O'byrne a strange native language
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  • 1. Social IdentitiesVol. 13, No. 3, May 2007, pp. 307 Á 323Learning a Strange Native LanguageAnne O’ByrneThe colonial practice of destroying native cultures and supressing native languages isalready familiar; less thoroughly investigated is the set of practices adopted by newlyindependent (or simply new) nations in an effort to re-establish (or simply establish) acultural and national identity, particularly insofar as that involves attempting to revive(or invent) a dead or moribund language. Here I bring Derrida’s work to bear on theseissues through an examination of the fate of the Irish language after colonization. Can apopulation now monolingual in the language of the coloniser be convinced thatacquisition of its no-longer-native native language is a cultural imperative? How todescribe the experience of a population upon whom this imperative is officially imposedby a state apparatus that is no longer that of the coloniser? In what sense is this unknownlanguage its own? In what sense is this state apparatus or this culture its own? How is thispeculiar split in the identity of such a nation-state to be understood? How is such anentity to understand itself in the midst of a post-national Europe?On 6 December 1921, as Eamonn De Valera was arriving at the Mansion House inDublin for a cultural event, he was met by two Sinn Fein colleagues with urgent newsof the Anglo-Irish treaty (O’Leary, 1994, p. 496). The treaty*signed in London thatmorning*would grant independence to most of the island of Ireland and end thewar of Independence but would also soon plunge the country into civil war; bycreating both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland it would set the conditionsfrom which the Troubles would erupt in the north some 50 years later. Meanwhile,the scholarly gathering over which de Valera would preside that evening was acolloquium marking the 600th anniversary of the death of Dante and would include alecture on ‘the question of the language in Italy in the time of Dante compared withthe question of the Irish language in Ireland at present’ and a comparison of themeters used by Dante and those of Old Irish poetry. Thus the man who would longpreach the virtues of a frugal, pious, isolated, inward-looking, Irish-speaking Irelandand would, in 1937, introduce a constitution that attempted to make that vision law,Anne O’Byrne, Department of Philosophy, Hofstra University, Hempstead NY 11549, USA. Email:phiaeo@hofstra.eduISSN 1350-4630 (print)/ISSN 1363-0296 (online) # 2007 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/13504630701363952
  • 2. 308 A. O’Byrnecould, on that evening on the threshold of the era of independence in 1921, celebratethe ties that bind Ireland to the cultures and languages of Europe. At that point the Irish language could indeed appear to be poised on the thresholdof a grand new era. It had declined slowly over centuries of colonial British rule but,due to famine and mass emigration, the decline had become precipitous in theprevious 80 years, with the number of Irish speakers reaching its lowest (recorded)ebb of 13.3% of the population in 1911 (Hughes, 2001, p. 115). But the campaign torestore the language was already 40 years old and closely allied to the nationaliststruggle for independence, so it could be taken for granted that complete restorationwas at hand. In 1919 Peadar Mac Fhionnlaoich wrote: ´ Everyone knows that if the Dail [Irish parliament] takes control of the country * and everyone knows that there is at least a chance that it will *the Irish language will be restored to preeminence in every part of the country. (Mac Fhionnlaoich, 1919, p. 170, quoted in O’Leary, 1994, p. 496)Even among those keenly aware that this was going to be a difficult task there was nodoubt that it was a quite necessary undertaking: We have to restore the Irish language, and only few realize what a gigantic duty it will be to restore a language which has for generations been used only by a few peasants, which most of us learn as we would learn French, which has no literature ´ in modern times, and a completely archaic vocabulary. (M.OT., quoted in O’Leary, 2004, p. 20)From the point of view of such clear-eyed optimism, what in fact happened to theIrish language after independence is a puzzle; the restoration, after almost a century ´of Dail control, has not been achieved. Of course, optimism and devoted energy arenot enough, and we would have no good reason to be puzzled if that were all that theproject of restoration had going for it. Yet it has had enormous institutional andpolitical support; it was made the first official language of the state; street signsappear in both Irish and English; vast resources have been poured into Irisheducation; Irish is studied in every school and university in the country. Yet, evengiven this, the language is not pre-eminent. It is a national first language that is thefirst language of less than 5% of the population and the second language of less than30% (Hughes, 2001, p. 111). It is a language I studied on the five days of every schoolweek between the ages of 4 and 16 and that I now reserve for the clumsy andgrammatically atrocious conversations I have with the Irish parents of my English-born nieces when we do not want the children to understand what we have to say. In addition*and this is what is of greater interest to me here*the movement forlanguage restoration has had at its disposal a powerful national rhetoric with the ´Herder-inspired slogan ‘Nı tir gan teanga’*there is no country without alanguage*as one of its central claims. This is the very rhetoric that generatedthe received account of the nation’s story as that of a long struggle against theconquering power stretching from 1169 to 1921 and*as far as Northern Ireland is
  • 3. Social Identities 309concerned*beyond; because these centuries of domination by the British meant theloss of the Irish language, surely the end of that domination could be expected tomean its restoration. In other words, the nationalist rhetoric that generated theexpectation gives us no tools with which to explain its disappointment. The failure ofrestoration, then, is not the deepest puzzle. Nevertheless, debate over that failure and that puzzle continues, and on manylevels. Hindley (1990) and Carnie (1995) judge the failure to be all but complete andpoint, among other things, to the overwhelming force of English as a tool foreconomic liberation, to poor methods of teaching Irish and to the lack of aconnection between teaching of Irish in schools and encouraging its use as home.Slomanson (1994) argues that language will not be transmitted naturally if it is taughtlargely as a subject in the way maths or history is taught but, rather than pronouncingIrish dead, he proposes fostering a certain level of Irish monolingualism in order to ´make possible language transmission. O Laoire (1996) asks specifically what allowedthe restoration of Hebrew as the national language of Israel while Irish fared so poorlyin Ireland by comparison, and argues that the motivation of Jewish and then Israelinationalism has had an overwhelming ideological component that was lacking oronly secondary in the case of Ireland. However, in the midst of such research and such debate, my aim is to ask not whyrestoration failed but the prior question of how it came to be, both as a dream and asa project. Encouraged by Derrida’s unravelling in The Monolingualism of the Other(1998) of his particular experience of French and Arabic growing up in Algeria and byhis thought’s insistence on uncovering the deeper puzzles embedded in all language, Iask here what his thought of a jealous rage of language appropriation can tell usabout the nationalist struggle to make the Irish language pre-eminent. Also, how isthe desire we share for the prior-to-the-first language revealed in post-colonialIreland’s project of a return to a pre-colonial language? Finally, since the question ofthe Irish language now also occurs in the context of a rapidly integrating Europe,what can be gained from also turning to The Other Heading (1992), one of Derrida’sconsiderations of the phenomenon of Europe? Can we understand the fate of the Irishlanguage in the terms offered there, that is, cultural fragmentation, centralization andthe gap that separates them? I will argue that what Ireland has experienced (and continues to experience) is adoubled alienation. There is alienation involved not only in the loss of a languageunder the pressure and violence of colonisation, but also, it turns out, in theattempted restoration of the all-but-lost national language precisely insofar as it is anattempt to make good the loss. If the restoration of a national language is presentedas the healing of an inflicted alienation and operates under the promise of wholeness,it compounds rather than cures alienation. The jealous rage of coloniality thatDerrida describes is succeeded, in the aftermath of colonisation, by the jealous rage oflanguage; so long as we understand such rages as particular they carry the promisethat they can be vented and overcome, that the hurt that generated them can behealed, that the demands they make can be satisfied. This is the mistake. What
  • 4. 310 A. O’ByrneDerrida reminds us is that, together, these peculiar alienations must direct us insteadto the ‘abiding alienation that, like ‘‘lack’’, appears to be constitutive’ (Derrida, 1998,p. 25). They are exemplary in a way that, being unique demonstrates more vividly astructure that is universal (p. 20). After all, the Irish language has not been restored and the alienation of its loss as thepre-eminent language of Ireland and/or the Irish has not been overcome. Thatconstitutive alienation is such that we are denied the satisfaction of completeness atevery turn. In the case of Ireland, the power of the Irish language to unify thepopulation of the island was never complete, not even before 1169, given that the twopreceding centuries had seen Viking invaders establish towns on the East coast thatwere not and did not ever become Irish-speaking. The subsequent loss of the languagewas never itself complete, and, by the same token, the failure of restoration has been anincomplete failure. Despite everything, the language does survive and in many formsnever anticipated by those who looked forward, at the founding of the state, to therapid restoration of a pre-colonial linguistic inheritance. Even if it does not live asthe hubbub of the streets of Dublin, it does on the roads of the Dingle Peninsula andthe homes of the Belfast Gaeltacht, in contemporary poetry and prose, on the nationalIrish language television station TG4 and, still, in every primary and secondary schoolin the country. And if the linguistic experience of colonialism is understood to includenot only the travails of the Irish language under imperialism but also the fate of theEnglish language made local in Ireland, it is a lively survival indeed.1 If the experience of native and national language after colonisation is understoodin this way, it is only to be expected that the sporadic debates on the status of the Irishlanguage should*as indeed they do*show both pride and resentment, nostalgia foran old Ireland and enthusiasm for a new Europe, a desire to abandon the project ofrestoration and an insistence that it is still possible, the assumption of culture as amonolith and intimations of the multi-cultural Ireland to come.National Language, Native LanguageIn the National Gallery of Ireland, one wall of the old building’s largest hall isoccupied by Daniel Maclise’s monumental 1854 canvas ‘The Marriage of PrincessAoife of Leinster with Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (Strongbow)’. In thecentre of the painting stand the bride and groom, she young, fair, tiny and in anattitude of pained submissiveness, he tall, stern, exuding an aura of barelysuppressed violence. The eye moves from the figure of the bride to the nobleGaels in the foreground, (semi-)clad in flowing, richly-coloured robes, the womenwailing in grief, half of the men poetically dead, the other half crouched but baringtheir chests and clenching their teeth, furious and emasculated. Behind and overthem stands an army of Normans, each soldier dressed in chain mail and standingto attention. The foreground is ablaze with light; a dark pall hangs over the middleground. Thus the old Gaelic order met its doom. The Norman gloom took the
  • 5. Social Identities 311place of Gaelic light and all that happened from then until now was determined onthat wedding day. Maclise’s painting is the very image of the nineteenth century myth of RomanticIrish nationalism, a myth that has been tweaked, rejected, surpassed, overcome,sublimated and complicated in academic and literary discourse but that remains ´astounding in its resilience. It is the myth that gives colour to Sean O Ceallaigh’s ´exclamation, on the eve of the first meeting of Dail Eireann in 1919: When the national assembly is convened more Irish will be heard spoken by its members than in any parliament in Ireland since the Norman invasion . . . A parliament with Irish as its ordinary official language *what a wonderful advance! ´ ´ (O Huallachain, 1994, p. 31) ´That is to say, independence was to be a revival of Gaelic Ireland; the new Dail wouldallow the restoration of the Irish language and thus the experience of 800 years ofcolonization would be . . . what? Overcome? Or elided? That it should be forgottenwas a natural hope, if not a reasonable expectation, for anyone convinced of thereceived account*which is certainly the one I received in primary school in Irelandin the 1970s*of the decline of the Irish language. The beginning of the end came inthe late twelfth century when Norman adventurers arrived in Ireland, invited by alocal king to help in a struggle with his neighbours. The Normans came and foughtbut did not go home again; their leader, Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare (Strongbow),married Aoife and soon there were aristocratic Norman families*Fitzgerald,Lambert, Roche*established throughout the Eastern part of the country. There, in the classroom where I learned this history, we already had the evidencethat could complicate the story. Majella Fitzgerald sat three rows from me. Elsewherein the town, the shop where we bought sweets was run by my father’s cousin, JoeLambert; the chap from the Shamrock Hotel who played the guitar was Billy Roche.Normans, all of them, but that turned out to be alright once we learned, insubsequent lessons, that we could think of their ancestors as the Normans whobecame more Irish than the Irish themselves. Yet their absorption and the fact thatthey took up the Irish language was not allowed to interrupt the grand narrative ofdecline. After all, their wave of invasion would be followed by the Elizabethan wave ofthe sixteenth century, Cromwell and the planters of the seventeenth century, theenforcers of penal laws in through the eighteenth century and, while the process wasnot a steady one *there were long periods during which the colonial power appearedto lose interest in Ireland, and even granted a degree of independence under nativegovernments*the periods of mass settlement by colonists and energetic suppressionof the Irish population and the Irish language were indicative of the encroaching tide. ´ Sean de Freine argues that the claim of ‘800 years of oppression’, a frequent trope ofnationalist rhetoric, is deeply misleading; there was at most 320 years of active ´oppression beginning in the second half of the sixteenth century (de Freine, 1965,p. 20). Nevertheless, the received account can accommodate his argument since thegeneral trend was the same, and three and one fifth centuries is bad enough. Each
  • 6. 312 A. O’Byrnewave of colonisation, whenever it came, was a further blow to the Irish language ascolonists*bearers of the colonial language and culture*not only came to accountfor an ever greater portion of the population but, far more significantly, came tooccupy the locus of power. As a result, the Irish-speaking population had ever greaterincentives to adopt the new language first in the form of punishment for the use ofIrish and then in the necessity of English as a means of access to power. Even so, the period of 1200 to 1600 saw the flowering of Classical Irish. Thehouseholds of the native and Norman chieftains supported two classes of poet, the ´bards and the filı whose works survive today. In fact, a set of statutes*the Statutes ofKilkenny*had to be issued in 1366 to insist, among other things, that subjects of theEnglish crown speak English and thus avoid assimilation. As late as 1841 it was stillthe case that an estimated 50 per cent of the population of Ireland still spoke Irish.That is to say, centuries of colonial rule had severely damaged but not destroyed thelanguage. It had eliminated the Irish ruling class and all but ended the literarytradition, but had not managed to kill the language; famine and the haemorrhage ofemigration of the following decades would all but accomplish that. It is not aquestion of natural disaster delivering a sad but inevitable blow. Rather, the fact thatthe famine of 1845Á47 happened the way it did and had the consequences it had haseverything to do with the colonial power’s management of the Irish economy andIrish agriculture and with the patterns of land ownership and land use that haddeveloped in the aftermath of the plantations. The number of Irish speakers haddropped by half, to 23 per cent, by the time of the 1851 Census, and continued asteady decline reaching a low point in 1911. Meanwhile, the number of Irish-speakingmonoglots had fallen to less than 0.5% of the population (Hughes, 2001, p. 115). According to this scheme, the story of the loss of the language is part and parcel ofthe story of oppression by Britain, and so independence from Britain would meanrecovery from that oppression and, necessarily, the restoration of the language. Thenineteenth century rhetoric of nationhood found a ready audience in Ireland and withthe claim that Ireland was indeed a nation came the claim that it needed a distinctivenational language.2 The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 with the aim of preservingthe Irish language, extending its use as a spoken tongue, and encouraging the study ofexisting Irish language literature. Here, at last, a group was working to reverse thetrend of 800*or perhaps only 320*years. Now, the hope was the decline would bereversed and, with the founding of the Irish Free State in 1921, the weight ofoppression would be thrown off and the independent country could use its powers toaccomplish the restoration of what was, after all, Ireland’s own language. The statistics do show an improvement. In 1926 19 per cent of the populationdescribed itself as Irish-speaking, and the figures rose*23 per cent in 1936, 28 percent in 1971, all the way up to 32 per cent in 1981 (Hughes, 2001, p. 111). There isnow a national radio and a television station devoted to Irish-language programming;school children all learn Irish (sometimes in the very schools where their great-grandparents were punished for speaking Irish); government documents are typicallyavailable in both languages. This is what the restorers would have hoped for. Yet these
  • 7. Social Identities 313institutions are still, in the early twenty-first century, signs of a lack of anythingapproaching complete restoration rather than an indication of its accomplishment.Few people would use the language to buy a loaf of bread. There exists a lively Irish-language poetry and literature scene, and the classics of the literary tradition are stillstudied, but the language has not become the first language of the population. Of course the details of the national myth that are captured in MacLise’s paintingand that fuel disappointment in the project of restoration*that the island of Ireland,prior to 1169, was populated by racially, culturally and linguistically uncontaminatedCelts, noble and handsome people*were false. Pre-Norman Ireland may have beenIrish-speaking, but the language most probably existed in several distinct dialects,given the division of the country into as many as 150 petty kingdoms; it was hardly aland of peace and prosperity, given the endless wars between rival chieftains in theabsence of a strong central power; the people of Ireland were no pure Celtic race(whatever that would be) given that they had recently absorbed a population ofViking invaders-turned-settlers as the latest in a long series of migrants. Yet all of thisis mere detail compared with the more important fact that the myth provided a wayto elide the centuries (whether eight or three) of colonisation at a moment whenthose who were fighting for independence and those who were struggling to restorethe language had fixed their attention on the strength in the muscles of MacLise’sGaels and not on their reduction to frustration and impotence. How many would now acknowledge cherishing precisely this founding myth,outside the most deeply traumatised sectors of the nationalist/paramilitary commu-nity in Northern Ireland and the most sentimental Irish-American groups? Not many,but it is the myth upon which, as a schoolchild, my conception of Irish-ness wasfounded, which is also to say that it provided the context in which I learned the Irish ´language. In 1965, Sean de Freine, chief executive of the government Bord na Gaeilge[Irish Language Authority] wrote: to regard [the arrival of the first Normans in Co. Wexford in 1169] as the beginning of Ireland’s oppression and to bewail the bliss of preceding years ‘’ere Norman foot had dared pollute her independent shore’ is fanciful in the extreme. The arrival of ´ the Normans was not a tragedy. (de Freine, 1965, p. 20)Nevertheless, on Sunday afternoon family trips to the South Wexford coast in themid-70s, we would stop at the site of the Norman landing and as we children ran tothe beach or peered over the cliffs, some adult would invariably declare: ’Twas on the head at Baginbun That Ireland’s history was lost and won.In school, our classes would often begin with a prayer for the latest victims of violencein Northern Ireland, and would continue, in the early years, with legends of ´Cuchulainn and Fionn and the Red Branch Knights. Later, legends gave way to a noless colourful (hi)stories of rebellions and risings against the English, each one more
  • 8. 314 A. O’Byrneor less tragic, each one with its romantic heroes, each one a failure thanks to theperfidity of some traitor. In secondary school we studied James Clarance Mangan’s‘Vision of Connaught in the Thirteenth Century’ (1843) with no historical or ironicdistance. It’s first and last stanzas are indicative: I walked entranced Through a land of Morn; The sun, with wondrous excess of light, Shone down and glanced Over seas of corn And lustrous gardens aleft and right. Even in the clime Of resplendent Spain, Beams no such sun upon such a land; But it was the time, ’Twas in the reign, Of Cathal Mor of the Wine-red Hand. ... I again walked forth; But lo! the sky Showed fleckt with blood, and an alien sun Glared from the north, And there stood on high, Amid his shorn beams, a skeleton! It was by the stream Of the castled Maine, One Autumn eve, in the Teuton’s land, That I dreamed this dream Of the time and reign Of Cathal Mor of the Wine-red Hand!We approached the text as a testimony to the cultural destruction of the Normaninvasion rather than as an artifact of nineteenth century nationalism. We may as wellhave been living in 1843. All of which is to say that the gap between the reflections of a chief executive of agovernment authority and the teachers and pupils of a small town convent school wasgreat. Thus the spectre of the pre-Norman Celtic Ireland continues to haunt nationaldebates and discussions of the Irish language, allowing participants to forget thatIrish history has long been a story of invasion (of and by the Irish) and absorption ofthose invaders; that even those first Norman invaders quickly became native; that theoppressing power of the fourteenth century was vastly different from the power thatenforced the penal laws into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The questionthen becomes: to what extent were those who envisioned a joyful and enthusiasticrestoration of the Irish language and those who remain disappointed that this has nottaken place prey to the myth of the pre-Norman paradise and of the pure language
  • 9. Social Identities 315that never existed? To what degree is this myth still in place as the place-holder for analienation overcome?Prior-to-First-LanguageAfter all, how can a language be pure? Only as the prior-to-first language that is themanifestation of a desire. Derrida writes: Invented for the genealogy of what did not happen and whose event will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a prior to the first language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a ‘foreward’, or some lost language of origin. It can only be a target language or, rather, a future language, a promised sentence, a language of the other, once again, but entirely other than the language of the master or colonist, even though, between them, the two may sometimes show so many unsettling resemblances maintained in secret or held in reserve. (Derrida, 1998, p. 60)Ireland in the late nineteenth century had not evolved into a triumphant, noble,Celtic, Irish-speaking society. It had not successfully resisted the imperial power of ´England. It had not maintained the bards and the filı. It had not*self-assured,independent and prosperous*spared its people suffering and hunger. Such a state ofaffairs cannot go un-accounted for, and the accounting required the construction ofan imagined prior-to-domination way of being that could be re-established and aprior-to-first language that could be restored. It was a desire, as Derrida writes: to reconstruct, to restore, but it was really a desire to invent a first language that would be, rather, a prior-to-the-first language that would translate that memory . . . the memory of what, precisely, did not take place. (Derrida, 1998, p. 61) The language that is the first official language of Ireland today is certainly aninvented language. When the revival movement started there were two options opento it: to attempt to revive the language of Classical Ireland available through the richliterature that survived from that time, or to restore/preserve the ‘language of thepeople’ that survived in a few remote areas of the Western Seaboard. The choice wasquickly made in favour of the latter, but this ushered in a new set of issues: which‘language of the people’, or the language of which people? The Irish language haddeveloped into three or four distinct dialects and while each had its partisansclaiming that Donegal Irish was most accurate, or Munster Irish was most musical, orConnaught Irish had the most compelling contemporary literature, no one dialect,that is, no one ‘natural’ language, won out. In addition, many of the native speakerswere extremely poor, eking out a subsistence existence on the Aran or the BlasketIslands and illiterate in Irish and English. If Irish was to be a national language, Irishspeakers at least had to be mutually comprehensible, and the written language had tobe standardised. When, after years of research and work by government linguists, ´ ´n ´ilGramadach na Gaeilge agus Litriu na Gaeilge: an Caighdea Oifigiu [Grammar and
  • 10. 316 A. O’ByrneOrthography of Irish: the Official Standard], was published in 1958, the invention hadtaken place and, with the introduction of the Official Standard into the schools in1963, the place of the official version of the language in the symbolic order wassecured. Now at last the national language was (once again) one, and national unityin this one area was restored/produced. The fantasy that drove the restoration was the fantasy of the mother tongue: like thefantasy (or the nightmare) of a home in the womb, the mother tongue is that utopia,that no-place we dream of where we would be quite at home. Of course such a return isimpossible. We never are and never will be at home, and having or, more accurately, nothaving a lost mother tongue means having a category under which to classify one’shomesickness, and a distinct character to give that home. Instead of formless, universal,existential angst one has national, post-colonial, Irish longing. The resuscitation of theIrish language would be the homecoming, one that would never be accomplished. Under colonisation, the Irish-speaking population suffered alienation from itslanguage; the dis-alienation promised by independence and restoration was a secondalienation as the now English-speaking population had Irish legislated into the life ofthe new state. As Derrida writes, the prior-to-first language is always in danger of‘becoming or wanting to be another language of the master’ (Derrida, 1998, p. 62),and this was a process formulated, proposed and enforced by new masters. In ´February 1922, two months after the signing of the Treaty, Dail Eireann granted Irisha special place in the school curriculum; steps were taken to expand the use of thelanguage in the work of the Post Office; in 1923 it became a requirement that civilservants pass an Irish exam; in the same year, births, deaths and marriages were tobegin to be recorded in Irish alone; in 1928 a private member’s bill was passed by Dail ´Eireann making the language a requirement for practising law. From 1927, Irish hadto be taught at all recognised secondary schools; in 1932 it became a compulsorysubject for all students; in 1933 it was made a requirement for the School LeavingCertificate. Some time later, in 1943, an Irish exam was made compulsory forgraduation from primary school. That is to say, the new government had taken itupon itself to change the character of the population. The Minister of Education,Eoin Mac Neill, noted confidently in a memo of April 1924 that ‘the ministry ofeducation can and will Gaelicise the young people up to eighteen’ and went on toappeal to the other ministries for support in ‘keeping them Gaelicised when they ´ ´leave the schools’ (O Huallachain, 1994, p. 87). Not all elements of the new ruling elite were equally persuaded. In the debate overthe law that all births, deaths and marriages be registered in Irish, CountessMarkiewitz remarked: ‘It is not possible to revive Irish by law . . . compulsion is no ´ ´ ´good’ (O Huallachain, 1994, p. 85). Gavin Duffy, speaking in the same Dail debate,echoed her view: It is unfair, in the present state of Ireland, to compel numbers of people who have not our view to accept our Gaelic ideals. This proposal would be an oppressive one, ´ ´ and would be unfair to the majority of our countrymen. (O Huallachain, 1994, p. 85)
  • 11. Social Identities 317Michael Collins also weighed in: The proposal reminds me of the old GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] rule that Irish be spoken as much as possible, and that after 1912 nothing but Irish be used on the playing field. I believe that it is rather an unwise thing to put a definite date ´ ´ to a matter like this. (O Huallachain, 1994, p. 85)Nevertheless, the law making this use of Irish compulsory after 1 July 1923 was passedunanimously. Yet even Mac Neill would write in 1924: [P]urely bureaucratic and official favouring of Irish, in the absence of a strongly favourable public attitude would lead to no desirable result, nothing more than barren conformity . . . The truth is that a great deal is being done officially and governmentally in favour of Irish, [but] very little and much less than in the past is ´ ´ being done socially. (O Huallachain, 1994, p. 88) ´ Sean de Freine remarks that a crucial element of the failure of Irish in the schoolsto work the miracle of mass Gaelicisation*apart from the early lack of qualifiedteachers and antiquated teaching methods, both substantially remedied by the time ofmy schooldays*was the absence of an appreciation that what was under way was aform of social change. Schoolchildren were expected to respond to ‘rather vagueexhortations’ from those who felt that restoration of the language was simply ‘right’,people who unquestioningly accepted the dogma that a special language was ´ ´necessary for nationality (de Freine, 1965, pp. 117Á18). What, then, were De Freine’sown reasons for promoting the Irish language? In The Great Silence he could offer nomore than this: Irish nationality can be justified on the grounds that the Irish people have certain basic values and principles which are worth preserving . . . Since there is no reason for believing that the Irish are fundamentally different from the rest of the human race, there is no reason for believing that when it comes to preserving and developing their ideals and values, they can do without the cultural and institutional means [e.g., a distinctive language] which have been found to be ´ indispensable for others (de Freine, 1965, p. 114)Exhortations on the basis of ‘certain basic values’ are still hopelessly vague and, forschoolchildren, far less appealing than the stories of Celtic knights and queens anddoomed rebels. We did not appreciate that our Irish classes were part of a campaignof social change. We were living in a protracted nineteenth century, since those classesmade sense to us only in terms of a lost culture yet to be restored, the continuation ofa Celtic way of life cruelly interrupted by centuries of colonisation.Jealous Rage of Language AppropriationA reading such as this, one that concentrates attention on the pre- and post-colonial,effectively circumvents the experience of colonisation. According to this reading,there are reasons why the language shrank and threatened to die, but they are
  • 12. 318 A. O’Byrneultimately less important than the restoration of a pre-colonial language. In contrast,approaching the movement to restore Irish using the thought of a rage of languageappropriation focuses attention keenly on the functioning of that experience. It mustbegin with the particular form of colonial alienation described by Edouard Glissant inPoetique de la relation as the ‘non-mastery . . . of an appropriated language’ (Derrida,1998, p. 23). For those natives who have a first language distinct from the language oftheir colonial masters, to be colonised means to live in a situation dominated by andthrough and in a language which will never be their own, and in which they cannotimagine achieving mastery. Learning the coloniser’s language is not enough since theeffect is not lessened when the native no longer speaks the native language as hisnative language, that is, when the native’s first language is the colonial language. (Thiswas true of the vast majority of Ireland’s population in the years immediately beforeindependence.) The experience of non-mastery persists, supported by the operationof shibboleths of dialect and accent, and the colonised native’s experience is ever morean experience of alienation. Add to this the fact that Irish was helped in the last stages of its rapid decline by anactive repudiation of the language by native speakers. Parents would punish theirchildren for speaking Irish. Children were encouraged to report Irish-speaking amongtheir friends. It was not uncommon for a child to be made wear a tally stick, a piece ofwood worn on a string around the neck upon which an adult who heard the childlapse into Irish would make a mark; the child would later be slapped by her parents or ´ ´ ´teachers, once for every notch on the stick (de Freine, 1965, p. 73). Tomas O Ceallaighdescribed the experience of the language shift in the rural areas of Sligo andRoscommon. The grandparents knew scarcely any English; the parents acquired atolerable command of the language in school: When these people married they taught their children not the old speech that was honey on their lips, but the English which with so much pain they had acquired. They had been brought up in the belief that English was the top-notch of respectability, the key that opened Sesame . . . Irish was to their children an esoteric speech employed by their elders to express things not meant for their ears. (O ´ Ceallaigh, 1911, quoted by de Fre ´ ine, 1965, p. 74)As a result, the English spoken in Ireland retains the cadence and often the syntax ofIrish. (Note, for example, the tendency of speakers of Hiberno-English to avoid using‘Yes’ and ‘No’ which have no direct translations in Irish, e.g., ‘Will you go to thelibrary today?’ ‘I will.’) So, while people alienated themselves from the Irish languagein order to gain, through their own efforts, a language which might grant access toprosperity or a modicum of power, they would discover that, as speakers of a rich,colourful, weird English, they remained alienated from the language of their colonialmasters. This trajectory of alienation is inevitably launched from of an understanding of themaster as the master of the language, and an envy of that privilege. The mistake, asDerrida points out, is that:
  • 13. Social Identities 319 contrary to what one is often most tempted to believe, the master is nothing. And he does not have exclusive possession of anything. Because the master does not possess exclusively, and naturally, what he calls his language, because, whatever he wants or does, he cannot maintain any relations of property or identity that are natural, national, congenital or ontological, with it, he can [only] . . . pretend historically . . . to appropriate it in order to impose it as ‘his own’. That is his belief; he wishes to make others share it through the use of force or cunning; he wants to make others believe it as they do a miracle, through rhetoric, the school, or the army. (Derrida, 1998, p. 23)Yet, according to Derrida, this is only the first trick. Independence is the second. It will provide freedom from the first while confirming a heritage by internalizing it, by reappropriating it *but only up to a certain point, for, as my hypothesis shows, there is never any such thing as absolute appropriation or reappropriation. Because there is no natural property of language, language gives rise only to appropriative madness, to jealousy without appropriation. (Derrida, 1998, p. 24) Those who hoped (and hope) for a Gaelic revival certainly experienced this jealousrage of appropriation. Britain had its language, but Ireland had been robbed of itsIrish language or, in Derrida’s terms, Britain’s violence and cunning had succeeded inpersuading an element of its Irish subjects that English did belong to the British andwould always be an alien tongue in the mouth of a mere Irishman, an epithet thatwould be translated to ‘true Irishman’ by the revivalists. The very insistence that therecannot be a country without its distinctive language is a symptom of the madness ofthat appropriation. So too is the fetish of language purity, still played out in theBelfast Gaeltacht. While Irish speakers in the gaeltachts of Donegal or Kerry (that is,of the Irish Republic) are quite happy to refer to a bicycle, car and computer as ´bısical, carr agus compu´tear, the speakers of the Belfast Gaeltacht (at the embattledcentre of the Troubles in Northern Ireland) insist instead on the ‘properly’ Irish words ´n ´rothar, gluaistea agus rıomhaire. The problem is in mistaking colonial dominationfor ownership of a language, and mistaking the alienation experienced in the loss of alanguage under colonisation for an ailment that can be cured by the re-appropriationof that language or, indeed, by the appropriation of the colonial language. Yet it would be a mistake to ignore phenomena that suggest that this point isalready taken, even if only partly and in certain quarters. While there is still dismissalto be discerned in the insistence that authors such as Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and Heaneybe described as Anglo-Irish rather than Irish writers, and there are still those whoclaim without irony that the Irish language must resist contamination, as well asthose*and they must be included in this camp*who insist that the language isdead and gone, Irish does manage to survive in many and various hybrid andvariegated ways. For instance, one of the earliest innovations of the Irish languagetelevision station was a soap opera where characters lapsed contentedly between Irishand English much as Indian families lapse between Indian languages and English. Ashift in emphasis in the primary school history curriculum has students focus on
  • 14. 320 A. O’Byrnelocal history and has provided the forum for a fresh understanding of Irish andAnglicised-Irish place names.3 The old songs are still sung, but so too are newcompositions by Michael McGlynn (founder of the singing group, Anuna), ´ ´Connemara singer and songwriter Sean Monaghan and very many others. Such phenomena are testimony to the realization that language is never a matter ofpropriety and the alienation that we experience as speakers of language is thealienation constitutive of our being. However understandable as a response to thedislocations of power and the trauma of colonisation, no rage of languageappropriation will be its cure.Antinomy of Fragmentation and CentralizationYet the rage is still in us. There is an anxiety that is still occasioned in Ireland by that ´ ´rallying cry of the nineteenth century nationalists*‘Nı tır gan teanga’*even as it isjoined by another anxiety occasioned by a different cry*‘One Europe’. Here is theantinomy of fragmentation and centralization, made concrete as a diminution ofnational power in the face of regionalism on the one hand and ever greaterconcentration of power in the governing structures of the European Union on theother. In cultural terms, it is, on the one hand, the fear that Europe’s cultures willdisperse ‘in a dust of provinces, a multiplicity of enclaved idioms or jealous,untranslatable little nationalisms’ (Derrida, 1992, p. 41) and, on the other, a responseto the threat (or is it the accomplished reality?) of a single, perhaps virtual, culturalcapital imposing uniformity. This last is also the threat of capital to culture, sinceuniformity is imposed in the name of efficiency and profitability. It is a familiar conflict, one identified with particular acuity in Derrida’s The Other ´Heading [L’Autre Cap] from 1992. Here he uses Valery’s geographical/historical/cultural description of Europe as a cap, a cape or headland jutting out from Asia intothe Atlantic Ocean, emerging from the old culture of Asia, reaching towards the newone of the Americas. What he does not consider is what this might mean for theseAtlantic islands, fragments flung off from the bulk of the continent, European butmarginal, though that marginality and that European-ness is experienced verydifferently in Ireland and Britain. Ireland, westerly, tiny and long-colonised takes itsmarginal status for granted and is occasionally shocked to find itself in the midst ofEuropean integration. (This might help explain the unexpected defeat of the Irishnational referendum to ratify the Nice Treaty in 2001; the treaty paved the way for theentry of several Eastern European countries into the Union, changed the decision-making process in the European Commission and was understood as posing a threatto Ireland’s military neutrality. The referendum was held a second time, and theamendment to the constitution was passed.) Britain, meanwhile, conceives itself asthe centre, though it is not now clear what it can be the centre of. An empire that nolonger exists? A largely ceremonial Commonwealth? The Eastern pole of a NorthAtlantic alliance, thanks to the ‘special relationship’ with the United States? How doesDerrida’s antinomy look from Ireland, the island off the island off the headland that is
  • 15. Social Identities 321the European continent? How does the antinomy help us think about native andnational languages? How does it help us read a national language movement that, inthe course of revival, found its language and literature ‘of the people’ on the island ofIreland’s own most westerly islands? The effort to establish Irish as Ireland’s national language has involved its share ofpetty nationalism and parochialism, for example, the resistance to words borrowedfrom or shared with English or, internally, the squabbles between the advocates of thevarious regional dialects of Irish. Yet, at the same time, links to broader Europeanculture were forged and strengthened. One early claim to hegemony on the part of theMunster dialect was the popularity of Se ´adna, a novel by a native speaker that was aretelling not of an ancient Irish myth, but of the Faust story. Some of the earliestbooks to be published in Irish were translations of The Aeneid and The Odyssey. Thatis to say, the revivalists could look outward more readily if their gaze could fall not onBritain but on the continent of Europe. In fact, Ireland’s ties to the continent are long-standing and historically significant.In the sixteenth century the people of Connemara, isolated by land from thecommercial centres in the east of the country, conducted busy trade by sea withFrance and Spain. When the Earls fled in 1606, they dispersed to royal courts inBelgium, Spain and Rome. A leader in the seventeenth century wars against Williamof Orange was France’s St Ruth. When Catholicism was most severely repressed underthe Penal Laws in the eighteenth century, Irish priests were educated in Salamancaand Rome. The problem in independent Ireland seems to have been in fitting thoseancient bonds into an historical narrative that was structured around the fiction of800 years of more or less single-handed struggle against the British. The story Ireceived in school was that of a basic Irish sensibility that confronted an alien Englishway of being. We had lessons on European history, but under another heading [unautre cap], and the links were never made: as a result it could come as a surprise tome later to grasp that while Catholics were persecuted in Ireland, they were alsopersecuted in England, and were, for their own part, engaged in persecutingProtestants in France. We learned about the French Revolution and the rights of man,and also about the French forces sent to aid the Irish rebellions planned in the late1790s, but it was never quite clear why the French should have been so interested in aminor Irish skirmish. The fault lay in the conflation of Gaelicism and an eerie nativism. The only way toauthentic existence for a real Irishman or woman was through adherence toautochtonous ways and values and language and, finally, to Roman Catholicism. Yetalongside the nativist strain or revivalism there had also run an outward-lookingprogressive strain. In a 1920 essay entitled ‘An tSaorise/Sglabhuiocht Aigne in Eirinn’[Intellectual Freedom/Slavery in Ireland], Michael Mac Liammoir, a cosmopolitanyoung man who would go on to become the grand master of Irish theatre, wrote thatart and literature must be given the freedom in independent Ireland that they have inFrance. Irish artists must not hesitate for ‘fear of expressing one thing or anotherbecause ‘‘it isn’t Gaelic’’’ (O’Leary, 1994, pp. 469Á470). A Capuchin priest replied in a
  • 16. 322 A. O’Byrneletter to the same publication: ‘That damned expression ‘‘art for arts sake’’ shouldnever be heard in Ireland. The law of God does not give unrestricted freedom to theartist’ (O’Leary, 1994, p. 70). At the same time, Galway Irish language short story ´writer Padraic O Conaire was encouraging his fellow writers to look to otherlanguages, and cited as his own inspiration Chekov, Turgenev and Thoreau. Articlesin Irish appeared dealing with ‘foreign’ figures from Plato to Alfred de Musset. Yethowever lively the debates might have been on the nature of the Gael conducted inintellectual journals at the time of independence, the nativists won with the resultthat the version of Irishness received by us schoolchildren up through the 1970s wasunivocally nativist.ConclusionToday, in Europe, Irish joins many other minority languages granted particularrecognition but rarely used. Meanwhile, there is more interest than ever in foreignlanguage learning in Ireland, with Japanese, Polish and several others now added tothe secondary school curriculum. There are Irish language learning groups in Madrid ´and Berlin. In Ireland, as RTE shifts its English-language radio stations to ever moreanodyne and mainstream programming, its Irish-language station becomes a refugefor anyone trying to escape the onslaught of global blandness. Letting ourimaginations run, and in the most hopeful direction, we can look forward to anIreland and a Europe where no-one is monoglot; where we will each speak English*for good or ill our lingua franca* and our native tongue, or, if English is alreadynative to us, we will acquire another language not least for the sake of the experienceof alienation that that particular experience brings. The experience of coming to alanguage*whether native, national or foreign*as a second language is a particularexperience of an alienation that is universal. We may already know that each identity is a split identity and that each culture isnon-identical to itself. Yet how anyone*any one*experiences split and non-identity is determined by a very peculiar, local nexus. In a Viking town, 800 yearssince Norman settlement, after centuries of British colonization and in the course ofyears of an education embued with a nineteenth century Irish nationalism that*in ´its enthusiasm for both tır and teanga *struggled to emphasise the significance of anation’s losing its tongue without taking to heart the humiliation that such a lossinvolves, I learned a language that should have been native, that was certainlynational, but to me would always also be strange.Notes[1] On the phenomenon of the colonial language *English in particular *becoming local, see Salman Rushdie, 2002, pp. 267 Á69. See also Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1993.[2] This is intimately bound up with the question of whether the nation preceded the nationalism or vice versa. Adrian Hastings (1997) argues that the nationalism became necessary to defend the nation (in relation to Ireland see pp. 80 Á86) against the contrary
  • 17. Social Identities 323 and dominant view that nationalism created nations in the nineteenth century. For succinct account of this view, see Anderson (1991), Gellner (1983) and Hobsbawm (1990).[3] See Brian Friel’s (1981) landmark play on colonisation and the translation of placenames. See ´ ´ also Tomas O hAodha (2005). This small book was sponsored by the Irish language organisation Conradh na Gaeilge in an effort to help property developers in Ireland understand the names of the localities where they build and to resist the temptation to attach names such as ‘Tuscany Downs’ to their developments.ReferencesAnderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities . London: Verso.Carnie, A. (1996). Modern Irish: A case study in language revival failure? MIT Working Papers in Linguistics , 28 , 99 Á114. ´De Freine, S. (1965). The great silence . Dublin: Mercier Press.Derrida, J. (1998). Monolingualism of the Other. Trans. Patrick Mensah. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Derrida, J. (1992). The Other Heading . Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Fellman, J. (1973). The revival of a classical tongue . The Hague: Mouton.Friel, B. (1981). Translations . London: Faber.Gellner, E. (1983). Nations and nationalism . Oxford: Blackwell.Hastings, A. (1997). The construction of nationhood: Ethnicity, religion and nationalism . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Hindley, R. (1990). The death of the Irish language . New York: Routledge.Hobsbawm, E. J. (1990). Nations and Nationalism since 1780 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Hughes, A. J. (2001). Advancing the language: Irish in the twenty-first century. New Hibernian ´ Review/Iris Eireannach Nua , 5 (1), 101 Á126. ´ ´Mac Fhionnlaoich, P. (1919). Dail Eireann agus an Ghaedhilg [Dail Eireann and the Irish Language]. Guth na Bliadhna , 16 (2).Ngugi wa Thiong’o. (1993). The universality of local knowledge. In Moving the Centre . Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.´O Ceallaigh, T. (1911). The Catholic Bulletin , 1 (4).´O hAodha, T. (2005). Name Your Place . Dublin: Westside Press.´ ´ ´ ´O Huallachain, C. (1994). The Irish and Irish . Eds. R. O Huallachain & P. Conlan. Dublin: Irish Franciscan Provincial Office.´O Laoire (1996). Hebrew and Irish: Language revival revisited. In T. Hickey & J. Williams (Eds.), Language, education and society in a changing world . Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters Ltd.O’Leary, P. (1994). The prose literature of the Gaelic revival, 1881 Á1921 . University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.O’Leary, P. (2004). Gaelic prose in the Irish Free State 1922 Á1939 . University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.Rushdie, S. (2002). Globalisation. In Step Across this line (pp. 267 Á269). New York: Random House.Slomanson, P. (1996). Explaining and reversing the failure of the Irish language revival. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics , 28 , 115 Á135. ´Wright, S. (Ed.) (1996). Language and the state: Revitalization and revival in Israel and Eire . Bristol, PA: Multilingual Matters.