National question & Irish Language

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Thu Feb 1 02:43:58 MST 2001

In his interesting post on The National Question, Lou writes:

>would have probably opposed bilingual education, as some dogmatic Marxists
>do. He concluded that the languages of the small Slavic nationalities and
>the Gaelic tongue in Ireland had no future. At most, they would remain in
>"domestic use" the way that "old family furniture" is taken out on special
>occasions but has little practical value.

I don't know anything about the languages of the small Slavic
nationalities, but if this was what Kautsky said about the Irish language
(or 'Gaelic' in Ireland), then he was certainly right.

Hardly anyone in Ireland these days speaks Irish.  This is not primarily
because of repression.  Quite the contrary.  Irish is the official first
language of the southern state and you have to pass Irish in order to get
the Leaving Certificate at high school.  This has been the case for many
decades, yet the language has continued to decline.

This may be sad, but it is a product of changing times.  You simply cannot
artificially preserve languages, even if you make them the 'national'
language and force-feed them to your school children.  Many young people in
the southern state associate the Irish language with coercion and
conservatism and narrow-minded parochialism and regard the English language
as almost liberating.

Within the republican movement there has long been debate over the
language.  Formally, the movement was committed to its preservation but,
frankly, most members weren't much interested.  When I was in Sinn Fein I
made three attempts to learn Irish.  The attempt I made with a group of
other SF members ended when, over a period of weeks, they all stopped going
to the class and I, a NZer was the only local SFer left trying to learn
Irish.  I realised then, there was no point.

In fact, it was interesting to see how the language and cultural questions
served a quite conservative purpose in the Movement.  The more the Movement
as a whole retreated from the struggle for national liberation, the more it
emphasised cultural issues.

At an ard fheis (national conference) around 1990 (can't remember exact
year), the leadership, at the behest of the Cultural Dept of the party,
decided to have simultaneous translations for all delegates.  This meant
hiring headphones for all the delegates - hundred and hundreds of seats of
headphones.  You could have Irish or English broadcast to you through the
headphones.  Since every single member spoke English - and the vast
majority (probably about 95-99 percent) spoke English as their first
language this was truly bizarre.  Surreal, even.  You had people whose
first language was English wearing headphones translating delegates
speeches in English into Irish, the headphone wearers' second language.

This palaver cost quite a lot of money, and alot of people in Sinn Fein
were highly pissed off that valuable funds were being frittered away in
this nonsensical exercise.  Moreover, the people who were the most pissed
off were working class members from poor urban areas, and the people most
keen on the surreal exercise were middle-class cultural types.

The more these latter people came to the fore in the Movement, the more the
movement settled for identity politics in place of national liberation.
The more the Movement moved away from national liberation (and socialism),
the more you found the cultural brigade assuming more power in SF.

Frankly, it doesn't matter what language people speak in a free Ireland.
But, most likely, they would speak English.  As long as there are
facilities there which make Irish freely available, I see nothing at all
wrong with English as the first language of Ireland.  And, at least school
children would be saved from having the turgid and banal doings of the life
of Peig Sayers forcibly drummed into them!

Philip Ferguson

"Don't Dream It - Extreme It" (Lana Coc Kroft)

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