Diarmuid Breatnach

I’m sick of seeing foreigners everywhere. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not racist or anything …. but they’re just everywhere. And as for Muslims building mosques! Here, in Ireland!

What’s wrong with that? We’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of churches in Ireland.

Yeah, but we’re a Catholic country.

Do you object to Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist and Unitarian churches too?

Er … no, they’re Christian religions. Muslim is completely different. We’re a Christian country – always have been.

Actually, no.

What do you mean?

We were pagans once. Before Christian missionaries came in.

OK, before St. Patrick. And yes, I do know he was a foreigner. But since then, we’ve been a Christian country, right?

Yes, I grant you that.

That’s what we need to go back to – Christian Gaelic Ireland.

An bhfuil Gaeilge agat?

No, I don’t speak it. No need to be smart. That’s another thing that was taken from us!

They teach it at school, though.

Not very well. And they force it, which turns people off.

They force maths on people too. And other subjects.

Yes …. well. Anyway, this is getting away from the subject. I was talking about … Getting back to the old Christian Ireland. The Ireland we fought against the British for. Which so many people died for.

James Connolly Monument, across from Liberty Hall, Beresford Place.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Like James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke ….

Yes, exactly!

James Connolly was born in Scotland, Tom Clarke in England.

Well I knew about Connolly, but Clarke … are you sure?

Yep, Isle of Wight, SE England.

OK …. but …. they were still Irish, weren’t they …. like our soccer team?

Yes, I agree with you there.  And about Constance Markievicz ….

Listen, don’t try that one on me! She married a Polish count – but she was Irish.

She was born in England too.

Was she? Well ok, but of Irish stock too.

Gore-Booth – not exactly a Gaelic name, is it?

Look, let’s go back to Pearse – he was Irish through and through. He wrote in Irish – articles, stories and poems, didn’t he?

He most certainly did.

Well then!

His father was English, though.

What? You’re codding me!

No, seriously. James Pearse was English. And had married previously in England.

Now you’re telling me Patrick Pearse’s father was a BIGAMIST?

No, no, calm down. She died – he was a widower. Thomas Davis’ father was Welsh, by the way.

Thomas Davis Statue monument and fountain, Dame Street, Dublin, Irealand
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Who wrote A Nation Once Again? That Thomas Davis?

Yes. And The West’s Awake.

OK, OK but Thomas himself was born in Ireland, wasn’t he?

Yes. Eamon Bulfin wasn’t though.

Bulfin? Who was he?

He hoisted the tricolour up on the GPO on Easter Monday 1916.

Did he? Was he born in England too?

No – in Argentina.


Yep. And De Valera’s da was apparently Cuban. Dev was born in the USA.

OK, OK, OK – but they were all part-Irish or wholly Irish …. in blood, I mean. Part of what they call the Irish diaspora.

True. But Erskine Childers wasn’t.  Totally English.

Ah now you’re trying to wind me up. He was President of Ireland – of course he was born here.

That Erskine Childers was but his Da wasn’t.

OK, so what?

Well, he’s the one who brought the Mausers into Howth. In his yacht. And he was murdered by the Free Staters in the Civil War.

That was him?

The Irish tricolour flag — presented to the ‘Young Irelanders’ by Parisian revolutionary women in 1848. (Image source: Internet)

Yeah, and part of the crew were two women – one born in England and one in the USA. By the way, the Tricolour that Bulfin hoisted on the GPO? You know what it signifies?

Yes. Peace between the original Irish, the Catholics and the descendants of the planters, the Protestants.

OK. Well, that’s not originally Irish either.

What? The Tricolour? Not Irish?

Not originally, no.

Where is it from then? Please don’t say England!

No – Paris. During the Paris uprising of 1848, French female revolutionaries presented it to an Irish Republican delegation.

So the Irish flag before that was …. just Green?

Well, Green yes, often with a harp in gold ….

Yes, Green, forever green, always the Irish colour …

Well, I hate to tell you this but …………..







Diarmuid Breatnach


When one hears or reads the words “Gaelic Ireland”, the reference usually takes one of four forms:

  1. Historical

  2. Geographical-cultural

  3. Nostalgical

  4. Sneering


Gaelic Ireland”, when used in a historical sense, is a reference to either a time when the majority of Irish people spoke the Irish language (up to 1800 CE many scholars agree) or to a time when the Gaelic order of society was dominant or when the Gaelic Order survived in some part of Ireland (for example up to the Flight of the Earls in 1607) .


Perhaps used to describe those shrinking parts of Ireland where Irish remains the mother tongue, more normally called the “Gaeltacht” or “Gaeltachtaí”.


This is a usage which corresponds somewhat to the historical sense above but is also imbued with nostalgia, a regret for what passed then and perhaps a wish to restore it. Despite the accusations of many of those hostile to the Irish language, relatively few people — including among Irish speakers, have any wish to return to that historical period.


When referred to in this way, it is to link Irish-speaking with out-of-date things, some kind of anachronism, a backward thing, not suitable for our modern society; frequently linked also to Irish nationalism and De Valera’s concept of the desirable kind of society for Ireland and the 1937 Constitution, therefore linked also to the social and political dominance of the Catholic Church. Such a disdainful attitude is often connected to the disparaging way in which a person may speak about a “Gaeilgeoir” — it is as though the person referring to the Gaeilgeoir, which originally meant only “Irish language speaker”, has in mind a devout Catholic wearing an Aran jumper and generally unfashionable clothes and hairstyle, with a gold “fáinne” (a ring-shaped pin awarded for proficiency in Irish) in his or her jacket (probably Irish tweed).

I fear that this type of attitude is present in most enunciations of “Gaelic Ireland” — certainly outside those of the historical sense.

Although by no means associating the writer of a recent article with this contemptuous opinion of Irish speakers, there was more than a hint of a disparaging attitude expressed, in my opinion, in an article much-praised by many Republicans and some socialists, commenting on the racist expressions of some people after the recent lethal incident in Drogheda recently. Dieter Reinisch, whom I understand to be a left-wing Irish Republican, wrote to separate Irish racist commentators on the recent fatal incident in Drogheda from Irish Republicanism.

The article had a progressive intent and made some valuable points but it also linked this Irish racism with “Gaelic Ireland nationalism”1. Although the article does this through reference to individuals it smears “Gaelic Ireland” through doing so. I would doubt that those Irish racists were even Irish speakers, never mind campaigners for the retention of the language.


Reinisch is of course correct historically to say that Irish Republicanism is not fundamentally linked to “Gaelic Ireland” but what is the point he is making? Irish nationalism as a force, in the sense of wanting and acting to achieve an Ireland under its own cultural-social order and not under the economic, social and political rule of a foreign power, can be traced as far back as the time of the O’Neill and O’Donnell partnership, who tried to unite the clans of the native people, the Gael, to oust English occupation from Ireland. They came close to succeeding but in the end, failed and with their exile and that of other Irish clan chiefs the Gaelic Order of society collapsed. The Gaelic Order by the way was in many ways socially superior to that of the feudal Norman invaders, which is one reason why most of the invaders adopted so much of it that, less than two centuries after the start of their invasion of Ireland, their England-based relatives called them “the degenerate English” and passed laws to forbid their adoption of Irish custom and law and end their integration into Gaelic Ireland.2

Irish nationalism continued to try to assert itself, finding large-scale expression at two particular moments in the 17th Century – firstly against Cromwell and secondly against William of Orange. Irish nationalism at that point fought in alliance with the Gall-Ghael, the Irish-speaking or bilingual descendants of the Norman invaders (“the degenerate English”, according to their England-based relatives in 1366), who were mostly concerned with preserving and defending their religion against the imposition of the English Reformation.

A kind of Irish nationalism later began to develop among the colonial settlers, a similar type to that expatriate or colonist nationalism developing among the colonists of Northern America and of what is now called Latin America. Since what made them Irish rather than English, Welsh or Scots was that they lived in Ireland (and for many, had been there for a few generations), they looked through the history of Gaelic Ireland to establish a historical background. They organised the Granard Harp Festival in 1786 and the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792. Edward Bunting noted down the airs played at the latter and published a collection in 1796 (and twice again over following decades).

The colonists of North and Latin America did not, for the most part, incorporate the original natives into their new nationalism3. They did not incorporate them in Ireland either but the United Irishmen did have that as their program and they did try to make it a reality. When Grattan’s attempt to open the Anglican-sectarian Irish Parliament to Presbyterians and Catholics failed through bribery and fear of Anglicans being outvoted, of planters losing the lands their ancestors had grabbed, the United Men became convinced that only armed insurrection could bring about a majority (male) democracy and Irish control of Irish affairs. And the symbol on their flag was that of Gaelic Ireland: the Harp. Underneath it, they had the words: “It is new-strung and shall be heard”.

United Irishmen Harp Motif
(Image sourced on Internet)

Reinisch in his article quotes approvingly on three separate occasions from the writings and speeches of Seán Ó Brádaigh. It might surprise some readers to know that this same Ó Brádaigh and his brother the late Ruairí, were Irish-speakers and writers and promoted the speaking of the language. They were for a Gaelic Ireland, albeit a Republican one. They and the organisation they helped create, Provisional Sinn Féin and Provisional IRA, unfortunately in many ways bowed to the influence of the Catholic Church, even though the hierarchy and many clergy denounced them continuously. Mac Stiofáin, who also gets a mention in Reinisch’s article, told me once that although he believed Church and State should be separated, in true republican fashion, also maintained that there should be no freedom to propagandise against religion!

Could Irish Republicanism in the 1700s not have adopted the language of the majority of the people? Some did indeed learn Irish and probably most Ulster Presbyterians, at least outside Belfast city, were at least competent in the basics up to 1798 and many probably fluent. It is hard to imagine that anyone living in Mayo in that year, whether planter or native, was not conversant with the Irish language and certainly it would have been the language of the vast majority there and in the surrounding counties. Wexford is generally agreed an exception by historians, in having been the most Anglicised of Irish counties in 1798.

English was the dominant language of the State and of the colonist administration. But also of the United Irishmen leaders, we can assume – certainly it was the dominant language of their political discourse as recorded in both their own publications and in the reports of the Crown spies and witnesses. Radical and revolutionary ideas were coming in from Revolutionary France and from the revolutionaries of the United States, as Reinisch relates but also very importantly from England – for example Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man”. The native Irish were either totally excluded from the strata of society where – and the language in which — these ideas were being discussed or they occupied a much more insecure position in which they tried to improve their situation through English without calling down disfavour or even repression upon themselves. There was probably a strata which tried to advance itself under colonial rule and considered that Irish would ‘hold them back’.

There is very little contemporary folk record in existence in Irish of the United Irishmen and one must go to Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin4, Irish language scholar, poet and Unitedman who was “out” or “up” that fateful year, to find his “Buachaillí Loch Garman” (“the Boys of Wexford”) and lyrics of “Sliabh na mBan” to the song’s wonderful air …. and probably “Maidin Luan Chincíse” too.5

The Rising of 1798 failed as did Emmet’s attempt in 1803. Irish Republicanism and Irish nationalism continued to exist and were partly asserted by O’Connell’s campaigns for Catholic civil rights and repeal of the Union as well as by trends such as those of Mitchell and the “Young Irelanders”, most of the latter being Protestants and often hostile to what they saw as O’Connell’s linking Irish nationalism to Catholicism. Mitchell was not a democratic republican but other Young Irelanders were.

Here again, the creation (or renewal) of an Irish nationalism did not incorporate the Irish language although there were nods in its direction. Again, most of its leaders were Protestants but they looked back, as others of colonist background had before, to a Gaelic Ireland. Take Thomas Davis’ celebration of the 1798 uprising in Mayo:

That chainless wave and lovely land 
Freedom and nationhood demand; 
Be sure the great God never planned 
For slumb’ring slaves a home so grand. 
And long a brave and haughty race 
Honoured and sentinelled the place. 
Sing, Oh! not even their sons’ disgrace 
Can quite destroy their glory’s trace. 

For often, in O’Connor’s van, 
To triumph dashed each Connacht clan. 
And fleet as deer the Normans ran 
Thro’ Corrsliabh Pass and Ardrahan; 
And later times saw deeds as brave, 
And glory guards Clanricard’s grave, 
Sing, Oh! they died their land to save 
At Aughrim’s slopes and Shannon’s wave. 

Davis here looks to the history of the Gaelic clans of Connacht resisting foreign invasion, incorporating also the mostly Gaelicised Norman-Irish clan of Clanricarde, the Mac Williams who became Burkes or De Búrca.

It is well to remember, particularly for those who link “Gaelic Ireland” with Irish Catholic nationalism, that many of those prominent in the latter category had no time for the Irish language – in fact, on that issue at least, they would have seemed very at home among those today who say the words “Gaelic Ireland” with a sneer. Daniel O’Connell, who was a native Irish speaker and apparently spoke only Irish until five years of age, stated that he was “sufficiently utilitarian not to regret ….. the gradual abandonment” (of the Irish language) – and this at a time when probably 40% of the country’s population were Irish-speaking.

Portrait of Daniel O’Connell, campaigner for Catholic rights and the repeal of the Union — but no lover of the Irish language
(Image source: Internet)

Irish nationalism and republicanism continued as a strong thread through Irish history, peaking again in the late 19th Century with the Fenians. The Irish Republican Brotherhood or ‘Fenians’ as we know them in that period today contained many Irish-speakers including the famous O’Donabháin Rosa, who wrote his biography in Irish but the Irish language was still not their main language of political literature.

Some of the IRB were deeply working class and they were accepted into the First International Working Men’s Association in England, championed by Marx and Engels (the latter was learning Irish with the intention of writing a history of Ireland which sadly he did not bring to fruition). In the USA also most of the Fenians would have been working class although they included some of the upper middle class among the Irish diaspora. The Fenian conspiracy in Ireland was discovered and plans for insurrection largely upset, leaders and journalists arrested and the military units considered at risk sent away out of Ireland.


Another kind of Irish nationalism saw a resurgence in the later years of the 20th Century and, again, it was the Anglo-Irish, descendants of planters and mostly Protestant, who were the intelligentsia leading it. A kind of antiquarian and romantic interest in the Irish language and culture was followed by a more practical and restorative one and the Gaelic League (now Connradh na Gaeilge) was founded in 1893 by a group led by Douglas Hyde (Dubhghlas de hÍde)6, an Anglican and son of Anglican clergy, who became fluent in the language. This was followed in 1898 with the founding of the Irish Texts Society, a publishing initiative with Hyde as one of the founders and its publication of Dineen’s thick dictionary, Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla, which was first published in 1904 (and still a wonderful source of words and phrases).

The Gaelic League promoted Irish dance, games and culture in addition to the language. Although Hyde’s passion for an Ghaeilge originated in his childhood and early adolescence in Co. Roscommon, he graduated in 1884 as a Moderator in Modern Literature from Trinity College, Dublin, where he had became fluent in French, Latin, German, Greek and Hebrew.

The League/ Connradh grew fast, branches and courses attracting not only the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and upper middle classes but also other social strata. In fact it became a mass movement, with 600 branches in 1903 and through its influence the language was introduced to 1,300 national schools.7

A year later, Conradh na Gaeilge’s membership extended to some 50,000 members in 600 branches8, probably assisted by rising nationalist feeling but in turn it certainly fed that outlook. As a mass movement, it took in professionals and others of middle-class background, as well as labourers and tradesmen.

Among the many prominent Irish nationalists and Republicans (called “progressive nationalists” at the time) of those years was Patrick Pearse/ Pádraig Mac Piarais and Reinisch reminds us that his father was not Irish. Son of a Cornishman and Unitarian who formally converted to Catholicism, Pearse soon gained prominence as a writer and speaker in both English and the Irish language and also founded a school to teach through the medium of the Irish language.

Like many other active Republicans of his day, Pearse was recruited into the IRB and chosen to give the seminal oration at the interment of repatriated Fenian O’Donobháin Rosa’s body in 1915. As related earlier, O’Donobháin Rosa was an Irish speaker and when Pearse spoke at his grave, first in Irish which is rarely quoted, in the rest of his speech in English he said: “The clear true eyes of this man almost alone in his day visioned Ireland as we of to-day would surely have her: not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well.”

Pearse was chosen again as Commander-in-Chief of the insurrectionary forces in the 1916 Rising. Pearse’s memory is often attacked by ‘revisionist’ historians and some of the “Gaelic Ireland with a sneer” crowd – accusations of a repressed homosexual identity, of ‘green nationalism’, of blood-thirst etc. However, a fair assessment of his life would reveal a political activist who sympathised with the workers fighting the Lockout in 1913 and objected to Redmond’s refusal to allow women to speak at a meeting on Home Rule; would find also an individual generous with his time and energy, a talented writer who sought the creation of a modern literature in Irish on a par with those of England, France and Germany, as well as being an educator and proponent of progressive youth educational theory that stands well the test of time.

Pearse was among the people that Hyde accused of politicising the language, which Hyde gave as his reason for resignation of the Presidency of Connradh na Gaeilge. Looking back now, we might well ask how could it have been otherwise? Everything cultural of a national aspect was becoming politicised in those years: sport, song, drama, literature, journalism, oratory, lectures, representational art – even cooperatives, trade unions and some commercial ventures – why expect language to be any different? In fact, surely instead expect politicisation there first of all!

The other Irish nationalists of the time, the Irish Parliamentary Party led by John Redmond, ‘constitutionalist’, Catholic and socially conservative, expressed no great interest in the Irish language. Another branch of Irish constitutional nationalism, represented by William Martin Murphy, was no friend of the Irish language either and ran the most vicious campaigns against the Irish Republicans.

Of the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence, four (Ceannt, MacDiarmada, Mac Donagh and Patrick Pearse) were members of the Connradh. The remaining three were at least neutral or approving of the movement. Of the fifteen executions by British firing squads and one by hanging following the Rising, at least six were members of the Gaelic League. Large numbers of activists and leaders in the Republican movement from 1916 to 1922 were Irish speakers, either fluent or at least competent and christening records of the period show increasing numbers of Irish language names (or Irish versions of names from abroad) given to children. This period was the last great flowering of the Irish language as a mass movement in modern history.9

What of the Left in Ireland? A house painter by trade, Peadar Kearney (Peadar Ó Cearnaigh)10 of Catholic background joined the Gaelic League and at some point attendees at Irish classes he taught included the socialist writer and founder of the Irish Citizen Army, Sean O’Casey11 (Seán Ó Cathasaigh), of Anglican background. Irish was taught in Liberty Hall, HQ of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union.

Later, native Irish speaker Peadar O’Donnell, republican fighter, socialist activist and writer, was employed for a while teaching in Aranmore, Co. Donegal, an Irish-speaking area, where he apparently adopted socialism and joined the IT&GWU, for which he also became an organiser. In later years he founded the ill-fated Republican Congress, fought against Franco and founded The Bell literary journal. O’Donnell seems to have written little in Irish but in his acclaimed “Islanders”, the construction of dialogue is clearly derived from the Irish language. Later still, Brendan Behan (Breandán Ó Beacháin), a socialist Republican, wrote in Irish and in English and a Republican who became a Marxist, Connemara man Máirtín Ó Cadhain12, wrote in Irish and campaigned on the rights of Irish speakers and of people living in the Gaeltacht.

In and around those names there would have been many others, Left activists and supporters, unknown now but native speakers or those who learned the language, thought it important and spoke it.

Many socialists seem sometimes to think that the “unity of the working class” is best achieved by doing away with different cultures. They seem to forget that though there is one working class, there are a great many national cultures — and what a poor world it would be if those cultures disappeared.


Some of the attacks on “Gaelic Ireland” seek to tie it first of all to the right-wing neo-colonial state set up in 1921, or the form it took after 1922, or as mentioned earlier, the De Valera/ Fianna Fáil state from the mid-1930s.

The New State

When the Irish Free State was set up as a compromise with British imperialism and colonialism, backed by a section of the nationalist-Republican movement and in alliance with Irish gombeen capitalism and the Catholic Church, it was actually a very insecure and uncertain endeavour. This perhaps explains the ferocity of the State in the Civil War and afterwards, with large-scale repression, 83 official executions and around a 120 assassinations of Republicans – in less than a 12-month period. Two years later, in 1924 the State faced an attempted Army mutiny and possible coup d’etat, led by Major-General Liam Tobin, with a number of prominent right-wing nationalist politicians in support.

The new owners of the State tried to ensure that nationalist symbols were not left unclaimed to be appropriated by Irish Republicans and so appropriated them themselves: the Tricolour, the Soldiers’ Song and the Irish language. However, this was no foregone conclusion nor an easy process. They had to bear in mind also the British, who had merely stepped off stage into the wings, who were also on stage in the Six Counties, as well as the large constituency of Unionists on both sides of the Border.

For example, God Save the King was played and sung at some State and many other formal occasions, though The Soldiers’ Song was sung by many Republicans. Let Erin Remember was the song favoured by some in the State and it was the air played for the Irish State at the 1924 Paris Olympics. After a struggle, The Soldiers’ Song was finally agreed as the National Anthem in 1926.

Far from being enthusiasts for any kind of “Gaelic Ireland”, the new State continued to use English as the language of administration, even in areas where 80% of the population were Irish-speaking.

A qualification in Irish was required to apply for state jobs but a high level of fluency was not needed13, “and few public employees were ever required to use Irish in the course of their work. On the other hand, state employees had to have perfect command of English and had to use it constantly. Because most public employees had a poor command of Irish, it was impossible to deal with them in Irish. If an Irish speaker wanted to apply for a grant, obtain electricity, or complain about being over-taxed, they would typically have had to do so in English.”14 As late as 1986, a Bord na Gaeilge report noted “…the administrative agencies of the state have been among the strongest forces for Anglicisation in Gaeltacht areas”15

The two main daily newspapers at the time in Ireland were the right-wing nationalist Irish Independent and the Unionist-minded Anglophile Irish Times16 and neither promoted the Irish language nor even covered Gaelic games, although they reported on rugby and cricket matches.

Fianna Fáil and the Blueshirts

Fianna Fail was created early in 1926 and in 1932, only six years later it was in government of the State. One year later, the right-wing Army Comrades Association adopted the uniform which included the blue shirt and by that time had over 30,000 members and battles were taking place between them and the IRA and other Republicans. Eoin O’Duffy had been an IRA guerrilla leader in the Irish War of Independence, a general in the Free State Army in the Civil War and Commissioner of the state’s police force, the Garda Síochána from 1922 to 1933. After Fianna Fáil’s easy re-election in February 1933, De Valera dismissed O’Duffy as Commissioner and a few months later O’Duffy took leadership of the ACA and renamed it the National Guard, adopting the straight-arm Roman salute favoured by the fascists.

That same year the Blueshirts planned a march on Dublin, believed my many historians to be a prelude to a coup d’etat; certainly De Valera thought so and, unsure of the Army’s loyalty, banned the march and subsequently outlawed the organisation. That year also Fine Gael was formed, incorporating the Blueshirts, Cumann na nGaedhal and the National Centre Party, with O’Duffy as its President.

De Valera founded the daily newspaper Irish Press in 1931 which had an alternative version of its title in Irish – Scéala Éireann – and as well as covering the GAA games, had sections in Irish. However the position of the Irish language in the affairs of the State did not change.

Though the Great Hunger caused he most impressive loss of Irish-speaking modern Ireland on the map, the percentage lost by the Irish state is greater.
(Image source: Internet)

Throughout Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments, the Gaeltacht – the Irish-speaking areas – continued to suffer deprivation of resources. Even by the early 1960s, many homes in those areas did not have electricity, running water or sewage drains. Primary schools typically had a headmaster and female teacher to administer and teach all subjects at all levels. Deprivation led to massive emigration, not only to the metropolis but also to the USA and to Britain. Today, the Gaeltacht is 9.1% the size of what it was when the Irish State was created or, in other words, the State has presided over a Gaeltacht decline of over 90%17 — as a friend commented: “Not even Cromwell or the Great Hunger wreaked such linguistic devastation”.

In the 1960s, no matter what party was in government or in local authority, Irish-language campaigners had to fight for minimal funding for land allocation, schools and broadcasting in Irish. People went to jail for civil disobedience and were fined for refusing to pay for their TV and radio licences and, briefly, a pirate Gaeltacht radio station was in operation.

The Labour Party and Sinn Féin

The Labour Party, whether to the right or left, has never shown itself to be a friend of the Irish language.

Sinn Fein (Provisional) would nominally be expected to be supportive of the Irish language but the real test is in its campaigning and practice within its own party. Its public and internal meetings are held in English (as with other Republican parties) and throughout the three decades of the war in the Six Counties it did not organise or mobilise the Gaeltacht people to improve their position and defend their communities from emigration and the penetration and eventual supremacy of the English language.

In conclusion, to associate the Irish language or culture with any of the political parties or any administration of the State is fundamentally incorrect from a historical point of view.


Would those who sneer when they say “Gaelic Ireland” do likewise at the mention of “French France”, “Spanish Spain”18, “Italian Italy”, “German Germany” or “Polish Poland”? I think not. No, national cultures are not sneered at by the Right or the Left in Ireland – only Irish culture and, particularly, the language.

John Kells Ingram19, an academic, mathematician and writer of planter descent from southeast Donegal (and probably bilingual), in 1843 wrote the lyrics “In Memory of the Dead” (better known as “Who Fears to Speak of ’98”). He was decrying the distancing by Daniel O’Connell and his Catholic movement from the deeds and principles of the United Irish Men in 1798. If I may paraphrase him a little to refer to the kind of Irish person today who says “Gaelic Ireland” with a sneer: “He’s all a knave or half a slave, who slights his people’s culture thus”.

Fanon20 would agree, I’m sure.

A chríoch.


Black Skin, White Masks (1952), (1967 translation by Charles Lam Markmann: New York: Grove Press)

The Wretched of the Earth (1961), (1963 translation by Constance Farrington: New York: Grove Weidenfeld)

1 “……. individual Republican activists use Gaelic Nationalism to justify their anti-migrant and racist parochialism”

3The North American republicans did not admit the Indigenous People as citizens and many set out to exterminate them. Many also condoned slavery and some owned slaves. The Latin American republicans also mostly sought the expropriation of Indigenous people and also organised massacres but, for the most part, abandoned slavery earlier than the USA.

4Cork poet and strong Republican Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766/-1837) is usually credited with writing Buachaillí Loch Garman and Sliabh na mBan (although one source, probably mistaken, credits his son Peadar with the latter two). Mícheál’s work as a scribe, scholar and teacher was a useful cover for acting as a United Irishmen courier.

5There are a few songs from Mayo too, by unknown authors.

6Douglas Hyde (Dubhghlas De hÍde) was elected first Uachtarán na hÉireann (President of the Irish state) from 1938-1945.

9The last to date but hopefully not the last.

10Peadar Kearney was a member of the Irish Volunteers and IRB, fought in 1916 and was interned; he became a prolific writer of nationalist ballads — but also of “Labour’s Call”, a song with very socialist lyrics – and is the co-author with Patrick Heeney of “The Soldiers’ Song”, the national anthem of the Irish state.

11Sean O’Casey (1880-1964) was born in Dublin into a lower middle-class family in straitened circumstances.

12Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-1970); interned by the Irish State during the 2nd World War years and later activist for the Gaeltacht which led to the founding of the Rath Cairn Gaeltacht in Co. Meath. Ó Cadhain’s most famous written work, the novel “Cré na Cille” (1949) was later translated into many languages. Ó Cadhain was also a founder and leading activist of the original Irish-language civil rights campaign Misneach which engaged in agitation and civil disobedience (another campaign by the same name now exists) in Dublin and other places.

13Hence the jibe about the mere “cúpla focal” of Irish of politicians and civil servants.

14See Wikipedia in Sources

15 Advisory Planning Committee of Bord na Gaeilge, The Irish Language in a Changing Society: Shaping The Future, p.41. Criterion, 1986 (quoted in Wikipedia – see Sources).

16Both had called for the punishment by the British of the 1916 Rising leaders but the Independent had actually called for the executions of Connolly and Mac Diarmada.

17Extrapolation from the Census statistics of the years 1926, when there were 246,811 Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht and the 2016 Census when 20,586 remained, which is 8.34% of the 1926 number or a reduction of 91%.,9,10.pdf

18In fact, there are ground for objecting to the terminology of “French France” and “Spanish Spain” but only because those two states do not value and even suppress the other national languages within their state boundaries, e.g Euskera, Catalan, Occitan, Corse, Asturian, Galician ….

19John Kells Ingram (1823-1907)

20Franz Omar Fanon (1925-1961) was born and raised in Martinique; qualifying as an MD and psychiatrist, practised in Algeria during the war of liberation against the French, where he was a covert member of the resistance. Fanon was a politically radical intellectual, Pan-Africanist and Marxist humanist whose written work is very influential in particular in “post-colonial studies”. He described the psychopathology of colonisation in quite accessible writing, showing how – among other things – the colonised internalise the image of themselves projected by the coloniser and aspire to the “sophistication” of the latter and his culture (see two of his works listed in the Sources & References section.

“Back Home in Derry” with new air

Bobby Sands, who was the first of the ten hunger strikers to die in 1981, had written a number of articles, songs and poems.  One of the latter was arranged for song by Christy Moore, calling it “Back Home In Derry” to the air of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (by Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot).

The rendition here by Diarmuid Breatnach is to a new air composed also by Breatnach.  Although he has been singing it for some years in song sessions, this is the first time it has been posted as a video.

“I thought that the lyrics and the original author deserved a new air”, said Breatnach, a Dublin singer.  “Christy Moore did a great job arranging the lyrics for song.  I hope the new air becomes at least as popular as Gordon Lightfoot’s.”









Diarmuid Breatnach

Among the many spurious difficulties about learning Irish quoted by people there are some genuine ones.


A problem with learning Irish, according to some people, is the spelling of Irish words. When this difficulty is expressed by English-speakers, I am tempted to ask them to pronounce the English word “Ghoti”. It was a word invented by George Bernard Shaw and unless they are familiar with it, they will be unable to pronounce it correctly. Shaw took the “f”-sound from “gh” in words like “enough”; the “i” sound from the “o” in “women” and the “sh” sound from the “ti” in words like “mention” — hence the correct pronunciation is “fish”. Shaw invented the word to illustrate how illogical – or at least unpredictable – is the pronunciation of many English words. Perhaps he was replying to someone who was accusing the Irish language, an Ghaeilge, of having a similar problem; I don’t know but would like to think so.

In fact, the vowel sounds in Irish can be entirely predicted from the written word with the exception of the “A”, which has something of a narrow range of possible pronunciations and some vowel combinations. In English, combinations of vowels produce different sounds to that of each individual letter also and with a greater variety and less predictability than is the case in Irish: take the different pronunciations of the ‘a’ in ‘cat’, in ‘day’, ‘rain’, ‘contraindicated’ (true, the latter is a compound word).

Where a long vowel is indicated in Irish by an accent, the “síne fada” (“sign of length”, unlike in Castilian, for example, where the accent indicates only where the stress falls in the word), the sound to make when reading it is unmistakeable.

To illustrate, the á will produce a sound like “aw” in English (as in “law”); the ó a sound like “oe” in “toe”; ú like “oo” in “loot”; í like “ee” as in “fee” and é like “ay” as in “bay”. These will not vary, no matter where they appear in the word.

But hang on”, the observant complainer may protest, “you mean to tell me that é is pronounced “ay”, like the letter “A” in English? And that í is pronounced “ee”, like the letter “E” in English also? Why is Irish so contrary?”

Well,” I may reply, “I’m very glad you asked me that. Because in many other languages, the letter “I” is also pronounced like “ee” in English and the letter “A” — which in English is pronounced “ay” as you pointed out — in many other languages, probably most, is pronounced “ah”. In this case, my friend, it is the English language which is being contrary!

Furthermore, English has made a broad vowel into a slender one.”


Yes, they don’t commonly teach about broad and slender vowels in the schools now, yet the difference between them affects not just Irish pronunciation but also English, Castilian, Italian and other languages. Why is it, for example, that the “G” in “Gerry” is pronounced differently from the same letter in “Gary”? Why is that the “C” in “Cede” and “Citrus” is pronounced differently from the same letter in “Cat, Cot” and “Cut”? The answer has everything to do with broad and slender vowels.

In Irish, a, o and u are broad vowels and i and e are slender (the same in English except that y can also be a slender vowel, e.g in words like only, why etc). The most notable effect of the different pronunciations effected in Irish by whether a vowel is slender or not is with the letter S, viz: Sorcha, Saidhbhín, Súil but Sinéad, Seán.

Now, the problem with the pronunciation of the name of the vowel “a” in English is that “ay” is a slender vowel sound while the letter itself is a broad vowel. In Irish that letter is pronounced “ah” as it is in many other languages around the world (perhaps all). When we speak the vowels, our mouths make a horizontal shape for slender vowels and tend towards a vertical one for broad (try it and see). Which shape does “ay” make? Yes, horizontal, the shape of a slender vowel!

Ok,” says the complainer, “but what about the consonants? You can’t tell me that reading them and pronouncing them is not complicated!”

Actually, the complainer here does have a point. It is over-emphasised, perhaps, but the point does have some validity.

The pronunciation of the consonants in Irish is pretty straight-forward, with the variations in the “S” according to slender or broad vowels either side (discussed above) and to some extent the same effect on the “D” and “T”. And the double “L” and “N” in Irish followed by a slender vowel have the same pronunciation as the “ll” and the “ň” in Castilian respectively, which is to say they are like “n’y” and “l’y”, for example “bainne” (“milk”) is pronounced “ban-yeh” and “sailleach” (“fatty”) is pronounced “sal-yach”.

A learner can soon get used to these peculiarities in Irish or in other languages. But what about all the consonants followed by a “h”?

Irish does not have all the consonant letters that English has – we don’t have the J, K, Q, V, W, X Y or Z. We don’t really have a H either, come to that, as we’ll see in a moment. The sound of Q in English can be reproduced in Irish as “cua” or “cui” in Irish and we can make the sounds of some of those ‘missing’ letters by employing an effect on consonants called lenition, in Irish “séimhiú” (softening). During the last two centuries, this was shown by a dot on top of the consonant to be lenited but is now indicated by a H after the consonant in question. All the other ‘missing’ consonant sounds with the exception of the Z are available in this way – not only those but in fact another two not available in English: the Irish “ch” and “gh”.

Lenited consonant at the beginning of a word

Consonant sound equivalent in English


Bh + i, e


Bh + a,o,u




Ch as in “loch”


Dh + i, e

Y (not as a vowel)

Dh + a,o,u

Gh (sound not available in English)



Mute (no sound)



Gh (sound not available in English)


Cannot be lenited


Mh + i, e


Mh + a,o,u



Cannot be lenited





Cannot be lenited







* In some Irish dialects the Mh will be pronounced as “V” whether followed by a slender or broad vowel.

Ok, so the lenited consonants do introduce some complication to reading-pronunciation but hardly an insuperable one. To balance that, we have the more reasonable vowel letter A pronunciation than does English (i.e as a broad vowel instead of a slender one) and the ability to read the pronunciation of vowels off a text. Also, to compare with English, some sounds in English are shown by combining consonants, such as ‘tch in ‘catch’, ‘ph’ as in ‘pharmacy’, ‘sh’ in ‘shake’ and ‘th’ in ‘think’.

And what about the ‘ch’ combination in English – it’s not pronounced the same in the words ‘chant’ and ‘character’ or ‘chaos’. Add to that the ‘h’ in ‘rhetoric’ or ‘rhythm’ seems to have no role in pronunciation at all and that the ‘w’ will be heard at the beginning of a word and may or not be heard in the middle (compare ‘award’ with ‘lower’). The ‘w’ will not be heard at all at the end of a word but instead governs the pronunciation of the vowel before it (‘raw’, ‘row’, ‘few’)!

This governing of the pronunciation of the vowel before it also happens with ‘gh’ in ‘dough’ or ‘rough’ – but note that in each of those cases the pronunciations of the ‘gh’ are completely different! In order to indicate the sound of the Irish ‘ch’ in loan words, English uses “gh” yet again, as in ‘lough’ and ‘bragh’ (in “Erin (sic) go bragh”) and “Drogheda”. Confusing, isn’t it?

Although pleading the feature of the pronunciation of consonants as a difficulty in learning the Irish language does have some validity it is overdone – particularly when the complainant is an English-speaker. It seems to me that the difficulty is magnified by those who do not wish to go to the trouble of learning the language but want to have a good excuse for not doing so.

A chríoch

Reflections on the Irish Language I a) – for adult learners



Diarmuid Breatnach


Among the many spurious difficulties about learning Irish quoted by people there are some genuine ones.


Much of what happens in English requires the use of the verb “to be”, which is a highly irregular verb so that the past tense singular was and plural were do not resemble each other much and resemble the infinitive to be or present tense for different persons (am, is, are) not at all. However the child learning to speak English as a mother or environmental tongue, i.e the language spoken around her outside the home, will in time get over the difficulty.

But when the adult English-speaker comes to learn Gaeilge (Irish), she will encounter in that language no equivalent usage to that of the verb “to be” in English. Instead, she will find the verbs “Tá” and “Is”. Furthermore, the verb “tá” will have other uses too.

Stock adult education class photo (Source: Internet)

For example, “I am a man” will be “Is fear mé” but “I am tired” will be “Tá mé tuirseach”. And “Tá”, with a set of prepositional pronouns, is used also to correspond to the verb “Have” in English: for example “Tá rothar agam” = “I have a bike”. And furthermore, when feelings are conveyed, “Tá” is used too but with another set of prepositional pronouns: “Tá fearg orm” = “I am angry” (lit. “I have anger on me”). Physical feelings too, eg: “I am thirsty” will be “Tá tart orm” (literally, “I have a thirst on me”, a phrase that appears in English spoken in Ireland even by people who have not spoken Irish in generations).

Now, before the complainer about Gaeilge can throw up his or hands in exasperation and exclaim “You see?”, let us examine another European language.

Castilian (Spanish) has exactly the same division between the verbs estar and ser: Estoy cansado (“I am tired”) but soy un hombre (“I am a man”). And furthermore, the use of another verb, tener (“to have”), to correspond to the use of the verb “to be” in English. As an example of the latter, tengo sed (literally “I have thirst”) = “I am thirsty”.  Further, the verb “to make” in Castilian, hacer, will be used to describe the weather, as in “Hace frio” (lit. “It makes cold”) = “It is cold”.

Castilian is I believe the mostly widely-spoken European language after English but also the language with the most speakers in the world after Mandarin Chinese. Well over 400 million people speak Castilian as their first language and it has official status in 21 states spanning three continents.1

Not many people are going around whining about Castilian/ Spanish being difficult to learn (or if there are, they’re being ignored) so clearly, this problem of the different verbs in use in one language to an equivalent use of only one verb in English is not such a big problem at all.

So, if some people don’t want to learn Gaeilge, they need to find a different excuse; otherwise, as they say in coarse English (but not i nGaeilge or in Castellano) – suck it up!


Diarmuid Breatnach


          The text on my mobile gave me a little jolt. Treating a gentle query from a friend as a summons, I headed off to the Song Central session in Chaplin’s bar, just across from the Pearse Street Garda station (outside which on some on some occasions I’ve protested until they released some person or persons they had arrested on a demonstration on which I have been – and on one memorable occasion, even on a walking history tour I was conducting as part of an anti-G8 Dublin program).


So, get ready, jump on the bike — it’ll be maybe a quarter of an hour? Intention to stay in for the night blown away, I head for the shower and shave, then reheat and consume most of the Dublin coddle.

Wheeling the bike out into the hall, I hear a squelching kind of sound. Oh no! But yes – flat tire (and of course, the rear one, with the gears on the wheel)! Fair enough, it’s bus or walk.
So where’s the snow from this “Code Orange” weather warning? And how could you trust anything from the colour orange anyway? Walking across from Liberty Hall to Butt Bridge, I do actually see some snow, slabs of it apparently having fallen off the roof of a car from some snowy region out of town. Young people pounce on it delightedly and, normally, I’d be in there myself, snowball fighting given half a chance. But the session ….

It’s a long time since I’ve attended the monthly Song Central, as I was reminded by people I had not seen in quite a while. This session was started by Alan Stout around seven years ago, in a kind of split from the Bray monthly session a number of years ago (but a friendly split and the Bray parent is still going strong). As in the Bray session, you may play an instrument but only as accompaniment to a song. And it’s still popular – sometimes it’s a job to get a seat.

It’s a kind of Republic of Song with a wide allegiance: religious-type Christmas songs partnered Christmas social comment in which Jesus is a revolutionary; comic songs balance the serious, Irish trad and folk meet pop and Blues, new and self-composed songs intersperse those made familiar by well-known singers and bands. Most singing is unaccompanied and in English but a couple were sung i nGaeilge.

Remembering Christmas I abandoned my plan to sing The Glencoe Massacre (“Cruel is the snow that blows round Glencoe” — a nod to the much-heralded no-show snow) and opted instead for Arthur McBride, which is actually set in Christmas Day. Later I sang They’re Stealing Our Water, which I had debuted in that session maybe two years earlier and for which one of the participants had given me a better line than I had originally composed. The song goes to the air of The Sea Around Us by Dominic Behan and the chorus is the same, except for the last lines:
“But we’ve still got our Gombeens and a bank guarantee
and they’re trying to steal our own water!”

It’s always a risk to slip a different line into a well-known chorus because the crowd are likely to sing the one they know and not the one you’ve composed. Which did happen a bit but eventually they got it.

I heard some really good singing and some fair singing, as well as a couple of songs I’d not heard before. The session was due to finish earlier than usual in consideration of adverse weather warning (those Orangeys again!) but there were still some people there as I left. It is always a joy to attend so why don’t I do it more often? The answer is that I don’t know but in a month’s time, although I don’t plan to, it may be that once again I will give it a miss.

So on my way to the bus stop of course I pass Bowes’ pub in Fleet Street (Sráid na Toinne!) and I drop in there for a half or a pint and to listen to some trad from the Sunday night session. But what’s this? No musicians! Apparently they play 7-10pm now (but later on bank holidays) and are off playing for some more hours of the night at “the Apollo Sessions”, the barman tells me. But where would that be? Hardly in Apollo House, no longer occupied to highlight homelessness and guarded by a security firm.

Elucidation unforthcoming, it’s onward to the bus stop in Westmoreland Street where I am fortunate to get a bus almost straight away. On the top deck, a chat in Castillian (Spanish) with a Filipino woman, her Spanish partner and a lively and chatty child. And so, home … to reheat and finish the remains of that coddle.




Diarmuid Breatnach

ln the Six Counties, the British colony in Ireland, the sectarian lines are drawn. The Good Friday Agreement did nothing to eliminate them, contrary to the praises of many and perhaps even the wishes of some who supported it. The majority section of the population has a badge of professed faith to identify it, Protestantism, while the other has its own badge, Catholicism. But each section also has other symbols of its own.

          Politically, each section has a number of divisions within it but each has its majority representation: the Democratic Unionist Party for the Protestants and Sinn Féin for the Catholics. Both of these parties have overcome others to rise to prominence over their respective sections – the DUP deposed the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin overtook the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Both Sinn Féin and the DUP display the symbols of their respective sections and employ them to sectarian electoral advantage.

Apart from professed religion as a signifier, each section also has its own visible symbols: the Tricolour and Harp for the Catholics, the Union Jack and Crown for the Protestants. And to this has now been added language: Irish for the Catholics and Ulster Scots/ English for the Protestants.

The Irish Tricolour, a flag of the Irish Republican movement and official flag of the Irish State.
(Image sourced on Internet)

Flag of the United Kingdom, colloquially known as the “Union Jack” (it has other less neutral names too).
(Image sourced on Internet)

There are other symbols too but they are of minor importance, for example for the Catholics flying the Palestinian flag in solidarity with Palestinians and, just because they must oppose anything the Fenians do, the Israeli flag for the Protestants. Soon we may see the Catholics adopt the Catalan Estelada flags and the Protestants, the flag of the Spanish State. But would Unionist Protestants fly the flag of a Catholic country? Yes, it’s quite possible – they already fly one of a Jewish state.

Coat Arms UK (black & white), itself a symbol of UK authority and power, displaying a number of other symbols within it, including the Irish Harp within the shield. Note the symbolic Crown above all. (Image sourced on Internet)

United Irishmen Harp Motif
(Image sourced on Internet)

The opposing sections are in this discussion described as “Catholic” and “Protestant”, as though religion were really the issue – however it is not. Some commentators like to speak in term of “nationalists and unionists”, with the more extreme wing of the latter described as “Loyalists”. That particular sub-group of Unionism is more likely to refer to Catholics as “Taigues” or “Fenians”.

There are religious differences in doctrine and in temporal supremacy between both religions: Catholics believe in the immaculate conception of Mary, the mother of the Christ figure and Protestants do not, though she is seen as a saint in their churches also. Perhaps more relevantly, for Catholics the Pope is, notionally at least, the supreme temporal religious authority while for Anglican Protestants, it is the ruling British Monarch (other British-based Protestant sects acknowledge only their own vicars, their reading of the Christian Bible or their own consciences). Currently, that monarch is Queen Elizabeth II Windsor and lest she be considered just some kind of figurehead, albeit with untold (literally!) riches quite apart from public funds allocation and properties, it is well to remember that she is also Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces.

Back in the day, the Pontiff (the Pope) also controlled a fair share of armed force and also brokered deals between the monarchs of different kingdoms. And in that respect, we’ll shortly come to some great ironies with regards to the Six Counties but first there are other matters to deal with.


Henry VIII of England disestablished the power of the Pontiff in English-ruled domains and made himself head of the Church, which of course required a split in the Christian Church, and the whole process has since become known as the English Reformation. That happened in the 16th Century; Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I continued this policy in the 17th Century and also extended the power of England and the territories under its domain. Of course, none of this was done by those monarchs alone; powerful feudal and commercial interests were involved also. Being Head of the Church of England allowed Henry to dissolve monasteries and confiscate their lands, filling the coffers of the Crown and of the faithful – faithful to the Crown.

Unfortunately for Ireland, a large part of the country was in the possession of England at this time, though not without resistance. And the original “English” colonists, the Gall-Ghael (“foreign Gael” in Irish), the Normans who had invaded from a colonised Wales with their mercenaries, wanted to stick to their earlier religion, continuing to acknowledge the Pontiff as their spiritual leader. They held their lands through conquest of arms under English monarchs (though the first had been a French Norman) but their loyalty to the British Crown was somewhat shaky. In 1366, nearly two centuries after their conquest of the Irish lands they held, the English Normans called them “the degenerate English” and accused them of having become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.1

And what of “the Irish themselves”? They too were of the old faith, although their earlier Celtic Christian Church had been more than a little lax in its application of Roman doctrine, especially in laws and mores around marriage, justice and the status of women. The Roman Church was feudal and Irish society still ran along clan lines.

An uneasy alliance was formed between the Gael and the Gall-Ghael which emerged first for the English king Charles I against Cromwell, in the middle of the 17th Century and later again near the end of that century for King James II against King William III (of Orange). On each occasion the Irish alliance lost.


          And here we come to ironies. William of Orange was a Protestant and the victory of his forces at the Battle of the Boyne is considered by Unionists a victory of Protestant forces over Catholic. Actually, there were some Catholics among William’s force and some Protestants among the opposing James II forces but that is not the irony. Nor is the fact that William of Orange was a homosexual and that Rev. Ian Paisley, who founded the Democratic Unionist Party and led it until his death in 2014, led a campaign against decriminalisation of homosexuality under the slogan “Save Ulster from Sodomy!”

No, the irony is even greater than those two facts and it is this: William’s armed forces were part-financed by the Vatican, in other words through the Pontiff himself. Although in Ireland the conflict took on the shape of Catholics fighting for freedom to practice their religion (and even Gael and Gall-Ghael holding on to their respective powers), against Protestants forcing their religion and colonial power on others, it was part of a European-wide conflict known to historians as The Nine-Years War. A coalition of forces composed of Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Spain, England and Savoy, styling itself the League of Augsburg, drew up to oppose Louis XIV of France. And James found himself on the side of France and against his own Parliament.

The Pontiff, as leader of the Holy Roman Empire, was very much a member of the League of Habsburg as was the Kingdom of Spain and Savoy – all under Catholic rule. When news of William’s defeat of James’ forces at the Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690 reached the Vatican, a Te Deum mass of praise was celebrated there and similar demonstrations of praise were practiced in the Spanish Kingdom also. That war in Ireland had fundamentally little to do with religion in reality but everything to do with English state and colonial power and European power struggles.

And of course this is not only an irony for the Protestants, who annually celebrate the Boyne victory on the 12th of July in their most sectarian and anti-Catholic manner, but for the Catholics too, who see James as defending their Catholic faith, of which the Pope was the spiritual leader. Nor is that the only irony in connection with Ireland and the Vatican: it was a Pope, Adrian IV, who issued a Papal Bull (something like a warrant) in 1155 legitimising invasion and conquest of Ireland by Henry II of England. Pope Adrian IV, aka Nicholas Breakspear, was the only English Pontiff ever, true but he was a Pope and he must have had substantial support in Rome to issue such a document.


          One of the characteristics of republicanism in the late 18th Century, apart from the abolition of the monarchy, was the separation of Church and State. Freedom of conscience and worship were important principles in the French and American revolutions. The United Irishmen also adhered to those principles with an even greater motivation, which was that the majority of the Irish population was excluded from participation in government, military and civil profession by a religious bar.

The Unitedmen were defeated, crushed. Their Protestant (Anglican) and Dissenter (Presbyterian) leaders and supporters were executed or exiled2 and the remnants for the most part became dominated by sectarian anti-Catholicism. And Irish nationalism, including republicanism, came to contain a strong Catholic bias (notwithstanding the continuing presence of Protestants and true Republicans in the movement).

Despite the fact that the Irish (and English) Catholic Church hierarchy has been publicly and energetically hostile to Irish Republicanism from the 1780s onwards, the majority of the Irish Republican movement of the early 20th Century observed the practices of the Catholic faith and never broke from its religious allegiance nor sought to overcome the dominance of the Church in society. As a result the Republican movement was unable, had it wanted to, to tackle many of the social injustices in the Irish State’s education, health, intellectual, literary, art, gender and sexuality policies and legislation, where the Church held sway.

Liberty of conscience and worship remains an important civil right, a democratic demand. People are entitled to practice their concept of religion or to abstain from it and their choices in this regard should not influence people’s participation in society as a whole. The Catholic Church is losing its power in the Twenty-Six Counties and that is reflected too in the Six. The Presbyterian churches are likewise losing influence. However, faith congregation membership continues to be a communal marker and to be used by the DUP and SF to hold their respective voting blocs together.

If separation of Church and State is an important principle of Republicanism then Republicans should actively campaign for that end. No school that bases its intake of pupils on the practice or belief of any religion should receive State support. But in the unlikely event that Sinn Féin should embark on a campaign to apply that principle, they would find themselves losing their voting block, for that is how their block is identified in the Six Counties: as Catholics, baptised in Catholic church, attending Catholic services to some degree or other and being educated in Catholic Schools.

The Unionists are of course just as careful to look after their own sectarian voting block and at least as sectarian. But they don’t claim to be Republicans.


          Symbols of course do not merely stand for what they are themselves but, in being a symbol, for something else also. A sculpture or drawing of a lion may represent the animal but when used as a symbol, frequently stands for monarchy and power: for examples, the lion on the coat of arms of the United Kingdom and the lions at base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. And symbols can also change their symbolic meaning and come to mean something else than was originally intended. The cross symbolised martyrdom for early Christians, later came to symbolise Christianity itself, later still the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition …. For the Ku Klux Klan in the southern states of the USA, the burning cross symbolises the power of their organisation and white anglo-saxon ethnic supremacy.

The Irish Tricolour flag was presented to Thomas Francis Meagher of the Young Irelanders by women revolutionaries in Paris in 1848, the Year of Revolutions in Europe (but not really in Ireland, where the fight had been knocked out of the remaining survivors of the Great Hunger 1845-1849). Reputedly the flag’s colours signified peace (White) between the traditions of the Gael (Green) and the descendants of those who had fought for William (Orange). The Unionists see it, however, firstly as a symbol of rebellion against the Crown (not without reason, given its historical use) and secondly as a flag of a Catholic Ireland.

The Harp is an Irish symbol of some antiquity and was reputedly flown on standards in ancient medieval times in Ireland. The Norman and English invaders appropriated it firstly as symbol of a conquered Ireland and incorporated it into their colonial standards and flags. Revolutionary republican grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Cromwellian settlers then appropriated the harp as the symbol of the republican United Irishmen, with the motto “It is newly strung and shall be heard”. After the defeat of the Unitedmen (whose leaders were nearly all Protestant), the Harp became a rather suspect symbol for Unionists, mostly Protestants and besides, it is the official symbol of the Irish State (the only state in the world with a musical instrument as its national symbol). However, it remains within the arms of the United Kingdom, representing the Six Counties colony still in British/ English possession.

“Easter Lilly” design, traditionally produced as a paper ‘flag’ and worn pinned to clothing with a straight pin. More recently also produced in enameled metal. (Image sourced on Internet)

The “Easter Lilly” emblem is a symbolic representation of a white lilly with an orange centre, with a green leaf as a background. It was developed by Irish women Republicans in the second decade of the 20th Century to commemorate those who died fighting for Irish national freedom, in particular during the 1916 Easter Rising. For decades it was produced as a simple paper representation for the Irish Republican movement and sold on streets or pubs in the lead-up to Easter Monday, when the Rising would be commemorated. In more recent times it has been worn for up to a week each side of Easter Monday and it has also been produced as a metal badge or pin, which some Republicans wear all year around.

The flag of the United Kingdom, commonly known as the “Union Jack”, embodying a design composed of the symbols of the Crosses of Saints George, Andrew and Patrick, represents the union of the nations through their respective patron saints3: Scotland and Ireland under the rule of England and its Royal Family. It was a forced, not a voluntary union and is therefore a reactionary symbol but Unionists in the Six Counties view it as a symbol of the union with England which they wish to maintain.

Paper “Remembrance Poppy” produced for the British Royal Legion (Image sourced on Internet)

The Crown represents the English Royal Family and UK State power. Since it is the same State that imposes its rule on the other nations of Ireland and the British Isles, it is fundamentally a reactionary symbol, also representing the reactionary institution of monarchy.

The Poppy, a cloth representation of the red flower, is worn by many British people in the lead up to Armistice Day, November 11th and sometimes for days afterwards. Many British people apparently believe that the purpose of this symbol is to commemorate the dead in wars or to support veterans and their families. In fact as research has shown, the primary purpose of commemorating ‘Remembrance Day’ and the Poppy is to gather public support behind the Armed Forces of the UK. Unionists seemingly see wearing it as proof of their political allegiance to Britain, England or the Crown – or all three.4

In the most recent history of the Six Counties, the symbols listed above have been those of the respective communities, with the added fact that Crown and Union Jack have also been symbols of the colonial statelet itself.

Recently two other symbols have been promoted, also with sectarian allegiances: Irish and Ulster Scots. Neither of these two languages is spoken by the majority of either community, for whom English (with some words specific to Ulster) is the majority language.


          Irish or an Ghaeilge, one of the languages of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages group, was the language of the people living in Ireland before it was invaded by England and remained the majority language in Ireland until the end of the19th Century. It continues as a community language5 in all provinces of Ireland including Ulster but there in parts of Co. Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland (and not part of the Six Counties despite the statelet being called “Northern Ireland”).

Irish died out as a community language in the Six Counties from its last refuge, the Sperrin Mountains, sometime in the early decades of the 20th Century (the 1911 Census recorded a majority of Irish speakers in that region but also, interestingly, in the Protestant Sandy Row area of Belfast City). However, some Irish speakers survived and others learned the language so that it continued to exist in the colony after the partition of Ireland in 1921. During the recent 30 years’ war, Irish enjoyed a resurgence and to some extent became a badge of resistance to colonial rule.

English is, more than most, a language composed of a number of different languages. Given that it sounds like and is classified as a Germanic language, it is surprising that its major component is of French language origin with the minor component based on Saxon German. English developed in what became England over a period including the defeat of the Romanised Celtic tribes of the area by the Saxons and Angles and the subsequent conquering of the Saxons themselves by the French-speaking Normans.

A century after their victorious invasion of England, the Normans invaded Ireland. In most of the area they conquered in Ireland, the Normans soon came to adopt many local customs, including the speaking of Irish so that less than two centuries later, their England-based colleagues referred to them as “the degenerate English” who had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves.”6

Although the invaders failed to enforce the Statutes of Kilkenny, over the following centuries they managed through eviction of natives and plantation of colonists, as well as the exclusively official use of English and legal repression of the Irish language, to make Irish a minority language and to reduce it, as a community language, to a number of reservations in certain parts of the country.

Ulster Scots is a dialect of Scots, in turn a dialect of German spoken by Saxon colonisers of the Scottish Lowlands (the reason the dialect became known as “Lallands”). The Scottish colonists of Irish lands given to them by James I, Oliver Cromwell and English bankers brought the language into Ulster where it developed into “Ulster Scots”. That too gave way to English over time except in some pockets, without any serious effort to revive its fortunes. Until, that is, agitation began in recent times for rights for Irish speakers and for the teaching of Irish, when some Unionists, seeking an “Ulster”7 “Protestant” equivalent with which to oppose any benefits for Irish, began agitation for the preservation and teaching of Ulster Scots.

However, the real competitor with Irish for dominance in the Six Counties (as also in the Twenty-Six, the Irish State) is of course English.


          “Parity of esteem” is a concept that was put forward by Sinn Féin within the atmosphere of the Good Friday Agreement.

To many people at the time, including myself, it seemed like something between “soft” Republicanism and a token demand, something to represent to the party’s following that it was doing something for them in the Six Counties. Sinn Féin would have claimed it was much more than that – and it was.

When some critics of SF or of the Peace (sic) Process claimed that sectarianism was being institutionalised, was being “copper-fastened”, I wondered how that was. Obviously, people in Catholic areas would vote Sinn Féin but how was that any different other than how they would have voted previously, viz. Nationalist or SDLP?

But in the past, except for the brief “power-sharing” agreement8 which the Loyalists had so effectively sunk, no political representative on a Catholic voting base had even come close to carving up the Six Counties on a community proportional basis. Now Sinn Féin have done so – not just in local authorities but in the government of the statelet itself (present difficulties excepted). That is what SF has achieved, after some years of civil rights agitation, Catholic communal resistance to repression and nearly three decades of armed struggle – a sharing out of the spoils of office. Power-sharing. Parity of esteem. A sectarian carving out of areas of influence.

And every power-base must have its symbols. Recently the Irish Language has become one such. Obviously the Irish language is entitled to support and its speakers have civil language rights. Clearly the sectarian opposition of Unionist politicians to concessions in this direction is fundamentally wrong. Of course a Language Act is needed so that Irish speakers can use it to push for their rights where the institutions oppose and block them. But that is not why SF has come so late into this struggle. It’s another symbol of their ethnic power-base and another stick with which to beat the Unionists.

A view of a section of the “Dearg le Fearg” protest demonstration in Belfast in 2014, demanding State recognition of and facilities for the conservation and dissemination of the Irish language. (Image sourced on Internet)

And of course there are Irish language speakers and campaigners who are Sinn Féin members. They made clear you knew that during the huge demonstration in favour of Irish language rights, the Dearg le Fearg9 demonstration of 2014 in Belfast, when they were the only political party displaying a banner in violation of an understanding that no political party would do so.

But what does Sinn Féin do in order to forward the language among its own members and activists? Are its public speakers obliged to be competent Irish speakers? Are its Ard-Choiste (Executive Committee) meetings conducted through Irish? Its cumann (branch) meetings? Its Ard Fheis (annual congress)?10 No, none of those. Is the party even running an Irish language instruction program to overcome this deficit at some point in the future? No.

Apart from some enthusiasts among its activists and a vague nationalist emotional attachment, Sinn Féin as a party is not really interested in the language. In the Six Counties, it is interested in a sectarian carve-up which will keep it at the power table and the Irish language has now become useful for that. Just as, in the Twenty-Six Counties state, it is interested in coming to power in a different kind of power-sharing.


          And the latest symbol to be sullied by joining this war of symbols is the Easter Lilly. In times past the Easter Lilly, commemorating in particular the dead who fell fighting for freedom in the 1916 Rising, was worn by many in the Twenty-Six Counties state who were not Republicans. In the latter decades of the last century, few wore it apart from Republicans and, in the Six Counties, it was asking for trouble from the colonial police or Loyalists (often the same thing) to display it. The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (1954-1987) there empowered any police officer to decide it was likely to lead to “a breach of the peace” and to remove it by force; conviction of a breach of the Act was punishable by a fine of up to £500 (sum equal to about £15,300 in 2017) or up to five years in prison.11

The Act, the repeal of which was one of the demands of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s, was finally repealed in 1987 but of course, any signifier identifying a person as a Republican or even a Catholic in the Six Counties is at the very least an invitation to less favourable treatment by the authorities and at worse to harassment and assault by Loyalists or colonial armed forces personnel.

It is of course right that people should have the right to wear the Easter Lilly but to pose it as an equal right to wearing the Remembrance (sic) Poppy is to devalue the Lilly, to putting an anti-imperialist and Irish Republican history emblem on the same level as an imperialist military-glorifying one. But that is exactly what Sinn Féin is now doing12. And Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish state, recently publicly agreed with that notion.13

And is that not the same project as those of the “Museum of Free Derry”14 and of the Glasnevin Cemetery Trust15, one on each side of the Border, commemorating dead British colonial force members side-by-side with their victims and those who fought against them? As though they are of the same worth to commemorate? As though the objectives of each were (are) of equal value?

What more effective way to undermine the power of an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist symbol than to equate it with its opposite?


          I once heard an organiser of a British-based left-wing party, himself of Irish parents, declaim against Irish political commemorations in London as “only of symbolic importance”. How little he understood of human beings to say that! Outside of urgent situations, natural surroundings and chemical reactions, symbols are the only things that convey meaning to human beings.

This page is covered in printed symbols, which we have learned to decipher into words which, in turn are symbols to convey meaning by association. If I write the letters h,o,u,s,e joined together, or say “house”, a symbol in sound, the listeners construct the shape of a house inside their heads, based on the culture and structures to which they have been exposed in their lives, to understand what I mean. If I write or say instead “tent”, they will visualise something else. If I write or say “party” the listener may struggle between visualising a festive occasion or a political party but should I have preceded that word with another, “house”, confusion disappears and the only question is whether the listener’s experience or understanding of a “house party” is the same as mine.

A nod of the head is a symbolic gesture which in most cultures signifies some level of agreement, a shake of the head its opposite. We understand symbolic hand gestures, shrugs, grimaces, smiles, winks, the lift of an eyebrow, bodily posture. Shapes of body or posture can convey sexual availability and induce arousal, or convey threat and give rise to fear. Symbols haunt our dreams, according to Jung and Freud, communications from our subconscious. Symbols are crucial to conveying and understanding meaning.


          It is right and proper that people should uphold the symbols of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial historical resistance, including the Irish Tricolour (although more appropriate to my thinking is the Starry Plough of the Irish Citizen Army16). Another symbol of that resistance, the Easter Lilly, is equally valid. It is right and proper that people should

“The Starry Plough”, design of the flag of the Irish Citizen Army, first produced 1914. (Image sourced on Internet)

value the cultural and political history embodied in the symbol of the Irish Harp. It is a matter of great cultural world importance that the Irish language survive and flourish. These are important symbols and, in the case of the language, an important thing in itself. These are not things to be equated with symbols of oppression, colonialism and imperialism.

The Union Jack, the Crown and the Poppy deserve to be shunned by all progressive people, because of the values they symbolise and the continuing effect of those things today. The English language, on the other hand, is worthy of a place in a bilingual Irish society.

Let Republicans and others promote the wearing of the Easter Lilly and the display of flags of historic Republican resistance. Let them never place them in the same context or on equal status with the symbols of imperialism and colonialism. Let many promote the use of the Irish language and rights for its speakers but let it not be used as a crude political weapon, much less to further the prospects of a party which actively colludes with and shares in colonial rule by an invader and has done nothing in reality to promote the language even among its own ranks.



1  The Statutes of Kilkenny sought to halt this “degeneracy” with 35 Acts forbidding the “intermarriage between the native Irish and the native English, the English fostering of Irish children, the English adoption of Irish children and use of Irish names and dress.[7] Those English colonists who did not know how to speak English were required to learn the language (on pain of losing their land and belongings), along with many other English customs. The Irish pastimes of “hockie” and “coiting” were to be dropped and pursuits such as archery and lancing to be taken up, so that the English colonists would be more able to defend against Irish aggression, using English military tactics.[8]

“Other statutes required that the English in Ireland be governed by English common law, instead of the Irish March law or Brehon law[9] and ensured the separation of the Irish and English churches by requiring that “no Irishman of the nations of the Irish be admitted into any cathedral or collegiate church … amongst the English of the land”.[10]

“………. Statute XV, which forbade Irish minstrels or storytellers to come to English areas, guarding against “the Irish agents who come amongst the English, spy out the secrets, plans, and policies of the English, whereby great evils have often resulted”.[11]

2  e.g William Orr, Edward Crosbie, Wolfe Tone, Edward Fitzgerald, Edward Hayes, Henry Joy McCracken, Henry Munroe, William Aylmer, Thomas Addis Emmet, Bagenal Harvey, Joseph Holt, Napper Tandy, Robert Emmet ….

3  Ireland has in fact three patron Christian saints: Patrick, Bridget and Columcille.

5  By use of the term “community language” here I mean a language used by a community settled on an area, as distinct from say a community of people separated by distance but united by use of a language, or a language used by a few families separated from one another by a majority not speaking that language.

6 The Statutes of Kilkenny

7 A misnomer constantly repeated not only by Unionists but also by British public commentators: the province of Ulster has nine counties, of which three are in the Irish state and six in the British statelet.

8  The Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which proposed power-sharing between Protestant and Catholic communities in the shape of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, was overthrown by the Loyalist action of the Ulster Workers’ Council (and Ulster Army Council) strike of 1974, including armed intimidation of Catholic areas, with British Army troops and RUC police standing by (or in the latter case openly colluding) .

9  Literally “Red with Anger”, a campaign of demonstrations organised both sides of the Border, against administrations of both states, by Irish language campaigners and speakers. Connradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League, an organisation part-funded by the Irish state) took part in organising this but it was only one of many much more grass-roots organisations across the country involved. It had been agreed that political party representatives would not be speakers (this was violated in some instances) and that political party banners would not be displayed (violated by Sinn Féin on the Belfast demonstration).

10  This is very different from comparable movements for national independence in Catalunya and the Basque Country, where their own national languages dominate their political discourse, despite repression (until the 1980s) and lack of state support.