The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Can Irish Speakers Survive Reverse Colonialism?


Seaghán Ó Murchú • 31 May 2004

You and I are communicating in English. Globalization, imperialism, and practicality ensured this event. The nation’s other “official” means of communication, Irish, ranks in the top 300 of the world’s “safest” endangered languages—themselves perhaps 6,000. But as an everyday medium of communication, the 20,000-odd Irish who choose to use it habitually represent only a fraction of those of us who “know” an teanga. Still, this ability to choose, we know, allows urban gaeltachtaí to flourish even as the rural strongholds erode. Perhaps a shift in Irish speakers has occurred recently, without an overall decline in “native” users: while fewer gain the language as children, more attain fluency on their own? But, can this freedom of choice keep Irish alive? Certainly, the tendency of many in the designated national districts to opt out of using Irish when raising the next generations threatens the continuity of Irish as a communal language.

Let me explain how this fits in to issues The Blanket regularly explores. Too many activists marginalize language death, even as environmental, political, religious, cultural, and migration concerns rouse response. Liam MacCóil connects activism to language decline in “Irish—one of the languages of the world” (translated in The Languages of Ireland, eds. Michael Cronin & Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, Dublin: Four Courts, 2000). Consider the plight of the Penan people. A July 1999 National Geographic article on language survival summarises their plight, as 7,000 face the loss of their Malaysian method of communication. Demand for timber drives the destruction of their ancestral forest. Uprooted, the people and the trees both topple. The people move into government settlements, built to encourage sylvan depopulation. The trees fuel construction in the West. Reading that article and writing his own, MacCóil wonders: “how much of this wood is used in the Irish building boom that we hear so much about of late?” (142) And, in turn, that Irish boom depends upon forces largely generated outside of local control.

An pobal of Béal Feirste Thiar or An Spideal may anchor Irish shelters within an Anglophonic whirlwind, but how long can such defenses be bolstered? These resistance movements, I contend, remain as vital as those based on class and economic equality. Language deserves its own preservation as not some fossilised relic, tourist attraction, or pseudo-racial shibboleth. Wittgenstein and Benjamin Whorf both pondered the links between culture and a particular language that encapsulates a worldview that refuses slick translation. Think of what’s even lost in rendering those two place names into West Belfast and Spiddal—(the crossing at) the mouth of the sandbank, and the hospital that’s long vanished from that Conamara coast. You erase those settings, our history, that view.

In David Crystal’s overview, Language Death (Cambridge UP, 2001), he cites a native living near another ocean. “Whenever I speak Tlingit, I can still taste the soap.” Like the tally-stick struck the Irish who lapsed into their expression of dúchas--that untranslatable sense of place, identity, and belonging--so that speaker remembered the humiliation brought by a teacher, representative of a colonial power and that English we share. Such assertions of resonances between the way in which we describe our world and that world itself need not be dismissed as Revival romanticism or blood-and-nation ethnocentrism.

Counter this with the starkness of Aidan Mathews’ “The Death of Irish,” quoted here in its entirety:

The tide gone out for good,/ Thirty-one words for seaweed/ Whiten on the foreshore.

That Whorfian concept of many words to express wealth reduced to one word for “seaweed” may have never been better conveyed—albeit in the conqueror’s tongue inherited by its peons. Mathews wrote in 1983, so perhaps the death rattle of Irish heard throughout modern times deceives, and it’s but a defiant challenge to extermination.

The problem remains: who can understand this battle cry if it’s only in Irish? Michael Hartnett titled his 1975 book of poems “A Farewell to English,” yet he found that his decision to subsequently compose only in Irish malnourished him. Even before he again took up publishing poems in English as well as Irish before his death, he opened up to Eastern and European sources as a translator, refusing to be confined to a binary choice.

This either/or option, long forced upon Irish children in decades of compulsory immersion, often by teachers barely ahead of their students or by instructors manhandling the language into its own hurley with which to batter their charges, crippled Irish efforts at recovery. Voluntarily using Irish appears acceptable throughout Ireland. This continues the life-support of the language, even as the number of those choosing to adapt Irish may decline from the older silent majority who still may resent their earlier forced exposure. In the online magazine Beo, the singer and folklorist Lillis Ó Laoire recalls his own difficulty entering an Irish-language school, then summarises the challenge Irish faces:

Thug Muiris Ó Laoire [teangolaí as Ciarrai] ainm iontach suimiuíl air: ‘coilíneacht droim ar ais’. A brú siar sa scadán ag daoine, an dóigh chéanna ar brúdh Béarla orthu, céad go leith bliain ó shin ná mar sin.” (Agallamh Beo: Eagrán 32, Nollaig 2003)

Muiris Ó Laoire [a linguist from Kerry] put it in a wonderfully apt phrase: ‘reverse colonialism’. Shoving it down people’s throats, in this way forcing English on them, and for a hundred years ago since.” (Beo Interview: Edition 32, December 2003)

Should we dig in against English? If we adapt this attitude, are we admitting defeat? That we can—at best--only shift our redoubts, never to realise that Gaelicised nation for which so many republicans have fought? Regarding Irish as having lost its effort to regain linguistic and cultural territory, what do we make of the perhaps initially superficial but nonetheless noticeable trends in Ireland? For instance, the granting to more children of identifiably Irish first names? The campaign now to truly translate all place names in the Republic into their correct Gaelic forebears (or equivalents)? The rise of infant, primary, and secondary schools for Irish within urban areas? The tendency for more Irish traveling abroad to lapse into at least school or broken Irish to distinguish themselves from all of us global captives of English? (Speaking cúpla focal as gaeilge at least within earshot of said colonials, although my experience shows that it’s mistaken for German by the uninitiated! My teacher mused that Irish sounded like “a Swede speaking Hebrew.”)

In my next article, I will continue with reflections on translation and the dominant power.






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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

1 June 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


No More Lies


Can Irish Speakers Survive Reverse Colonialism?
Seaghán Ó Murchú


On the One Road
John Kennedy


The Wretched of the Earth at the Polls
Mick Hall


SS General
Anthony McIntyre


In Solidarity with the Iraqi People
Ghali Hassan


Neo-Cons, Fundies, Feddies, and Con-Artists
Francis A. Boyle


Mis-reporting Venezuela: Hugo Chavez as processed by the "Independent" newspaper
Toni Solo


29 May 2004


Door to Door: An Irish American House Call
Matthew Kavanah


Republicans who do not follow the Sinn Fein line are also entitled to their opinions
Dolours Price


What Made Us Distinct
Tommy Gorman


US Schools Must Disclose Information About Crime on and Around Campus - (Clery Act USA): Is Similar Legislation Required in Northern Ireland?
Sean Mc Aughey


Old Friends, New Friends
John Kennedy


Memorial Day on WBAI


No More Tears
Omar Barghouti


The Nothing Here to Celebrate Israel Parade, NYC
Mary La Rosa


Génocidaires In Gaza
Anthony McIntyre


A Writer's Writer
Henry McDonald




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