By Gabriel Callaghan, Fourth Year Physics.
You may have heard in the news that the North of Ireland was without a government for 3 years until the recent restoration of Stormont. One of the ‘stumbling blocks’, as stated by Gerry Adams, was an Irish Language Act for the north.
This Irish Language act – or Acht na Gaeilge – proposal aims to give Irish (or Gaelic) the same legal status as Welsh in Wales, so a Gaeilgeoir can access public services such as the judicial system and the police in Irish. This would also change road signs into a bilingual form, as you can see on the Scottish Islands.
So, what’s the issue in speaking this ancient language? The political situation in the North of Ireland is complex and still very divided. Unionists (or loyalists) favour continued union with the UK whereas Nationalists (or republicans) are generally sympathetic to Irish reunification. You are stamped at birth as one or the other.
The loyalists view the Irish language as a nationalist symbol which questions Britishness; they grew up hearing republicans saying ‘tiocfaidh ar la’ in reference to a United Ireland.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) accused Sinn Fein of being ‘crocodiles’, stating that an Acht na Gaelige would be akin to feeding an ever-demanding crocodile.
I personally disagree with this because the Irish Language is cultural. The situation was aggravated by a decision to take away the Liofa Gaeltacht bursary for people to go to the Gaeltacht (Irish Language area), and then the Orange Order was funded later – not a very sensible decision!
A DUP MLA mocked the Irish language by saying ‘curry my youghart- can coca coalyer’ in response to ‘go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle’ (thank you Speaker).
With such sectarian and disrespectful attitudes, progress is never going to be made in the six counties.
But why does a language become politicised? Gaeilge is a beautiful indigenous language and is instrumental to Irish cultural heritage.
The earliest manuscripts were found in the 6th century BC, and the Latin writing system was not used. Some ancient texts use primitive Irish, ogham inscriptions in wood and stone.
Today, only insular forms of Gaelic languages exist. These can be divided into Irish and Scots Gaelic as one family, which are mutually intelligible; and another family such as Welsh and Cornish, which are not mutually intelligible with Gaelic. Welsh is the only Goildelic language not classed as endangered by UNESCO.
It would be disastrous if Gaelige became extinct. Apart from Greek and Latin, Gaelic literature is the oldest in Europe.
Early Irish texts describe an Ireland before Christianity. One of the most significant was the Leabhar Gabhala na hEireann (the book of invasions), where four groups – Nemed, Fir Bolg, Tuatha De Danann and Milesians – were forced to leave Ireland. This text is indicative of pagan mythology, believed to bridge the gap between indigenous heritage and Christianity.
In Ireland, the Tuatha De Danann are associated with ancient passage graves of Bru na Boinne, which you can visit in County Meath. It would be a shame for the Gaelic languages to face the same fate as Greek and Latin, now only studied as part of a Classics degree.
However, the Irish language is no longer a cultural language, it has become unfairly politicised. The Irish language should transcend political boundaries, it is a language for the people of the island of Ireland, not just a republican symbol.
In East Belfast, a very unionist area, there is going to be an Irish Medium School and some unionists are starting to learn the Irish Language.
A United Ireland will happen if enough people want it. With the demographics of the North changing, in addition to Brexit, it’s time for both sides of the community to see a shared heritage on the island of Ireland.
Currently, there is a restaurant and community centre which embraces the Irish Language, ‘An Chulturlann’ which is on the Falls Road, the best breakfast I’ve ever had. A bit of knowledge for you, ‘bia’ in Irish is not beer – it means food! An Chulturan has ‘ceol traidisiunta’ or ‘trad’, traditional Irish music.
To the present day, there are still places in the Irish Republic which are Gaeltacht areas where Irish is the day-to-day working language and children are educated in Gaelscoil.
These communities are typically on the west coast. Oilean Thorai (Tory Island) is an island off the north coast of Donegal where the language is spoken in a pure form. There are very few monolingual Irish speakers.
Going into these Gaeltacht areas is something that I recommend you do if you go to Ireland, the culture is very different to that of Anglophile Dublin, much more communal and laid back.