Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Afraid of Irish? Scared of the other?

After five years of French at school, I have a GCSE, mais si vous parlez trop rapidement I’ll be lucky to even pick up the gist of what you’re saying. Two years of German, and I can recite the alphabet with confidence at speed and count up to twenty. But wenn Sie Deutsch sprechen, I’m lost before you uttered the first word.

Yet I’m not threatened by people speaking French or German. It’s normal. They’re languages that other people speak. Probably better that than everyone SPEAKING IN COBOL FULL STOP. (Geeks reading this post will get that joke.)

As I understand it, languages shape how we think, how we model life, how we appreciate the things and people and events we find around us. Constrained by the tenses and patterns of forming sentences, different languages give different perspectives.

Daniel Pennac is a French author. He has a dark sense of humour and uses language and puns to set the tone of his prose. His series of novels about Malaussène, a scapegoat, are well worth a read. Unless your French is a lot better than mine, you’ll probably want to read the excellent translations by Ian Monk, who – I’m told – preserved the humour and word play in his careful reversioning into English.

I’ve no Russian – niet – but thoroughly enjoyed the dark subtexts in Andrey Kurkov’s novels Death and the Penguin and The Case of the General's Thumb. They’re more surreal than nearly any other fiction I’ve read – would you keep a penguin in your tiny apartment’s bathroom? – and come out of a sense of place that the country and the native language encapsulates.

This is a long-winded way of saying that languages are good. They’re positive. They add value, bring colour, enhance our lives.

So why are so many people in these parts scared of Irish? It’s a subject that cropped up twice today, so a blog post was almost inevitable! (Update - Just stumbled over an earlier post by Horseman over on Ulster’s Doomed that asks “Just what has [Jim] Allister against the Irish language?”)

Like many people, my fluency in Irish doesn’t get beyond Bord Failte, Tiocfaidh ár lá and Sláinte. But why the fuss when Gerry Adams announces that the British Government have agreed to continue to fund the Irish Language Broadcast Fund that has helped bring series like Seacht to our screens along with other gems.

Early this morning, Nelson McCausland’s personal blog heralded the creation of the Ulster Scots Broadcasting Fund, which will be receiving around £1m a year for the next five years. He acknowledged that “the Irish Language Broadcast Fund has done much for Irish language broadcasting”.

Soon after the Minster of Culture, Arts and Development had posted his thoughts, obviously not wearing his ministerial hat (more likely his personal pyjamas at one o’clock in the morning), Anton Thompson added a comment and some questions:

“I am all for the Ulster Scots tongue being promoted. Family back in the Glens of Antrim speak with this brogue ...

I am a Unionist and an Irish Language Speaker and am very interested in seeing the Irish Language being depoliticised in the same way that the Welsh language has been- after all the Irish language in Northern Ireland saw revival through Protestant speakers and activists (e.g. the women group in Cushendall).

The language has been a very important strand in the cultural tapestry of Northern Ireland since 4 AD. There needs to be a joint effort in this to promote the language as having had a significant part in the lives of ALL our ancestors at one time whether having being part of Unionist or Nationalist backgrounds ...

Please don't let the Irish Language of Northern Ireland simply be exclusive to one section of the community- let it be available for all, for everyone to embrace if they so choose.”

Nelson McCausland replied at breakfast time (let’s not even speculate what he was wearing!) confirming that “the strategy for the Irish language and the strategy for the Ulster-Scots language and culture will be the two parts of a Minority Languages Strategy, which is due for completion by the end of March.”

He went on to comment:

“One of the principles behind the strategy will be the promotion of a 'shared and better future' and that has to include the depoliticisation of the Irish language. I am keen therefore to look at opportunities for sharing and overlap between the two strands of the overall strategy.

Some of the Gaelic revivalists were indeed Protestants althout most of them were also nationalists eg Douglas Hyde. However there were a few of the Protestant activists who were also unionists.”

Jude Collins posted on his blog this morning:

“What is it about the Irish language that so many unionists hate? Well, the fact that it was a baffling language spoken in prison by republicans is one reason. Another is that Gerry Adams has a habit of breaking into Irish when he’s speaking publicly, and a number of Sinn Fein people often open their speeches with a few words of Irish. Then there’s the fact that Irish has traditionally been the language of the native, an identifier which marks them off from the planter.

All of these are reasons but none of them is a good reason. Republicans also had a reputation for studying a range of political thinkers during their time in prison, but most unionists don’t hate political philosophy. The occasional words in Irish by Sinn Fein people are always inoffensive and often welcoming, which makes those who get annoyed by them look churlish and even stupid. And if Irish as part of Irish culture is rejected because it’s part of Irish culture, that tells us more about the rejectionists than anything else.

And yet the hatred lives on. There was talk at one point that Chris McGimpsey, a good unionist, could speak Irish, but he hurried to disabuse people of any such notion. Not a single Protestant/State school in the north of Ireland offers Irish as a subject or even as an extra-curricular activity.” (bold highlighting added)

He went on describe unionists as “furious” with the £20 million now secured for the further development of the Irish language and pointed to Nelson McCausland’s speedy TV remarks “emphasizing that there’s also money for the development of Ulster-Scots”.

“Cut it which way you like, there’s no disguising the vigour of the loathing for Irish that thrashes around in the entrails of unionism. A parallel might be that of a thirsty man refusing to accept a beautifully-chilled beer because he’s noticed an opponent enjoying the same brand ten minutes earlier.”

There’s at least one regular Protestant church service conducted in Irish. There are plenty of people from all kinds of communities enrolled in adult Irish classes in many different venues.

But can there really be no non-denominational (ie, state controlled or non-Catholic sector) secondary/grammar schools offering Irish?

Looks like Jude is mostly right, but not quite. There are a small number of schools outside the Catholic-sector offering Irish. Some integrated schools like Lagan College offer Irish all the way up to A-level.

Northern Ireland’s largest school Methodist College Belfast with a subject list longer than nearly another school makes no mention of Irish on its website, though used to offer it under the guise of curriculum enhancement in sixth form.

Pupils at Friends’ School Lisburn “are also offered Irish or Japanese as part of the Sixth Form Enrichment Programme”. No mention of it at Wallace High School across the road. Update - Wallace offer Japanese as part of their Enrichment Programme, but still not any Irish.

So there are a few exceptions. But very, very few.

I’m staggered at how progressive many of these schools are in introducing new disciplines like Moving Image Arts, and yet curious why they think there is no demand for Irish amongst their (majority) protestant and of-no-religion children and parents. Is it a kind of institutional sectarianism? Is it purely about demand? Is it about fear of trying? Given that we live on an island with a land border with a country that a proportion of school children will choose to do further study in, and sometimes even settle down and live in, having Irish would open up some work opportunities to them. Possibly more than having German!

Which brings be back to my question. Why are so many people afraid of Irish? While it may be used as a political football at times, it’s not a flag. It’s not territorial. It’s a language. Less obscure than Ada or Lisp. And probably a lot more beautiful and illuminating!

Is mise,

Alan in Belfast


Anonymous said...

It's so sad that the Irish language (and so called "gaelic" sports) have been used as weapons by both sides. Though I can't get my mind around the idea of an Ulster-Scots LANGUAGE. Surely it's just a regional accent that my relatives in Ballymena spoke!

Looking back I blame the British government that we weren't given the option of learning Irish when I went to school in Northern Ireland. Even more so that we weren't taught Irish history. Think of the difference it might have had for good in my generation 40 years ago. It's great to hear of integrated schools and surely it's time to integrate a whole lot more.

Enjoy reading your blog Alan.

Timothy Belmont said...

I certainly do not mind people speaking, or having an interest, or studying minority languages; however, whenever I hear that millions of pounds of taxpayers' hard-earned money is being spent on supporting it, that is another matter! Allegiance, in a sense, does enter the equation, too: why would Unionists be particularly interested in the Irish langauage, and what relevance would it be to them? We live in the UK, we speak English. I have as much interest in it as someone from Putney or Kent.

Luke Robinson said...

Thanks for the insightful comments Alan. Your blog has once again turned up a well-rounded overview of a topical issue.

I'm an Englishman living in NI and currently learning Irish in a beginners' class. I have many friends here, from what you would call nationalist and unionist communities, who think it's great I'm learning Irish, because the language should not be for the sole use of one or other political or religious group.

From a personal viewpoint, I am simply interested in the language. Diversity is a good thing in all aspects of life, and I'm glad to gain the insight into Irish culture that learning the language has started to bring. It really is very rewarding.

Jude Collins said...

Good posting, Alan, and thanks for your comment on my site. You're right about Lagan College and, I gather, Friends in Lisburn offering Irish as an enrichment subject (briefly) in Sixth Form. But Lagan is not a Protestant/Controlled/State school - it's integrated; Friends I assume is. The fact remains that 99% of Protestant/State schools don't teach Irish as a subject. How odd and how sad. As you say yourself, they're missing out on something beautiful and illuminating.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Jude - I loved your post as it asked such a stark question. I'm staggered at how progressive many schools are in introducing new disciplines like Moving Image Arts, and yet curious why they think there is no demand for Irish amongst their (majority) protestant and of-no-religion children and parents. Is it a kind of institutional sectarianism? Is it purely about demand? Is it about fear of trying? Given that we live on an island with a land border with a country that a proportion of school children will choose to do further study in, and sometimes even settle down and live in, having Irish would open up some work opportunities to them. Possibly more than having German! (Might add some of that now to the post above.)

Luke - glad you're learning. It's a tough language to crack I'm told!

Tim - "why would Unionists be particularly interested in the Irish langauage" ... they've been quite involved in the language in the past, and deep down have a love of culture too!

John Self said...

"why would Unionists be particularly interested in the Irish langauage, and what relevance would it be to them?"

As an item of cultural interest? A tool of intellectual engagement? Why would they be particularly interested in French or German, both languages which I (like Alan) have a smattering of, and wish I had more than a smattering of? One could argue that if you're going to learn a language you don't need to speak, it might as well be one that has historical and geographical connections to where you live, or other places on the same land mass.

Of course the reason why many Unionists, and people brought up in the protestant tradition, dislike Irish is because they fear it. That's not entirely unjustified, as the Irish language has been used by Republicans to suggest threat to the union ("Tiocfaidh ár lá", after all) or simply enforce divisions, just as union flags and Irish tricolours can be used for those purposes by either side. But that's not the language's fault.

Laura Johnson said...

I was one of the fortunate students to study Irish as part of sixth form enrichment at Friends' and the etymological, cultural and creative aspects of the course were fascinating and I think opportunities for studying are important.

Just looking around you at the place names in NI and how they have derived from Irish indicates there is a clear point of local interest. As the oldest surviving Celtic language Irish is a valuable resource and guide to other languages, including English, as well as having a vast array of ancient and medieval Literature.

Language has been used as a divisive tool and the lack of inclusion of Irish Language study within the mandatory curriculum has perhaps reinforced that. With the difficulties and challenges currently plaguing Education in NI it's hard to believe that inclusion or not will be anything but political manoeuvring.

It is sad if people don't have the option or choice to study something they find interesting.

Timothy Belmont said...

I can see I'm in the minority here! Oh well, so be it. It's a language for nationalists - whether Scots, Welsh or Irish. Utterly pointless and a waste of public resources, when money should be spent on health and the three Rs.

I'd like more money spent on the Environment and Heritage, country houses etc. and I'm sure many re uninterested in that.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Laura, Andrew - it's becoming an FSL Old Scholars' thread! I'll have to put my hand up to that too ... there was only an inkling of Spanish by the time I left, never mind Irish, though Japanese (through Rathmore) was a Wednesday afternoon possibility for some.

Anonymous said...

I have nothing against the Irish language or anyone wishing to learn (good luck to you :) but I do have issues with its use in divisive politicals or the waste of '000s of pounds printing governmental reports in Irish that no one will read (or Ulster-Scots for that matter) For the majority of people Irish has no relevance in their lives.

The use of Irish to that of Spanish, French, German etc does not equate. In those respective countries people use that language from the day they are born and use it 99.9% of their lives. Yes it is good to learn enough of the language to get bye while visiting or to facilitate business but I doubt there are many places in Ireland - even the Gaeltacht - were it could be said to come close so why it should be made a compulsory part of the curriculum is beyond me.

Made available as an optional study maybe.

I seem to recall several reports recently which talked of the marked decline in the use of Irish in the Republic - Anyone care to comment?

I would have loved to have learnt more Irish-Ulster/Scots history in school than who was a white rose and who a red. We all have a shared history no matter what side of the fence we stand.

Unknown said...

Alan - as ever thanks for a very though-provoking post!

I think the fear of Irish is exactly the same fear that fuels the blind "need" to march/protest about marching (delete as applicable) and a hundred other things that might be seen to cede ground.

And that fear has been stoked relentlessly by three out of the four "main" parties for 20+ years, coupled by unnecessary and divisive triumphalism at the slightest "win".

Language studies shouldn't be driven by a cultural agenda, IMHO, but an educational one. My kids are learning Spanish and French at (primary) school because the Head has "made arrangements". No curricular support, and in one case only 30 minutes once a fortnight but at least it's something.

I got as far as GCSE Irish (and Italian, and A-level French!), and although I haven't had a huge use of it I've had a lot less use for the Italian!

(This is a replay of _some_ comments posted on FB earlier :D)

Horseman said...


Good post, and I'm glad you came to the same conclusion as I did. As an Old Campbellian I had to learn my own Irish as an adult, and I have to say that despite its incorrect association with republicanism, once you actually delve into the language and the world it opens you realise that it is entirely non-political. It is, as you say, just a language, and like all of them it has its sublime points.

IMHO the real politicisation of the language has come from unionism - if it had never fixated on it, it would be about as political as Latin.

Aidan said...

Very interesting post Alan. I was lucky enough to grow up in the west of Ireland so I learned Irish for 14 years and left school with quite a good level. Although I don't speak much Irish in Holland I do read books and internet sites in the language and tune in to TG4 or Radío na Life every now ang again.
There is indeed great antipathy in a large part of the unionist community in NI towards the language. However, there is far greater hostility in certain sections of the southern population.
For me personally learning and speaking Irish from a young age gave me the opportunity to feel more secure in my identity. Even now I speak a few words of Irish to my children though they are more Dutch than Irish.
Besyond patriotic reasons the biggest benefit of learning a totally different language from a young age has been that it enhanced my ability to pick up subsequent languages. When I meet other Irish speakers I inevitably also meet people who can converse in French or Spanish or German.
Language learning is multiplicative. You could argue that children could also learn Spanish from the age of 4 to get that effect and you would be right. However, there is no endearing historical, cutural or social reason for Irish children to learn Spanish (or any other language) from a young age. Irish is all around Ireland, it echoes in our dialects of English and in our place names.
Actually when I learned Irish a part of the course was about how it compares to Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Scots Gaelic and Breton. That part of the course touched on the history of both Britain and Ireland.

Anonymous said...

I know linguist from various countries [eg. Russia, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Holland, etc] who learned and speak Irish. All would say that it is a very useful and significant language from a professional point of view.

There are three major language families in Western Europe. The Germanic, The Romance, and The Celtic. To understand the development of language in Western Europe, and indeed in the greater Indo-European language region it is imperative to know sample languages from each of these families.
Irish is a particularly useful language. Of any of the extant Western European languages, it has the longest continuous set of written exemplars attesting its development. Thus it provides direct evidence for what was hitherto hypothetical language development. Much linguistic study has taken advantage of this corpus. The material greatly facilitated the reconstruction of the earlier common root of Indo-European languages.

In addition to above benefits, Irish as a Celtic language is, unlike members of the other European language families, a verb initial language. This means that as a linguist one has the world of such languages opened to one - making it easier to learn languages from Hebrew to Arabic, and from the middle east to Philippines.

The study of Irish as a verb-initial language has provided a basis for the development of syntactic models for such languages.

To anyone who wants to develop as a linguist, the benefits are obvious.

For those who live in the area from which Irish originates, it represents a great linguistic advantage. It makes it easier to learn Irish [a Celtic language] which, in addition to English, provides them with a head start in developing as a European linguist.

Speaking English provides them with a language that has Germanic origins and Romance vocabulary. Using it's elements to commence study of German/Dutch, and Spanish/Italian/French, would then provide them with the examples of the three major western European language families.

Apart from the linguistic elements, a corpus of very important European manuscripts - written or glossed in Irish both on the island and on the European mainland - becomes available for study.

The Bodleian Library has a large corpus needing academic study at this time.