History 323 enjoyed hearing an interesting presentation today on the Irish language. Two features of this language are worthy of note:
1. It’s one of those languages that, historically, required its own font. Here is an example of Gaelic type:
Here are some examples of Gaelic type in action:
2. It’s also a language into which proper nouns are translatable. Every place-name in the island of Ireland has an English and an Irish version, thus:
Cork – Corcaigh
Donegal – Dún na nGall
Limerick – Luimneach
Although the Irish language is a very potent symbol of Irish nationalism, enjoying a status as the national and first official language of Ireland, the Irish government has not yet denigrated the English versions of their place-names, insisting, for instance, that everyone everywhere refer to the country as Éire (cf. “Côte d’Ivoire”), to Dublin as Baile Átha Cliath, or to the River Liffey as An Life (although they did rename Queen’s County as Laois, King’s County as Offaly, and Queenstown as Cobh, for solidly republican reasons).
This dynamic also applies to personal names. Here are the last four presidents of the Republic of Ireland, with their names as they are known in English on the left, and their Irish names on the right, according to Wikipedia:
Patrick John Hillery – Pádraig J. Ó hIrghile
Mary Patricia McAleese – Máire Pádraigín Mhic Giolla Íosa
Mary Therese Winifred Robinson – Máire Bean Mhic Róibín
Michael Daniel Higgins – Mícheál D. Ó hUiginn
There are some people, though, who do insist on going by their Irish names in English. For instance, Wikipedia gives no English equivalents to Donncha Ó Dúlaing (a veteran Irish broadcaster) or Ruairí Brugha (IRA volunteer and Fianna Fáil politician). “Dennis Dooley” and “Rory Burgess” would be likely equivalents, although it would be impolite to use these without permission. (That would be like calling Canadian PM Jean Chrétien “John Christian” or hockey player Guy Lafleur “Guy Flower.”)
Not every Irish person is in thrall to the language. See this column by contrarian journalist Kevin Myers (excerpts):
The cupla focal and pious drivel that keeps Irish artificially alive
I’ve said many times that the entire project to restore the Irish languages is an immoral waste of time and money…
RTE got Brenda Power of The Sunday Times to play devil’s advocate, against two supporters of The Language. She began by declaring that she was happy to have Irish as the first national tongue, which is rather like a state prosecutor telling the jury that the accused is not guilty. The discussion duly descended into a grisly phantasmagoria of simpering and denial. That such a farrago – all sweet smiles of submission before the Totem of The Language, like young chimps making a communal rictus of obeisance at a dominant alpha male – could even masquerade as a “debate”, says it all.
The Language is one of the foundation-myths of 20th century Irish nationalism. To keep this submarine airborne requires quite heroic levels of self-deceit, factual falsification, sentimentality, coercion, and much venom. In 1922, virtually the first act of the Free State government was to close all primary schools for three months. Of the 6,000 primary teachers in Ireland; only 1,000 spoke Irish. The rest were ordered to attend a series of two-week courses run by “specialists”, and during this succession of magical fortnights, they were all taught “Irish”. So there you have it. The complete mastery of a language, which is the greatest intellectual achievement of anyone’s life, and which normally takes 14 years, could suddenly be managed in 1/365th of that time.
And just as religion is often guarded with anger and unreason and accusations of heresy, the cult of The Language is similarly protected. Indeed, the utterly degrading “cupla focal” are merely a secular form of the pious ejaculations that once littered people’s conversations, and which were intended to offer windows to an interior landscape of boundless piety. Furthermore, a spoken language that consists of carefully-composed, slang-free sentences, rather like the responses in a Mass, is not a living entity, but a corpse being kissed at the wake.
Any pro-discussion on The Language usually depends on a simultaneous maintenance of two mutually-exclusive, passionately-held ideas, which is not uncommon in this land of carnivorous vegans and god-fearing atheists. Thus, some 1.4 million people reported in the last census that A) They speak Irish and B) They never do. Thus, Minister Denny McGinley could declare on ‘Prime Time’ that A) the “the people love the Irish language” and B) “our problem is to get people to speak it”. Not so much the love that dare not speak its name, but does not speak at all. He carolled happily about The 20-Year Plan, which would produce 250,000 Irish speakers. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a quarter of a million language-Stakhanovites marching into the 2033 sunset, Gaelic spanners in hand, chanting Erse verse.