The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Say it in Breac n’ English

This concludes our four part series

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Seaghán Ó Murchú • September 25th 2004

As stated earlier, Coimisiún na Gaeltachta in 1926 delineated boundaries but always within ‘a countrywide bilingual continuum’ of the language’s use. (135) Nic Eoin contends that the reality of bringing back Irish reveals ‘contact-induced change’ that writers have only recently dared to include. ‘Few have dared to publish the kinds of bilingual work which a truly realist depiction of most Irish-speaking communities would demand.’ (136) Too often, perhaps without awareness or intention, Irish-language fiction, she implies, adopts a subservient stance as its speakers kow-tow to the dominant power—a posture more easily avoided in autobiographical memoirs or lyric poetry. Here I interject that the bilingualism within Conamara-based fiction of Joe Steve Ó Neachtain or the drama from Antoine Ó Flatharta serves as evidence that recent authors have begun to dare to tell it as they hear it. Purists be damned, the standards may decline, but this, as Nic Eoin reminds us, is part of the legacy left by a nation attempting to reclaim as well as preserve Irish. Such hybrids, she elaborates in a forthcoming book from Cois Life, ‘Trén bhFearann Breac’: An Diláithriú Cultúir agus Nualitríocht na Gaeilge, offer a ‘creative potential’ within the language that has been overlooked by many ‘Irish/postcolonial critics.’ (Letter to this author, 28/9/04) Engagement with society through the medium of and media in Irish remain crucial for the language’s success; not only Blasket recollections or verses eulogising sunsets should supply its themes. If we leave Irish only to the poets, I wonder, will it be any more relevant than this snippet from James Joyce’s story ‘Grace’? ‘—I remember reading, said Mr Cunningham, that one of Pope Leo’s poems was on the invention of the photograph—in Latin, of course.’ Marvellous as the poetic legacy serves to stimulate Irish-language efforts, if we coddle an teanga as a hothouse flower to be cultivated within a protected sanctuary, then it may find itself following the fate of Latin into the academy away from the streets. True, Irish may attract the cognoscenti, but it will have died as a vernacular.

Even if the Revival had succeeded, the Irish spoken would not have earned its learners many fáinní. Nic Eoin quotes James McCloskey’s comment that I summarised in my review of his book for The Blanket: Irish would’ve been creolised anyway. Its interlingual forms, such as Gaelscoilis and Irish as a Second Language (or, I interrupt, Jailic—see Peadar Ó Sioradáin’s 1991 Dialann Ocrais/Diary of a Hunger Striker for a dramatisation through this northerly construct), Nic Eoin explains, determine the continued evolution Irish cannot evade. In the shadow of English, all who speak Irish—as Ó Laoire asserts—also know English, but they choose to advance the subject language.

Languages progress, but what if they end? While McCloskey canonises Irish in the elite category of the saved, Breandán Ó Doibhlin treats the confessions of its faithful remnant more agnostically. For many within contemporary Ireland, the native language lingers as only an embarrassment. ‘There it is like some toothless grandmother huddled by our hearth, mumbling over some days of misery or ancient heroism that we, our forward-looking children, have never known and would sooner forget.’ The author extends his analogy.

‘We can’t in all decency throw her out—she is after all of our blood—but we can park her in a geriatric ghetto where she can expire in comfort and solitude, while we get on with the business of living.’ I recall the contempt paid Peig Sayer’s recollections by millions of schoolchildren! Still, like the texts assigned that summon up Ireland’s past glories for a de-gaelicised present, the old woman won’t go away, you know. Neither does our inherited guilt. I learned from one 2004 guidebook that despite the tumult of modern-day Ireland, a distinguishing feature remains an unfailing respect paid elders by its youth. ‘So we have given her government commissions to revive her, Gaeltacht grants and schemes to build up her resistance, even her own television service to cheer her last lucid hours.’ (145) My favourite entertainment via TG4 was on a lonely night in a tatty b&b on Gardiner Street when I marvelled at, over the omnipresent hum of traffic and shouts from the street, a decidedly homophobic and chauvinist Hong Kong martial-arts comedy, a gender-twisting ‘Pantywaist Heroes,’ with commercials in Irish and subtitles in English, but I suppose this would be aired towards the Dublin enjoyed by myself and Heusaff, not the granny’s oul’ thatched cabeen.

Why that astonishingly multicultural, certainly post-colonial, programme aired on TG4 raises further concerns. Filling the state’s Irish-language channel with decidedly non-Irish offerings attests to the difficulty of meeting the ideal of an Irish-language medium through which to show its media. This collection does overlook the establishment of recent presses such as Cois Life, the energy between music and language, and any evidence of filmmaking. Therefore, Msgr Ó Doibhlin’s remonstrance that other European minorities have ignited their cultural resurgences while Ireland’s rejuvenation slumps sluggishly may surprise those insisting on a new burst of interest in the language among the young. I support his contention that many Irish should be ashamed of their lassitude compared to their Welsh cousins--who can boast not only of poets but popstars in their native language. He argues that a real revival must be a ‘moral desideratum’. (152) As with Kate Fennell, he too rejects the earlier Revival’s expectation that a Hiberno-English construct could replace the intimacy of Gaelic. Ireland’s need for continuity, he concludes, demands control over its own tradition, without relying on ‘essentialist or exclusivist dogmatic statements on the true nature of Irish identity.’ (157) Here we can see how the caution of Ó Laoire and the frustration of Breathnach segue into the optimism of Heusaff and Ní Chinnéide. All reject any false consciousness that only Gaeltacht natives or Gaelic-surnamed, O-positive redheads can assert themselves through Irish. The freedom that any of its citizens can obtain from a nation that lives up to its proclamation of ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’ must be, in a true Republic, given equally to its minorities as well as us, its English-dominant majority.

This idealism sparked by the Rising, as Titley observed at the start of Mac Murchaidh’s collection, resulted in an intense peak of enthusiasm followed by, as in many couplings initiated by leaps of passion, a slow slouch back into lazy habits. Donncha Ó hÉallaithe analyses the rocky course of Irish-language relationships under English-dominant supervision. Notably, he devotes considerable attention to the Language Freedom Movement’s campaign against ‘Compulsory Irish’. For more on the heyday of this policy, see Adrian Kelly’s recent study.) By the 1960s, Ó hÉallaithe explains, pro-Irish organisations remained unable to surrender their utopian ideal of a reclaimed Republic conducted through a reclaimed vernacular. The Dublin government, by the 1970s, abandoned any effort to rebuild a free and Gaelic entity. Instead of a regime demanding that all learn Irish, in today’s Ireland, nobody needs to know it. Ní Mhóráin and Heusaff have testified for each side of this debate. Three decades after the LFM victory, finding ‘significant people who can offer a service to Irish speakers is now governed by the laws of probability rather than recruitment criteria.’ (170) Does this random attention to the government’s practical enforcement of its theoretically first language confirm the triumph of a mature, multicultural, integrated nation? Or does it chart a regression from the advance of its 1916 founders to a trap--Connolly’s portent of a green flag but the same dull hegemony over the Irish people by their own opportunist, collaborative leaders?

By 2001, Ó hÉallaithe argues, a citizen could not conduct business with this Irish Republic’s heirs in the language of Irish without taking legal action to pursue this right. Echoes, I hear, of Pearse’s one and only court case, ninety years ago, representing the Donegal farmer who drew prosecution for painting his Irish name on his cart. The Crown upends into an Taoiseach, but despite the inversion, the socialist revolution spun only into inertia. Unable to levitate the masses, the state could not compel enough of its liberated millions to freely return to their purportedly or tangibly Gaelic regimens. Economic and political turmoil sapped the people’s patience. Failed Gaeltacht interventions left many native speakers complacent, content to talk to their children and conduct in public their business in English, leaving teachers to pass on Irish to their next generation. While factories appeared in these areas, they lacked sufficiently trained local workers, and so English-speaking citizens and foreign nationals have filled many jobs.

Failing to monitor and resolve such situations, the state’s mainly to blame for the geographical demise of Irish, Ó hÉallaithe contends. Citing recent census figures, the only hope he uncovers lies in a slight increase in speakers through four-years-old. He credits enrollments at gaelscoileanna after 1996. In na Gaeltachtaí only 20,000 still use Irish as a dominant medium at home and in the community. Northwest Donegal, from where Ó Searcaigh, Ó Laoire, Ó Mianían, and the father of Ní Dhuibhne originate, remains a bastion, especially in Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore). Along Conamara’s Cois Fharraige, the strip west from An Spidéal to Carna continues, along with the Aran Islands and Iarthar Dhuibhneach (Dingle). Other breac-Ghaeltachtaí survive, reifications of Colm Breathnach’s speckled landscapes of Cork. Even in the more secure holdouts—80% of speakers comprising fíor-Ghaeltachtaí--as Ó Laoire warned, Ó hÉallaithe finds the balance for Irish at risk.

So, at the end of this small but concentrated collection of reflections, should we consign Irish to archivists? Ó hÉallaithe tallies the checklist in favour of keeping the curators at bay. TG4 and RnG; the Official Languages Act; gaelscoileanna agus gael choláistí; Foinse, Lá, agus An Chultúrlann i mBéal Feirste Thiar; NUIG, GMIT, DCU’s degrees through Irish, in both liberal arts and technical fields; the thriving pride in the Gaeltacht and the renewed confidence of a multicultural Ireland. Now, the debit column: use of Irish outside the designated areas never has been regained, with the one exception of the Rath Cairn district in Westmeath, legacy of resettlement of Conamara emigrants by the Free State—and this area, established in 1935, battled for recognition as a Gaeltacht until it succeeded--in 1967. Desmond Fennell lamented two years later that not even a street in Galway had won a conversion back by a majority of its dwellers to return to using Irish as the dominant language. (192, n. 43) And Galway and the Gaeltacht were, at least in 1969, still neighbours. Now, the frontier appears to have receded back to Spiddal. I remind you that a fit walker from Eyre Square can be ‘ag trasnú’ (in less time than the length of a movie) across the official boundary of Cois Fharraige at Barna. Its designated limit when I travelled past this summer had been, however, whitewashed as one left Salthill’s neon lights to brave McDonagh’s wild lonesome west.

If the British had taken eighty years to grant legal rights to Irish speakers, we might be outraged; for an Irish Republic to dawdle until the Official Languages Act to do so roused, contrarily, little attention from the silent and indifferent majority. Perhaps we need to forget whether the language can be restored or revived, Ó Dobhain and Ó hÉallaithe concur. The latter author repeats Irish-Irelander D.P. Moran’s warning: ‘An infallible way to paralyse people is to aim at a utopia.’ (181) For the Dutch and the Danish, for example, a national language persists comfortably alongside a multilingual embrace of more dominant European languages. Why Ireland refused this compromise puzzles me, but like so many other conundrums, I suppose we can blame it on England.

Yet the necessity for intensive care of Irish demands immediate treatment. Too many decades of abuse, incantations, fumbled operations, and now neglect have passed since Hyde and Conradh na Gaeilge first raised the alarm. As Lillis Ó Laoire, writing from California, suggested, viewing Irish as an endangered life-form deserving respect and protection should disturb nobody in our ecologically sensitive society. As we set aside reserves for condors, why not for Irish-speakers? Does this contradict my earlier rejection of tending to Irish as a hothouse flower, if not Ó Doibhlin’s gawping hag? Irish like any language demands to be respected as a means of communication outside of the museum or vault. I have presented the findings of its practitioners amateur and scholar. They unanimously agree: Irish must continue in the home and the community. Even if only twenty thousand currently practice this within na Gaeltachtaí, this core keeps the fruit from rotting. It’s up to the rest of Ireland, regardless of lineage, to choose without coercion whether or not to opt for its use as a second language, given the evident collapse of any hopes for its resuscitation as the national vernacular. We’re debating it in English.

Irish-language conservation does not demand a hell-or-Connaught, back to the reservation, crudity. Bringing in the wider nation, we should end debates as to whether (as I mentioned in my review article on James McCloskey’s appeal to preserve threatened languages) a new estate in Spiddal may require that its eighteen households use Irish. We would not spread salt on a field. Mac Murcaidh’s essayists may have been made stronger by the poison that hasn’t killed Irish. But none should import weedkillers to eradicate whatever Gaelic outcrops survive. Why, then, do so many protest the nourishing of a native species—and one we can all adapt into, for any of us can learn Irish—to continue to flourish and propagate? The core can live, the fruit can blossom, and we can make it into barnbrack, the bhreac-bread, the speckled loaf. Later, we may learn how to graft the branch and grow our own fruit from the core. Adapting another sapling does not mean we let the older tree wither. Both Irish and English can thrive in our own gardens, rural or sub/urban. English, the preferred import, takes root and soars. Rightfully, Irish too gains pride of place in its native soil. Let’s perpetuate its own irreplaceable contribution to the diversity in whose promotion and acceptance we celebrate our contemporary Ireland.

[Author’s note: portions will be revised thoroughly and made less chatty while much more impersonal for inclusion in the Irish Literary Supplement 18:2 (Spring 2005). I thank Dr Maírín Nic Eoin for her cogent criticism and corrections made upon my examination of her contribution to Mac Murchaidh in a draft of this review article.]

This concludes our four part series.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three




Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

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

9 October 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Death of George Harrison
Ruairi O Bradaigh, National Irish Freedom Committee and Brian Mór

Can't Deal, Won't Deal
Anthony McIntyre

Update - Youth Suicide Prevention Project
J. Terry Ryan

Father Mc Manus on Ron Lauder, David Trimble, the Orange Order, and Catholic anti-Semitism
Father Sean Mc Manus

Say it in Breac'n English (Part Four)
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Some Inconvenient Facts
Patrick Hurley

Marx, Engels and Lenin on the Irish Question
Liam O Ruairc

The Gates of Hell
Elana Golden

After the Venezuela Referendum
Toni Solo

One for the Road
Brian Mór

5 October 2004

Marty O'Hagan Three Years On
Anthony McIntyre

Say it in Breac'n English (Part Three)
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Shankill Education
Mick Hall

Where Are We After Fours Years of Intifada?
Haithem El-Zabri

The Letters page has been updated.



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices