Irish mastery of doublespeak has led us to a tragic endpoint
The Germans need to be hearing Message A: Ireland is in dire trouble. They’re getting Message B: Ireland is grand
German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, pictured with Irish counterpart Michael Noonan, said: ‘Ireland did what Ireland had to do . . . now everything is fine.’ Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images
The Irish establishment speaks, in the words of Bing Crosby, “a language that the strangers do not know”. It is not Irish or English. It is doublespeak. The problem, indeed, is that they speak it all too well. Colm Tóibín once wrote that English people are mono but Irish people are stereo. More relevantly today, alas, the Irish are stereo while the Germans are mono.
Irish culture values the ability to broadcast on two different channels at the same time, to speak simultaneously out of both sides of the mouth. It probably comes from having, for some centuries, two vernacular languages, one for power and money (English) and the other for home, community and place (Irish).
It certainly relates to a history of oppression. Poor people who depend on the whims of their betters learn to be stereo, to tell the powerful what they want to hear (“I say a little prayer for you every day sir!”) and tell yourself what you need to say (“The bastard doesn’t know that the prayer is that he may rot in hell!”).
Whatever its roots, Irish doublespeak blossomed into a rich flowering of verbal hypocrisy. We developed a public language in which every sentence has a silent clause that annuls its meaning. Emigration is a tragedy – but the real tragedy would be if all these unwanted parasites hung around to cause trouble. Young people are our greatest asset – especially if they feck off out of here. A united
Ireland is our dream – if it didn’t have any Protestants in it.
We have a special love for children – we love them enough to build special institutions in which to incarcerate them. We revere our artists – but, Jesus, would it kill your man to give us a bit of a laugh now and then? We have a spiritual attachment to our countryside – how much would that field be worth if it was rezoned? And so on.
Weirdly, there was a moment when doublespeak came into its own, when it seemed supple and benign.
During the peace process, it became “creative ambiguity”. The process was based on the ability to take apparently fixed words – nation, State, sovereignty, identity, consent – and make them fluid, elastic and open to interpretation. Language was engineered precisely to be heard in stereo, with each side lending an ear to a different channel. Each could hear what it wanted to hear.
Out of all of this, presumably, came a strange confidence in the power of Irish doublespeak. The notion took hold that, even in a dire crisis, the state of Ireland could be articulated officially in two simultaneous but mutually contradictory ways. On one channel, there is
Message A, intended to be heard only by the Irish domestic public. It is that things are really, really terrible. They are so bad that we must take home help away from your sick 90-year-old mother and respite care away from the parents
of autistic children.