At a committee meeting last week, councillours from the Newry, Mourne and Down district ruled in favour of placing Irish above English on council vehicles, logos, and literature. While the decision has not yet been ratified, it is being seen as a calamity by some in the Unionist community.
DUP MLA Nelson McCausland told the BBC that the decision was “culturally sectarian” an an “attempt to assert the dominance of a particular community”.
He also voiced his opinion that Sinn Fein and the SDLP were “trying to assert their domination by enforcing the preference and prominence of Irish in their council area”.
BBC Northern Ireland reported that UKIP councillour Henry Reilly claimed that the Irish language was being used as “a weapon to humiliate the unionist community”.
The Irish language, a weapon.
Indeed it is.
My Irish is quite bad. Horrible, really. When I was at my best I could speak and understand Irish at about the level of a twelve year old in Conamara. (Cois Fhairrige dialect and spelling.)
But that was a long time ago, and although I have renewed my studies of late, there are precious few in my area with which to converse in Irish on a daily basis. That doesn’t stop me from loving the language. Not in story, not in song, not as a weapon against oppression.
When I was around five years of age, I overheard my granny saying the rosary in Irish. I had no idea what she was speaking–I thought maybe it was Latin. (My Latin is not so good, either.) I asked my father about it and he said, “She’s praying in Irish. It’s a dead language.” So, when my grandmother died, I thought that Irish died with her.
Imagine my suprise to find, a few years later, that other members of my family spoke Irish as well. And then, living in Connemara, Gweedore, and Derry to discover that the language was not only alive, but making a resurgence.
A bit of an insurrection, if you will.
You see, what language you speak greatly determines your mindset. In English (so I’m told) some of the most commonly used words are “I”, “me”, and “mine”.
Irish is a bit different.
There really is no definitive possesive phrase in Irish. One can say “this car is with me”, not “this is my car”. And so on.
A man in Donegal lent me a book entitled “Decolonising the Mind; the politics of Language in African Literature’ by Nguigi wa Thiong’o (I apologise for the lack of appropriate punctuation.) In this book, the authour explains how speaking a language alien to your culture can not only generationally but personally erode your culture. Your surroundings. Your future.
Your core being.
I am a native English speaker, and my father was an English teacher. I have the utmost reverence for the English language.
However, when I began speaking Irish, over a period of only a few months, I noticed that my mind began to…change. I was less possesive. I worried less. I was more contemplative. I was less angry.
I was happier.
(Yes, I know that I just used the word “I” many times. I’m writing in English.)
This is not to say that English speakers are somehow socially or culturally inferior to anyone else. This is obviously not the case, nor the issue at hand.
DUP MLA McCausland asserted on the BBC’s Nolan Show that “English was “the language of proper communication” in the north of Ireland, and should therefore be posted first before Irish.
The language of “proper communication” is up to the individual.
As anyone who lives in or has been to Ireland knows, English place-names on road signs are often spray-painted over. If you can’t find Derry on a map or with a GPS, without having the name “London” in front of it, well…maybe you should just stay home. After all, you woulnd’t expect to find English on every street corner or road sign in other parts of the world.
The DUP and their friends in the Orange Order have made much of late of their efforts of “community outreach” to the Catholic/nationalist population. It only stands to reason that learning a bit of the native tongue (or at least showing respect for it) might show some good faith.
Back to my grandmother. Her parents were from Derry and Donegal and left Ireland to find a better life in America. They did not live long enough to see their children to become adults. However, they did instill in them the importance of where they had come from–the land, the culture, the language–so much so that by the time I came into this world, my wonderful grandmother was able to give me a clue as to what I was, where I came from, and who I was meant to be.
Language is a weapon.
It can be used to conquer.
Or it can be used in self-defense.
I once met an elderly Native American woman from the Mandan tribe in North Dakota. At the time, there were an estimated seven or eight speakers of their language still living. She told me of being interred in government “boarding schools” and of nuns washing her mouth out with soap if she spoke in her native language. I asked her if she could still speak Mandan.
“No,” she said. “But I dream in it. They took me away from my parents and my religion. They can’t take away my dreams.”
Padraig Pearse once said that “A country without a language is a country without a soul.”