Language and Politics

Some notes, to complement my post from three years ago:

• On my transatlantic flight to Shannon airport I sat next to a charming young woman from County Donegal who was returning from a medical research conference in the United States and who is about to defend her dissertation at the University of Galway. Donegal contains one of the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland although she was not a native speaker of Irish (she was Xhosa, in fact), she did her duty and learned the language in school. The trouble, she told me, is that each of the three west coast Gaeltacht areas (Ulster, Connacht, and Munster) speak a different dialect of Irish, and they’re all different enough to cause problems. So when you go to take your final exam, there’s no guarantee that the person examining you will be speaking the same dialect that you’ve studied!

• Our first stop on the tour was the Dingle Peninsula, a Gaeltacht area (and home of the Munster dialect). There were plenty of signs in the language although I think I overheard it being spoken exactly once. Our guide told us that many high school students come during the summers and stay for two weeks in an Irish-speaking home, on a government-sponsored program to help promote the language. On a coach tour of the peninsula we stopped at St. Caitlín’s (i.e., Catherine’s) Church in the village of Ventry, which was distinguished by being the resting place of its longtime priest Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, who died in 2016 and who is responsible for translating the Bible into Irish. According to our guide, he was the first person ever to accomplish this feat. I thought, surely not – surely someone translated it before? Turns out that there have been previous translations, but Ó Fiannachta’s was the first Roman Catholic one (prior to Vatican II, of course, a Latin Bible was all that a good Catholic really needed). A stained glass window in the church commemorates Monsignor ó Fiannachta and specifically compares him to St. Jerome, who had originally translated the Bible into Latin in the fifth century.

• As I noted before, most personal names and most place names are translatable. That is, if you’re speaking in English, you use the English version, and if you’re speaking in Irish, you use the Irish version. Exceptions exist, of course: being a native Irish speaker and scholar, Pádraig Ó Fiannachta is so called, never “Patrick Fenton.” The Gaeltacht village of Lispole has been spared having its name rendered as such on this road sign:

Note how the other place names are given: Irish version first, in Title Case and italics, and English version second, in ALL CAPS and roman. This convention is a good one: it produces a clear distinction between the versions and probably cuts down on confusion, and hearkens back to the time when Irish required its own font.

• A number of other Irish names and words are standard when speaking English. I jotted down a few:

  • Oireachtas Éireann (the Irish legislature), comprising the Seanad Éireann and the Dáil Éireann
  • Teachta Dála (a member of the Dáil)
  • The political parties Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin
  • Garda Síochána (the police)
  • Taoiseach (Prime Minister, but note that his ceremonial superior is simply the President)
  • Tánaiste (the deputy Prime Minister)
  • Brú na Bóinne (the “Palace of the Boyne,” which I’ll be writing more about)
  • Amhrán na bhFiann,” the national anthem, which is sung in Irish (although there is an English equivalent called “A Soldier’s Song.”)
  • The transportation companies Bus Éireann and Aer Lingus
  • RTE, that is, the national broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann
  • Éire (not “Ireland”) appears on postage stamps

Also, county names appear only in Irish on the number plates:

Cork

Kerry

Louth

• But note that the town of Dingle, which the Irish minister for Community, Rural, and Gaeltacht Affairs ordered in 2005 be known only by the Irish version of its name (“An Daingean”) held a plebiscite the following year to reverse this decision, and overwhelmingly voted to return to the bilingual place name dispensation. As one man stated: “People feel they are being bullied. They have lived with ‘Dingle’ all their lives.” Methinks tourism branding might have had something to do with it as well. If the place has been known and advertised as one thing, why mess with it? Not to mention that there already is a “Daingean” in Ireland, the seat of Co. Offaly.

• Our guide in Dublin Castle pointed out that most place names in English are simply phonetic renderings of the Irish names. The English generally didn’t bother to translate what the names actually meant. Thus did “Dubhlinn” become “Dublin,” and not “Blackpool” (which is what the name means, and which refers to a dark pool on the River Poddle near where it enters the Liffey). But why, I asked, is the Irish name for Dublin actually “Baile Átha Cliath” (pronounced “bally a klee”)? That, she told me, comes from a different geographical feature at a different site: a “hurdled ford” further up the River Liffey. (“Bally,” I discover, simply means “place of,” hence Ballyduff, Ballygally, Ballymena, Ballymoney, etc. But I don’t think that “Ballyackley” ever existed as an English name.)

Apparently Dubhlinn was the Viking settlement, and Áth Cliath the native Irish one; one name stuck in English, and the other in Irish. History is full of these sorts of nominal weirdnesses.

• But for a real naming dispute, you have to travel to the North, where “Are you Derry or Londonderry?” is a question one can ask in that particular city, by means of inquiring which “community” one belongs to.* That is, the nationalists prefer Derry, while the unionists Londonderry. Note that this is a dispute in English: the Irish equivalent of Derry is Doire, and presumably you could call it Londaindoire in Irish if you wanted to, although I highly doubt anyone ever does. According to Wikipedia, it wasn’t that big a deal prior to the advent of the Troubles (viz. the “Apprentice Boys of Derry“), at which time it became a shibboleth. I saw signs in the Republic reading “Doire DERRY” in the prescribed typography noted above, and I actually saw a “Londonderry” sign in the North, that is, some nationalists had gotten to it and effaced the offending prefix.

In the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, how to solve this impasse? Many people say “Derry-Londonderry,” and I saw it written out “Derry/Londonderry” more than a few times. Our guide said that this has given rise to the jocular nickname “Stroke City.” I think that a good compromise would be to call the city “Derry” (it has a nationalist majority which naturally took control of the place once the gerrymandering was abolished) and the county “Londonderry” (there never was a “County Derry”).**

Failing that, you can always use the name of the local river and its estuary as an avoidance strategy, as does this place:

• At the time of the Romans, some of the people inhabiting what is now Scotland were known as the Picts, and spoke a Celtic language related Welsh and Breton (a Brittonic, or P-Celtic language). The Scots themselves were originally from Northern Ireland and settled western Scotland in the early Middle Ages, founding the kingdom of Dalraida. Thus is the country known today as Scotland, and Scottish Gaelic is a Goidelic, or Q-Celtic language, related to Irish and Manx. If this language was reintroduced into Northern Ireland as a result of the Scottish settlement in the seventeenth century, I saw no evidence of it. But I did see some signs in “Ulster Scots,” which some people hold up as the official minority language of Northern Ireland, and which, as far as they are concerned, is due the same amount of protection and promotion that the Republic lavishes on the Irish language. The trouble, as our guide pointed out, is that Ulster Scots “doesn’t really exist,” and I think she is right. Here is the opening paragraph for “Lunnonderrie” in Wikipedia:

Lunnonderry, kent by monie fowk as Derry, is the seicont mukkilest ceitie in Northren Ireland (eftir Belfast) an the fowert-mukkilest ceitie on the iland o Ireland. In the 2001 Census the ceitie proper haed 83,652 indwallers.

The ceitie ligs in the nor’wast o Northren Ireland naur the mairch wi Coonty Dunnygal, whilk is pairt o the Republic o Ireland. The ceitie is naur the mooth o Loch Foyle an kivers baith banks o the River Foyle. The auld wawd ceitie o Derry is on the wast bank o the River Foyle. The wast bank is aften kent as “Ceitiesyd” whyls the aest bank is aften kent as “Wattirsyd”.

In other words, it is English, with its speakers’ accent rendered phonetically, and certain dialect words that you might recognize (“kent,” “mukkilest”) if you have ever had to read Chaucer, Langland, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

But as a result of the Good Friday Agreement and the spirit of outreach that it has promoted, Irish has been finding more and more of a place in Northern Ireland.

* Apparently the name of the eighth letter of the alphabet also marks the distinction, at least according to an article from the Guardian from 2013:

Almost two thousand years later we are still split, and pronouncing H two ways: “aitch”, which is posh and “right”; and “haitch”, which is not posh and thus “wrong”. The two variants used to mark the religious divide in Northern Ireland – aitch was Protestant, haitch was Catholic, and getting it wrong could be a dangerous business.

** One slight problem with this is that “County Londonderry” doesn’t really exist anymore, except for ceremonial purposes. All across the UK, in the 1970s, local government was reorganized, producing bogus “counties” like “West Midlands,” “Tyne and Wear” or, in Northern Ireland, “Causeway Coast and Glens.” I respect the way that the Republic has not meddled with these historic subdivisions (even though they are a legacy of English imperialism!). I was reading a newspaper article on the abortion referendum and noted a map of the results: populous counties (most notably, Dublin) had been subdivided into smaller units, while sparsely populated counties had been amalgamated (e.g. Sligo and Leitrim, if I’m not misremembering). But note that the counties themselves retain their territorial integrity. Up the Republic!