Franco’s facism couldn’t kill Catalan. Peig’s prose couldn’t save Irish
As Seachtain na Gaeilge begins, could Ireland learn lessons from Barcelona, where 40 per cent of people speak Catalan as their everyday language?
Pushing for change: Catalonia’s independence movement, like Ireland’s, sprang from a cultural renaissance. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty
A notable feature of life in Barcelona for an outsider is the pervasiveness of Catalan. In bars, at bus stops and everywhere else you hear this strange slurping sound.
The language is more than a dialect of Spanish. Closer to French than to Castilian Spanish, it’s a Romance language, like Spanish, French and Portuguese, that grew out of the vulgar Latin spoken by the conquering Romans two millennia ago.
About 40 per cent of people in Barcelona speak Catalan as their everyday language, according to Òmnium, an organisation which promotes Catalan culture; the language is understood by up to 10 million people, and its tentacles reach into southern France, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Sardinia.
In Ireland in 2011, according to the Central Statistics Office, only 77,185 people spoke Irish in their daily lives. Compared with the life-support-machine status of the Irish language – which will be celebrated in the annual Seachtain na Gaeilge, starting tomorrow – Catalan’s vibrancy is striking.
The independence movements in both Ireland and Catalonia sprang from cultural renaissances in the second half of the 19th century. While Douglas Hyde and his cohort promoted Irish, arts and Gaelic games, a similar cultural revival, renaixença, flowered in Catalonia.
Here, the birth of the Irish Free State and, later, the Republic could have given the Irish language a boost, but it didn’t.
The oppression was relaxed a little in the 1960s, but the Spanish government still felt moved to intercede in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. At the last minute the lyrics for Spain’s entry were changed from Catalan to Spanish, and Massiel, a young female singer from Madrid, stood in for the Barcelonian singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat. Massiel’s song, La, La, La, pipped the UK entry (Congratulations, sung by Cliff Richard) by a point.
In Catalonia in the early 1970s, Spanish was the language of the authorities, of school teachers and of the police who bludgeoned demonstrators with batons. As Colm Tóibín notes in Homage to Barcelona, it became hip to speak Catalan, like it was cool to smoke dope or own a Bob Dylan record. There was no equivalent trendy vibe for Irish youngsters reading Peig Sayers at the time.
The Anglo-Irish academic Arland Ussher described Irish as the “ great language of conversation, of quips, hyperboles, cajoleries, lamentations, blessings, cursings, endearments, tirades. Its unsuspecting rhythm had even given an intimate and personal quality to the great writers of English. It was the winged word in its flight that was beautiful. Stuffed and mounted on the page of a school book, it stank.”
There’s a lustre to Catalan that the Irish language has never matched. “No one has explained why the Irish people abandoned their language. In other countries, like in Catalonia, people have become bilingual,” says Tóibín, who owns a holiday home in the Pyrenees mountains outside Barcelona. “It’s very, very unusual.”
“One of the things that preserved the Catalan language,” says Muriel Casals, president of Òmnium, “is that the bourgeoisie kept speaking Catalan. They didn’t change to Spanish. It gave Catalan a social prestige. In Valencia, if you made money, you started speaking Spanish [not the local dialect]. That’s fatal for any language.”
Franco died in 1975; Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 regions, regained its autonomy in 1980. Today its parliament is pushing for full independence, and a de facto referendum on separation will be held on September 27th.
Education in Catalan began in the region’s schools only in the early 1980s. As in Ireland, the decision to have education in Catalan is resented by some. Jordi Cañas, a member of the Catalan parliament for Ciutadans, a party that opposes anti-Spain sentiment in Catalonia, says, “The political strategy of nationalist parties in Catalonia is to try to make Catalan the only language. To be a lecturer in university you have to have ‘level C’ in Catalan. Nobody cares if you have a Nobel prize.
“You can speak and read Catalan, but if you can’t write Catalan you can’t get a job in the civil service,” he says. “It’s a filter. Imagine if, in Ireland, the government says in schools we’re not going to speak in English, that the media will be all in Irish. For sure, you’d have a process of Gaelicisation.”
Joan Maria Pou is a radio presenter with RAC1, a Catalan radio station. “ ‘Why do you speak Catalan?’ I have to answer this question all the time,” he says. “I travel with Barça to stadiums for all its matches around Europe, to commentate for the radio station. A lot of people ask me, ‘Why do you speak in Catalan?’ ‘Well, Chinese speak in Chinese. It is my language,’ I say.
“There are a lot of Catalan people who speak Catalan and they feel Spanish. It’s not a political thing. When I was one year old, if I was afraid, my father sang for me a song in Catalan, not because he was a separatist or a radical but because he was using our language. Catalan is a tool to communicate. It’s not a flag.”