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!
Alan in Belfast