Fergal MacIonnrachtaigh’s ‘Language, Resistance & Revival’; Book Review

fergalmacWhat motivates families with little money and often no upbringing in their ancestral language to send their children off to schools to be taught in it? Why would prisoners, English-speaking from birth, teach each other that challenging language, given few resources and violent retribution? What links these two communities of activists, in the context of Belfast and the Irish North?

A participant-observer from West Belfast, Dr Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh reports on the background, the theory, and the practice of how the Irish language movement endured and revived. A product of its first Irish-medium schools, he blends scholarship with testimony in Language, Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland. Former prisoners and local families have a say. The personal as the political, with bilingual transcripts of interviews, enhances the impact of this accessible–if being Pluto Press, academic–grassroots survey.

After criminologist Phil Scraton’s lively introduction, the author expands from his experience to post-colonial theories of language decline, nationalism, ideology, socialism, and identity. ‘Language loss does not occur within communities of power, wealth and privilege.’ The diminution of Irish, he adds, was not by choice when that choice had been denied so many citizens under British rule.

A chapter on the language’s past fate critiques any purported ‘”advantages” of cultural assimilation’ asserted by revisionists and imperialist entities, whether traditional or neo-liberal. Treatment of Protestant and republican revivalists, and the Gaelic League’s attempt for ‘cultural reconquest’, while familiar to students of this topic, assist new inquirers. The ‘Orange State’ 1922-1972 backlash follows (an epilogue documents current provincial complaints). Mac Ionnrachtaigh examines ‘Hidden Ulster’ that managed via the Catholic-leaning Comhaltas Uladh and locally a radicalised Cumann Chluain Ard which, alienated from the official state for a generation, encouraged Shaw’s Road, the start of Belfast’s urban Gaeltacht. From the Civil Rights era, that self-help initiative led to today’s thriving schools and centres.

Learning Irish in prison, a more intense process than in streets or schools, marks resistance. As ‘a practical means of power’, a second language undermined authority and cemented collective labels on those who championed political rather than criminal status at Long Kesh or other British prisons. This continued a cherished means of opposition from Fenian, IRB, and ‘old IRA’ times, as inmates chose Irish as their linguistic as well as ethnic allegiance. In ‘Na Cásanna’ or the 1973-84 Long Kesh internment cages during 1973-84, prisoners (including the author’s father) explained, however, learning it paled next to playing football. Yet his father, and many others, mastered some Irish; Bobby Sands’ example motivated many.

After the hunger strikes, Irish persisted. By the end of the ’70s, blanketmen had forged an identity against surveillance and brutality. Pupils became teachers in turn, strengthening solidarity. Séanna Breathnach elaborates that even if inevitably ‘people were learning Irish from people who had no Irish at all before they came in’, this provided an incentive ‘of gaining mental emancipation’.

Sinn Féin encouraged classes in Belfast, Derry and Armagh. This study tends to be very Belfast-focused, but this may be inevitable given Long Kesh’s proximity to that city’s cultural prominence. There, illegal Irish-language street signs and the newspaper Lá symbolised change. Pádraig Ó Maolchraoibhe in 1985 boasted: ‘Now every phrase you learn is a bullet in the freedom struggle.’ Schools (where the author began mid-’80s) made Irish a living language, taught often by ex-prisoners. Aodán Mac Póilin cautioned against a tight fit between republicans and the language; as with the Catholic Church, such associations weakened wider ‘ownership’ of Irish and invited British hostility.

In conclusion, after narrating debates over the role of Irish and the risks and rewards of politicisation during the past decades, Mac Ionnrachtaigh places his research findings in context. Similar to a complementary study (uncredited as that appeared just prior to this) by another Ph.D. schooled in Irish during this same era, Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost’s Jailteacht, Mac Ionnrachtaigh concurs that incarceration sparked what earlier Gaelic Leaguers, for instance, had lacked: the incentive behind bars “to organise and sustain educational development in unfavourable circumstances”. Finally, for Irish today as more learn it in school and try to use it in daily life, its inherent power enlivened its use beyond prison. That communal energy, harnessed through its return after long absence to more Irish homes and communities, demonstrates a renewed ‘space of resistance’ emboldened by ‘highly political manifestations of decolonisation’.

  • Drumlins Rock

    ‘Now every phrase you learn is a bullet in the freedom struggle.’

    And they wonder why Unionists reject Gaelic…

  • Son of Strongbow

    Perhaps it’s a bit of ‘outreach’? The book (heaven forfend!) appears to be written in English.

    Or maybe just looking for sales in double figures. 🙂

  • SK

    Republicans promoted the Irish language, therefore the Irish language should be resisted. Republicans also wear shoes, Drumlin- does that mean you’ll be attending your next Orange march barefoot?

    I’m sure that many unionists reject Gaelic because they perceive it to have some unpleasant political connotations. Fair enough. I’m equally certain that many more reject it simply because it’s a bit taigy, and they don’t really like taigy things.

    Also fair enough. But if a ‘shared society’ is something that interests anybody from the unionist side of the fence (and we’ve yet to see any evidence of that), then I’m afraid it will involve having to tolerate the occasional display of leprechaun language in public. Try and get used to the idea.

  • Reader

    SK: Republicans promoted the Irish language, therefore the Irish language should be resisted.
    But that wasn’t DR’s reasoning – DR was reacting to this:
    “Pádraig Ó Maolchraoibhe in 1985 boasted: ‘Now every phrase you learn is a bullet in the freedom struggle.’ ”
    The question then is whether Pádraig was talking bollocks. He seems to have convinced a lot of republicans, but of course that doesn’t mean he wasn’t talking bollocks. What do *you* think?

  • Drumlins Rock

    I actually have an interest in Gaelic ( one of numerous non native languages used at one time or another in Ireland ) Espically it use in placenames and place in the history of languages in Eurasia. Certainly SKs attitude and those covered by this book would not encourage me to learn more. But hopfully more enlightened individuals will take up the cause and promote it as something that can be shared and make us no less British or Unionist. In that light here is a link to something that did awaken a desire to learn more, be it the Scottish variety. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sd4nDXXyuSk

  • SK

    “The question then is whether Pádraig was talking bollocks.”


    I believe he was, and I believe that even a cursory understanding of the history of the language on this island is enough to debunk any assertion that it is the sole property of one tribe or the other.

    That said, it’s interesting that DR, an enthusiastic member of the Orange Order, would insist that culture has to be de-politicised before it can be respected. A pity that an enlightened man such as himself can’t get his own brethren on board with that one.

  • Sound Bloke

    Irish was first politicised with the Statues of Kilkenny in 1366 and has been politicised by its enemies ever since. A little context is provided at http://bit.ly/19YmVOA

  • Reader

    Sound Bloke: A little context is provided at:
    Wow – I read the first bit of that. Isn’t it fortunate that Douglas Hyde was wrong? The Republic is mostly anglophone and internationally recognised.
    But I was most amazed at this next bit ‘ One mural in Ardoyne depicts a teacher and students at a hedge school – the illegal schools held in the fields to circumvent the Penal Laws banning education for Catholics — with the inscription “Labhair an teanga Gaeilge liom” or “Speak the Gaelic language with me.”
    Do the authors not know that the hedge schools earned their pennies by teaching the children the skills they needed to take advantage of the new opportunities in the towns? That pupils there were therefore more likely to be beaten for speaking Irish than encouraged?
    By the way, hedge schools weren’t just for Catholics:

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    “I’m sure that many unionists reject Gaelic because they perceive it to have some unpleasant political connotations”

    Many? I’d say it’s the primary reason.

    I sometimes think republicans are unaware of how much they’ve tarnished the language in the eyes of unionists (or maybe they don’t care)

    I only ‘got over it’ by spending so much time with the Free Presbyterian Gaels in Scotland.

    Unionist politicians don’t help (as usual) but republicans have ruined this one and made it political.

    I tip my hat to Linda Ervine in that regard as it must be quite a battle.

    In the meantime, this is worth a looksie: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Towards-Inclusion-Protestants-Irish-Language/dp/0856408441

  • SK

    Am Ghobsmacht,

    I will take a looksie.

    Incidentally, I don’t deny that the republican movement haven’t done the Irish language any favours. I’m not a particularly big fan of the republic movement.

    But I do wince when I see an Orangeman wax lyrical about how difficult it is for him to respect the Irish language on account of its perceived political connotations. I mean that is a bit rich.

  • gendjinn

    Am Ghobsmacht,

    inverting cause and effect there. The British State made Irish political long before Wolfe Tone.

  • gendjinn

    The unionist rationalisation that their hatred of Irish is because of the IRA is insultingly false.

    History conclusively demonstrates that unionism & the British state opposed, outlawed and destroyed the Irish language. Their opposition has nothing to with the 20th century.

    To engage in this excuse that your hatred of Irish is justified because republicanism is just saying “Why do the Irish have to be so fucking Irish? If only they’d be good Englishmen there wouldn’t be any problem.”

    It’s not only insulting, it’s idiotic and wrong.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Well, that would make me an insulting idiot. Not for the first nor last time I’d imagine.

    Maybe I only speak for myself, but let me assure you that my initial hostility to the Irish language was entirely down to the IRA/shinners.

    Their use of it tarnished it by association, it stabbed at that part of the brain that marketers have since cottoned on, the negative association of something.

    A classic example would be the sponsorship of the old firm teams.
    Sponsoring Rangers actually put more people off McEwan’s Lager than onto it (though it was an uphill struggle given that it tastes like rotting ass’s ass) hence both Old Firm teams have the same sponsor to avoid blacklisting them from the ‘other lot’.

    History demonstrates that the British were one of the groups responsible for destroying the Irish language, the massive contribution to its decline by the Catholic church is wonderfully understated.
    (I had no idea about that till a mate of mine in Croatia wrote a thesis covering that topic for his master’s in linguistics)

    As for it not being a 20th century thing, well, if that’s the case then it would stand to reason that unionist attitudes at the end of and at the beginning of the 20th century would be similar:

    So, without further ado:

    Beginning of the century –

    Unionist banners written in Irish

    Protestant speakers of Irish (it is thought that every outfit in the Ulster 36th had at least one speaker)

    An equal number of Gaelic speakers on the Shankill as on the Falls

    Unionist mottos written in Irish “Erin Go Bragh”.

    Unionists talking about their love of Ireland.

    A strong contribution to preservation of Irish from the gentry/upper classes

    End of the century –

    An OO banner written in Irish (LOL 1303), long gone.

    A tremendous phobia of even seeing it written anywhere (outside of Scotland) as if it were some sort of forbidden tongue from the cellars of the tower of babel.

    A few decent people just slugging on with the ungrateful task of learning and teaching Irish like Rev Kennaway or Linda Ervine or the Ultach.

    Damn it, even Brian Faulkener spoke Irish (cheers for that Mr J!)

    So, this would suggest that something (s) happened in the 20th century to take us from the first scenario to the second.

    I am telling you, that my own reason for hating it at first is down to the shinners/Ra and their commandeering of it.

    I might not get a chorus of “is mise Spartacus!!” in support from other unionist posters here but that is how this particular insulting idiot feels.

    And bear in mind this is an insulting idiot who would love to see a revival in Gaelic in general (inc Scotland and IoM).

    Yes, we do have and probably always did have a load of folk who are hostile to it and needed no great persuasion to jump in on giving it a kicking but that certainly wasn’t the overwhelming viewpoint as it is today and don’t tell me that also isn’t the case on the other side of the fence.

    As for “Irish being so Irish…” well, judging by how little the language has progressed in the near century of ‘freedom’ (a number of Gaeltachts down south died out since) one would say that the ‘Irish’ thing to do is NOT speak Irish.
    Or even dismiss it as a ‘bogger’ thing to do if one comes from Dublin (when I lived there I was struck by this mindset, I thought I would be in the coalface of seething Irish nationalism, such a thought WAS a case of unionist paranoia).

    With that in mind, one would be tempted to suggest that if unionists REALLY want to differentiate themselves from ‘themuns’ then they’d do well to learn some form of Gaelic, at least that way there would be an obvious difference between the groups to an outsider…
    (SF notwithstanding)

  • Son of Strongbow

    I’m with you on this one Sparty!

    Gaelic culture was hijacked by Irish nationalists in an attempt to bind it to political nationalism. Perfectly exemplified in the “phrase” = “bullet” quote.

    You are also correct in stating that before the end of the 19th century ‘unionists’ were quite comfortable with Gaelic culture and it was only the partisan politicisation that caused disenchantment.

    The same nationalist mindset is evident today, and here on slugger too, with references to Irish people explicitly excluding those Irish folks, like me, who are Irish and contented British citizens.

    That being said those unionists who are interested in the language and culture should persevere (personally it’s not my thing) and ignore those who try to insist on stamping a tricolour on everything Irish.

  • Rory Carr

    Forgive me, Am Ghobsmacht if I take from your argument above that you seem to believe that, if republicans had not tried to keep the Irish language alive the all those Orange Lodges who had long ago repudiated it would now instead be enthusiasts for Gaeilge, that indeed the very practice of the language by republicans is what effects its taboo status among unionists in general.

    While I can understand that using Irish to order a pint of Guinness in a Shankill shebeen might not have been the wisest thing for a young Loyalist to do I cannot imagine any hostility arising if he happened to equip himself with that old IRA standby, an Armalite rifle, to go on a Taig-killing scavenge. I also happen to notice that so many of his hate-filled songs would have been lifted from Republican ballads with the lyrics badly rewritten to better reflect the darkest corners of his soul.

    You also may have noticed that republican animus towards England did not affect us so that we chose to reject the English language. Indeed I fancy we speak and write it rather well which is more than might be said of many of our unionist counterparts. But then, as a contributor to L.A.D. yourself, I expect that this is something of which you are all too keenly aware.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Rory Carr

    Alas, it was merely an indulgence in what was a bout of Saturday night flippancy.

    I doubt very much if the OO would take up the call as the custodians of the Irish language but certainly, with no doubt in my mind whatsoever, I don’t believe that their average member would be so hostile to the lingo if it wasn’t so cherished by the IRA or indeed the shinners.

    I know it’s very tempting to throw in context and explain why they cherish it but that is as unnecessary as it wide of the mark when it comes to the bottom line that I’m arguing: Simply that they tarnished the Irish language in the eyes of Unionists (there is a great list of tarnished emblems, songs and flags on both sides) and made it quite inaccessible to many of us.

    Now we have the situation where ‘leprechaun speak’ is regarded as ‘Provo speak’.

    For those in the republican movement who claim to love the language I would ask them if they do indeed revere it so much then could they at least accept this?

    And with the first hurdle of denial cleared, ask themselves “now what?”

    I believe there are ways around it and that many Protestants can be reconciled to the language (hopefully) e.g. involvement with Free Presbyterians from the Western Isles, but, untill SF stop ‘puhing it’ I’m afraid it’s a mammoth task.

    No doubt some loyalist anthems(?) are lifted from republican songs but doubtless more are simply lifted from the shared ancestry of traditional Northern Irish folk music (geographically speaking).

    I found an reminder of this shared musical past when flicking through an Irish music book in Dublin airport, amongst the collection of jigs, reels and airs I found the band favourite ‘Boyne Water’.

    Also, reels are a Scottish contribution to Irish folk music.

    I wish I had bought the book, I fear that the MOPE-Cheka might have since come across it, been suitably outraged and had it sent to a gulag for re-education.

    Finally Mr C, really, using the flegger standard of English is setting the bar very low.

    I have seen nothing to make me conclude that an educated republican is any better or worse at English than an educated loyalist or unionist.

    Unless said educated unionist is me, in which case republicans can claim victory, so they can…

  • RG Cuan

    Now we have the situation where ‘leprechaun speak’ is regarded as ‘Provo speak’.

    This may have been the case in the past but surely this viewpoint has developed to more clearly reflect the reality on the ground?

    Unless certain unionists are determined to keep their eyes closed and simply want to regard Irish as ‘provo speak’ for their own political dogma, any fair and objective examination of the Irish-speaking population will clearly show that it is not.

    Claiming otherwise is an easy way out for some unionists and is as crazy and unfounded as claiming Madarin is ‘commy speak’.

  • Reader

    RG Cuan: Unless certain unionists are determined to keep their eyes closed and simply want to regard Irish as ‘provo speak’ for their own political dogma, any fair and objective examination of the Irish-speaking population will clearly show that it is not.
    There is a range of views, as you would expect of a diverse community subject to a range of influences. The past influence of Provo slogans really shouldn’t be discounted. We aren’t sure that the provos have gone away – the slogan certainly hasn’t. And now there are two new conflicting influences:
    Firstly, there is what we have seen on Slugger – engaging language enthusiasts, setting out their vision for broadening the appeal of Irish, and setting people’s mind at rest over the impact of administrative costs and the demands on people with no interest in the language.
    Secondly we have the others, mostly Shinners, who see the language as a means of keeping score – those who want government documents that hardly anyone ever reads translated into an Irish version that no-one will ever read. Maybe they think there are jobs in it?
    So is there one language movement with multiple faces, or are there multiple movements, each deserving to be viewed differently?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    RG Cuan

    Admittedly I am out of touch with the yoof of today and there are some encouraging signs from the book I mentioned earlier (Towards Inclusion) but it’s probably too late for a large number of the unionist community.

    We all know how mud sticks in NI, the Irish language is no exception.