Who ‘Politicised’ the Irish Language?

When 15,000 Gaeligoirí took to the streets of Belfast campaigning for an Irish language act, they were accused of ‘politicising the language’. Here, Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin looks at how the Irish language was really politicised and argues that fighting for minority rights will always be political activism – but that’s a good thing. 

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, 14 February 2019

Foilsíodh ar: rebelnews.ie

Like many families across Ireland, my own doesn’t have to travel too far back to find native Irish speakers. My father’s grandparents hailed from the Glens of Antrim, and they, like so many others, did not pass the language on to their children, thus breaking a chain of linguistic continuity stretching back three thousand years. Within a few generations, a multitude of similar decisions across Irish society had a cataclysmic impact on our language and culture. The nineteenth century, in particular, heralded the decisive period of this ‘language shift’ – a calamity experienced by innumerable indigenous cultures across Europe and the globe.

As a result of this ‘shift’, and in an attempt to understand it, some linguists divide languages into four categories. Lowest on this pyramid are the “peripheral languages”, or the 98% of all languages (including Irish), spoken by less than 10% of humankind. The destruction of diversity at every level of biology and culture has followed in the train of capitalist global expansion. As with the environment, measures are needed to protect languages against this erosion. Attempts at securing such ‘protection’ in the North, however, have been dismissed as ‘political’ and ‘contentious’. The DUP’s catalogue of abuse towards the language represents merely the most blatant manifestation of a hostility which permeates public attitudes even amongst supposed liberals and progressives.

These attitudes are undoubtedly shaped by our colonial past and a more recent neoliberal perspective that understands the price of everything, but the value of nothing. This view, which assumes that the domination of English is somehow naturalpassive or even positive, ignores that questions of language are inextricably linked to power, identity and of course, politics. Rather than a recent innovation by activists, the politicisation of Irish has deep roots in colonial history. As Prof Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh rightly argues – ‘Because of the particular nature of conquest and the power structures that that has fostered, it is impossible to separate the language from politics.

The rapid decline in cultural diversity became a calling card for Empire, regardless of its origin. Yet, nineteenth-century Ireland witnessed a particularly devastating collapse, unparalleled across Europe. Accelerated immeasurably by the death or emigration of almost two million Irish speakers, during a famine rationalised by a heady mixed of imperialist racism and free market dogma, the ideological inheritance of this catastrophe is still felt today.

Present-day Irish language activists and the modern northern revival in general are rooted in working-class communities – communities which have been at the short end of inter-generational discrimination and marginalisation. Many of whom have learnt Irish to attain consciousness, challenge the neo-liberal consensus and strengthen their sense of identity through connection with place and history.

A Shared Future? 

As these communities emerged out of conflict and began to assert their rights in the face of unfulfilled promises and frequent hostile, and at times racist, attacks, their efforts were also condemned for making the language itself ‘political’. Outside the worst excesses of political unionism, much of this condemnation is framed in pseudo-progressive and inclusive rhetoric around the peace process. This narrative implies that activists have fostered their own marginalisation– if only we could be more moderate, if only we could do more to encourage others to engage with Irish, if only we could convince people that they have nothing to fear.

None of this rhetoric stands up to any objective scrutiny. What does a ‘brighter future’ mean when Irish schools are denied any specific Special Educational Needs provision and have to overcome enormous hurdles just to get off the ground? What does ‘shared future’ mean when Irish is deemed a ‘single identity issue’ not worthy of recognition never mind funding? What does ‘shared spaces’ mean when Irish is banned from public signage? And what does ‘respect’ mean when our language and community are constantly sneered at and ridiculed by the largest party in the state?

Claims of ‘politicisation’, perhaps deliberately, ignore the historical context, wherein the language constituted the chief cultural target in the conquest and colonisation of Ireland. The Irish language’s minoritised status was by no means natural or accidental, but paralleled a process of dispossession, genocide and exploitation in Britain’s first colony. This history laid the ideological foundation for exclusionary Orange/One party rule after partition. The liberal post-conflict consensus has replaced “religious” dominance with “cultural” conformity through highly-politicised policies such as TBUC (Towards Building United Communities). Liberal condemnation of the politicisation of the language is, in reality, a reaction to activist community which has the audacity to challenge centuries of linguistic marginalisation in tandem with a rejection of contemporary socio-economic exclusion. Dissent against colonial legacy, empire and neoliberal dogma is not anti-progress, anti-peace or contrary to developing community relations. In fact, it lies at the heart of any genuine attempt to create a shared society based on equality and human dignity.   

The concerted attempt to manufacture a ‘Northern Irish’ identity – of which policies such as TBUC mentioned above form a core part –  exposed the determination of the state to negotiate belonging and rights around how closely one accepted the official version of past, present and the future. In our recent history, this has facilitated the political vetting of Irish language groups and also justified the Department of Education’s long-standing refusal to recognise Meánscoil Feirste. Indeed, the first decade of this century witnessed a degree of nationalist integration within this cultural and political zeitgeist – a new dispensation where the Irish language enjoyed no official recognition. The denial of rights for Irish speakers, promised to us in 2006, forced activists to come together as a community and form An Dream Dearg in order to give voice to one of the many groups excluded from the much-heralded peace dividend.

From denying its right to exist, the state had successfully ‘pigeonholed’ the language, drip-feeding groups with limited funding packages, as well as gradually and grudgingly recognising Irish-medium Education. The larger question of the status of Irish in society typically only surfaced in the wake of the frequent, repugnant public attacks on our community by leading unionist politicians. Ironically, these gratuitous outbursts allowed us to keep the issue alive in the public mind.  As our movement grew, critics claimed that rights for the Irish speaking minority would erode unionists’ cultural Britishness. Whilst not based on any quantifiable evidence, this hyperbole distils the issue to its essentialist core, namely that any expression of Irishness or Irish identity are viewed as a threat to British cultural hegemony. It is little wonder then that the DUP has closely aligned itself with the lunatic xenophobic fringe of the Tory party.

An Dream Dearg

An Dream Dearg’s campaign has exposed the intolerance of the Unionist political establishment, acting as a catalyst to the collapse of Stormont’s power-sharing institutions and emerging as the main-stumbling block the executive’s restoration. The DUPs continued opposition to even minimalistic legislation harks back to a colonial legacy – from the Líofa bursary scandal, to the attack on Irish-medium schools and the stream of derogatory and prejudiced bile emanating from many prominent politicians. The struggle for the Irish language is emblematic of, and stands in solidarity with, the struggle for recognition by minority groups across the six counties.

The veracity of Arlene Foster’s assertion that only ‘political activists’ demand official recognition evaporated in the face of fifteen thousand people taking to the streets in May 2017. The media focus has fuelled a new enthusiasm for the revival across every age-group and religious background. In short, increased exposure to the language, through legislation that provides for visibility and official status, will lead to increased tolerance and acceptance. The validity of an Irish Language Act has been demonstrated by the response to the arguments against it!

The fact remains, however, that any minority community engaged in a struggle for rights and recognition are quite consciously involved in ‘political activism’. This doesn’t diminish or undermine their campaign, but rather strengthens it. As many international language communities testify; the denial and disavowal of rights is controversial and ‘political’, not their assertion. The right and opportunity to ‘learn and use’ your native language, according to internationally acclaimed language expert Fernand de Varennes, ‘flows from a fundamental right and cannot to be considered as a special concession or privileged treatment’.

Adam Ramsey summed it best when he stated; Of course the Irish language is political: it’s always political for marginalised minorities to express themselves. It’s always political to defend diversity in the face of those who demand a monochrome society.

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