Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thoughts on Nationalism-- a Response to Young Ireland

In the post immediately below this one, my fellow Irish Catholic blogger Young Ireland has described his attitude towards Irish nationalism, and the experiences which shaped it. I have to admit that my own experiences, and the evolution of my opinions on this subject, have been remarkably similar to his own.

Young Ireland has described his childhood in the area of North Kerry, which was a bastion of traditional Irish culture, and also of republicanism. I, too, grew up in a solidly republican and nationalist background. From my earliest days I can remember being steeped in Irish rebel ballads, heroic stories of the Easter 1916 Rebellion, and Irish mythology and history. Somebody once said, in describing the famous school St. Enda's that was founded by the Irish insurrectionist and educationalist Patrick Pearse, that Cuchalainn (perhaps the central figure of Irish mythology) was like a ghostly member of the school staff. Something like that was true of my own childhood. If you had asked me, back then, if Cuchalainn, Finn McCool and the Tuatha De Danaan (the "fairy folk" of Irish mythology) had ever actually existed, I would have said "no"-- but somehow they seemed to flicker on the very edge of existence, perhaps not fully real but not entirely unreal either.

Cecil Rhodes is supposed to have said that to be born English is to win the first prize in the lottery of life. I felt the same way about happening to have been born in the most remarkable and extraordinary little country in the world. I couldn't believe my luck. All those millions of kids in China and Brazil and Russia had no idea what they had missed out on!

Unlike Young Ireland, though, I grew up in a Dublin suburb, and the contrast between the people around me (who were all plugged into English and American popular culture) and my family and their circles (who also watched English TV and American movies but who seemed to have another, higher existence on the aspirational plane of Irish culture, sport, mythology and history) penetrated deep into my soul. It is still there. Instinctively, I tend to see the world as a place where fragile, precious, old-fashioned things (like Irish culture) are threatened by brutish, tawdry, new things (like TV and popular music and supermarkets).

I never went to an Irish summer school like Young Ireland, but all my schooling was received through the Irish language. This meant that Irish was spoken all day every day in both my primary and secondary schooling, at least after the infants' classes, and aside from English class.

This should have made me a fluent Irish speaker. Instead, and through no fault of my teachers, I have a grasp of Irish that is mediocre at best. (Like Young Ireland, I took honours Irish in the Leaving Cert, but this was almost automatic in our school.) Not only this, but my long experience of Irish-language schooling filled me with a strong dislike-- even a hatred-- of the Irish language, by the time I was in my teens and well into my twenties.

It's easy enough to see how this happened. As Young Ireland has said, having something forced upon you tends to turn you against it. Add to this the fact that I could never really master the language-- the nuts and bolts of its grammar, especially-- and perhaps it is unsurprising that I came to detest Irish.

But I think it went beyond that, and I do think the Irish language movement is to some extent culpable for the anti-Irish language reaction of people like myself and Young Ireland. Unfortunately, enthusiasts for the revival of the Irish language have too often resorted to the tactic of making themselves objectionable. Sanctimoniousness, anti-Englishness, an apparent eagerness to be offended, a siege mentality, and a generally confrontational attitude have (I believe) characterised the Irish language revivalist movement, and the language has paid the price. Not only did the enthusiasts for Irish resort to a kind of emotional blackmail ("shame on you for not speaking your native tongue!"), they were quite willing to take full advantage of the fact that Irish was the official first language of the nation, and to make an issue out of their formal right to service in Irish from post offices, government departments, state bodies, and so forth.

Of course, the Irish language's standing as the State's first language is a polite fiction-- it is mostly ceremonial, and the vast majority of public servants would be unable to conduct a conversation in it. Nevertheless, Irish language speakers like to assert this right from time to time, deliberately embarrassing hapless receptionists and secretaries and others. I can hardly think of any behaviour more obnoxious, or more calculated to breed dislike of Irish.

Even today-- unfair though this may be-- my instinctive reaction to hearing Irish spoken is one of hostility. My considered opinion today is that the revival of the Irish language is a worthy national goal, deserving of all our support. But I forget that in the instant that I hear those guttural syllables. In that moment, twenty years of having my teeth set on edge comes flooding back.

Not only did I develop an antipathy to the Irish language in my teens and twenties, but I became virulently anti-nationalist-- even anti-Irish, bizarre as that may seem.

Why? There were lots of reasons. Partly it was because I felt lonely and left-out at school, and I therefore positioned myself in opposition to its values. (Not only was my school an Irish language school, but it also promoted elements of Irish national culture like Irish dance, Irish sports, Irish music and so forth). Partly it was because I was, and I still am, a very enthusiastic admirer of England and English culture. As Young Ireland has said, in Irish history as it was often taught in Irish schools, England was inevitably painted as the Big Baddie, almost the source of all ills-- not just a national enemy, but one that was seen as being inferior to Ireland (though nobody would have actually said that out loud). A wit once remarked, quite perceptively, "It isn't enough to be Irish-- you need someone to be Irish at." Not only did this make Irishness seem like an identity based on bitterness and hatred, but it was bitterness directed against a nation I loved and admired.

All this might seem very immature, but I would like to think there was more to my anti-nationalism than a mere emotional reaction. And I truly think that there was.

I just didn't see why having a particularly-coloured flag flying on our public buildings was supposed to make such a huge difference. I remember greatly approving of Yeats's couplet about the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell:

Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man
"Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone."

Really, the whole thing seemed rather fake and overblown to me. We were meant to be so different but in reality, everybody just bought the same products, watched the same television, drove the same cars, and listened to the same rock and pop music as did pretty much everyone else in the Western world. What difference did a bit of Irish dancing make to that?

I have written at greater length than I intended, and I am still at the stage of describing my adolescent and young-adult hostility to nationalism-- I haven't even begun to describe how my attitude came to change. Nor have I even touched on the part that the murder campaign of the IRA played in my distaste for Irish nationalism.

I think I will have to leave it to another post. If Young Ireland would like to respond to what I have written, he is most welcome, although he may wish to wait until I have brought my little story up to date. Suffice it to say for the moment that I can certainly identify with much that he wrote in his initial post.

To be continued, then!


  1. On the subject of learning Irish at school.

    I didn't go to a fully Irish speaking school but one that put great store in Irish nevertheless. The top sets were given Irish saints' names (in Irish) and taught History and Geography through Irish.

    The teachers were not especially confrontational about speaking Irish as a political gesture but I do remember them being real sticklers for authentic pronunciation. I think this was a huge mistake. We had to twist our tongues into knots to get it right - "faoi" not "fwee". It was interesting to know how a Munster peasant would have pronounced a word 200 years before. It was aggravating to have to parrot it scrupulously and be made to feel like a sham if you didn't. The speech patterns and sounds of urban 20th century Cork could not be allowed to infect the pure strain. But in this case preventing infection led to death. Or at least the language died to me, for a good while anyhow.

    I live in England now but sometimes listen in to programmes in Irish on the radio now. Some of the preciousness about absolute purity of sound and expression seems to have disolved.

    Anyway, great to see this blog up and running again. I found it not long before shut down in August and was aggrieved about that. Had not imagined it would be back up and running again at full tilt so soon. Nice though - a lot of great posts for me to make my way through.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Mick!

    A lot of people seem to have mixed feelings about the Irish language due to their expeience in school-- and maybe I am being a bit harsh on the revivalists, since trying to resurrect a near-dead language is a tall order. In this post I didn't have room to explain how my attitude towards the Irish language has became less hostile over time, but I'll get to it. I often wonder to what extent (if any) our knowledge and awareness of the Irish language shapes our English-speaking.