The Irish language in postcolonial perspective

The Irish language in postcolonial perspective

Rachel Seoighe

For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?” – Jamaica Kincaid (1988: 31)

The Irish language has emerged as a decisive and divisive issue in the current political deadlock in the North of Ireland. For the leading Republican party, Sinn Féin, which is enjoying a surge in electoral support that recently brought the Unionist domination of Stormont to an end, ensuring the protection and resourcing of Irish language initiatives is a central demand of power-sharing. The party insists on the passing of a new Irish Language Act. While power-sharing talks have been paused until after the British elections on 8 June, Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill has expressed cautious optimism on the language issue, noting that the Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster’s meeting with representatives of the Irish language-speaking community “could bode well for the future.” This is an appropriate moment, in the chaotic and apprehensive conversations about governance and identity thrown up by Brexit, to reflect on why the Irish language has such symbolic power in the North.

The colonisation of Ireland transformed the socio-political character and culture of the country over a period of centuries. For Irish nationalists, the revival of the language is bound up with the recovery of Irish culture and socio-political agency and with acknowledging the destructive effects of colonialism on Irish society. Unionists have demonstrated a determination to underfund and undermine the language because of its “potency as the pre-eminent symbol of Irish national identity” (Mac Giolla Chríost, 2012: 413). The current dismissal of the language by Unionists in the North is a contemporary manifestation of the urge to destroy and subjugate native identity in the colonial encounter.

Colonialism for Ireland, no more than any other formerly colonised country, is not a remote historical phenomenon. It altered and distorted the country’s identity, economy, cultural resources and traditions – not to mention politics, physical geography and institutional governance arrangements. The Irish history of colonisation includes conquest, the confiscation of land, religious persecution, mass emigration and devastating famine, as well as the near-loss of the Irish language.

The status of the Irish language, as a contentious issue in the current politics of the Northern Irish Assembly, ought to be considered from a postcolonial perspective. The most obvious contemporary consequence of colonial intervention in Ireland is the partition of the island into two separate states. While the Republic of Ireland achieved independence from British control and became a Free State in 1922, the six counties in the North remained as part of the quickly contracting British Empire. The violence of the Troubles in the North, as Irish Republicans militarily resisted marginalisation and discrimination under British rule (a process that was informed by cultural revival, including language activism), is the defining feature of Ireland’s postcolonial history.

Despite the extensive and impactful history of English intervention in Ireland, the discourse and academic study of Irish postcolonialism is relatively new and under-developed. Irish studies, as Joe Cleary (2003) tells us, was previously conceived within a narrow Anglo-Irish framework, whereas new postcolonial studies ask us to examine Ireland’s history and societal transformation in the wider context of an aggressive imperialist world economy – colonial capitalist expansion. The goal of postcolonial studies in Ireland, as framed by Cleary, is to trace the contours of Irish social and cultural development as mediated by colonial capitalism.

Colonialism is a historically changing and fluid process, and cannot be reduced to essentialisms. There is no such thing as a standard colonial experience. The policies, strategies and experiences of colonialism are vast and varied. By virtue of the sheer duration of Ireland’s colonial history, Francis Mulhern argues, it reads like a history of colonialism itself, encompassing various stages and types of interaction, intervention and atrocity. Importantly, as a corrective to today’s normalised discourse of power-sharing, Ann McClintock (1992) argues that claiming Ireland as a postcolony is to overlook ongoing colonisation: English settler-colonialism continues north of the border. The term ‘post-colonialism,’ she argues, is prematurely celebratory. The Republic of Ireland may be ‘post-colonial,’ “but for the inhabitants of British-occupied Northern Ireland, not to mention the Palestinian inhabitants of the Israeli Occupied Territories and the West Bank, there may be nothing “post” about colonialism at all” (McClintock, 1992: 294).

The destruction of heritage under colonialism is a complicated and devastating experience. As Edward Said tells us, postcolonial readings of culture can facilitate a painful excavation of colonial systems of representation. Placing representations of the Irish in the wider context of colonialism, we can examine how the Irish person was presented as barbaric and backwards, as “a natural slave” in colonial discourse. The Irish person was represented as racially Other, where acts of resistance against English subjugation confirmed the British colonial view of the Irish as warlike and wild. This is a depiction with familiar echoes from many colonial situations.

To a large extent those colonial representations were internalised and worked to dismantle Irish culture from within, a process that was particularly devastating for the Irish language. Ashis Nandy describes how colonisation impacts on the native’s interior life: the meaning of the Irish language was bound up with loss of self in socio-cultural and political life. The purportedly wild and uncivilised Irish language itself was held responsible for the ‘backwardness’ of the people. Holding tight to your own language was thought to bring death, exile and poverty. These ideas and sentiments are recognised by Seamus Deane (2003) in his analysis of recorded memories and testimony of the Great Famine in the 1840s.

The recorded narratives of people who starved, emigrated and died during this period reflect an understanding of the Irish language as complicit in the devastation of the economy and society. It was perceived as a weakness of a people expelled from modernity: their native language prevented them from casting off ‘tradition’ and ‘backwardness’ and entering the ‘civilised’ world, where English was the language of modernity, progress and survival. Even Daniel O’ Connell, known as the Liberator or the Emancipator as a result of his organisation of Irish Catholic politics, advocated for the casting off of Irish in favour of English. English, Deane tells us, was not just the language of a country or an invading culture, it arrived as the language of a condition – modernity – and it remains as such today.

After the Famine – which was, of course, a colonial construction and atrocity – and its mass death and emigration, Irish was largely abandoned as a spoken language. It was culturally associated with grief and tragedy, silence and trauma. English was imposed – economically, culturally and psychologically – as the language of the future, the language of possibility, which would modernise the Irish and allow them to operate within a world dominated by colonial capitalism.

Postcolonialism reminds us of the impossibility of truly knowing Irish culture and history without engaging with Irish language texts. We can question whether it is possible to truly understand a past that is primarily accounted for in an abandoned language. Anne McClintock reminds us that the ‘postcolonial’ understanding of history and society is often, as in the Irish case, read through the texts of the coloniser and in the language of the coloniser. There has been a lack of attention to historical accounts written in Irish by historians and cultural critics; Irish language sources often go unexamined because of a lack of proficiency in Irish. In this sense, the coloniser tells the history of the Irish. Colonial history is told in the language of the coloniser. At the very least, English language documents are afforded extra weight because of their accessibility, though they tend to reproduce the cultural assumptions of the colonisers and erase or distort the accounts of the colonised.

To truly know ourselves as Irish people, as colonised and postcolonial people, is to know the language and revive the language. It was with us through the most traumatic of times, including the Famine and the violence of the Troubles. Though it was suppressed and abandoned under the colonial drive towards ‘modernity’ and out of grief, Republican prisoners in the 1980s, as Feargal MacIonnrachtaigh (2013) has described, instinctively turned to the Irish language in a time of great darkness and struggle. In the ‘Jailteacht’ system (a play on the word ‘Gaeltacht,’ which refers to those rare surviving areas where Irish is the primary spoken language), political prisoners in the notorious H-Blocks and elsewhere informally instituted Irish education. It was a cultural and postcolonial form of resistance to British power that was nourished by and, in turn, informed a wider language revival movement outside the prison walls. Today’s Irish language movement seeks to reclaim and re-establish the public relationship with Irish and, by placing it in the context of the history of colonialism, to restore the language to its place at the heart of Irish and Northern Irish society.

Irish language activists in the Republic and in the North are united in their aspiration: to see the revival of Irish to the level of everyday spoken word. Many institutions, organisations and recent legislation in the Republic of Ireland – the Official Languages Act 2003, have adopted a pragmatic minority rights approach that revises the original constitutional primacy of the language as the national language. This form of advocacy minoritises the language and accepts Irish as an echo of pre-colonial life (Mac Giolla Chríost, 2012). Others, including Sinn Féin, advocate, fight and organise for a future where Irish is equal to English in both utility and value. To recognise the importance and meaning of the near-loss of Irish, we must situate this loss in the wider colonial context. Sinn Féin’s ultimate political goal is the reunification of Ireland. The Irish language can help us to understand and acknowledge the trauma of colonialism that connects North and South. To revive the language is a means of resisting cultural imperialism as it existed under British colonial rule and as it exists today. To speak Irish is to know ourselves outside of the violence of a modernity shaped by colonial capitalism that turns us against our cultures and tongues.

Cleary, J. (2003) “Misplaced ideas?: colonialism, location, and dislocation in Irish studies.” In Carroll, C. and King, P. (2003) Ireland and Postcolonial Theory. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Deane, S. (2003) “Dumbness and eloquence: a note on English as we write it in Ireland.” In Carroll, C. and King, P. (2003) Ireland and Postcolonial Theory. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Kincaid, J. (1988) A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Mac Giolla Chríost, D. (2012) “A question of national identity or minority rights? The changing status of the Irish language in Ireland since 1922.” Nations & Nationalism 18 (3), 398-416.
MacIonnrachtaigh, F. (2013) Language, Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland. London: Pluto Press.
McClintock, A. (1994) “The Angels of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Postcolonial.” In Williams, P. and Chrisman, L. (1994) Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 291-304.
Nandy, A. (1983) The intimate enemy: loss and recovery of self under colonialism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rachel Seoighe is lecturer in Criminology (Human Rights and Criminal Justice) at Middlesex University. Her work engages with political agency, violence, abolition feminism and postcoloniality. Her forthcoming book is War, Denial and Nation-Building in Sri Lanka: After the End and she tweets at @racheladrianne.