The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Say it in Breac n’ English

Part Three of Four

Seaghán Ó Murchú • September 25th 2004

For Northern readers of The Blanket, Pádraig Ó Mianáin expresses Mac Éinri’s exasperation while adding a sense of the danger that a Corkonian will not face if speaking Irish publicly. He moved at 15 from the Donegal Gaeltacht to Derry city. Every time he chose Irish, he imagined it as a V-sign flung from the fingers of an uncivilised native. ‘Every person who speaks Irish bears witness to the failure of centuries of cultural cleansing by the establishment in Ireland.’ (115) Note that Britain is not mentioned; his indictment blames those at home lording power over the defiant before or after an imposed border. The dividing line, as Titley and Ní Chinnéide agree, separates stubborn neighbours as well as political entities. Bolstering Ní Duibhne’s assertion, Ó Mianáin claims fewer recent speakers of Irish display it as a nationalist symbol. Its use, he comments, has gained more acceptance among those eager to explore the local and the regional Ulster legacy. Unionists too can enjoy the pleasure of its aesthetics, its encapsulation of the place names and the heritage that all Northerners can preserve.

The rise of Irish as an educational medium in Belfast presents, however, familiar difficulties. Seen by many still as a Catholic identifier, the Irish language, Ó Mianáin reminds us, simmers with a stain. It’s been ‘demonised as the language of bomb and bullet’ on a television programme he sat in the audience for. He contends: ‘I have no idea what percentage of those wielding guns during the Troubles were Irish-speakers, but you can be fairly sure that every single one of them, republican, loyalist, police and British army alike, was an English-speaker. Would English, then, be more deserving of the “bomb and bullet” mantle?’ (117) Recall debates over the Irish signage in West Belfast, the encouragement of recognition for Ulster Scots as its own language, and the confusion expressed by reporters charged to repeat the Irish-language surnames among Sinn Féin’s representatives—you can doubtless volunteer further examples of linguistic shibboleths.

The author lives in Portstewart, at least 30 or 40 miles away from another gaeilgoir family, he estimates. Still, he’s blessed: Irish remains his language at home (his wife too speaks it) and at work. While acknowledging that daily life continues to goad Irish-speakers in his town, he keeps up his side. Here, in contrast to Heusaff’s inner-city Dublin, ‘Irish is as foreign as Greek or Spanish.’ He observes that the RUC ‘seemed to object to my assertion that the English version of my name is “MR Pádraig Ó Mianáin”.’ (120) He continues: ‘You take a stance when you speak Irish here in the North, a place full of wrong places and wrong times.’ He meets the surliest response, however, from ‘Catholic/nationalists’ who insist on translating his name into English—recall Ó Laoire, Ní Mhóráin, and Ní Chinnéide’s reactions to snubs across the border. Throughout the island, it appears, its scornful inheritors of the native language often persist most eagerly in diminishing its right to exist on its own terms. The shame of the conquered, as Titley and the Fennells remind us, taints generations born long after 1921.

Ó Mianáin rejects any forelock-tugging, passing on ‘a basic right of identity’ to his daughter. Irish predates and should outlive any sectarian divide. He reflects--while there may be little difference between Gaeltacht and Gealtacht (lunacy), Irish must survive. Without it, he finishes, it’s the difference between scéal and scéal sceíl—the story vs. the news secondhand, colour rather than black-and-white reception.

Máirín Nic Eoin listens to the stories broadcast by poets, most notably, Donegal’s Cathal Ó Searcaigh, which conjure up an intercultural realm where Irish mingles with the crowd. Yet, does danger lurk if Irish mixes too freely in the global bazaar? As proponents of a diversified Ireland urge not only tolerance but inclusion, does this diminish the power of Irish itself? If it gets crushed by the import market, would we notice or care? If the ‘creative dynamic’—recall the energy tapped, the messages received by Ní Dhuibhne within this medium—sputters, then whatever Irish culture will only be ‘mimicking the more dominant forms of anglophone culture.’ (127) As Ní Chinnéide reiterates, folk art and musical whimsy cannot replace the loss of intimate communication Irish contains.

Furthermore, Nic Eoin cautions: ‘Losing Irish would not merely involve the severing of a link with our cultural past, but would also limit the possibilities for new kinds of cultural fusion in the future.’ While she does not speculate upon what these types of blending might produce later this century, she introduces here a defense of Irish based not on a backward look to it as our heritage but to its enriching promise for Ireland’s future. Perhaps we could paraphrase the old saw of the Revivalists: ‘Tír gan dhá teangacha; tír gan anam.’—land without two languages, land without a soul. Two languages at minimum, given the multicultural conversations heard by Heusaff in today’s Dublin.

Contrasting Tom Paulin’s promotion of an Irish hybrid of English as a replacement for the retirement of Irish, and Ó Searcaigh’s enviable ability to spin cross-cultural whirls from within his Gaeltacht redoubt, Nic Eoin balances these polarities with Armagh’s Aodh Ó Murchú. Responding in a 2001 issue of, he disdains Ó Searcaigh’s cocky leap over the linguistic fence. This, Ó Murchú objects, betrays the vigilance a Gaeltacht poet must display. His stance reminded me of Ó Laoire’s admonition that Irish speakers—natives most of all—must cherish its treasure and hand it down intact to the next generation. By this, as I interpret her reaction, Nic Eoin proposes neither heirloom curator nor heritage-centre. While recognising its hybridity and fluidity, as with any living language, Ó Laoire and Ó Murchú’s advice commands us to be careful with the ability of Irish speakers to withstand the pressures that Mac Murchaidh’s contributors document.

The Gaeltacht’s survival no longer assured, the fatal degree after which its submersion into our Anglo-American multinational corporate consumer culture can no longer keep Irish afloat cannot be fathomed. A tidal wave of anglicisation over a century ago, as Douglas Hyde lectured, crested over Ireland, and this storm watch wailed when Irish-speakers still erected a sturdier cultural bulwark than can be excavated today. Returning to Ó Murchú, writing from a total Galltacht that at Hyde’s birth had still sustained a few Irish-speakers, the Armagh poet cries out from his gaelic-rein reich at Ó Searcaigh, one Ulsterman to another, as the latter’s complacency stirs the former’s unease. From Donegal, the poem’s title ‘Trasnú’ confidently saunters, ‘traversing.’ From Armagh, the response issues: ‘Dúchas na Cinniúna’, a death-rattle from a ‘fateful heritage.’ As Ó Mianáin warns, not all of their North affords safety to an Irish-speaker.

At her conference presentation in Hungary, Nic Eoin recited ‘Trén bhFearann Breac,’ Colm Breathnach’s itinerary ‘through the speckled land.’ I’m delighted that this poem now may join the conversation held within ‘Who Needs Irish?’ Ó Searcaigh embraces hybridity; this Cork poet endures its imposition. James Connolly scolded fellow rebels that if they failed to overthrow the capitalist system, that it mattered little if the flag turned green. Similarly, Breathnach describes a panorama where the Irish speaker looks about his native terrain, but where even his native language expresses his alienation.

Breathnach opens:

Ní labhríonn sí a thuilleadh liom, an aít seo,
is níl aon bhuanaíocht ag mo theanga níos mó inti.

(Nic Eoin translates:
She no longer speaks to me, this place,
And my language now longer finds sustenance in her.)

His roots now rot, too shallowly dug to gain nourishment from shallow soil. Its surface having been salted and ploughed sterile, starvation beckons for those raised on an Irish native growth. The poet drifts as a liminal wanderer, caught always between two voices, two words, two names, two colours, two tongues. Ó Mianáin prefers an Irish palette of hues to a monochromatic English grey. Ó Searcaigh presumes Irish can play unsupervised with its new neighbours. For Breathnach, the choice of colours dribbles to only two; the rules of the game here represent not release but the regime.

Taím ag taisteal trén taisteal trén bhfearann breac
is tá dhá ainm ar gach aon bhaile ann

(I am travelling through the speckled land
and every town there has two names.)

This concept of the speckled, the half-breed, the barnbrack, which Ó Laoire already had considered in a brief comment on Hugo Hamilton’s unsettling memoir of German-Gaelic-Anglophonic ‘tri-dentity’, The Speckled People, here returns as a metaphor for the condition of the Irish-speaker within a post-colonial mentality that never can escape an embattled, secondary, relegated status.

The connotations of breac—half-a-Gaeltacht, speckled, dappled, a loaf with raisins or fruit, Ó Laoire meditated, showed not only Hugo Hamilton’s childhood sense of miscegenation or impurity, but Hamilton’s mature embrace of the hybrid, dangling, fluid nature within which Irish will flow alongside other streams. Ó Laoire’s earlier influence, Spiddal-born author and IRA Curragh inmate Máirtin Ó Cadhain, polarised his polemic’s title, recall, as white paper vs. ‘Páipear Bhreaca’. While the advocacy of cultural and linguistic separatism by republicans pulses more as an undercurrent in Ó Mianáin’s reactions, the volume on the whole, in my opinion, would have benefited from an essay on the benefits and drawbacks of nationalist promotion and commotion through Irish as a practical or subversive means of communication. Such tensions, after all, add to the conflicts even the very southern-bound Breathnach’s Irish rover cannot escape.

After listing bilingual signage of a few Irish towns, Breathnach’s speaker faces what such signifiers signify:

an t-ainm dúchais
sa chló iodálach
claoninsint ar stair na báite,
an t-ainm dúchais
sa chló is lú
faoininsint ag dul ó chlos

(the native name
in italic print
a perverse telling of local history
the native name
in the smallest print
a faint telling becoming fainter…)

Breathnach’s speaker listlessly reports:

‘there are castles I will never attack
and officials before me whose pride is great
my own queen I’m afraid I will not defend
I am surrounded by footsoldiers on the road.’

While Nic Eoin correctly stresses the personal expression of this estrangement, I hear as well a political statement. Cork may call itself the rebel county, but here its Gaelic holdout deserts the rapparees. The forces of his enemy encircle him, he rejects loyalty to a monarch whose name remains hidden perhaps in the legendary past, while the functionaries of his territory’s usurper brook no refusal—so, he shrinks from any defense of his realm. He ends reciting a litany of the two conditions within which he must live within a divided state, what Seamus Heaney refers to as ‘binary thinking’. But, writing in Irish, Breathnach expresses here the resignation of the defeated rather than the defiance or delight of Co Derry’s bard.

Third of four parts. Part Four concludes in the next issue.

Part One
Part Two




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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

5 October 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

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.

2 October 2004

John Kerry: He's Milking it, He's Milking it!!!
Patrick Hurley

Ultimate Deadline by Endless Postponement
Anthony McIntyre

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

Tears of Women Heal the World
Elana Golden

When a Beautiful Soul Comes to Visit
Mary La Rosa

Via Haiti US megaphones Venezuela: "Will you comply?!"
Toni Solo



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