The (Welsh) language question

Ireland is not the only country with two languages

Angharad Price, writer in Welsh

Angharad Price, writer in Welsh


The debate over who speaks Irish is one that regularly comes around this time of year – with those who speak the language aghast that anyone should think that it does not exist while those who do not speak Irish think that it is as real as “the little people”. Usually, the context of the debate is one that is firmly rooted within the 26 counties of the State. Occasionally, people will argue that we should be grateful that the English ‘gifted’ us English – as if English is the only language that is spoken in Britain. What of Scots Gaelic? What of Welsh?

The Donegal writer Seosamh Mac Grianna (1900-1990) – a native of the same county as the Minister of State for the Gaeltacht, Dinny McGinley, as it happens – had a great love for literature and travel and Wales and its Welsh-speaking areas held a special place in his writing. He once opined that the greatest difference between the two countries was that the Irish had fought for freedom and had, more or less, lost their language but that Wales had kept its language despite not having lifted arms for 500 years.

Whatever about the language politics, I suspect that Mac Grianna would have recognised his homeland in Angharad Price’s novel, The Life of Rebecca Jones (MacLehose Press, £10.00). A native speaker of Welsh and a lecturer at Bangor University, Price (42) tells the story of a family in the Welsh “Gaeltacht”. Her experiences would chime, I suspect, with many on this side of the Irish Sea. In a happy coincidence her novel has just been published in paperback.

I interviewed Price for this newspaper quite a while ago and published her views in Tuarascáil, our then weekly Wednesday Irish-language column. Nevertheless, it seems apt, given the ongoing debate, to re-publish what she says for an English-speaking audience in Ireland and to give them an insight into the experiences of Welsh speakers in Britain – an experience that might better inform – and indeed temper – the language ‘debate’.

Price’s experience was that: “Like the majority of children in the county of Gwynedd, I was brought up with Welsh as a first language and learned English at school from the age of six. Most of life was conducted through Welsh, though English was always on the periphery with Sesame Street , Enid Blyton, the local piano teacher. The same goes for my children, though they are more thoroughly bilingual than I was. Due to many reasons, local and global, English is more “there” than it used to be. But normal life is still lived in Welsh: school, football, tv, trips to the barber, shopping at Tesco.

“For me the world “speaks Welsh”, even though I delight in languages and have picked up several on the way. Some people claim that writing in Welsh is a political act. It would be pretentious on my part if I made that kind of claim. If anything, choosing to write in English would be a political act – though not, of course, in the same way.”

Mac Grianna once lamented that he should write in English in order to get one of his novels printed. Happily for Price there is “a healthy appetite for literature in Welsh. The Welsh novel is enjoying a golden period, partly due to increased support for publishers from the Welsh Assembly. The range is quite astonishing, covering everything, from noir to science fiction and from thrillers to romantic historical sagas; there are Marxist and postmodernist novels in Welsh, as well as novels getting new life from the older realist tradition. An average novel in Welsh will sell a few thousand copies, but “bestselling” novels can sell anything up to 10,000. That’s a large portion of the reading public.”

Similarly, Welsh writing has seen the same debate over the rural/urban divide that affects writers of Irish. Price believes that the city/country divide “reached its peak in the late 1970s in a series of controversies entitled “Cymraeg y Pridd v. Cymraeg y Concrid” (Welsh of the Soil v. Welsh of the Concrete). Until then, it was commonly held that Welsh literature proper belonged to the “soil”. Such a dichotomy has been seen as increasingly dated and in the last ten years or so, with the coming of devolution and the growth of the Welsh language in the urban and post-industrial areas of the South-East, the rural bias has largely faded away. Indeed, the situation has perhaps been reversed: the larger portion of recent Welsh novels have an urban setting and delight in using a more “urban” use of the Welsh language.”

It is a language debate – but not as we know it!

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