You won’t believe it!
What is the Irish problem? I’m sure the Irish have many of the same problems as everyone else on earth, maybe more, maybe less. So what exactly is the Irish problem we are addressing here?
There’s a clue in the name itself, Irish. You see, the Irish don’t speak Irish! Not anymore. Less than 10% of the population. A lot less! Why is this? Well, there are lots of reasons.
In his book The Broken Harp (2014), Tomás Mac Síomóin outlined a grim scenario when describing the fall and decline of the Gaelic world and the terrible effects of colonialism on the Irish psyche. Ghoulish, nightmarish actually, the stuff of monster movies, zombie movies. (More on that presently.)
And there’s been a cover up. And the cover up continues. And we have to ask ourselves, why can’t we clean out the closet once and for all and breathe freely again. Put all those ghosts to rest, jabbering away in Irish, English, Kiltartanese, Cant and whatever you’re having yourself.
Mac Síomóin has followed The Broken Harp with another book, more conversational in style, The Gael Becomes Irish (2020).
Who is Mac Síomóin? He could be described as an Irish cultural exile who has lived in Catalonia for over 20 years. Writer. Journalist. Marxist. Scientist. Poet. Contrarian, according to his detractors. One could say that the Gaelic form of his name is in itself a statement, as most of the surnames and place names of Ireland are known by their Anglicised form, which often lends an air of idiocy to them, whether intended or not.
There’s the nub, already. The Irish have accepted Anglicisation and only a dedicated few wear a badge of resistance; one such badge is using the native form of one’s name and address. Using the native form of one’s name doesn’t necessarily mean you can speak, write or read Irish, however. That’s part of the Irish problem too. And vice versa! Some of the best Irish speakers I have heard never used anything but the English form of their name.
Many native speakers of Irish in Gaeltacht areas (Irish-speaking) are known by the English form of their names, or avoid the problem of the surname altogether by becoming known under a string of Irish-sounding and English-sounding Christian names, such as Paddy Mháire Dick, which places one on a recognisable family tree. Others have a name that distinguishes them in some manner or other, such as Máire an Bhéarla, meaning “Mary who can speak English.” Maybe we should all have that suffix attached to our names!
Vanquished Ancestral Universe
English legislation regarding Anglicisation of names was not uniformly enforced and, so, you sometimes have the added complication of having people of the same family using different forms of their names: O’Houlihan and Holland, for instance. Houston, we have a problem!
But actually, it’s not funny. It’s serious. It’s symptomatic of a widespread disease, a sickness, a virus . . . the virus of colonialism. As Mac Síomóin says, “References that reflect his vanquished ancestral universe are replaced by those of the coloniser’s civilisation. The linguistically colonised becomes part of the referential universe of the coloniser.”
This is undoubtedly true. I remember reading a Sunday newspaper, in hospital (which I normally avoid like the plague, i.e. hospitals and that particular rag!). The newspaper alluded to didn’t contribute to my rehabilitation, I can tell you that much. Au contraire.
What attracted my eye (or what appalled it, I should say) was the crossword. It was oozing with what Mac Síomóin calls, above, “the referential universe of the coloniser.” Yes, there I was in a hospital bed, and an “Irish” newspaper was worming its way into my mind with vile crossword clues regarding British royalty, British celebs and other questionable forms of life. Three across, four down . . . some bugger or other who was awarded the Victoria Cross. Help! Nurse!
Complete Cultural Colonisation
How do we allow ourselves to be treated in this insidious manner? The answer is simple. Mac Síomóin has got it right: “Linguistic colonialization is complete cultural colonisation.”
The Colonial Effect is not some superficial veneer, a silly hat, or bonnet, that we can wear and take off at will, a sly peep at the Chelsea Flower Show, or even the Graham Norton Show, God forbid. No. Mac Síomóin insists otherwise: we are powerless! We’re stuck in the mire.
“Colonialism has sunk such deep roots in our psyche that a need to restore the riches that were taken from us no longer has any relevancy for the majority of our fellow citizens.”
This is a hard-hitting analysis of the Irish problem, but a necessary one. Whenever it comes up, it is swept under the carpet, or derided. Being mealy mouthed about the subject would not serve any purpose at all. And Mac Síomóin is right to be riled about all of this. In a sense, it’s a matter of life and death because if the Irish language joins the list of those languages that have been dying at a rate of one per fortnight in recent decades, no one is going to turn up for the funeral – out of unspoken shame.
The crossword maker whose Anglocentric ravings upset me in hospital would probably not last very long with that particular newspaper if his research reflected the mores, insights, proverbs, songs, oral and literary culture of Irish, a language which stretches back over three thousand years. No, he’d be out on his ear. So would the literary editor, if he or she decided tomorrow to devote space every Sunday to reviews of Irish-language books.
You would think that someone who makes crosswords for an Irish newspaper – or a literary editor for that matter – would be interested in Irish words, their history and etymology. But no, it’s as though his mind has been washed clean of our Gaelic past and the known universe is now merrily filtered through an Anglophone prism.
Mac Síomóin’s book reproduces part of an interview with the wonderful Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who describes language as a natural computer, a natural hard drive. “When you lose that hard drive,” says the great African writer and intellectual, “you lose all the memories and knowledge and information and thoughts carried by that language . . .”
What a frightening prospect! It has something of the quality of a sci-fi film script, doesn’t it? Losing all that referential material, and in exchange for what? Make no mistake about it. There’s nothing sci-fi about all of this. It is real. It has happened. It continues to happen and we allow it to continue because we have not woken up to the fact that we are being manipulated left, right and centre. Fucked sideways.
Trauma and Language Loss
The trauma associated with language loss is described in Mac Síomóin’s previous title, The Broken Harp, and some of that deeply disturbing material is recapitulated in The Gael Becomes Irish. Why not? We need to know what happened and why it happened. Our educators and teachers also need to know what happened, and why and how it happened, and we need to unveil to Irish schoolchildren, once and for all, and unfold the bloody tapestry of the history of Ireland’s senior language.
How on earth can the rising generation acquire a language at school, even the basics, if they don’t know its long and chequered history? What do you suggest, that it be taught in a vacuum?
We seem to be living in an anodyne society in which it is impolite to step on another’s toe, whatever shape or colour that particular toe might have, whatever its sexual predilections and so on! So, in that light, your average teacher in Ireland is unlikely to quote as follows from Mac Síomóin’s book: “The catastrophic Irish military defeat at Kinsale in 1603, and the subsequent emigration to the continent of its civic and military leaders, initiated the gradual incorporation – aided by several genocidal interludes – throughout more than three succeeding centuries, of the Irish nation into English cultural and administrative practise. Such a process, plus its fundamental economic aspect, is referred to as colonisation . . .”
Genocidal interludes? Has the Irish educational system the mind, or the heart, or the guts to talk about such things? If it did, wouldn’t there be complaints, letters to the newspapers and so on? Whatever about our teachers, and parents, have our children got an appetite for such things? (Or are their appetites too dulled by violent video games?)
Aren’t we all living in an age of appeasement now, a golden age of fraternal relations with our brothers and sisters on our neighbouring island? Why open up all those old sores? Why re-arrange the chieftain’s bones, as Patrick Kavanagh asked.
Poets Hunted Down
We’re not finished yet. Mac Síomóin continues relentlessly. In this violent game, there’s only going to be one winner, and one loser: “Public use of the Irish language was penalised, except where practical considerations made its complete elimination impossible; it was all but completely eliminated from administrative affairs at a time when the native Irish population knew no other language. Poets and popular entertainers were hunted down and their works and musical instruments, when discovered, were destroyed.”
Great stuff! Why don’t they make a violent video game out of that? Hey, wouldn’t that be fun! What will we call this game? I know, Broken Harps! I love it! Let’s go hunting down some poets. Come on! Let’s smash some harps. First to smash 20 harps wins!
Why stop there! There’s loads more to come. You ain’t heard nothing yet. It just gets better and better: “All non-Anglican religious practise was prescribed. [Recte proscribed]. Roman Catholics, the vast majority of the population, along with Ulster Presbyterians, were subject to Penal Laws, designed to impoverish them and keep them illiterate. Catholic priests who received their training in continental seminaries, were hunted down; rewards were offered for their head . . .”
The Oak is Felled
Can you visualise it? Another computer game! Hunting priests. Hang them high! It could go viral! Well priests aren’t very popular today so it doesn’t matter. As long as those nasty Brits didn’t touch our trees. They didn’t touch our trees, did they?!
“The oak forests which covered Ireland, in which most of our ancestors lived, and from which their fighters emerged to attack their English occupiers, were systematically felled. The wood both fed the furnaces of early industrial England and was used to construct the ships of England’s naval fleets.”
Ah yes, Rule Britannia!
So, Tomás Mac Síomóin, I’ve known you and listened to you for over 40 years: maybe your polemics will bear fruit some day soon and we’ll have a slew of new video games to beat the band. Who needs dragons and what not when such genuine, colourful violence lies at our very own doorstep? Rich pickings, I say.
Perhaps it’s happening already. We’ve had the film of the “Great Hunger,” Black 47 and now, more recently, Arracht. After all, entertainment is the lingua franca of the hour and arracht means “monster” so it must be monstrously good.
As may be obvious, I go along with Mac Síomóin thesis in most respects, but I would like to conclude by mentioning three areas where we part company.
Firstly, his view of contemporary Irish-language literature is unnecessarily bleak. I think it was ungracious of him not to mention – even in a footnote – the remarkable energy and diversity of the Irish-language IMRAM literature festival, a festival which honoured his own achievements not so long ago. True, many of its events are poorly attended – even stalwarts of the Irish-language movement fail to turn up! Members of the wider arts community also fail to make an appearance, even out of curiosity (unless they are part of an event).
Aha! Yes, but this is part of a larger malaise, as the ever-percipient John Zerzan notes in the current issue – pre-Covid-19 Lockdown – of Fifth Estate: “Clubs are closing as people retreat further into their little screens. When people go out, they are so very likely to be at their tables on their phones. We do less socialising, have fewer friends . . . More and more is delivered to one’s door . . . Everything is available online, even cars.”
Maybe IMRAM needs to do a rethink and bring some of its events to us for a while, rather than having a couple of hundred people venturing out into the real world and attending actual events!
I won’t be watching any IMRAM events on a smartphone simply because I don’t have one: I have a computer screen, yes, but I don’t want to witness the diminution of life, or art, on a small screen. I don’t want to “watch” music, or view Turner’s The Slave Ship on any little gadget. It’s the leprechaunisation of everybody and everything.
Secondly, I differ with Mac Síomóin when he recommends simplifying the Irish language as taught in schools. Try simplifying chess. Or hurling. Why would you even think of such a thing!
Finally, Mac Síomóin advertises his book by saying that “international considerations increasingly determine our national cultural parameters.” Sure. Nobody can argue with that. But the author is a Marxist and, by implication, a statist. We would have had a different book from him had he been an anarchist, a book which would have identified the state itself (whether the British state, the neo-colonial Irish state, or some possible European super-state of the future) as a major part of the Irish problem.
A poet, short-story writer and translator, Gabriel Rosenstock was born in 1949 in Kilfinane, Co Limerick and is a graduate of University College Cork. One of the “Innti” poets that transformed Irish-language poetry in the 1970s, he writes primarily in Irish and is the author or translator of over 50 major books. His most recent collections of poetry are Bliain an Bhandé (Year of the Goddess, The Dedalus Press, 2007) and Sasquatch (Arlen House, 2014).