The tangled speech that makes language an Irish political issue

Once again, the status of the Irish language threatens the survival of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Once again, the posturing owes less to the well-being of the language as its usefulness as a symbol of division.

Monday, 9th August 2021, 8:34 am
Nobody knew more than Aodán about the cross-currents of language, religion and politics in Ireland.

The lesson of history is that when a minority language is captured by a political faction, it is the language that suffers – hypocritically promoted by those who wish to claim it and, as a consequence, irrationally despised by their antagonists on unrelated matters

That stand-off has been going on in Ireland for generations. Until relatively recently, the Irish language was spoken as much in Ulster as the other provinces. Many of the Scottish settlers who brought Protestantism to the north also brought Gaelic. There was no pre-destined reason for the language to become tribal.

When I became Scottish Office Minister for Gaelic in 1997, I set about implementing some long-held ideas. One was to build a bridge between the Gaeltacht communities of Scotland and Ireland; a linguistic continuum which, without political boundaries, would stretch from Lewis to the Ring of Kerry.

Part of my motivation was to point out that Scottish Gaelic transcends politics and religion. It is no faction’s property. More interactions between Scottish and Irish communities with so much in common could only open minds and break down barriers that had developed.

I went to Dublin where, after initial scepticism, the Minister for the Gaeltacht, Eamonn O Cúiv, became an enthusiastic supporter. I have fond memories of him leading a parade through Ness – an unlikely prospect in other times for Éamonn De Valera’s grandson.

The Ultach Trust became the standard-bearer for the Northern Ireland leg of Iomairt Cholm Chille – a brave organisation which fought for years to maintain the political neutrality of the Irish language in the North and to resist, at grassroots level, Sinn Fein’s efforts to monopolise it.

The director of the Ultach Trust was a great guy, Aodán Mac Póilin, who learned Irish as an adult, and moved to the Shaws Road Gaeltacht in West Belfast in the 70s where he became chair of the first Irish-medium school in Northern Ireland and the public face of language activists determined to keep it out of politically-motivated hands.

Nobody knew more than Aodán about the cross-currents of language, religion and politics in Ireland. He lived among them for difficult decades and always had an understanding of “the other side of the story”. Aodán died in 2016 at the height of his powers and this book of essays was written between 1990 and 2011. For anyone with a curiosity about this subject, they form a terrific, accessible starting point.

Whatever had gone before, the die was cast for the Irish language to be identified with Catholic nationalism when the Gaelic League, which had been founded in 1893 on a non-political basis, became much more politically aligned around the 1916 uprising – which, in the long run, did the language little real good.

Aodán’s theory was that Douglas Hyde, the leading figure in the Gaelic League, had been motivated by the example of the Gaelic Athletic Association. “The strength of the GAA was to have harnessed nationalist energy to the promotion of Gaelic sports, and it is likely he saw the nationalist impulse as the most effective way for the Irish language revival to become a mass movement”.

It never really happened, presumably because it was easier to become a hurler than to learn Irish, but particularly once De Valera imposed his vision of a Catholic Ireland of small farmers with all the cultural trappings, it was hardly surprising those in the north who viewed all this with horror, included the Irish language in that mix.

And yet…. Nothing is ever that simple. When I was doing the groundwork for Iomairt Cholm Chille, I took the precaution of running it past Rev Ian Paisley at Westminster. “No trouble at all,” he replied. “I remember when Irish was taught in Orange halls across the north”.

I have not been able to find supporting evidence of this, even in Aodán’s book. But I have no doubt the elder Paisley would have had a greater appreciation than any of his successors of the language’s political and religious neutrality because of his familiarity with Lewis as well as his deep Ulster hinterland.

When the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, the status of Irish was – inevitably – one of the last sticking points for David Trimble. That circle was eventually squared by giving equal status to the dubious concept of Ullans or “Ulster Scots”. Aodán quotes Tony Blair’s account of that discussion.

“Bertie Ahern did not take the same relaxed view of the importance of Ullans as I did, suggesting that maybe David would like to speak some of the ‘fecking thing’ so we could hear what it sounded like, and David taking umbrage at the idea that the dialect was a Unionist invention”. And, as it turned out, a very lucrative one but such is the price of peace.

While the status of the Irish language (and presumably of Ulster Scots) has been re-invented as a high principle of Northern Irish politics, the paradox is that a lot of good work has been done on breaking down the prejudices.

If the concept of a minority language’s right to rise above politics and religion is better understood now than 20 or 100 years ago, that itself is a tribute to the life’s work of Aodán Mac Poillin – and a source of hope.

(Our Tangled Speech – Essays on Language and Culture, published by the Ulster Historical Foundation at £19.99.)