An Irishman's Diary


WHEN the House of Commons met on February 19th, 1901 – Shrove Tuesday – there was a full agenda.New bills tabled for eventual discussion, and in many cases for consignment to the legislative dustbin, included measures to prevent the sale of intoxicating drink to children, to restrict the daily working hours of coal-miners to eight, to provide pensions for the aged poor, to improve the conditions of tenants in the cities, towns, and villages of Ireland, to give the franchise to women on the same terms as men, and to abolish the representation of universities in parliament.

MPs reacted by voting themselves a day off on Ash Wednesday and then got on with Question Time.

One member was worried that army horses in the South African war were being slowed by the weight of their riders and was assured by the Secretary for War that men more than 5ft 8ins in height were not used as cavalry .

John Dillon, the member for Waterford, asked why the men of the Dublin Fusiliers and the Gordon Highlanders weren’t receiving the same pay as the Imperial Yeomanry.

Dr Thomas MacNamara, the member for Camberwell, claimed that some widows and children of soldiers killed in the war had to enter poorhouses in Ireland.

J.J. Shee, the member for Waterford West, was anxious about the postal services in Dungarvan .

Thomas Lough, the member for Islington, complained about the placement of the members’ stand during the funeral procession for Queen Victoria.

J.P Farrell, the member for Longford North, wanted to know if the railway line could be extended from Granard to Oldcastle. And Patrick O’Brien, the member for Kilkenny, made mischief by asking if, in view of the fact that the king, the head of the armed forces, had denounced the “superstitious and idolatrous practices of the Church of Rome” in his coronation oath, the government would cease to pay Catholic military chaplains.

Most of the questions were expertly stonewalled by ministers and the previous day’s debate on the King’s Speech was then resumed, mainly with contributions about the war in South Africa.

Towards teatime, the House had to adjourn for lack of a quorum but word spread that, when proceedings resumed, the Irish had something planned. A large number of MPs therefore went into the chamber for the late session. The first speaker up was the new MP for Kerry West, Thomas O’Donnell, who, without preamble, stated in Irish that “as an Irishman from an Irish-speaking constituency, a member of a nation which still preserves a language of its own and is still striving bravely for freedom. . .”

The Speaker called for order and instructed him to speak in English. But O’Donnell continued in Irish: “Is it not true that Irish is my native language, the language of my ancestors, the language of my country”?.

When the Speaker intervened again, John Redmond rose to say that he had heard Maori members of the New Zealand legislature speak in their own language, and Edmund Leamy, the member for Kildare, added that when Irish chieftains came to England “representing the old Irish parliament” they were allowed to use their native tongue.

The Speaker replied that there was no precedent for the use of Irish in the 600 years’ history of parliament and that although Irish members had sat at Westminister for over a century, none of them had ever expressed any grievance over the issue. He added, patronisingly, that he was sure the honourable member would be able to address the House in English “with the usual eloquence of his countrymen”.

Redmond defused the issue by suggesting to O’Donnell that he accept the Speaker’s ruling and refuse to speak further for the time being, while reserving his right to use Irish in future.

The debate on the war then resumed, with James Daly, the member for Monaghan South, claiming that the hostilities had been provoked for the benefit of land-grabbers and stock-grabbers, and that members of the government and their families would benefit from the supply of stores and ammunition.

The editors of Hansard met the challenge presented by O’Donnell. They included his words, set in the old Irish type complete with aspirates, in the body of their report, and gave his own translation as a footnote.

Some years later, John Pius Boland, the member for Kerry South, was allowed to speak in Irish at a meeting of a grand committee to discuss a Scottish bill, and on one occasion the Chief Secretary, George Wyndham, used the language with devastating effect:

An Irish MP, while denouncing the alleged deficiencies of the Congested Districts Board, shouted “Look at Kiltymagh!”

“Coillte Magh”, Wyndham corrected him languidly.

More than a century later, on May 16th, 2007, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, speaking to a joint sitting of the Lords and Commons, used a few words in Irish to thank prime minister Tony Blair for the “great help” he had given to “the peace process”, but his remarks were delivered in the adjacent Royal Gallery rather than in the Commons chamber.

As far as I know, there is no other recent record of attempts to use Irish or any other foreign language in the Palace of Westminster, but perhaps some Northern Ireland MP may try again in the future.