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’.

California-born. Irish parentage. Teaches humanities. Reviews widely. Reads often.