An exclusive excerpt from Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution by Caoimhín De Barra
When it comes to the Irish language, there are two questions. Could it be revived? Should it be revived?
The language is a source of ongoing, heated debate in Ireland. But almost all discussion revolves around the second question. Should Irish be revived?
Champions of Irish argue that more needs to be done for the language because it is an essential part of Irish identity. They point out that the language has been spoken on our island for centuries, if not millennia, meaning it was spoken by our ancestors, both distant and more recent. They insist that the language is beautiful, romantic and unique, and that it is the birthright of all Irish people to have the opportunity to speak it.
Opponents of Irish contend that far too many resources are wasted on Irish. They acknowledge that the language was once widely used in Ireland, but that language shift is a natural part of evolution and it is pointless to try and reverse it. They note that despite extensive schooling in Irish, most of the Irish population simply does not speak it. While they are happy for those who speak Irish to continue doing so, they argue that it is simply not practical for the Irish state to spend time and money on a lost cause. I could write a book on why Irish should be revived. Initially, that was what I thought this book was going to be about. But I realised that would be pointless. When it comes to the Irish language, indeed when it comes to most things in life, people already have their minds made up. I could write the most incredible piece of prose 10 ever composed in the English language, but it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind about whether Irish is worth reviving. Those who support Irish would probably enjoy it, while those who take issue with the language would dismiss it as waffle. So, to save everyone time and effort, I will simply say that I believe Irish should be revived.
But could Irish be revived? That to me seems a more interesting question. Indeed, it should take precedence over the other one. After all, if Irish cannot be revived, then there is no point debating whether it should be.
This book, then, is going to explore whether Irish can be revived. Of course, this raises the question of what “reviving Irish” actually means. I will address that in more detail in the last chapter, but for now it will suffice to say that by “reviving Irish”, I simply mean having it more widely spoken in Ireland than it currently is.
In order to evaluate whether Irish can be revived, some other questions also need to be answered. Why did Irish decline in the first place? Why isn’t the language more widely spoken given that it is a compulsory subject in both primary and secondary school? Have other languages ever been revived? How many people actually speak Irish? And why is there such a hatred toward the language among some people?
I also want to discuss how these questions about Irish and attitudes towards it are shaped by ideology. What is ideology? It is defined as “a system of ideas and ideals”. Each one of us has an individual view of the world we live in, but it is shaped and molded by the various ideologies we encounter. This is something we often lose sight of. When we use the word ideology, we tend to use it in a negative sense, and as such, we believe ideology is a word that doesn’t apply to us. People who disagree with us – they are the people who can’t think for themselves because they are blinded by ideology – unlike ourselves of course. And yet, whether we like it or not, our opinions and positions are just as ideologically motivated as the people we argue with.
Éire or Irelandshire
In other words, there is no such thing as an absence of ideology. An important figure in understanding this concept is Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian sociologist. Mannheim pointed out that in any public debate, what is actually taking place is a contest between two ideologies. Generally speaking, these ideologies can be labeled as the legitimate or dominant ideology on the one hand, that is to say, the ideology that supports the powers that be and the way things are, and on the other, the challenging or utopian ideology, which seeks to alter the status quo.
Some examples are in order to make this clearer. Everyone can agree that socialism is an ideology – and it is usually a utopian ideology, seeking to bring about social and economic change. It is opposed by the dominant ideology, which is free market capitalism. This is a classic example of the dominant versus utopian ideologies that Mannheim was talking about.
Another example – feminism is clearly an ideology. It seeks to change the position of women in society relative to men. As such, it is challenging the status quo, and is opposed in these efforts by the dominant ideology – which we will label patriarchy.
So far, this is relatively straightforward. But Mannheim went a step further, and noted that the reason that dominant ideologies are successful is precisely because of their ability to deny that they are ideologies at all. Instead, the supporters of the dominant ideology maintain that their position is based on the plainest common sense, on the use of reason, logic and rationality. They deny that there are any ideological influences on their worldview, while insisting that their opponents have been brainwashed by their ideology and can’t think for themselves.
We can see this in the two examples mentioned above. Everyone accepts that socialism is an ideology, but in the western world we are a bit slower to see capitalism as one as well. Instead we depict capitalism as “just how the world works” or as the social model that “just is economic common sense”. Similarly, no one has any problem labeling feminism an ideology, but many people would deny that there is any such thing as an ideology that opposes feminism.
Our neighbours to the east in Britain have given us a wonderful example of how dominant ideologies mask their presence in two monumental referendums they held, on the question of Scottish independence in 2014, and the infamous Brexit vote in 2016. Using Mannheim’s model, we can see the Scottish referendum was a con-test between two ideologies, in this case, two nationalisms. The dominant ideology, British nationalism, was challenged by the utopian ideology, Scottish nationalism. But of course, this is not how the debate was depicted in the British media, or indeed the media of the English speaking world generally. Instead the referendum was framed as a battle between xenophobic, parochial, economically hair-brained nationalist zealots on the one hand, and inclusive, enlightened, fiscally responsible, outward looking and tolerant people on the other. As far as the general public was concerned, the Scottish referendum was a contest between ideologically driven Scottish nationalism and basic common sense.
But when it came to the Brexit debate, we saw many of those who opposed Scottish independence make an about-face upon the principles that they supposedly based this opposition on. Millions of people across Britain who rejected the arguments in favour of Scottish independence, namely greater local political control and the potential of increased economic prosperity, now made the exact same arguments in favour of Britain leaving the European Union. Broadly speaking, the principles upon which one would argue against Scottish independence and against a British withdrawal from the European Union are very similar. The fact that so many people supported those principles in 2014 but argued against them in 2016 demonstrates that it is not logic or rationality that is forming these views, but rather ideology.
This is exactly what Mannheim was talking about. In the Scottish referendum debate, the dominant ideology was British nationalism and as such, it was able to mask its influence under the cover of “common sense” and “reason”. But in the Brexit campaign, British nationalism was the utopian ideology, challenging the status quo, and as such, its existence, its presence was much more obvious than it had been in 2014.
Very well you might say, but what has all of this to do with the Irish language? The point is that we see the exact same patterns when it comes to the debate about the place of Irish in our society. Just as Scottish nationalists were derided as brain-washed cranks, associated with the worst excesses of human behavior, those who seek to promote the Irish language are subjected to similar, hyperbolic attacks. Frequently, people involved with the Irish language in some capacity are labelled Nazis. In The Sunday Times Kevin Myers called those who challenge his criticism of the state’s policy toward the Irish language “brainless Gaeilgeoir skinheads”, while in the Sunday Independent journalist Eilis O’Hanlon described Irish language summer camps in the Gaeltacht as a “vast network of concentration camps”.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to draw parallels between support for the Irish language and Islamic fundamentalism. Victoria White, in the Irish Examiner, has claimed that those who seek to promote Irish language rights “have gone at the language like the Taliban went at Islam”, while in The Irish Times, Anne-Marie Hourihane claimed that the language was Ireland’s “equivalent of the hijab”. In 2007, the Irish Examiner, in response to making Irish the sole medium of instruction, described one new public school as “Finsbury Park Mosque by the sea”. In this case, a few schools in Dingle had been amalgamated into one new institution called Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne. It seems that, despite government legislation insisting that all schools in the Gaeltacht teach through Irish, the old schools had used English extensively.
Certainly, there was merit in the concern some parents had about children who had largely been educated through English (in attending the old schools)suddenly being educated through Irish. But to compare the decision to comply with the law and teach solely through Irish to the ideology of a well-known radical London mosque that had produced several terrorists was embarrassingly over the top.
Yet such language is common in the discourse about Irish. Ina televised debate in 2018 about the role of Irish in the education system, Ivan Yates referred to Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh and Pearse Doherty, who were defending the inclusion of Irish in the national curriculum, as “cultural terrorists”. In the Sunday Independent another journalist, Declan Lynch, has described the trend of people sending their children to Gaelscoileanna as “sinister”, while claiming that “the vast majority of us cannot hear that language being spoken,in any context, without also hearing some distant echo of physical and sexual and psychological abuse”. Even when the language used is less inflammatory, the message behind it is identical. In 2018, Pat Kenny claimed that those who support Irish-language signage in the Gaeltacht are “quite militant…activists”. Kenny’s choice of the word“militant” was telling. This automatically labels those who might disagree with him as aggressive, hardline zealots, lacking the cool,detached logical worldview of people like himself. This is a well worn path used to discredit supporters of the Irish language. People depict them as frothing at the mouth in their eagerness to impose their wicked totalitarian nightmare upon us all. Those who oppose them, of course, are imagined as entirely sensible and rational, completely free of anything so sordid as an “ideology”.But this isn’t true. Put simply, the debate on the Irish language is shaped by two competing ideologies. Of course, we immediately recognise that the argument to preserve and promote the Irish language is influenced by Irish nationalism. Speaking personally as someone who spent long hours learning the Irish language and who is raising my children through Irish, I am well aware that it is ideology driving me to do this.
It should be remembered, however, that those who oppose the state’s Irish language policy are just as ideologically driven. This is often forgotten, or ignored. Those who identify as being in the anti-Irish camp argue that their position comes from reason-based analysis, logic and common sense. Undoubtedly, most of these people believe this to be the case, but many of the arguments they put forward don’t always stand up as logical or consistent. This of course fits exactly with Mannheim’s model that those who support the status quo (in this case, the dominant position of English in Ireland) deny an ideological influence in shaping their views. But one doesn’t have to look too far to find it.
If you closely examine those who have claimed the enlightened high ground for themselves, their level-headedness can be something of a mirage as well. In 2017, I engaged in an online debate with a journalist who claimed he wanted a rational discussion on the state’s Irish language policy. By the end, he was publicly proclaiming that he wanted to fight a pistol duel at dawn so he could put me six feet under, while simultaneously sending me abusive messages in private. So much for detached, emotionless logic.
When it comes to the Irish language and questions of Irish identity generally, what we are dealing with is not nationalism against common sense, but in fact two competing Irish nationalisms. What is nationalism? Nationalism is the idea that the people living in a state are a single entity, not just now, but in the past and the future as well. Nationalism is the story of a single people moving together through time. It uses the past to legitimise its current position, but it gets its energy from the promise that a brilliant future is just around the corner. Of course, that perfect future is never reached, as there is always something that needs to be corrected or amended. But the paradox of nationalism is that it looks backwards and forwards at the same time. We saw a magnificent example of this mindset perfectly encapsulated in 2016 in the form of the slogan of the Trump presidential campaign: “Make America Great Again”. Nationalism, like ideology, is a word with negative connotations.
As with ideology, we recognise it in other people, but we often don’t see it in ourselves. In his book entitled Banal Nationalism,psychologist Michael Billig points out that nationalism is the most successful ideology of all time. This seems like an incredible claim at first, but Billig notes that the entire world is divided into states organised along nationalist lines. No political system or religion has ever spread to every corner of the globe in the way that nationalism has. Indeed, Billig notes that nationalism is so central to our existence that we are often oblivious to it. For example, Americans don’t notice the fact that their national flag is absolutely everywhere in the United States, although visitors spot this immediately. Or supporters of international sport never give a second thought to why they become deeply emotionally invested in a group of well-paid professional athletes they have never met engaging in recreational activity, simply owing to the colour of the jersey they wear.Nationalism is fueled by two things; a desire to establish a state that represents the nation or, once this state exists, to perfect the state according to nationalist principles. This is simple to grasp, but what is often not appreciated is that alternative visions for what the nation-state should be are in fact different nationalisms in competition.In other words, in any country, it is not just the flag-waving people who talk about limiting immigration who are nationalist, but also those who are repelled by excessive flag-waving and want to encourage multi-ethnic immigration to their homeland. Both groups have idealised versions of what their nation should be in the future,but the principles and ideals that underpin it are different.Thus, the debate about the Irish language is not a clash between romantic sentimentality and logical pragmatism, as opponents of Irish like to frame it, but rather two competing ideas about what Ireland should be in the future. These forces can be called Éire nationalism and Irelandshire nationalism, respectively. Éire nationalism is what most people mean when they refer to Irish nationalism in the traditional sense. It emerged as a coherent ideology in the 19th Century and its main feature is the promotion of the idea that Ireland is culturally unique and distinctive, especially from Britain. Its version of Irish history stresses the struggle of Irish resistance to British rule, and geographically speaking it sees Ireland as completely separate from Britain, denying that there is any such thing as the “British Isles”. Politically, it promotes the concept of a single, united Ireland. It celebrates Gaelic games as a marker of Irish identity, often accompanied with a suspicion of games like soccer or rugby that are seen as overtly English. It cherishes the Irish language and wishes to see its position within Irish society improve.
Irelandshire nationalism, on the other hand, owes its origins to the development of Irish unionism in the 19th Century. In many ways, it is a moderated form of unionism that accepts the reality of an independent Irish state. It celebrates the social and cultural connections between Ireland and Britain and sees itself as more inclusive in that regard. Its version of Irish history stresses the links and connections between Ireland and Britain, and downplays differences between the two. It promotes the concept of a 26 county Irish state, and is suspicious of efforts to bring about a political union between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It celebrates the international and cosmopolitan nature of sports like soccer and rugby, often accompanied with a sense that Gaelic games are inferior or parochial. It views the Irish language as a barrier in the relationship between Ireland and Britain, and as such it wishes to see its presence removed from Irish society.
These then are the two ideologies that shape the debate about what the Irish nation is, or what it should be. Just to be clear, I am not saying one should think of these in “either-or” terms, that everyone either falls into one camp or the other. Instead it would be better to think of these as being two ends of a spectrum. Certainly, you can find people who would tick all of the boxes on one side or the other,but the world view of most Irish people is formed by some combination of the two. So, it is possible to be a fan of Gaelic games but hostile toward the Irish language, or to support a 32 county Irish state and celebrate historic ties with Britain. Indeed, even within each of these categories, the extent to which someone cares for one of these things varies greatly from person to person. For example, for some people, an interest in Gaelic games means checking the scores of big games every now and again, while for others it might mean daily involvement in their local club. In the same vein, for some people, a disdain for the Irish language amounts to no more than an eye-roll whenever they hear a politician attempting the cúpla focal, whereas for others it involves regularly writing letters to newspapers protesting the state’s Irish language policy.
It should also be noted that I am not saying that one of these nationalisms is better, more authentic or more Irish than the other.As a historian of nationalism, I am well aware of the fact that all national identities and nationalist visions are constructed, indeed,invented, to a large extent. Nor am I claiming that having competing forms of nationalism is unique to Ireland. Similar divisions can be found in every country, albeit with different points of focus to those in Ireland. Living in the United States for over a decade, I have observed how the political divide in that country is based on drastically different interpretations of America’s past and contrasting hopes for its future. What is important to understand, however, is that there is more than one nationalist ideology at work in Ireland.
Finally, in reading this book, one may be struck by the relatively few references to both the Gaeltacht and Northern Ireland. This is very much by design. Firstly, there is a tendency among some elements of the Irish public to assume that Gaeltacht affairs and questions about the Irish language in the Gaeltacht are the same thing. Thus, when Joe McHugh, who didn’t speak Irish, was appointed minister of state with responsibility for Gaeltacht in 2014, many people commenting online stated this was a good thing, because McHugh might have a new insight into why Irish was taught so badly in schools. This was the equivalent of saying that accelerating coastal erosion might help improve the quality of drinking water in Athlone. It might appear superficially that one is talking about the same thing (in this case, water), but in reality, they are not related at all. As such, this book will focus mostly on the Irish language as it exists outside the Gaeltacht. As someone who is not from the Gaeltacht and has not spent much time in the Gaeltacht, I do not feel qualified to address the complex issues involved in preserving Irish as a community language there. My hope is that if I can offer some ideas for how to improve the status of Irish generally, this would naturally help improve its position within the Gaeltacht as well. Regarding Northern Ireland, there has been an impressive movement working towards improving the position of Irish there since the late 1960s. But the issues addressed in this book will mostly be geared towards what happens in the 26 county state, where, in theory at least, all major political parties are committed to reviving Irish.
Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution by Caoimhín De Barra is available here.
Also available as an e-book.