Thursday 14 February 2013

Celtic Roots Craic! 55 – Irish language- north and south

Drumballyroney School, Co. Down

I just learned something the other day that took me a bit by surprise.  Apparently, quite a number of people in east Belfast – usually referred to as 'Loyalist east Belfast!' – are taking a course in the Irish language! Now, to those of you who live in far off places that may not seem such a strange thing – after all, it IS our own language, is it not? But if you have ever spent any length of time in this part of the world, you would soon learn that such a thing has been unheard of for decades.

Part of the reason for that was that Protestants swallowed the propaganda that claimed the Irish language for the Republican Movement. Obviously, then, it was something that Loyalists should avoid like the plague. So, it's a great sign of 'normalisation' that ordinary people from east Belfast should not only be learning Irish, but that no one is voicing any objection to this. The truth, of course, is that for many years the Irish language was kept alive mainly by Presbyterians and other Protestant intellectuals – clergymen, mostly. The first book in any Gaelic language was published in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1564 – a translation of John Knox's book, 'Liturgy'. The first book in Irish to be printed in Ireland was a Protestant catechism, using Gaelic script.

Irish was spoken by the majority, even in the north of Ireland, up until 1800, or so. When Queen Victoria came to visit Belfast (after Cork and Dublin) in August 1849 (during the Irish Famine), one of the things she noted in her diary was that most of the banners she saw contained the Irish motto, 'Cead mile failte' (a hundred thousand welcomes). Though Belfast was a completely Unionist governed town at that time, nobody felt they were not also Irish.

The British Government prohibited the teaching of Irish in schools. And, strangely enough, the Roman Catholic Church discouraged the learning of Irish in their National Schools until about 1890, seeing it as backward and learning English as the way to better yourself – especially in the British Empire and in America. Even the reformer Daniel O'Connell and other Irish political leaders saw Irish as a backward language.

The Famine itself had removed many native Irish speakers – either by death or emigration – and it was left to Protestant clergymen to instigate moves to preserve and restore the language. Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, founded the Gaelic League in 1893, to preserve the Irish language. A branch was formed in Belfast in 1895. Speaking in New York in 1905, he said, 'The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither a Unionist nor a Separatist.'

At that time there was also a revival of interest in Gaelic sports and the Abbey Theatre was launched in Dublin, which performed plays about Ireland, though still written in English. Well known writers such as W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, Sean O'Casey and Lady Gregory were involved in this. Their writing utilised Hiberno-English – the version of English spoken in Ireland – which used many idioms from the Irish language.

Many of those who came to govern the new Free State after independence from England, were influenced by the Gaelic League. Unfortunately, it was infiltrated by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and developed radical nationalist aims, with the result that, in 1915, Douglas Hyde resigned as president in protest. From then on the Irish Language became more and more a symbol of the Republican Movement and Presbyterians took less interest in the language because of this.

The new Irish Government continued to use English for all official business, although Government employees had to have a qualification in Irish to apply for a position – though they never had to speak it after they were employed. Irish was made a compulsory subject in schools. To become a teacher you had to have an Irish qualification, though again, all teaching was done in English.

In Northern Ireland the Unionist government discouraged the learning of Irish and the number of Irish speakers declined greatly. The last native Irish speaker here, from Rathlin Island in Co. Antrim, died in 1983. Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 Irish was given official recognition and many of the new integrated schools teach the language. Six families established a Gaeltacht in west Belfast back in the 60s, and now there are many Irish language Primary Schools in Northern Ireland and at least four Secondary Schools. The enthusiasm for learning Irish among working class Protestants in east Belfast is a very new departure and it'll be interesting to see how that develops!

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