Monday, January 6, 2014

"...the Irish language is not worth knowing..." the real and present danger!

Several things stirred me during the Christmas period. Two interviews with poets, an article in the Irish Times and a blog article from the prolific keyboard of journalist Concubhar Ó Liatháin.

Irish fiction?
The first was a television interview conducted by Morning Ireland's Cathal Mac Coille with the vetern poet and writer, still happily with us, Máire Mhac an tSaoi. This was a delightful hour or so where both writer and interviewer truly understood each other and where, as far as one could see there a genuine but not restrictive respect, affection and understanding between the interviewer and interviewee. Difficult questions were asked and answered and there were some beautiful moments where this over eighty year old poet recited some of her poems as part of the programme.

The second interview was one of the late Nobel Lauriate, Séamus Heaney by Olivia O'Leary. Again this was a wonderful piece of radio this time in front of an audience and again the interviewer showed her knowledge and respect for the poet. One of her questions however pulled me up short. She was asking if he ever felt drawn into the English "niceness" (I think was the word she used!). This is the way in which she felt that the English tried to "own one." She then said that when she was a broadcaster with the BBC long ago, she was very conscious of the possiblity of loosing her "Irishness" which she identified as her accent. That she always insisted in pronouncing the "R" in "Arthur Scargill" the Irish way.

It struck me as sad that this intelligent woman would not have had this problem in asserting her Irishness had she been in full possession of that most identifiable and unique attribute of Irishness, the language. She would perhaps never have feared this sublimation into Englishness and been like, say the brodcaster from Llanelli's Hew Edwards, a stalwart of BBC News. I cannot imagine this would have occured to Máire Mhac an tSaoi in all her international appointments or to her interviewer.

Irish fiction?
An article in this weekend's Irish Times was on a visit to the Dublin Writers' Museum by Rosita Boland. She mentons that it is twenty years since she last visited the museum. She was puzzeled by one of the display cases. "There is the same seemingly random pairing of featured writers in certain display cases. Samuel Beckett and Máirtín Ó Cadhain share one such space. At first, I think it’s because they were both born in 1906, as the text panels note, but the audio guide informs me it’s because they both “chose not to write in English”.

That immediately struck a chord as Concuubhar Ó Liatháin in his iGaeilge blog, recently commented on a new laureate (Irish), which includes a payment of €150,000, to be be awarded to "what the Arts Council describes as “an outstanding fiction writer”, writing in the English language." I must say his somwhat acerbic comment expresses a view with which I wholeheartedly agree! Should the Irish taxpayers' money be spent in promoting English language fiction or is it possible that Irish fiction and fiction in Irish are not the same?

In a recent (and unique) hour-long interview on Raidío na Life (Irish) our Taoiseach stated that he asked the English Queen Elizabeth II, during her historic visit to Ireland, what she thought the greatest gift England had given Ireland. She replied, "The English language." The Taoiseach agreed with her and indeed, incredulously, admitted this in the broadcast. One wonders if he ever read the address delivered by Douglas Hyde, later first President of Ireland, in 1893. (Arguably without this address he would not be Taoiseach at all!) "I have often heard people thank God that if the English gave us nothing else they gave us at least their language. In this way they put a bold face upon the matter, and pretend that the Irish language is not worth knowing, and has no literature. But the Irish language is worth knowing, or why would the greatest philologists of Germany, France, and Italy be emulously studying it, and it does possess a literature, or why would a German savant have made the calculation that the books written in Irish between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and still extant, would fill a thousand octavo volumes."

Maybe we could all do with reading his short address to realise that "in Anglicising ourselves wholesale we have thrown away with a light heart the best claim which we have upon the world's recognition of us as a separate nationality."

Indeed the words of the Coimisinéir Teanga to the Oireachtas Committee last December (2013) could well be regarded as an echo: "As we begin to regain our economic sovereignty, it would be a travesty if we were to lose our linguistic sovereignty – a cornerstone of our cultural identity, heritage and soul as a nation. I believe this to be a clear and present danger." (Translation)

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