“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”.
The language revival that followed was more complex than our national story often allows, and Mac Póilin highlights how many of its early proponents were unionists and Protestants. There are some fascinating sketches of eccentric personalities, for example Queen’s University’s first lecturer in “Celtic languages”, Connemara-born Anglican clergyman FB O’Connell who, while studying at Trinity, edited a magazine titled An tEorpach, which accepted contributions in any language but English (O’Connell spoke at least 10).
Mac Póilin notes that the language movement may not have had the same success without the driving force of political nationalism, the failure of the Gaelic League’s attempts to stay out of politics led to a “complete polarisation” of attitudes to Irish. After partition, nationalist MPs at Stormont were told to speak “no foreign language here”, while minister for education Lord Londonderry referred dismissively to “the so-called Irish language”. Such attitudes persist to today: “it’s Taig talk”, one young loyalist told an interviewer in Derry.
Mac Póilin was committed to the idea of a language community “whose only common characteristic is that they speak Irish”, and is scathing of the “claptrap” promoted by conservative nationalists who pursued “purity rather than prepositions” in a “spectacularly dramatic example of internalised colonialism”. Those who idealised the Gaeltachts as the last bastions of what Cardinal Michael Logue called “pure and innocent” Ireland generally “deeply resented the modernisation that the people who lived there all the year round wanted most”.
While the language was saved from completely dying out, it was more “maintenance” than revival, with second-language status at school accompanied by an almost complete failure to create “new self-sustaining Irish-speaking communities”. “Over four generations”, Mac Póilin relates, “every generation in my family had either a native or a revivalist speaker who did not pass the language on, through the family, to the next generation. This is how languages die.”
The restriction of habitual Irish to fewer and fewer remote areas, and “fetish”-like attitudes about “deviance” from official forms and dialects, exacerbated the long period of arrested development the language had suffered since the 17th century. This was particularly acute in urban Ireland, where it was mostly absent. There should be an urban Gaeltacht, Máirtín Ó Cadhain wrote in the 1960s, that includes “juvenile delinquency, the Beatles, shebeens and all”.
It took the emergence of urban native speakers like Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Mac Póilin argues, to create an urban idiom “whose first priority was communication; not grammar, not accuracy, not vocabulary, not nativist idiom”.
Mac Póilin himself went to live in an urban Gaeltacht, on Shaw’s Road in west Belfast in 1976. He and his wife, Áine Andrews, realised how ill-equipped their language-learning had made them for life in Irish when they found their house “full of everyday objects like plugs and sockets and doorknobs and skirting boards for which we did not have the terms” and they had absolutely no idea how to talk to their baby.
There were many challenges – not least the Stormont government’s declaration that their community’s fledgling Gaelscoil was illegal – but the family had no regrets about pursuing the opportunity “to live a significant part of our lives in a language that could have died out sometime over the last century”.
That fate, Mac Póilin notes in the powerful title essay, has befallen many of the world’s languages, and it will claim many more over the next century as the giant global languages expand their dominance. These are all losses not only of cultural heritage, but also of the unique ways of seeing and experiencing the world that each different language provides. Yet he remained positive about the vibrancy of today’s Irish language community – its “creative writing is more vibrant now than it has ever been” – and the island’s increasing linguistic diversity, and hopeful that with courage and generosity we can create “a language community that genuinely embraces the entire population”.
Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian and writer