Monday, 16 February 2015

Green-fingered Fantasy

The Blether Region is tempted to compare certain recent pronouncements on how to promote Irish with a particularly pompous and ill-informed kind of gardening advice: "Of course I think it's important that you continue growing your geraniums, and I fully support your right to do so — just as long as you remember to do it without our light and water."

The latest is from Brian Walker, who writes thus on Slugger O'Toole:
"Is the Irish Language Bill progressive?  Although no doubt based on human rights arguments, in my book the institutional use of Irish in the public arena is profoundly reactionary, the politics of the 19th century. It runs directly counter to the creative adoption of the language for cultural enrichment and should be opposed regardless of the sectarian attitudes which coincide."
The Blether Region was pretty shocked to read that, and one might charitably suspect that Mr. Walker was reacting to some person-to-person abuse, which the Internet, wonderful in other ways, unfortunately facilitates. But is the dichotomy he posits a real one?

Not if one reads the academic literature, which is quite clear about the fact that no one ever saved a language — including for cultural use — by not using it, the state of affairs to which an enforced absence from public life would undoubtedly lead (in mitigation, and in the context somewhat bizarrely, Mr. Walker supports the use of Irish place-names on signage).

But what is the origin of his hypothesis, which seems also to be shared by other Unionist commentators? Well, partly it's because people don't talk to their neighbours, and since those who choose to live their lives, or part of them, through the medium of Irish are a minority even within the CNR community, it's hardly suprising that their views are misconstrued and their acumen ignored.

Partly, too, it is a product of the febrile nature of Northern Ireland, where cultural packages predominate and political commentators feel it is their duty to give their views on matters not considered particularly political in more normal societies.

Finally, it must also be due in some measure to the nature of Unionism, which historically subjugated culture to politics, ignoring a shared Gaelic inheritance and inventing in its stead a marching culture intended to keep what might otherwise have been momentary political affiliations frozen permanently.

Presumably the difference between supporting "institutional use" and "cultural enrichment" is thought somehow to mirror the political divide between Sinn Féin and the SDLP, and superficially there might be mileage in that argument. It is of course possible to use the cúpla focal in the Assembly without knowing Irish particularly well, or to Gaelicise one's name before becoming fluent in it. Indeed, it's even possible to make mercurial decisions about the promotion of the language on the sole basis of whether the structures are "all-Ireland". On the other hand, it's unlikely that there is any substantial group of self-denying "cultural" Irish enthusiasts who are fluent in the language and use it daily but feel that it should be excluded from the public arena.

And on that not only Sinn Féin and the SDLP but any Gaeilgeoir is likely to agree — including those of a Unionist background. And, of course, one doesn't need to be able to speak Irish to be in favour of it.

In that regard, it's worth looking at levels of public support for providing services through Irish: 70% in the South, and 54% in the North (with only 26% opposed).

If it's "profoundly reactionary", it's also a kind of Gaelic chauvinism that a substantial proportion of the PUL community doesn't seem particularly concerned about.

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