Ireland has broken off its love affair with the USA but the breakup’s been coming for a long time. Of course it was always a kind of mythical USA that was the love object, of film stars, rock n’ roll, friendly presidents, Irish-U.Stater politicians, of U.Stater tourists – never the real USA, good or bad. One could feel the tensions in the relationship during the Viet Nam War, though that was mostly to be seen in the youth and some lefties. But then came the lying scandals in the US Presidency of Nixon and Clinton and the naked warmongering throughout all, including the Bushes, Snr. and Jnr.
Ireland, below the level of its Gombeen politicians, has split up with the USA (at the level of ITS politicians and millionaires [often the same thing]) but it has been a relatively civilised breakup and thankfully with no children (well, apart from the Irish illegal immigrants – sorry, undocumented visitors).
While some businesses in an Dún Beag might have turned a profit out the Fear Mór’s visit, having the Chief of the World Superpower drop in on us has cost us – around 10 million euro, according to the Irish Independent. Loads of extra Gardaí on the ground in Co. Clare and Limerick, in the air and on sea, does not come cheap (though I’m sure the overtime was welcome). All would have been bad enough if we had invited him but we hadn’t. Will the Irish Government present the US Presidency with an itemised bill? Probably not.
At the invitation of The Irish Examiner, a number of organisations and individuals had written letters to Trump for publication (see link below); most were critical and these included Amnesty International, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, National Union of Journalists, National Women’s Council of Ireland, National Union of Students; Brendan Ogle, Tara Flynn and Clare Daly. For entertainment value I’d pick out the IPSC’s and Tara Flynn’s (well, she is a comedian). The ICCL also had a newspaper advertisement criticising Trump, which was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union and figured logos of a number of other civil rights organisations.
There were protests in various parts of the country, including one to greet his arrival at Shannon airport (hopefully US munitions and troop carriers were pulled to one side so as not to hinder his landing). The Irish Times said there were about 200 protesters there so, on past reporting, there could have been anything between 300 and 1,000. It is not easy to get to Shannon airport unless one has a car, even from Galway the gaps between bus arrival times are substantial. And no train station.
Dublin had a showy and packed anti-Trump rally, with a Baby Trump blimp floating above the crowd outside the Garden of Remembrance. An activist brought big letter placards which, with the help of volunteers from the crowd, spelled out anti-trump messages in English and in Irish. Indeed an interesting feature was a number of placards partly or completely in Irish.
The theme of “welcome” or “fáilte” was of course played upon in reverse, in speech and placard, with more than a hinted reference to the old Bord Fáilte slogan inviting tourists to the land of “céad míle fáilte”.
The event was managed by Unite Against Racism which is, for the most part, People Before Profit, which in turn is really the Socialist Workers’ Party. A number of other left-wing party flags could be seen too. A group of Shinners were at the rally with their trademark flags (never go anywhere without the party’s flag) but no “dissidents” were present as a group, though I certainly noted some as individuals.
The speakers at the rally covered a number of themes, including of course misogyny, migrants, Palestine, war-making and imperialism. Liam Herrick of the ICCL was an unusual sight to see on an outdoors protest platform, speaking at the second part of the rally. Curiously, the rally organisers had sent a major part of the attendance off to march around the city centre for awhile and of course, when they got back, they had shed a great part of their numbers. A torrential downpour no doubt encouraged the desertions.
Coming towards the end of the rally, a performer accompanied himself on guitar while he rendered some songs for the diminished attendance. Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Crash at Los Gatos” (also known as “Deportees”) would have been an apposite choice, a song about Mexican labourers being employed in the south-eastern US fruit harvests and then driven back across the Border. Guthrie was moved to sing about them when in 1948 a plane carrying mostly deported Mexicans crashed, killing all on board and though the names of the crew were given in the news reports, the Mexicans were referred to only as “deportees”.
At the rally, eventually Trump was deflated (the blimp, I mean), tethering weight bags emptied of water, placards were packed, flags furled …. and I went to get some shopping.
AN GORTA MÓR COMMEMORATED IN SLIGO, DUBLIN AND CELTIC PARK
(Reading time of article text: 5 minutes)
A small crowd gathered at the Garden of Remembrance, Dublin on Sunday afternoon to commemorate the Great Hunger, an Gorta Mór on National Famine Day. Led by a lone piper, they marched through O’Connell St., the city’s main street, some of them in period costume, to the Great Hunger Memorial on the Custom House Quay, North Dock and later on to the iconic sailing ship, the Jeannie Johnson.
With some adults and children dressed in period clothes, some of them tattered to represent the destitution of the starving poor, they marched down O’Connell Street led by the lone piper and turned left at the Bridge, proceeding along to Custom Quay’s North Dock and the Great Hunger memorial. There they were addressed by Michael Blanch of the organising committee and by Niall Ring, Lord Mayor (coming to the end of his year in that role), who had accompanied them from the Garden of Remembrance.
Some sentences in Irish were spoken by the MC of the event and by the Lord Mayor, while Michael Blanch referenced the deadly impact the Great Hunger had on the Irish language (i.e with the depopulation of the main Irish-speaking areas of the western seaboard). The Irish Tricolour came in for a mention in the Dublin commemoration also; it had been presented to William Smith O’Brien by women in Paris during the revolution there of 1848 and the Young Irelanders had staged their own uprising that year also, small and certainly too late, easily crushed by the British colonial forces. The huge Irish diaspora was also mostly a result of the Great Hunger and had contributed significantly to the formation and membership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians, founded simultaneously in 1858 on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin and in New York. The IRB, in turn, had been the main driving force behind the 1916 Rising.
Tourists and other passers-by stopped to watch as wreaths were laid on on the statues of the monument and an Irish-language version of Amazing Grace was sung by a young girl in period costume. A currach (small traditional Irish sea-craft), containing a woman and two young girls in period costume and rowed by a man, pulled into place on the Liffey across from the group; one of the girls placed a wreath in a cardboard box into the river, to commemorate the Irish diaspora and those who had perished during their journeys. Participants then threw single red roses bouquets into the river also and floral wreaths were deposited around the statues of the 1977 memorial by sculptor Rowan Gillespie. And the piper played a lament, Hector the Hero.
The gathering moved on then to the sailing ship the Jeannie Johnson, to hear Evelyn Campbell sing her Famine Song and Diarmuid Breatnach sing Skibereen and Fields of Athenry. After that, some repaired to the Teachers’ Club, where tea, sandwiches, gur cake and biscuits were on offer. By coincidence, a Musical Society were relaxing there too and it was not long before songs from different parts of the world were being exchanged from different parts of the room.
THE CAMPAIGN FOR A NATIONAL IRISH FAMINE DAY
The Great Hunger is the preferred term in English by many for the terrible disaster that struck Ireland in the mid-19th Century, for people starved alongside what was for a while at least, an abundance of food.
For three successive years, a fungus-like oomycete infested the potato crop, staple diet of most of the population. AlthoughPhytophthora infestanshad attacked the potato crops on the European mainland and in Britain also, nowhere was the disaster of the dimensions it grew to in Ireland: nowhere else were the the majority of the population obliged to sustain themselves on the potato while yielding up every other edible product (except perhaps milk) to pay the landlord’s rent on land conquered from the ancestors of the starving, thousands of soldiers and police being on hand to ensure the hungry paid up. “The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight”, wrote Young Irelander journalist John Mitchell, “but the English created the Famine.”
Well over one million Irish starved or died of attendant diseases in less than five years during the reign of Queen Victoria, while ships left Irish ports laden with food and grain was fermented to make lucrative whiskey and beer. Another million emigrated and it is estimated that about one third of those also died – of drowning, of disease aboard ship or of the various dangers migrants faced. Five years after the potato crop failed, estimates put the population of Ireland at around six million, from the over 8 million of before. Over the next decade, another million would leave, paid to go, lied to go, forced to go, or gone out of desperation and loss of faith in any future in the country of their birth under foreign domination.
In 2008 it was agreed by the Irish Government that there would be a national Famine Day in the Irish calendar of national events and it would take place on the third Sunday in May. The State commemoration this year was held in Sligo, attended by Leo Varadkar (who was met by a protest of the Sligo Women’s Cervical Smear Action Group). The ceremony was covered in the RTÉ news which was shown on TV in the Teacher’s Club. Michael Blanch told those present that the campaign he and his wife had started in 2004 through the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims, had resulted in this national event and that it was also being commemorated by the Glasgow Celtic team in the special jerseys they wore that day (in their Scottish Premiership win 2-1 against Hearts). The symbol is black and white which are the colours of the Commemoration and he had also wanted GAA teams playing on this day to wear it on their jerseys (the Munster Hurling Championship match between Limerick and Cork was also being shown that afternoon on the TV screen in the Teachers’ Club).
Two quite different celebrations of International Workers’ Day took place in Dublin on the afternoon of the appropriate date, 1st of May. One was small and of a decidely revolutionary flavour while the other, much larger, was of a more mixed nature and tending towards the reformist. In addition, a workers’ solidarity picket was mounted on a Dublin city centre eatery.
NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS
The first of the celebrations was organised by theAnti-Imperialist Action Ireland organisation and took place at the James Connolly Monument in Dublin’s Beresford Place. There a statue of James Connolly stands upon a plinth, behind the the design of the Irish Citizen Army flag, based upon the constellation that in Ireland is called the Starry Plough but in the USA is known as the Big Dipper. James Connolly was a revolutionary socialist and trade union organiser, historian, journalist and songwriter who was Commander of the Dublin insurrectionary forces in the 1916 Rising. The Irish Citizen Army, possibly the first formaly-organised army for and of the workers, had been formed during the Dublin Lockout as a defence force against the attacks of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.
The ICA took part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin and after the surrender of the insurrectionary forces, 16 participants, including two of the ICA, were executed by British firing squad: Michael Mallin on 8th May and James Connoly on 12th May.
In the here and now, on their way to the Connolly Monument, a number of participants were stopped by a man in plain clothes identifying himself as a police officer, i.e a member of the Garda Special Branch. He wished to know their names, which they declined to give them.
At the Monument, both speakers for the Anti-Imperialist Action Ireland organisation were youths.
The first to speak gave his oration in Irish on behalf of Macra – Irish Socialist Republican Youth and said that they were there to celebrate socialism, trade unionism and workers oppressed throughout the world and, that although James Connolly had been murdered in Kilmainham Jail, his work was ongoing.
Stating that James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army had gone out in 1916 to break with imperialism and found a socialist society, the youth went on to say that “Macra is a revolutionary organisation with socialism as one of our objectives and we also believe in the words of Pearse: ‘Ireland not only free but Gaelic, not only Gaelic but free.’ Free from the bankers, free from landlords, free from poverty.”
The speaker concluded in Irish and in English with the renowned sentence from the Communist Manifesto.: “Bíodh critheagla ar aicmí cheannais roimh réabhlóid Chumannach. Níl tada le cailiúint ag na Prólatáirigh ach a slabhraí. Tá saol mór le gnóthú acu. Oibrithe an tSaoil Mhóir, cuirigí le chéile!”
“Let the ruling classes tremble before a communist revolution. The Proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains, they have the whole world to gain. Workers of the world unite!”
The second speaker delivered his speech in English and linked the liberation of Ireland with the liberation of the working class and went on to praise Séamus Costello (1939-1977), which he said had embodied that aspiration. The youth praised the creation of the Irish Republican Socialist Party by Costello as well as the creation of the Irish National Liberation Army and Costello’s participation and membership in a number of democratic organisations — including his election to Bray District Council.
Condemning “the bankers and politicians” who bring deprivation to the workers, the speaker said that they try to point the finger instead at Muslims and migrants but it is not migrants who cause job losses, create homelessness etc but “the elite”. The speaker ended by saying he wished to remember all those who had given their lives for Irish freedom.
WE WANT THE EARTH
Diarmuid Breatnach was then introduced to sing Be Moderate, a song with an ironic title by James Connolly. “The Irish working class does not have a huge history in Ireland, apart from a short period in the early decades of the last century,” Breatnach said, giving as reasons the forced underdevelopment of Irish industry, the British-fostered sectarianism in the most industrialised north-east and the focus on the national struggle as a competing pole of attraction.
“The Irish abroad, however, have made a huge contribution to the workers’ movement,” Breatnach said. “And in 1889, Jim Connell from near Cill Scíre in Co. Meath, composed lyrics of The Red Flag to the air of the White Cockade, starting it on the train to his home in South London from a demonstration in central London and apparently completing it in the home of another Irish man.
The song was later adopted by the International Workers of the World, a syndicalist organisation mostly active in the USA, Breatnach said and reminded them that James Connolly joined the IWW when he migrated to the USA. “In 1907, James Connolly published a songbook, Songs of Freedom, in which he included the lyrics of Be Moderate,” Breatnach stated and went on to say that no air had been published to which the words should be sung. As a result Be Moderate has been sung to a number of airs but in London Breatnach heard it sung by an avant-garde musical composer and Marxist-Leninist, Cornelius Cardew, to the air of A Nation Once Again. In Breatnach’s opinion the lyrics fit well to this air and it also provides a chorus, which he encouraged the participants to sing.
James Connolly’s lyrics were sung by Breatnach then, competing with sounds of passing traffic on the ground and the occasional trains rumbling by on the bridge overhead, participants joining in on the chorus:
We only want the Earth,
We only want the Earth
And our demands most moderate are:
We only want the Earth!
and the last line of the last verse “We want the Earth!” echoing across Beresford Place.
TRADE UNION AND POLITICAL ORGANISATION BANNERS
Across the road, a stage and crowd barriers were being set up outside Liberty Hall, the multi-storeyed headquarters of SIPTU, the largest union in Ireland and which, by amalgamations, had grown from the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union, originally formed early in the 20th Century by Jim Larkin, James Connolly and others (and the destruction of which had been the object of the 1913 Lockout). The stage was being prepared for speakers to address a rally which would follow a Mayday parade from Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance (a small park dedicated “to those who gave their lives for Irish freedom”).
Even the larger Mayday demonstrations in Dublin, although organised through the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, i.e with affiliation from most trade unions in the city, do not tend to be very big by comparison with other cities in many other parts of the world.
Banners of some unions mixed with those of political organisations and campaign groups, including the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign and another against Irish state participation in PESCO, which is seen by many as an embryonic EU Army and undermining the Irish state’s neutrality.
Led by a lone piper, the parade made its way past crowds of onlookers down Dublin city’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, then left along Eden Quay to Liberty Hall where they were to be addressed by speakers on the temporary stage in Beresford Place, across from the Connolly Monument.
Meanwhile, a small group had left, to form a picket line outside the Ivy Dawson Street restaurant, in solidarity with staff and in opposition to the management appropriating a portion of the tips left for staff, with more to join them there later from the Mayday parade.
A NOTE ON THE HISTORICAL ORIGIN OF INTERNATIONAL WORKERS’ DAY
The First of May has been celebrated as the international day for workers since 1892, to call for the 8-hour maximum working day, socialism and universal peace. Its inspiration was a train of events that began with a workers’ strike and demonstrations on May 1st 1886 in many parts of the USA but in Chicago ended in the State execution of four anarchists, with police and state militia massacres of workers along the way as well as with acts of workers’ resistance. The celebration and commemoration throughout the world was formally agreed at the Second Congress of the Second International Workers’ Association in Brussels in 1892 and at its Sixth Congress (Amsterdam, 1904) declared it mandatory for the proletarian organisations of all countries to stop work on that day, wherever that could be done without injury to the workers(bearing in mind violently repressive regimes).
In many states around the world now, the 1st of May is a public and bank holiday and has been so in Ireland since 1994. Its public celebration was banned under the fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal but is legal in both those states now; however it is still banned in some other states while in some areas, though not banned, may be subject to attack by police, army, state agents or by fascist elements.
This is an article about grammar, religion and politics. While the last two are often discussed in the same conversation, grammar is usually absent as a subject. But it has its place here.
SWEARING AND CURSING
“Don’t curse!” or “Don’t swear!” a parent or an elder might have said to us when we were children or teenagers. And particularly when we were teenagers we did exactly what we had been told not to, certainly the boys, in a mistaken sign of manhood. As a verse in the English folk song The Shoals of Herring has it, in fact:
“Well you’re up on deck, you’re a fisherman,
You can swear and show a manly bearing,
Take a turn on deck with the other fellows
As you hunt the bonny shoals of herring.”
A related admonition was against “taking the Lord’s name in vain”, which was a prohibition of blasphemy, the misuse of Yahweh’s name, taken from Exodus 20.7: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord they God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain.” 1
So most of us grew up thinking that swearing and cursing were the same thing and more or less careful about which company in which to use those words – or not. But we were mistaken, cursing and swearing are not the same thing at all.
We are familiar with swearing in some formal settings, such as courts of law, for example: “I swear by almighty God that the evidence I give shall be the truth, the whole truth ….”2 and also with swearing for entry into some organisations (frequently the armed forces).
“Bejaysus”, common in Dublin, is from “by Jesus” and “bedad” is probably a disguised “by God”. The Cockney’s “Blimey” was originally “May God blind me” (e.g “if I am not telling the truth”).
The use of “Bloody” in informal society was often a swearing upon the “blood of Christ” or, strangely sometimes, the blood of “Mary”, the mother of Christ in the religions of “the Book” (Bible, Talmud or Koran). Of course “bloody” could be used pejoratively in the sense of “blood-stained”3, in which case it was not swearing but might still raise objections in some quarters of society, or descriptive of a massacre as in “Bloody Sunday”4.
In fact, swearing is to call a divine Power to witness the truth of what we are saying (in courts of law, for example) and that we intend to carry out the expectations of the organisation (e.g in the armed forces). In swearing, we utter an “oath”. Nowadays, most people who are not highly religious probably attach little importance to the form of words, though some institutions persevere with them. But in older times and not even so long ago, most people viewed an oath as a very important thing.
To break an oath of allegiance in some countries and in some periods incurred severe penalties, including death. “Oath-breaker” was an epithet that might be attached to the name of an “outlaw”, one who had broken his oath of service to a Saxon, Norman or English Lord in the Middle Ages.
The required Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, simultaneously to the Head of the Anglican Church, prevented many Catholics for centuries from entry into many professions and from being elected as a public representative. And the British Crown was itself particularly worried for centuries by alternative “oath-bound societies” that were seeking united workers’ actions, such as agrarian defence organisations and trade unions, or equality and improvement in social conditions, for example political organisations. Laws were passed against the dispensing and swearing of such oaths.
Cursing, although it may sometimes “take the Lord’s name in vain”, is something else completely. We know in Ireland of the “Curse of Cromwell” but more frequent probably was Mallacht na bPréacháin “the Curse of the crows”, which wished upon the victim a childless land, to be inherited only by the crows. Scread mhaidne was another ill-wish to lay upon someone, that he or she may die in agony, screaming into the morning. Ná feice tú Dia sounded less terrifying but might have been more frightening for a very religious person: “May you (never) see God!”.
“Damn” and “Goddamn” are abbreviations of “May God damn …” (“you, her, it, them” etc) and to utter them in many circles in the USA is considered evidence of bad rearing. They are curses which are also oaths, in calling upon the Devine being to add power to the curse.
Typically, curses and oath-curses use the subjunctive in grammar and, although seemingly strange, this connects them to blessings and greetings. Go raibh maith agat (may you have good”) is the Irish for “thank you” and Go mba hé duit (“may it be [the same] for you”) is the reply to the Irish greetings Sé do bheatha or Móra duit.Slán abhaile (“Safe home”) is an abbreviation of Go dtéigh tú slán etc (“May you go safely home”). All of these are in the subjunctive form of speech. Vaya con Dios (“May you go with God”) is a castillian-language (Spanish) farewell wish we might come across in tales set in the south-west USA or in Latin America; that is also in the subjunctive. In fact “farewell” was “fare thee well” and probably originally, “May thee fare well”. Instead of the “Go to Hell” or “I hope you break your neck” one might hear today, centuries ago one would have heard “May you go to Hell” or “May you break your neck”.
This constant use of the subjunctive to wish well or ill upon others suggests to me that it was widely believed, at some stage in society, at least in most European societies, that one could make something happen by using a certain form of words. That form was the subjunctive; however, according to many who study language, the subjunctive is disappearing in European language and remains most in use preserved in everyday greetings and well-wishes – and the occasional curse.
It seems to me that the reason for this gradual disappearance is that we no longer believe we can make things happen by the way that we say them. We may wish them – and show the object person that we wish them – but we can’t make them happen. Nor can we expect a thing to happen with anything like a confidence that invoking a God will bring the wish, for good or ill, to fruition.
Earlier in this discussion I touched on oath-bound societies and the apprehension with which they were often regarded by those in power. Well, the Fenians were such an organisation. Formed on St. Patrick’s Day 1858, in Ireland as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and in the USA as the Irish Fenian Brotherhood, it was a popular movement until the Irish Civil War (1919-1922). Because of their revolutionary credentials and democratic program, they were accepted into the International Workingmen’s Association (the First Socialist International 1864-1889). As a true Republican organisation, they sought the separation of Church and State5 and in that, apparently incurred the wrath of Pope Pius IX (Giovanni Maria Mastai-Feretti, ruled from 1846 to his death in 1878). He excommunicated the Fenians.
Although a significant number of Fenians (particularly in the leadership) were of Protestant background (Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Unitarian), most of the Fenians had been brought up in the religious faith of the majority in Ireland, Catholicism. Not only would excommunication be painful to Catholic Fenians but could also lead to their being shunned by other Catholics who might otherwise have supported them. In the end this did not occur to anything like the extent that would have pleased the Catholic Church hierarchy or the British rulers of Ireland, as Irish Catholics have historically shown an ability to set to one side the teachings of the Church when they appear in contradiction to their struggle for national self-determination.
But obviously the public excommunication did the movement some harm and hurt many Fenians who were also strongly Catholic, such as John O’Mahony, co-founder in the USA, who left the Fenians as he approached his death so that he might be administered the last rites of the Church6.
In an Irish secondary school run by the Christian Brothers, we were taught that the opposition of the Catholic Church to the Fenians (and presumably to the subsequent Republican military organisations), rather than being due to their struggle for Irish independence, was the secret organisation’s dispensing and repetition of an oath of allegiance. Perhaps we were too ill-informed (I know that I was) to bring up the question of oaths given in other circumstances, such as in giving evidence in court or in military service, circumstances with which the Church appeared to have no problem.
Had one of us done so, our Christian Brother teachers might have replied that what was wrong was “taking the Lord’s name in vain” and explained that “in vain” did not, in the English at the time of translation of Bible texts, mean only “for no important purpose” but also “for no good purpose” and that would of course have included “for an evil purpose”.
Had we questioned what the “evil purpose” might have been in the case of the Fenians, we would have put our teachers in some difficulty.
What for example in the two versions of the Fenian Oath recorded, might be considered “evil”?
“I, A.B., do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will do my utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to make Ireland an independent democratic republic; that I will yield implicit obedience, in all things not contrary to the law of God, to the commands of my superior officers; and that I shall preserve inviolable secrecy regarding all the transactions of this secret society that may be confided to me. So help me God! Amen.”
“I, A.B., in the presence of Almighty God, do solemnly swear allegiance to the Irish Republic, now virtually established; and that I will do my very utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to defend its independence and integrity; and, finally, that I will yield implicit obedience in all things, not contrary to the laws of God, to the commands of my superior officers. So help me God! Amen.”
Would a Christian brother have admitted opposition, not only by himself but by the Catholic Church, the dogma of which he was explaining, to the establishment of an “Irish Republic”, or even to “an independent democratic republic”? And if not, what then? The use of armed force, i.e violence? Since when has the Catholic Church hierarchy been against violence in or of itself? Did it not support some side in most inter-European wars and Spanish, French and Portuguese colonial wars? In fact, did the Catholic hierarchy not itself initiate some wars and did the Vatican not have its own army, as pointed out by Fr. Sean McManus in the USA7?
If the objection were not to “a democratic Republic”, against which Pius IX was definitely set, in that he opposed the separation of Church and State, then surely the only honest reply could have been: “The Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland made a deal first with the British occupation that if they gave Catholics equal rights and let us build up our power here, we would not support their overthrow. Since then we made a similar deal with the Irish State and its rulers. And we intend to honour that deal.”
2In the courts of many countries one is now permitted to use the words “I affirm that the evidence I shall give …” and one may sometimes be asked by the presiding judge whether one is an atheist, or agnostic – presumably as otherwise the failure to “swear by Almighty God” might be regarded as suspect.
3“Bloody Queen Mary” was an example, Mary Tudor, Mary I Queen of England (1560-1558; ruled ’53-’58), who had nearly 300 Protestants burned at the stake for “heresy”. )
4In Irish history, three are generally recognised: Dublin 1913, Dublin 1920 and Derry 1972.
5Not all organisations dubbing themselves “Republican” do in fact uphold this principle and in fact it could be said that the Irish Republican movement from the early 20th Century until its end did not generally do so, in that it rarely confronted the Church on its social policies or interference in lay matters, except when the Church condemned Republican actions. Also a great many Republican commemorations included the officiating of a member of the Catholic clergy.
6See the Irish Echo article in Links & References.
When one hears or reads the words “Gaelic Ireland”, the reference usually takes one of four forms:
“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.
IRISH NATIONALISM AND REPUBLICANISM
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”.
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 thoughthe 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.
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.
IRISH LANGUAGE REVIVAL
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.
THE STATE AND POLITICAL PARTIES
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.
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.
FOCAL SCOIR ORIN CONCLUSION
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”.
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.
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.
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 ….
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.
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 theyare 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 Englishcan be reproduced in Irish as “cua” or “cui” in Irish andwe 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.
Among the many spurious difficulties about learning Irish quoted by people there are some genuine ones.
TO BE OR …. SOMETHING ELSE
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.
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!