Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Ye Cracke

Fresh from presiding over the destruction of the local Irish-language voluntary sector, Carál Ní Chuilín has found the time to castigate the non-all-Ireland organisations thus de-funded, arguing that:
"The opportunity to be selected as a lead organisation was an open and transparent process open to all existing core funded bodies. Organisations had the opportunity then to merge to make a bid to become a lead organisation."
The Written Answers booklet also includes some interesting responses on Ulster-Scots linguistic spending (hint: one of them's headed "Highland Dancing Classes").

In the Bel-Tel, Ms Ní Chuilín has been discussing a major advertising campaign to promote Irish. Unfortunately, she makes the claim that "crack" is a Gaelic word, despite most academic commentators viewing it as a recent loan from English or Scots (it is notable by its absence from Father Dinneen's dictionary). Indeed, Liverpool even boasts a nineteenth-century pub named Ye Cracke, with the Spenserian spelling underlining the term's thoroughgoing Englishness.

Much as the Blether Region supports Irish, it is of course an unfortunate fact that the strained etymologies spouted by some folk do it a serious disservice. An article hosted at Irish Central entitled "Irish words litter New York City slang", for example, claims that "Gee whiz!" is derived from "Dia uas". In many Irish interjections, of course, Dia is in the vocative and therefore mutated (imagine an Englishman saying the word "year"), while Ó Dónaill lists uas- only as a prefix, the usual form being uasal.  Not only that, but it's painfully obvious that "Gee whiz!" is derived from "Jesus!" (with, perhaps, some reinforcement from "G—!", a coy interjection that, owing to contemporary qualms at taking the Lord's name in vain, peppers Victorian literature).

The article draws on the book How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads (Counterpunch) by Daniel Cassidy, which has been roundly condemned by serious linguists. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of such claims is the serial refusal to present etymologies plausible to an Irish-speaker (Mr. Cassidy evidently not being one himself). The variant "Gee whilikers" is glossed as deriving from Dia Thoileachas, or "God's will". But ask an Irish-speaker how to say "God's will", and the answer is likely to be something like Toil Dé.

Once again, how annoying that Irish Central has seen fit to publish such claptrap.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Níl Aon Mheirg ar an Fheirg

The future of the Irish language is now a subject of discussion North and South, with the Examiner arguing that the EU respects it more than the native political class. The result is that in Ireland itself it is seen and rarely heard, being "a largely silent presence" used "for decoration rather than for its full potential".

Irish Central, on the other hand, argues that it is now too late to save Irish. It's unfortunate that Irish Americans, many of whom will have little opportunity to gauge a wider cross-section of opinion, are being exposed to such views, which, apart from anything else, handily excuse the person articulating them from any regret at his or her personal linguistic failings. The article is also ill-informed (did seven out of eight Irish people really use the language daily on the eve of the Famine?). It ends, bizarrely, with the author asking his readers' forgiveness for the faulty Irish of the proverb he offers them. It would be difficult to imagine a professional journalist doing the like with any other language: particularly in these days of the Internet, he would just go and check it. Even if we think Irish is dead, we can still show it a little respect.

The BBC, meanwhile, reports on Julian de Spáinn, Ard-Rúnaí of Conradh na Gaeilge, calling for the introduction (for which, read "reinstatement") of recruitment quotas for Irish-speakers in the South's Civil Service. The element that piqued the BBC's interest appears to be Mr. de Spáinn's comparison of this with the Patten rules on 50/50 PSNI recruitment, the implication being that if the imperfectly democratic Northern polity can take such novel steps in the cause of equality, perhaps the South should be even more ashamed.

It is an unfortunate comparison that will no doubt elicit a predictable response from Unionists, many of whom, such as Newtwon Emerson, already see the promotion of Irish as a case of "jobs for the boys". The Blether Region simply cannot see it happening up here. That is not to say, however, that it would not be a good idea. The Northern Ireland Civil Service is already a bloated institution, and enough money to cover the change could easily be found through savings elsewhere.

On the wider issue of Irish in the North, following the recent "Dearg le Fearg" demonstration that brought 10,000 Gaeilgeoirí to the streets of Dublin, a Belfast follow-up has been arranged for 12 April. No doubt it will be aimed as much at the incompetence of Sinn Féin as the intransigence of Unionists. In today's fraught atmosphere of flag protests and pickets, however, that might not be evident to everyone. Let's hope that it's allowed to pass off peacefully.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Economically Correct

The BBC quotes Foras na Gaeilge chief executive Ferdie Mac an Fhailigh as saying that the de-funding of almost all of Northern Ireland's Irish-language voluntary organisations was "economic not political". As no one is seriously suggesting that the cuts were made by people who hate Northerners (Mr. Mac an Fhailigh is one himself), that may seem uncontroversial.

But whether the decision was a completely apolitical one is another matter.

Would a Fianna Fáil-led Government in the South have viewed the need to cut spending on Irish as less urgent than their rivals in Fine Gael? Could some of those working for and sitting on the Foras board have had an unexpressed bias towards the larger part of the island, perhaps influenced by the organisation having its headquarters in Dublin? Might some of them have had limited understanding of, or sympathy with, the experience of the language in the North? Might the Sinn Féin board members have acted on a predictable preference for all-island structures? Might some of them have denigrated Ultach Trust in particular as a creation of the British? And could any Northern party apart from Sinn Féin have got away with such wanton destruction of the sector without engendering a political backlash and perhaps even bringing down the Agreement?

Similarly, one could ask why the successful organisations were canvassed by Foras na Gaeilge before the official selection was made, why the lower cost of Northern salaries was not taken into account when making plans ostensibly aimed at saving money, and why at least one Northern organisation was not chosen on the basis of demographic equity.

Sins of omission can be political too.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Battle of Stumpie's Brae

The Guardian reports that Cambridge City Council has reversed a policy of banning apostrophes from street signs after a public outcry. Although apostrophes are mandated in certain contexts by traditional English grammar, it is a fact that they are often absent in place-names, ostensibly because of worries about confusing drivers, but no doubt also because allowing them a presence once would result in calls to have other signs amended where the apostrophe is absent or has been used wrongly.

The council was reacting to a spate of vandalism whereby the missing elements were being added by sticklers with marker pens.

Regular readers will recall that there was recently a row on Fermanagh District Council relating to the question of whether the bare fact of writing the word crannóg with a síneadh fada meant that a sign was in Irish. Ultimately that turned on issues of symbolism.

Such concerns may well have been the case in Cambridge, since hosting one of England's top two universities is of course part of its understanding of self (as a town with no cathedral, it traditionally owed its status as a city to it, something formalised by a charter as late as 1951).

Perhaps Northern Ireland isn't so different after all, then.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Flags and Languages

The Belfast Telegraph reports that the Tánaiste, Éamon Gilmore, has called for respect to be shown towards the Union flag and the Irish language, "two key cultural symbols at the centre of controversy north of the border". All well and good, but the collocation "cultural symbols" consists of two elements that more thoughtful consideration suggests may be quite different. In fact, the Union flag is a political symbol, while the Irish language is cultural. Although culture and symbolism can overlap, there is nothing particularly cultural about a flag, and, as Linda Ervine has been showing in East Belfast, there need be nothing symbolic about a language either.

Another question is what one means by "respect". In the case of Irish, respect would probably mean allowing it a place in public life, and Mr. Gilmore argues for just that, rightly pointing out the double standard inherent in the treatment of Celtic languages in Northern Ireland and Great Britain:
"Steps can and should be taken [...] for affording the protections and status to the Irish language that are already afforded in Wales to the Welsh language."
Flags, however, are another matter. Are Union flags commonly subject to symbolic destruction? In some places in Northern Ireland, undoubtedly, though tricolours on Twelfth night bonfires certainly have a higher profile. On the other hand, it is surely harder to argue that Nationalist-controlled councils show disrespect merely by declining to fly any flag from public buildings, or that councils where the Alliance Party holds the balance of power are acting in that way when they limit the days on which the Union flag flutters over a town hall. In fact, the Alliance policy on flags is that followed by most public bodies in Great Britain.

Which brings us to an interesting point. If anything is disrespectful to a flag — and utterly alienating to people from Great Britain — it is its flying from every lamp-post, railing, peace wall and Housing Executive shoebox, sometimes upside-down, often flanked by paramilitary or even sporting flags, and petulantly left there until its tatters are removed in favour of another Taiwanese import next marching season. And while this is by no means a problem limited to one side of the house, it is a fact that the CNR community does it rather less, despite not generally having the opportunity to fly its flag from public buildings the way that Unionists can. As the late Séamus Heaney said when discussing Loyalist "culture" in one of his last interviews — in which he made similar points to Éamon Gilmore — "they wipe the floor with it".

Give them half a chance, and they might.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Splits and Conflations

The Blether Region's suspicions that the Orange Order is deeply split on the issue of Irish appear to have been confirmed, with the media now reporting that David Hume, its director of services, has offered his support to the embattled Belfast County Grand Master, George Chittick.

Dr. Hume is also one of those Orangemen involved in entryism into Ulster-Scots cultural initiatives, and recently made the "absurd demand" that "Ulster-Scots" be allowed to participate in the Scottish independence referendum (correctly surmising that a "Yes" vote would make a united Ireland hugely more likely but seriously misjudging the effect of his intervention on voters). He typifies the cultural preferences of the more intellectual evangelicals in Northern Ireland: they only do history, and even that seems more about projecting present-day conflicts back into the past, regardless of the complexities of the actual situation now or then.

Naturally enough, the involvement of such deeply sectarian individuals in Ulster Scots has been a disaster — in terms of its community profile as one might expect, but also linguistically. Put simply, for the sake of doing a little damage to Irish, they have been willing to do a great deal more damage to Scots.

Back in the late 1990s when the Ulster-Scots Agency was set up, members of the Foras na Gaeilge board suggested that the two sides of the Language Body learn each other's speech varieties in order to hold joint board meetings. The idea was scrapped when it emerged that the politicians and Orangemen on the Ulster-Scots side couldn't even speak the dialect whose written form they claimed the right to vajazzle.

Part of the reason that people such as Dr. Hume can refer to a culture war is that Northern Ireland is facing a bonfire of what were, for much of the twentieth century, absolute verities. That bonfire is encapsulated in the parallel normalisation of the Irish language and the de-normalisation of Orange triumphalism. The Order is forced to link the two phenomena: partly to act on the primarily political imperatives that define it; partly to make itself seem vaguely cultural.

As for the historical work, well, much of what is given the "Ulster-Scots" tag appears instead to be about random Protestants, including the recent television documentary on Lord Castlereagh, an English-speaker educated in Armagh, albeit in his case a Presbyterian. Dr. Hume's comments in the press, on the other hand, appear to confirm the view that the modern Ulster-Scots movement is founded on a series of conflations — "Ulster-Scot" with "Orangeman", "Presbyterian" with "Protestant", "religion" with "politics", and "Catholic" with "other":
"Whenever I [hear] her say that I say 'Hooray to Linda' — it doesn't belong to Sinn Fein, it belongs to all of us. And of course the Presbyterian tradition is a very proud tradition within Irish republicanism and their involvement with the Irish language through Douglas Hyde and many others is legendary."
Douglas Hyde was in fact an Anglican, the son of a clergyman, no less, and a man who, on his death, had a funeral held in Saint Patrick's, Dublin's Church of Ireland Cathedral.

Yes, they do history, but not that well.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Treading Carefully

The wail of anguish at Foras na Gaeilge's recent funding — or "de-funding" — decisions has been momentarily drowned out by the ravings of a numpty. Yes, George Chittick, Belfast District Master of the Orange Order, has warned Protestants not to learn Irish because it is part of the "publican [sic] agenda". The Sandy Row hardliner made the bizarre comments when addressing a meeting last Saturday.

Reaction has been swift, with the Orange Order itself stating that the question of whether to learn Irish is a matter of individual "conscience" for its members — the peculiar use of moralising vocabulary suggesting that the organisation, for all its eye for damage limitation, may be seriously split on the issue. Perhaps the most high-profile rebuttal, however, came from Linda Ervine, the PUP-linked East Belfast language activist. But is there a subtext to all this? A matter of hours before Mr. Chittick's statement, the Skainos Centre in East Belfast was attacked by outraged Loyalists when it hosted a talk by Brighton bomber Patrick Magee. The centre is also the venue for Ms Ervine's language classes.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Mr. Chittick attacked the Irish language in order to have a go at the Skainos Centre — or, alternatively, that the Magee controversy merely emboldened him to vent his existing spleen. Loyalists of course have a history of making ill-informed attacks on Irish, sometimes even claiming that the form revived in the North is based on Southern models (something true only if one overlooks the fact that Donegal is Ireland's most northerly county).

Many years ago, back in 1980, Loyalists from that same part of East Belfast hurled abuse at the funeral cortege of Ronnie Bunting, assassinated leader of the INLA. Mr. Bunting's father, Ronald, was a staunch and outspoken supporter of the Rev. Ian Paisley. As one might expect, he decried both the politics and the violence in which his son had become involved but gave full expression to a father's grief for his dead child. However, that did not stop the Loyalist reaction in an area where people hold strong views. If there is a lesson to be drawn from this, it might well be that, while learning Irish in East Belfast is — just about — acceptable, inviting Patrick Magee to address a meeting is a step too far.

If Irish is to prosper and folk in East Belfast are to be weaned off displays of sectarian kitsch in favour of something genuinely cultural, people will have to tread carefully.