Sunday 15 December 2019

Why we need to mind our language and avoid getting into a pointless war of words

"Sticks and stones may break my bones/But names will never hurt me"

Joe McHugh, Minister for the Gaeltacht
Joe McHugh, Minister for the Gaeltacht

Of all the pieces of folk wisdom in the English language, this one has to be among the most misleading. Names do hurt. Words can be very cutting weapons. Bones will often heal faster than damaged human psyches. And, at all events, verbal violence is often a prelude to physical attack.

The Irish have a way with words and an accompanying talent for invective which can mix the high-flown with the most banal. And some of the best examples of cutting words came in national controversy surrounding compulsory Irish which was stoked by the short-lived "Language Freedom Movement" (LFM) in the 1960s.

The LFM in reality got their way in 1973 when the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition abolished the proviso that a student who failed Irish in the Leaving Cert was deemed to have failed the entire exam. They also abolished a proviso that a pass in Leaving Cert Irish was a requirement to get into the Civil Service.

One bitter opponent of the LFM famously described them as: "Protestants, descendants of those who collaborated with the British, upper-class 'Castle Catholics', those influenced by Anglo-American culture, and people who failed Irish in the Leaving Certificate examination."

Yes, the rhetoricometer was doing handstands for that one. Call me a Protestant Castle Catholic – but leave the Leaving Cert results out of it.

Even 50 years on it makes for distressing reading. More than anything else it speaks to much wasted energies on all sides.

This issue and many more are evoked in a diamond of a book called 'Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537 – 2004'. I would make everybody read this before they ever opened their mouth to debate the language issue. But then again, I just remembered, I'm supposed to be against compulsion.

It's written by the academic Tony Crowley and was published back in 2005 and I pored over it again last week when controversy erupted about the appointment of Joe McHugh as the Gaeltacht Minister without much Irish.

It deals with a vast number of 'factoids' about the Irish language and tries to set them in context. The Irish language has been associated with extreme nationalism. The link is undeniable but it is also true that the nationalists have also done their share of damage to the Irish language.

The constitutional nationalists from Daniel O'Connell on at best did not bother with it. Physical force nationalists saw the language movement mainly as a useful vehicle to push the main issue of defeating Britain and did damage in dividing Conradh na Gaeilge.

Irish has been characterised as linked to extreme and intolerant Catholicism. Again there is some link here. It must also be acknowledged that many notable Catholic priests were keen students and promoters of the language. But overall the official Catholic Church did little or nothing beyond helping promote the spread of English.

The reality is that the stereotypical "Gaeilgoir" – as someone with a fainne, a pledge badge, rosary beads and a ceramic Easter lily – is about as accurate as our buddy's characterisation of the LFM members cited above. And it is nowhere near as entertaining.

In fact, the late great John B Keane was a prominent LFM member. His writings get to the soul of Ireland and its people. John B also wrote and spoke Irish all his life. But I digress.

The main point I want to make is that the dismaying decision to give that particular job to the fine gentleman that is Joe McHugh will cause renewed debate about Irish. And that risks bringing us back to the bad old days of cutting invective. We do not need to do that and we must avoid it at all costs.

What we could do is have a real debate about all of the languages in Ireland today. The 'new Irish' who have come among us bring a rich storehouse of culture. It would be no load for us to learn a little more about them.

Language is a central element in culture and identity and debate about it can be passionate and difficult. But there is no law which states they have to be about vulgar abuse.

There is an old Belgian joke about the Flemish man on holiday in the Swiss capital, Berne, being astounded to find a plaque which read: Department of the Marine.

"Why a Marine Department in landlocked Switzerland?" he inquired from a local. "You're Flemish and in Flanders you have a Department of Culture," came the reply.

Of course that version is told by the French-speakers and there's a reverse version for Flemish-speakers. It also reminds us that we are not the only country which has its 'wars of words'.

I'll give the last word to Tony Crowley the author of 'Wars of Words'. "The languages of the island of Ireland form part of its cultural wealth. All forms of wealth can be a source of division or common good; it's a choice."

John Downing

Irish Independent

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