Our Tangled Speech review: Insight into politics of Irish

Late Aodán Mac Póilin’s activism distils into essays shining light on culture and division

Aodán Mac Póilin was committed to the idea of a language community “whose only common characteristic is that they speak Irish”.

Aodán Mac Póilin was committed to the idea of a language community “whose only common characteristic is that they speak Irish”.

“A language is not a jam,” writes the late Aodán Mac Póilin in this posthumous collection of his essays on language and culture. “It cannot be put into a deep freeze, salted, pickled, tinned, smoked or dehydrated”, its survival depends not on preservation, but on living communities. Northern Ireland’s leading language activist for many decades, Mac Póilin practised what he preached, tirelessly promoting cross-community engagement with the language until his death in 2016. With language rights at the centre of the North’s current political impasse, this volume could hardly be more timely.

“Present politically inspired attitudes to the language are, on both sides, deeply unhistoric,” Mac Póilin writes. Irish, Scots Gaelic, English and Scots have been “tangled” in a “cultural and linguistic ecology” on both sides of the Straits of Moyle for a millennium. His essays on that history emphasise the many culprits: colonialism, the Anglican and Catholic churches, an insecure national identity and the long marginalisation of Irish, which by the 19th century meant “almost the entire population appears to have been keen to throw out the bathwater, the baby, and ultimately the bath” in a sort of “cultural suicide”.

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