Monday, 22 August 2016

Iggy Pap

Newton Emerson is off in a flap about bilingual signs, and, of all places, in the Irish News, which must be bitterly regretting contracting out its column inches to this "liberal Unionist". Indeed, he seems on this occasion to have forgotten to include any jokes, too — unless, of course, they are of the gasp-inducingly unintentional variety. Apart from making a false comparison of bilingual signage with "Welcome to Northern Ireland" placards marking the border, he actually uses the expression "bog-standard" to describe their "ethnic territorial marking". That one's sure to go down well with the Paddies.

But why show any tolerance of diversity when you can retrospectively legitimise criminal acts as giving the two fingers to Republicans? "It is hard to sympathise with Sinn Féin councillors on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council as bilingual signs are defaced in unionist-majority towns and villages," he writes, paying scant attention to the fact that such signs can be vandalised anywhere by roving teams of obsessives. "We can spare ourselves the sophistry that accompanies language 'debates' in Northern Ireland, such as how Irish belongs to everyone (except Gregory Campbell) or how most of our place-names are in Irish already (so why have bilingual signs?)," he continues — apparently oblivious to the fact that he has just made an argument for getting rid of the garbled and meaningless English versions.

This is surely a man whose ignorance knows no bounds, writing as he does that we think of incredibly diverse France as "solidly monolingual" (one suspects that the qualification about what "we" apparently think may have been smuggled in by the sub-editor). Even his attempts at compromise are weird, as he suggests that "The 'national minority' concept may offer a way around this. It is acceptable under the charter to take 'special measures' in favour of a minority, without this counting as discrimination against the majority."

No, Newton, no one is discriminated against by the existence of a bilingual sign. The clue is in the name. They may feel politically aggrieved by being reminded that their closest neighbours are not clones of themselves, but as long as the English remains, they are merely enriched.

As, presumably, is Newton himself, getting paid for this old rope.

* * *

As an aside, the Blether Region noticed yesterday that the bilingual English / Ulster-Scots signs that previously welcomed visitors to the Ards Borough Council area have been replaced by monolingual ones since its merger with North Down. However, as "Fair Fa' Ye" does not mean "welcome", its sadness was held in reasonable bounds.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Closed Books

The Belfast Telegraph has an interesting article on how "British" or "Irish" people are according to a DNA study. Eyebrows will be raised at the way "British" has been defined as "Anglo-Saxon" — both in Wales, home of the actual Britons, and in Scotland, where, owing to the limitations of the method, native Gaels are presumably being classed as "Irish", a conflation last flung at them as a Lowlander's term of abuse in the eighteenth century.

If that is the case, one of the findings must be that Scotland, prior to mass Irish immigration in the nineteenth century, was almost equally Anglic and Gaelic (if the utopian plans voiced in some quarters for a post-Brexit union of Scotland and Ireland are ever to come to pass, those mooting them might be well advised to drop the term "Celtic"). Regrettably, no markers of Pictish or Welsh ancestry seem to have been followed up (in the case of Wales, the derived statistics must therefore be of doubtful value).

No figures are offered regarding the make-up of those in southern Ireland, but it would be unsurprising if the "British" constituent were really quite large. Indeed, some people already quote statistics about how those with British (or Norman) surnames are, ironically enough, more likely to support Fine Gael.

Of course, perhaps the most fruitful conclusion that we can draw from the study is that we're all Jock Tamson's bairns and all a mixtur-maxtur (we kind of knew that anyway). The best way that we can celebrate that hidden diversity is to fight racism and support our languages.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Soul and Bondage

Twenty years ago, when the Blether Region was a young whippersnapper at university in England, it found itself sharing a house with a Republican-minded landlord from Dublin. One night, out and about in an Irish haunt, someone stood up to give a rendition of "Four Green Fields". "How awful," remarked the landlord. "It's so passé."

That a person who is a Republican should find "Four Green Fields" passé might come as news to some, but upon further thought his annoyance was entirely logical. Those three words, summing up his approach to politics, were to others not their vital essence but their ossified entirety — a stick to beat him with, in other words.

Now Pól Ó Muirí has written an article about the struggle to keep the Gaeltacht alive, beginning as follows:
"Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam. Even if you are just one of the 'cúpla focal' brigade, you will most probably recognise the phrase — 'A country without a language is a country without a soul.'"
See the similarity?

And it gets worse:
"The Gaeltacht is as much a faith community as it is a linguistic one. In a very profound way, native speakers, and many other Irish speakers, have kept faith with the language; every word uttered is a prayer, a verbal expression in praise of another kingdom, a sigh from this Vale of Linguistic Tears.
Therein is one of the biggest challenges facing language groups. A country without a language is a country without a soul. A soul? The dominant culture in which we move is one in which value is placed on what can be bought, sold and screwed. It is easy enough to sell your soul but impossible to buy one. How do you protect a faith community; how do you get more people to join the prayer group?"
If the Blether Region were a young, secular Irish person who had not managed to become fluent in the language at school and found religion by turns infuriating and embarrassing, it could hardly be won over by such expansive comparisons.

The link with religion can be explained, of course, given that, in Ireland, Catholicism has functioned as a kind of proxy Gaelachas, and, particularly in the North, Catholic schools have been the custodians of an Irish ethnic tradition (for which reason, long may they continue). Indeed, one Irish-language organisation, Glór na nGael, was even founded by Cumann na Sagart (after all, both Gaels and Catholics have an interest in passing on their memes). Logically, however, in today's world one has to doubt whether the link with religion is as fundamental as the link with Nationalism (for which Gaelic is absolutely not a mere add-on to annoy Unionists).

So, regardless of whether we believe that a country without a language is a country without a soul, one has to doubt whether it's a good idea to articulate it. Instead the reaction should be: "Well, now that you say it I suppose that Irish-speakers are a little like Christians — after all, they're both groups who believe it's their duty to talk to you."