Diarmuid Breatnach

Irish writer

The English occupation of Ireland made a determined effort to eradicate the Irish language from Ireland and in 1366 promulgated the Statutes of Kilkenny to forbid “the degenerate English” (colonists) “who are become more Irish than the Irish themselves” from speaking Irish, dressing in Irish style, playing Irish games, etc. Outside of the city areas, the laws were ignored.

But later colonists of the 17th and 18th centuries did not become Gaelicised and the language was excluded from all public and legal spheres. When descendants of the colonists began to develop a desire for greater autonomy from England, control over their own exports, taxation etc, their discourse and Republican ideas were largely disseminated in English and to some extent in French.

It was only during the Gaelic Revival of the late 19th Century and the resurgence of republicanism and the growth of socialism in Ireland that a possibility of an Ireland “free and Gaelic as well” (PH Pearse) began to emerge. But all the documents of the 1916 Rising and most of those of the War of Independence, with some notable exceptions, continued to be in English.

The post-Civil War partitioned State made Irish a compulsory subject in secondary level education (and for access to university education) but it continued to be not spoken by the large majority of the population. The Irish-speaking areas, the Gaeltachtaí, were low in modern services and employment provision and high in emigration. The Irish language made no significant further progress in Ireland until the 1960s civil rights campaigns about Irish language programing on radio and TV and Irish language rights in public service. A number of gains were made by Gluaiseacht Cearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement) and Misneach, including the establishment of an Irish language radio channel for the Gaeltacht areas and the national Irish-language television channel TG4.

Irish Republicans and Socialists had been prominent in those campaigns, including civil disobedience tactics of refusing to pay broadcasting license – or fines incurred as a result — but near the end of the 1960s the campaign for Civil Rights for the Catholic minority in the Six Counties took precedence, followed within a few years by solidarity with the resistance struggle there against British colonial and sectarian repression and the British Army.

Unexpectedly, as campaigning for language provision and rights in the Irish State lost impetus after some major victories, it sprang up in some Catholic majority areas in the Six Counties and, in particular, among the Irish Republican prisoners. However, after the Good Friday Agreement and the release (under licence) of the Irish Republican prisoners, the momentum was not sustained. Irish language largely left the “Jailtacht”[1] and was not widely transplanted to the street. Irish-medium education was the only real winner in the Six Counties but that sector is small in scale and kept so by the policies and practices of an anti-Irish and sectarian colonial statelet.

An Irish Language Act was proposed in order to remedy this situation and encourage the rise of the Irish language in the colony. The Act is being promoted politically by Sinn Fein but largely as a club with which to beat its chief political opposition, the British-Unionist and sectarian Democratic Unionist Party. The Unionist establishment opposes the language and has even permitted its ridicule in formal session of Stormont Assembly.

Neither the Irish Republican nor Irish socialist organisations promote the Irish language internally or externally.

Without even considering the ancient origins of the Irish language and its place in the small surviving group of Celtic languages, its intrinsic cultural value or its historic importance in literature – and even ignoring the case for remedial measures to counter the cultural and psychological damage done by invasion, colonisation and repression – there is the issue of basic civil rights. Irish-speakers have a civil right to be facilitated in using their language in Irish society in general. It should be possible, without any difficulty, to use the Irish language in dealing with departments and State services, with banking and insurance firms, in shopping within the state’s territory, on social media, on public transport.   Irish opponents of the status quo in Ireland should champion those civil rights but, in general, they do not. One suspects that more than that, many calling themselves “socialists” would oppose such facilitation (as many Spanish ‘socialists’ do with regard to the provision of services through Catalan in Catalonia or in Euskera in the Basque Country, for example).

Most opponents of the status quo in Ireland would at least express distaste at – and many would be horrified by – the globalising effect of capitalism on restaurants and coffee houses, bars or architecture. To travel around the country or abroad and see exclusively the same coffee house and eatery chains, town and building design is a horrifying prospect that every day nears reality. But many are not troubled by English becoming the lingua franca of northern European culture or world commerce.

Those Germans and Nordic people who accept seeing that happen have at least their own native languages to rely on among themselves but increasingly, Ireland does not. The spread of Irish-language-medium nurseries, primary and secondary schools has not and will not prevent the reduction of Irish-speaking areas, nor increase the amount and occasion of Irish being spoken generally in public. A political and social transformation is required to reverse this negative trend but where are the opponents of the status quo who will lead or even facilitate the necessary movement?


[1] A play on the word “Gaeltacht”, ie an Irish-speaking area.