A beautiful and complicated language

Martin Morgan offers his thoughts on the complex debate around the Irish language.

  • Sir Herbert Mercer

    Wise words.

    Used to have little time for Morgan but that article seems well reasoned. I heard rumours floating around that he wants to run for Finna Fail in the north. His put down of both SF and the SDLP would tie in with this

  • smcgiff

    Broadly in favour with these views.

    An opening line or the odd couple as gaeilge mid speech would be fine as long as the speaker translated into the working language – English.

    Perhaps we could then get some token words spoken properly from the First Minister. However, if the language were to be mocked (as it has), then I couldn’t really disagree with others using it frequenlyt out of equal badness. One word – Meas/Respect.

  • IJP

    I thought long and hard before deciding where to place my number ‘3’ at the European election (after Gilliland and Whitcroft).

    This well-reasoned and sensible article makes me glad I put it next to Morgan, and sorry it didn’t prove crucial.

  • Greenflag

    Good man Morgan 🙂 A glimmer of light among a sea of ignoramuses . Well said .

  • Frank Sinistra


    I don’t believe you for a moment. Who are you claiming was a challenger for your number three? McCann? de Brún? Allister? Nicholson?

    Your ballot paper would have wrote itself in 2004.

  • An Lochlannach

    I can’t agree with the praise for this article, which I find illogical and poorly argued.
    Morgan writes: ‘Does it [Irish] need to be spoken in the chamber at Stormont, no; as it serves no practical purpose as every one here can speak English.’
    One could expand that argument into every single domain of life, effectively condemning Irish to death or, at best, to the status of a ‘hearth-language’ spoken among acquainted or related individuals but with no public dimension at all. In the strictest sense Irish doesn’t ‘need’ to be spoken anywhere since we can all communicate fully without it. A book of poetry in Irish ‘serves no practical purpose’ since the author could presumably write in English and find a greater audience. But that’s not the point. In Ireland a number of thousands of fully bilingual people have chosen Irish as their language. Their number is indeed exaggerated but they are entitled to use their language of choice in public contexts as well as private, in Stormont or in the pub.
    I remember once seeing a cartoon by ‘Doll’ in which someone opined ‘I’m all for Irish… as long as it’s neither spoken or written’. To do so is ‘forcing the language down peoples’ throats’. Well, I think the old Gaelic Leaguers had it spot on with the slogan ‘Beatha teanga a labhairt’. Anything else is frippery and tokenism. Fianna Fáil would suit Martin Morgan down to the ground.

  • Greenflag

    ‘Fianna Fáil would suit Martin Morgan down to the ground.’
    Of course . Fianna Fail has always been the pragmatic (feet on the ground ) party 🙂

    If you prefer to have your head up your a**e or your feet in the clouds then there is always a range of unionist and other parties to choose from 🙂

    Beir Bua etc


  • Dewi

    An Lochlannach

    Very well put – unless people use it, speak it, hear it it might as well be dead.

  • JD

    “I remember once seeing a cartoon by ‘Doll’ in which someone opined ‘I’m all for Irish… as long as it’s neither spoken or written’. To do so is ‘forcing the language down peoples’ throats’. Well, I think the old Gaelic Leaguers had it spot on with the slogan ‘Beatha teanga a labhairt’. Anything else is frippery and tokenism. Fianna Fáil would suit Martin Morgan down to the ground.”

    The above formula is what makes Fianna Fail so successful. The Irish language lobby in the North would do well to learn from the mistakes in the South. Compulsion has left Gaelige resented more than cherished – pity, but true.

  • Shore Road Resident

    This article has done more to make me rethink my attitude towards Irish speakers than every word of Irish ever spoken by Sinn Fein.

  • An Lochlannach

    JD wrote ‘Compulsion has left Gaelige resented more than cherished – pity, but true.’

    I take your point, JD, but who said anything about compulsion, at least in the context of Martin Morgan’s article (a response to McNarry’s motion of last week)? Are MLAs being compelled to speak Irish against their will?

    There’s been a lot of wooliness in the debate on this. People like Malachi O’Doherty praise ‘people who really care about the language’ (i.e. not Sinn Féin – although that party has its fair share of perfectly sincere language activists who pracice what they preach by speaking the language). Martin Morgan talks about Irish being a ‘beautiful & complicated language’. Everyone other than David McNarry feels compelled to say nice things about Irish but speaking it…well that’s going too far. That’s just being offensive isn’t it? Or as Martin Morgan has it ‘Forcing it down peoples’ throats’

    My point is that Irish is unlikely to be advanced by not speaking it or by objecting to people when they do, in whatever context.

  • Frank.

    Playing the ball is the norm here (or should be).


    I agree that trying to impose a prohibition upon the chamber was always likely to backfire on the proposers. Note too that the motion was not carried: presumably not enough Unionist MLAs could bring themselves to be in the chamber to back the full illiberal premise of the argument against the use Irish in the chamber to carry it in the end.

    That, however, doesn’t mean that Morgan (and the unionist opposition) do not have a point.

    The language has prospered under the segregated conditions of the troubles. The health pf spoken Irish language in West Belfast has to be witnessed to be believed. It was a particularly strong cultural standard around which a lot of enthusiasm formed, and in fact, the initial hostility of the state to the interests of the Irish language seemed to act primarily as a spur to its growth.

    But some of the criticism its proponents are facing arises from a general lack of seriousness about the way it is used within the chamber, the precooking of some of the arguments in favour of the language, straightforward hyperbole (the Rosa Parks ‘back of the bus’ tag is especially self serving) and the historical lived experience of the way it has been used for certain political ends in the past.

    Gregory Campbell in particular picked up one of Patsy McGlone’s points that as a language, it’s primary raison d’etre was as ‘a means of communication’. That is what most genuine speakers at their core believe to be important. What was refreshing in that debate was to hear the language actually put to some use in that regard (though in McGlone’s case, he was scrupulous enough to repeat each segment of his contribution in English).

    However Campbell, not unreasonably, was able to turn McGlone’s words around on him, when he asked how it could be a means of communication when used in a chamber where most people could not understand what was being said?

    Simultaneous translations might be an answer. The technology is already in use in Cardiff (the speaker will often introduce an AM in Welsh), and in Dublin. But in both places the case for the local importance of Welsh and Irish has been made and accepted before devolution in the first place and on a territory wide basis in the second.

    Whatever about the optics in this issue, getting to an equitable answer either has to be done in dialogue with Unionism, or by some agreement with the British PM to pass an act in the UK parliament at Westminster. With the trouble Brown already has on his hands, I cannot see him breaking protocols around such devolved matters.

    It would fetch him a deal of problems he cannot afford to add to his considerable political burdens at this time: not simply with ‘The Doc and Co’, but the not-inconsiderable-might of the SNP and, to a lesser extent perhaps, with Plaid.

  • GavBelfast

    There were a few callers into TalkBack about this last week who were voices of sanity and reason in the midst of politiking – one of them a Sinn Fein voter who said he would much rather SF and nationalist representatives generally concentrated their efforts on dealing with ‘bread and butter’ issues than getting exercised when most of those feeling so agitated couldn’t speak Irish properly anyway.

    Other callers said they would much prefer if actual Irish speakers used a cupla focal and, by their word and deed, encouraged others to do so in kind. Maybe I’m being too hopeful, but I would like to think a few non-nationalists could be encouraged in this way – I think there are at least a couple of Irish speakers on the non-nationalist benches, or there were in the last Assembly anyway?

    However, in terms of using Irish as if it was the business language then, as in the Dail, those doing so can surely see that it is just bad comunication not be widely understood, and it does their case, if genuine, no good at all if it’s just to make a point or goad those more than ready to be goaded by ‘leprechaun language’.

    All-in-all, it’s another diversion and excuse from actually scrutinising, legislating and actually governing.

  • sms

    Téim go hAlbain uair sa bhliain de gnáthach ach i mbliana thug mé fá dear go rabh na comharthaí bóthair uilig in Earraghaidheal dhá theangach, Gaeilge agus Bearla ar aon mhéid ach ar dhathanna éagsúla. Bhí cuma shlachmhar orthu agus rinneadh an obair uilig gan rí rá na ruaille buaille. cád é tá cearr linn i dTuaisceart Éireann go dtagann mire éigin ar dhaoine nuair a luaitear an Ghaeilge? I hope I’m not pushing this down any body’s throat but I’m only writing in the language I was brought up with and I apologise if you feel insulted

  • J_K


    The UUP raised this debate – it was pretty stupid but what do you expect the week before it was something about Peter Robinson’s Garden. I think the Shinner debate was on Sex Offenders.

    The Speaker has instant translation so I guess the easiest thing would be to give all MLA’s equal access.

    Irish is the native language and whatever about whataboutery I think that there is a responsibility to encourage its growth.To unionists I say if its good enough for Scotland and Wales . . then its good enought for here

  • RG Cuan

    All well-reasoned opinion is welcome on this issue but Martin Morgan’s article only illustrates his slim grasp of Irish language issues and speakers.

    His ‘Caitríona Ruane-esque’ description of Irish as a “beautiful and complicated language” sums up his agrument – Gaelic is a past-time and not much more.

    This line of thought is an insult to the Irish language speaking population. Thousands of people use the language everyday at home, work, school, in the pub and while speaking Irish in the Assembly may seem excessive to some, it’s hardly forcing anybody to use the tongue. As Mick points out, this could be solved easily through simutaneous translation.


    Chan eil tú ag brú na teanga síos scornach s’agamsa cibé ar bith! Le himeacht aimsire beidh comharthaí againne anseo chomh maith.

  • Séamaí

    Well said JK.

    Morgan obviously wanted to comment on the language debate but just didn’t have the substance to truly contribute. His lack of understanding of the Irish langauge community is evident.

  • Nevin

    Simultaneous translations might be an answer… MF

    An old acquaintance of mine used to do this in the Dail. On one occasion, when a TD got to his feet, she said, “Not that old goat again” OWTTE. She’d forgotten that her microphone was on and her words echoed around the chamber.

    I’m interested in the meanings of local placenames but I prefer this Scottish inclusive approach to the overemphasis on Irish forms here.

    Some years ago I spotted Stanton/La Pere in Norman records for the north coast. When I changed ‘stan’ to ‘stane’ the penny dropped, the stane in question being a reference to a standing stone (cf La Pere – le pierre – the stone). The townland of Seneirl – the seat of the earl – is adjacent to the various Ballycloughs – Baile Cloiche – the homestead of the (standing) stone.

  • IJP


    I wasn’t going to place a number 3. I didn’t place a number 4.

  • IJP


    territory-wide basis

    That’s particularly important.

  • Mick Fealty


    Years ago a colleague of mine was asked to brief a senior member of a large semi public body in England who was to give oral evidence to the Lords Science and Technology committee’s inquiry into ‘science and society’.

    In going over the previous contributions he noticed just how many learned science institutions and technology companies were happy to blame the media, and the incapacity of the ‘general public’ to understand science, rather than find ways of engaging that wider public.

    Part of the problem here is that too often the language movement stops at “they don’t understand us” brand of rhetoric rather than looking for productive ways of engaging those, the vast majority of their neighbours, who live and work far beyond the ‘limistéar Gaelach’.

    The language has made massive strides in the last thirty years, both in terms of the number of speakers and the funding it receives from the public purse. But the climate is changing.

    Of course, the Irish speaking community has some of its own fate in its hands. But given the squeeze that’s coming as a result of Brown’s public sector overspend and the wider credit crunch, energy might be better reserved for holding on to what’s been won over the last thirty (Irish medium education and media projects like La Nua and Blas) than engaging in antagonistic ‘mock fights’ it is likely to lose.

    And particularly when it is with those from whom it may need draw indirect support in what could be a fiercely competitive fiscal winter.

  • nineteensixtyseven

    Maybe the Unionists should have raised the issue at St Andrews before they agreed to this clause of Annex B of the St Andrews Agreement:

    * The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of
    Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the
    development of the Irish language.

  • Mick Fealty

    Interesting 1967. That would have been a compelling argument had that provision been translated into Westminster legislation before the Act came into force and made such matters a devolved issue.

    The promise (from the British government) was certainly there at the beginning, but it doesn’t appear that they actually ante-ed up with the necessary legislation. You can find the details here.

    The difficulty is that now the proper channel for asking for help from the Westminster government is through the Executive. Failing that (which it almost certainly would): party lobbying of Number Ten is the next best option.

    I’m not saying it won’t work, just that the price of making it work (after the fact so to speak) may just be more than Gordon Brown can afford to pay right now.

    And I would imagine there will be even less appetite for if Cameron gets in May ’09.

    Someone took their eye off this particular ball quite some time ago.

  • nineteensixtyseven

    Aha, so the government were supposed to pass the appropriate legislation as an Order in Council under the Northern Ireland Act 2000 before passing St Andrews which repealed the aforementioned act, so it is now technically a matter for the devolved Assembly?

  • nineteensixtyseven

    *so the government was

    I wish there was a two minute window in which to correct spelling or grammatical errors!

  • Mick Fealty

    Just to add, there’s some pertinent detail from the St Andrews Act here, which would appear to have substantially strengthened the role of the Executive in deciding the precise nature of the language strategy:

    “15 Strategies relating to Irish language and Ulster Scots language etc

    After section 28C of the 1998 Act insert-

    “28D Strategies relating to Irish language and Ulster Scots language etc

    (1) The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.

    (2) The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture.

    (3) The Executive Committee-

    (a) must keep under review each of the strategies; and

    (b) may from time to time adopt a new strategy or revise a strategy.”

  • GavBelfast


    Nothing in your rebuttal diverts from the fact that Irish is not the language of everyday life and business on this island, not least in the Dail. Irish doesn’t offend me and I respect peoples right to learn it and speak it, I’ve made a point of learning a bit about it and at least a few words, phrases, etc, myself, but it’s extensive use (in the Assembly) thwarts communication and is bad communication in an environment where English is the everyday first language of pretty well everyone there (except perhaps Anna Lo). The whole thing is about posturing and an expensive diversion.

    Time to govern.

    Sin é!


  • Mick Fealty

    Spot on 1967!!

    The problem is that this level of detail rarely penetrates mainstream discourse, so the governmental context is not widely understood, perhaps not even within some parts of the language movement.

    Whilst one can understand the emotional response to the likely stonewalling of any attempt to bring in an Irish Language Act, it does not necessarily make good sense to continue to blame unionists for that negative response when it has been treated as a minor pawn in a wider legislative game, even by its own political proponents.

    [BTW, I hear what you say on the commenting facility. Will see if we can do something about that]

  • kidso

    Náire, Is teanga beo í.

  • Sean

    I could be wrong as I didnt book mark it but wasnt I reading in one of the Irish Newspapers how if Storomont did not pass a ILA it would then fall to Whitehall and they were already making preparations to do just that?

    So if memory serves would it not behoove Storomont to attempt to write a limited ILA rather than have imposed on them something much more inclusive and over reaching then would be acceptable to both major parties

  • Pete Baker


    Don’t believe everything you read.

  • Harry

    Apparently something as simple as speaking a few words of the indigenous language in northern ireland is to be fraught with angst, anger and interminable bureacratic complexities – yet again another literal metaphor and sign of how being Irish in Ireland is not something which is allowable in a simple and straighforward manner. It is preposterous and insulting in the extreme that such a hullabuloo is made about speaking Irish. Martin Morgan’s article is just so much intellectual pooftery dressed up as ‘oh so terribly reasonable and meeting people half way’ shite.

    These unionists are a profoundly distasteful breed of hateful ignoramuses and thugs who should be given no credence whatsoever in these things. The fact that the likes of Morgan attempt to suggest people speaking the language are to blame for speaking it – and Mick’s repetition of the same suggestion – is deeply unconvincing.

    What exactly are these people guilty of? Speaking a few phrases at the beginning and end of their speeches and maybe the odd bit of Irish at other times throughout, all of which they have the courtesy to repeat in English? It is those who are intolerant of even this small smattering of the ancient language and who would corral the cúpla focal in restricted areas who are the ones without a leg to stand on, as any objective observer outside the distorting fish bowl of northern ireland would no doubt tell you.

    The one thing about speaking Irish which is objectionable is when the speaker insistes on calling the person they’re addresssing by the gaelic form of their name – such as when McNarry was addressed during that debate as ‘Daithí’. That is unacceptable in my view – a person’s name is their name and you should do them the courtesy of calling them by the name they use themselves. In that Sinn Féin showed themselves to be petty and vindictive.

    Outside of that the unionists are a shower of eejits who shouldn’t be allowed to behave in the way they have over the language. And those who would enter into endless bureaucratic blatherings about this are missing an essential point:- this is all about re-establishing a connection with our past and the psychological clarity that should result from that, a clarity that history has sought to deny us. There is to be no compromise over this with unionists – they are simply beside the point.

  • Dan

    I always cringe a bit when people refer to Irish as this “ancient language”. Irish is living. It’s evolving. Just like any other living language. I understand where you’re coming from, but it still irks me a bit.

    More SF members should be fluent btw. Too many people are satisfied with having just a cúpla focal.

  • gaelgannaire

    Martin Morgan is not pro-Irish. Period.

  • Harry

    Is this argument to be the latest sublimation of our ancient quarrel – we’ve had parades and decommissioning, not to mention ‘clarification’; is the issue of the Irish langauge to be the new focus of inter-communal heat that our leaders would have us concentrate on as the harmless sublimation of a previously deadly physical confrontation? Is this to be the locus of our winning and losing for the time being, the northern irish version of bread and circuses used to wean the population – slowly, ever so slowly – off their bad habits? The process is the process and all that…

    But nonetheless the status quo remains largely intact. Perhaps even more secure than for 2 generations.

  • Nevin

    From the 2005 debate in the Scottish Parliament on the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Bill:

    The everyday language of the majority of my constituents is Scots and an interesting parallel can be drawn between Gaelic and Scots. Nowadays, people speak Scots with confidence and pride. Scots is no longer considered a degraded form of English but a language in its own right. Young Scots feel that it is cool to speak in Scots and I understand that the same thing is happening with Gaelic. That said, the state in which the language is in means that we need to accelerate the pace at which that happens. …

    Alex Neil’s key point was about status, which was also mentioned by Robert Brown, Adam Ingram, Elaine Murray, Eleanor Scott and Fiona Hyslop. There is a shared desire among members to ensure that the bill represents a generosity of spirit towards the language, a sympathetic approach to how the language should be treated and the need for esteem and respect for the language. I want to try to ensure that the bill further represents that spirit and we are wrestling with how we can do that. However, there is a difference between symbolism and law. Law has legal effect and we must try to strike the right balance. The legal sense of the word “validity” is causing us real challenges, but we will try to capture the spirit that I described as we go forward.

    Language and culture here have got caught in the jaws of the constitutional question, probably to the detriment of both. Surely, co-operation has to be the way forward.

  • if Gordon Brown wants to cut back on public spending, he should start with the folly in Iraq and meet his government’s commitments re the Irish language in full and without further hand wringing.

    Mick seems to think that unionists shouldn’t be blamed for their negative response to proposals for the Irish Language Act. The fact is that unionists want to maintain the status quo – which is do nothing for the language – and won’t come forward with any positive suggestions. The rhetoric emanating from unionist speakers last week was shocking, illinformed, ignorant, insensitive, laden with bigotry and sectarianism (particularly George Robinson’s comments).

    If unionists stall the Irish Language Act, I feel that it is the beginning of the end for powersharing and they will be blamed.

  • páid

    Was in Carmarthen about four months ago. Absolutely hated it.

    Not only were those miserable Welsh b*stards speaking Welsh, they tied me back in a chair, forced open my mouth with a steel bar and actually picked up long Welsh words up off the floor of the pub and ………..


  • nineteensixtyseven

    Yeah, Mick. I was reading the parts of the Agreement last night regarding the Irish language and Ulster Scots and noticed that myself for the first time. Those last two clauses could become very important, the ones about reviewing and revising the strategy. The devil’s in the detail!

  • Nevin

    Future of Irish act ‘in balance’

    Culture Minister Edwin Poots is expected to outline his views on a proposed Irish language act later, amid speculation he intends to scrap it.

    Mr Poots is on record as saying legislation may not be necessary.

    It is understood the DUP minister may withdraw plans for the act, which Sinn Fein negotiated as part of the St Andrews Agreement.

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed it is 1967. And it’s in the outworking of the Executive, where that infamous Unionist veto still carries the last word.

  • Turgon

    I am interested in your comments about SF taking their eye off the ball on this one. This could be an error on their part like the error Trimble made taking Blair seriously when he wrote those “pledges” at Coleraine University.

    I would be surprised at SF committing such a school boy error though. They have a reputation for pretty detailed negogitation. It could be that they are not really that interested in Irish but again although I feel they do the genunine cause of Irish much damage they are interested in it for use in the “Every word is a bullet” sense.

    Being a bit Machiavellian one could suggest that they knew that this would happen. The inevitable refusal by the unionists to have an ILA then provides excellent opportunities for MOPEry and a subsequent appeal to the British Government if refused allows yet further high quality MOPEry. If the government backs SF then it allows SF to rub the unionists noses in it. Overall a no loose strategy unless that is one is interested in Irish in a non political sense and wants everyone to accept it; and the chances that SF have such a goal are?

  • IJP


    I would be surprised at SF committing such a school boy error though.


    Really we have to get beyond this notion that SF never makes mistakes. Does anyone seriously believe the process was supposed to end up with SF sharing government in NI with Paisley and a well-organized group of DUP cohorts?

    If anyone were in any doubt about SF’s capacity for catastrophic misjudgement, that doubt should have been eliminated by its farcical election campaign in Dublin.

    SF makes mistakes, frequently. The rest of us also make mistakes – not least the assumption that SF doesn’t!