or dúchas. Intimacy and dúchas often recur when other contributors reply in this collection to the puzzled query ‘Who Needs Irish?’

Kate Fennell and the next writer, Neasa Ní Chinnéide from Kerry’s Gaeltacht, also acknowledge the growing barriers set up by speakers against those who try to use Irish who are not native to that district; she finds herself shut out of this intimacy when visiting An Spidéal and addressing clerks in Irish, as her shared language retracts and bristles against invaders. Those trying to improve their Irish, she fears, also endure snobbery and derision from natives. I refer you to Flann O Brien’s deflation of the gaeilgoirí in An Beal Bocht/The Poor Mouth. Yet this discouragement, that I too have shrunk from, pales before the crimes committed in the name of—not always by the—English. The mentality of shame that tally-sticks, evictions, and stage-Paddies today can only dimly summon scars many Irish speakers still. Curiously, as an aside, the critical debate over the Conamara-based plays of Martin McDonagh roars while Micheál Ó Conghaile’s translation of The Lonesome West into Ualach an Uaignis (from the translator’s quality press, Cló Iar-Chonnachta) has received a more favourable judgment from Irish-comprehending audiences! Returning translation out of Irish into English backwards, for once, offers spectators a funhouse mirror held up to life in the wild Irish west, distorted admittedly but in this play, I agree, tempered by poignancy and maturity. Such recoveries of culture, of the Irish from the English, nevertheless, appear too rarely.

More often, the stereotypes persist of a language soiled by poverty and passivity. Kerby Miller in his deservedly influential 1986 study of letters home by immigrants, Emigrants and Exiles, claims that Irish brings with it an expression of inaction: as hunger and sickness ‘fall upon’ a first-person speaker using an Irish construction to say ‘I’m ill’ or ‘I’m famished’ so, Miller argues, this reveals a fatalistic worldview by the native Irish. Mac Murcaidh’s contributors avoid such Whorfian applications, but Ní Chinnéide ponders ‘the personal consequences which, multiplied by a lifetime’s experiences, become social and political consequences to a people for whom this has been a common experience’. (36) This contraction of the public arena threatens to repel Irish speakers into a bunker mentality. Perhaps Miller’s theory finds another affirmation? One dialect user may not address another by their common tongue; the fear of the outsider outlasts colonialism.

Those not known to the natives will not benefit from their Irish, and English turns into the de facto means of communication. Those moving into these areas without Irish may see it as an obstacle to their English-speaking children’s school (or, I might add, their own career) advancement. Arts and crafts and folksy accents alone then season local flavour, and the decline of Irish hastens. Ní Chinnéide reminds such families that bilingualism brings ‘enhanced linguistic competence. The choice is a highway, not a cul-de-sac.’ (40) To keep Irish-speakers using the language, schools and jobs need to be given to that community, and it’s only fair that those choosing to enter into such regions from elsewhere realise the rationale why a Gaeltacht has been designated and supported.

In a December 2003 interview with the on-line Irish-language magazine Beo, Lillis Ó Laoire spoke of his immersion into not only his native tongue, but also his enjoyment of the diversity of Los Angeles, where he has been lately teaching. His restless wander between the notes, whether from Donegal sean-nós into Colm Ó Foghlú’s experimental album Echoing, or from archival labors at Limerick’s university to world music at UCLA, reverberates in his contribution to Mac Murchaidh’s polyphonic chorus. In a lengthy essay, Ó Laoire reminds us that the 1926 boundaries drawn by the new Gaeltacht Commission never excluded those areas using some English. On an original map, he emphasises, you can chart ‘Irish or Gaelic-speaking people wherever they might be found. It applied to people and to networks of communication’ before being gradually linked to regions. (47; see also John Walsh’s recent monograph Díchoimisiúnú Teanga: Coimisiún na Gaeltachta 1926) Networking creates his own family’s bilingual encounters over the past century. Native speakers of both marry, until Ó Laoire regards his paternal tongue as English and his maternal as Irish. Always code-switching, to use the linguist’s jargon, he realized from a young age in Donegal that ‘Irish could no longer be taken for granted, but must be nurtured and practiced and encouraged.’ (53) This element of choice needs to be stressed for any investigator into the continuity of today’s Irish-speaking communities.

At an Irish Studies conference panel in Debrecen, Hungary, last year, I asked three investigators (two of whom appear in “Who Needs Irish?” Máirín Nic Eoin as an author and Piaras Mac Éinri as an example; the third, Caoimhghín Ó Croidheáin, pursues sociolinguistic research at DCU) about the assertion made by some linguists that unless a language is transmitted as a ‘natural’ action to the next generation—without a conscious decision to do so--then the language’s survival will end. All three agreed that this assumption did not apply to those passing on Irish to their offspring. Since all Irish speak English, the determination to keep Irish alive has to be made by each speaker. No Gaeltacht can shelter monolinguals or those complacent or naïve enough to think that Irish carries its own momentum to spur its young users instinctively on. Ó Laoire urges readers to adapt the same sympathy many of us have for endangered species into similar activism to protect and nurture Irish back into a state of health. As McCloskey reminded his readers, if a gap opens of only a few years in which the spoken chain does not gain another link, the connections sever and the language will likely never be regained by the community as its everyday method of communication. John Montague’s poem ‘A Severed Tongue’ snaps a sharp discouragement about the prognosis on surgical re-attachment of an amputated muscle—Titley’s epitaph on the past eight decades of state intervention to save a gasping victim babbling as gaeilge only encourages foreboding.

After having passed through at UCG a period of ‘binary thinking’ (he borrows Seamus Heaney’s phrase) by way of Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s Paípear Bhána agus Paípear Bhreaca during which Ó Laoire advocated that Irish could not progress without the regression of English, and having described the intransigency brought about by hard-line language nationalists and their foes in Donegal over the past decades, Ó Laoire hopes that the Official Languages Act passed last year offers a fresh start for community cooperation about the vibrancy of both state languages. But, faced with an unofficial but pragmatically monolingual government policy, Irish users—as his fellow essayists often find—encounter bureaucrats who claim Gaelicised names are ‘too much trouble’ to document: ‘Sure, isn’t it far easier to speak English!’ (59) Subliminally and consciously, Irish users find their efforts to keep their language as a daily vernacular persistently undermined. If any ideological pressure for the inclusion of Irish now ends, so must it, Ó Laoire rejoins, for English. Like Ní Cheinnéide, Ö Laoire encourages support to raise Irish-speaking families ‘in an enlightened and loving atmosphere devoid of fear and intimidation.’ (61) McCloskey told that California’s fifty extant Indian languages are dying; Ó Laoire relates that if that state can save its fifty condors from extinction, so must we care for endangered languages in our post-colonial world. Pitting condors against linguistic treasures need not occur; both should be preserved. A travel column in The Guardian I found archived today designated Conamara’s Gaeltacht a ‘Red Indian Reservation’ sustained only by the natives’ connivance in finagling grants for big bungalows from their Great Chief back East. Such condescension, via one of Fleet Street’s more respectable papers, conveys how Paddy, whatever language he speaks, cannot escape the caricatures drawn not only in tabloids.

One of four parts. Part Two follows in the next issue.



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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

27 September 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Intimidation of a Writer
Anthony McIntyre

Say it in Breac'n English
Seaghán Ó Murchú

An Open Letter to the Man Known as "Martin Ingram"
Mick Hall

Philosophy in a Time of Terror
Liam O Ruairc

Diary: 3 Days
Elana Golden

24 September 2004

Honour the Legacy
Dermot McClenaghan, Eamonn McCann, Johnnie White

Working for the Clampdown
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Peace Bomb
Anthony McIntyre

No Essential Contradiction
Eamonn McCann

P. Michael O'Sullivan, 1940-2004
Deirdre Fennessy



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