Acht na Gaeilge: Time for a mature discussion

The Stormont House Agreement arrived at as Christmas dawned was supposed to have heralded a new dispensation for Northern Ireland and yet here we are in early January with the same old theatrics. A Sinn Féin Minister proposes a consultation process on the long promised Irish Language Act (2006, St Andrews) and up pops that stalwart defender of minority language (Ulster Scots) and culture (Loyal orders etc), Nelson McCausland.

He doesn’t even know what’s in the proposed bill and yet he’s objecting to the consultation process because, he argues, it has no chance of being enacted as it won’t garner enough cross community support in the Assembly. As the only way it won’t garner enough cross community support is if the DUP oppose it, then Nelson is making a self fulfilling prophecy. Because he’s making this prophecy in the absence of sight of the proposed Bill, it’s clear that his opposition is based on prejudice more than any other factor.

And in his statements to the media, he’s had recourse to the ancient language of the 1980s, the hackneyed and very regrettable phrase ‘every word in Irish’ equals a ‘bullet in the cause of Irish freedom’. This is the language which should be consigned to the history books – rather than the Irish language which is alive and well in defiance of all attempts of premature burial by various cranks and opponents.

The important thing for all sides to realise is that the Irish language isn’t going away. It’s vibrant and being spoken day and daily by many in Northern Ireland. Some call it Irish, others Gaelic/Gaeilge. It’s the same language, incidentally, as the Gaidhlig language spoken in Scotland.

Nelson and others should look on the imminent publication of the Irish Language Bill as an opportunity to engage in a discussion on what provision is to be made for minority languages within Northern Ireland. There is no reason to suppose that an Irish Language Act would transform the North into a bilingual state overnight but it would be important recognition for a significant minority in the community.

They should feel free to raise issues regarding resources, rights and responsibilities in a mature way which reflects an openness to an Irish identity on the one hand – but an adherence to principles of prudence on the other.

The likelihood is that the forthcoming draft will not reflect what Irish speakers want in totality and will probably be a very watered down version of what is watery legislation as it is in the south or Scotland.  In opposing any legislative protection for the Irish language, Nelson is in effect ensuring that Northern Ireland remains a second class component of the UK.  That’s surely an illogical position for unionists.

All rhetoric aside, if we can at least have a discussion on what’s possible – and what’s not, well that would represent real progress towards this new dispensation. Otherwise we may as well batten down the hatches for a return to the pantomime days of Stormont past.

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  • Cue Bono

    I would just remind you respectfully Seann that your claim was that every platoon in the Uster Division had Irish speakers, and that they held Irish language lessons in the trenches. You have produced not one iota of evidence to back those claims up. Now you are asking me to prove a negative. Seriously?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Welcome back CB, I’ve given you as much evidence as any reasonable person could expect, in support of the possible accuracy of some statements I remember from my youth. Where do you think “evidence” in history comes from? The memories of those who were there in person, saw what occured and recount the fact to others who repeat it expectation of an honest and objective hearing.

    I’d offered you the fact that I’d been approached by Cultra in this matter, sure I know you cannot verify this now, but when the tapes are in their collections, that’s what we historians actually use as “proof”. And I’ve given you ample printed source material for you to explore general interest in Irish language amongst pre-1914 Protestant communities, and the census information. All of this backs up the statements I remember. So far you have come back with nothing serious to support your own denials on the subject.

    You “know” I’m wrong, sure, so I’m inviting you to prove it, produce your own evidence. Simple as that. You are making the bald statement that I’m lying when I speak of having listened to men who were there and their recollections, please remember that I’m making it clear that I am repeating the remembered words of others, but you are not offering any acceptable proof either that I’m lying or that the men I’m quoting were. So yes, “seriously”.

    All you need to do is find some source that contradicts the three texts I’d posted for you, and produces credible proof that no-one from a Protestant background, certainly no-one who joined the Ulster division, ever participated in learning Irish. It’s really not that very different from what you are asking of me! The difference is that I’ve taken your request seriously enough to thoughtfully provide you with the kind of proof historians actually work from in support of those statements I remembered.

    Think about it.

  • Cue Bono

    “All you need to do is find some source that contradicts the three texts
    I’d posted for you, and produces credible proof that no-one from a
    Protestant background, certainly no-one who joined the Ulster division,
    ever participated in learning Irish.”

    I have absolutely no doubt that there were indeed people in the Ulster Division who spoke Irish. My issue is your claim that there were Irish speakers in every platoon of the Ulster Division and that they were running Irish language classes in the trenches. You have not produced any evidence to back that up. One would expect that a phenomena like that would have been widely reported and that Irish language enthusiasts would have jumped all over it as evidence for their case. Strangely they haven’t.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As I’ve shown you before, CB, there are quite a few things that never get into the histories. People at the time knew them, later writers had no interest in that aspect. “One would expect that a phenomena like that would have been widely reported and that Irish language enthusiasts would have jumped all over it as evidence for their case.” This is not in any way a serious support for your case, when so much is inaccurate or has been forgotten or suppressed in every communities history here, especially when those set in their opinions refuse to re-consider anything new, stranger if it had been the cause for note before among men who took their interest in Irish as a simple fact. Just because something has not come to your eyes or ears before, it says nothing important about how true or otherwise the thing may actually be. As I’ve said before, your questioning of my veracity in relaying these conversations is entirely subjective, it is simply your unsupported opinion.

    I doubt that you’ve ever come across the little known fact that the Swabian Redoubt was lost to an attack of only 120 Bavarians! This was another widely known (and much laughed at) fact current in the Ulster Division. It was actually the sergeant whom Bell’s death left in charge of the 108th Mortar battery who started the panic. The two Bavarian lieutenants who led the night attack that drove the Ulstermen out of the hard won redoubt were awarded the Blue Max, usually not given to soldiers of regimental rank. So dense were the ranks of panicked flight that they were almost taken for a German attack to recapture the old german front line and nearly machine gunned before someone recognised the distinctive British helmets.

    Sometimes, also, things were simply inconvenient facts. Sometimes important, even key facts are suppressed in the winning sides formulation of history such as the re-branding of events in 1688:

    “Based on a rich array of newly discovered archival sources, Scott Sowerby’s groundbreaking history rescues the repealers from undeserved obscurity, telling the forgotten story of men and women who stood up for their beliefs at a formative moment in British history. By restoring the repealer movement to its rightful prominence, “Making Toleration” also overturns traditional interpretations of King James II’s reign and the origins of the Glorious Revolution. Though often depicted as a despot who sought to impose his own Catholic faith on a Protestant people, James is revealed as a man ahead of his time, a king who pressed for religious toleration at the expense of his throne. The Glorious Revolution, Sowerby finds, was not primarily a crisis provoked by political repression. It was, in fact, a conservative counter-revolution against the movement for enlightened reform that James himself encouraged and sustained.”

    Real history has a lot more to it that “Our Island Story” would ever have you believe, and who would ever choose be an historian without the sheer delight of being able to present new information that alters our communities perceptions of our collective past?

  • Cue Bono

    I’m disappointed Seann. I only asked you for some evidence, any evidence to back your claim that every platoon in the Ulster Division had Irish speakers and that Irish speaking lessons were common in the trenches. Rather than provide that evidence you have instead opted to insult their memory with more unsubstantiated BS. Very disappointing indeed. I had hoped that you were perhaps made of better stuff.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    CB, the disappointment’s mutual. I had hoped I was having a discussion, but you appear to feel that you cannot discuss, simply diss. Come on now, just where would you go if I asked you for textual proof in support of a conversation you’d had with your own grandfather and friends fifty years ago? I’ve treated you as an adult, open to discussion, and have offered a great deal of collaborative proof, such as any historian would consider strongly supportive of what I’m saying. And after my making every effort to respond in reasonable manner, you are still effectively calling my grandfather, a man who actually fought through the Great War, a liar!

    This simply because you are refusing to accept a perfectly reasonable thing, that the great interest in Irish across all classes and religions before the first world war, meant that every platoon in the Ulster division had an Irish speaker or two. While this might be a bit hyperbolic for the entire province, perhaps, a scan over the 1911 census strongly supports my grandfather’s comments. Your refusal to accept that you may be wrong seems to be based on a modern ideological position rather than any serious reading of history. You seem so utterly blinded by the need to put down the Irish language that you do not appear to realise that your insults slur the memory of real men who actually fought and died in the Great war, and did actually speak Irish. You would put up a chimera of an Ulster Division that never existed, one that suits your own ideology in conforming to the opinions of the post-Paisley generation of “Loyalists”, those David Crookes calls “Dwarves.”

    Interestingly , when I mentioned the other story about the loss of the Swabian Redoubt to Philip Orr, he mentioned that it was supported in a recent book. Check it out for yourself:

    Jack Sheldon “The German Army on the Somme”, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2005.

    The version I was given in the 1960s is strongly corroborated by Sheldon’s researches, and on pages 154/5 the recapture of the Swabian Redoubt is described. While Sheldon describes the event in sober language and quite correctly mentions that the Germans honoured the men who had taken it in the first place, it is clear to me that the story I was told was substantially true, and the Bavarian recapture was as an extraordinary an action in itself as the capture of the Redoubt, and one employing far, far fewer men!

    Sheldon actually gives the names of the two Bavarian soldiers (I take the chance to correct my grandfather’s mention of “Two Bavarian Lieutenants) Oberstleutnant Bram and Hauptmann Von Wurmb, “who each received the Knight’s Cross of the Royal Bavarian Military Max” (I quote), I had not known their names before. The story was well known, certainly in officer circles, and is a perfect example of a similar case to the Irish classes story, something which has lived in oral tradition, reflecting the strong sense of irony and black humour current among real soldiers that their civilian admirers can never understand, especially those trying to use mixed and complex histories for entirely inappropriate hagiographic purposes.

  • Cue Bono

    Lets play another little game. If you think that the handful of people killed by loyalists prior to internment had a huge effect on CNR opinion then what in the name of Christ effect do you think the thirty years of slaughter caused by the Provos had on unionist opinion?

    Have a long hard think about that Comrade Marks.

  • Cue Bono

    You have not provided a single thread of verifiable evidence and I have not called your Grandfather a liar.

    The recapture of the Schwaben Redoubt was entirely due to the fact that the Ulster Division had been cut to pieces by enfilading fire from the German positions on their flanks which had not been taken by the regular divisions whih attacked it. The Ulster Division did not have any ‘dense ranks’ left to retreat from it. I think our little discussion has revealed quite a bit about you which you had previously attempted to conceal under your flowery prose.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    CB, read the German account. You are talking regurgatated, only partly understood nonsence from books about the Swabian Redoubt. It was cut off from support by intense fire, but the quiet period at dusk when the small body of Germans drove out at least ten times their number was a moment when men who had given their all simply broke. “Dense Ranks”, I imagine means bunched in running clumps, and the way I was told it they did not retreat, they ran in broken panic, I was told at the end of their lives by some of the men who had been.They thought the panic was sardonically funny, although probably not at the time. Luckily the German account backs this up and shakes the simplified version favoured by those who were not there, but would use the suffering of real flesh and blood soldiers as a political tool to beat others. I’m sorry history is not all heros and grand gestures, it seldom is for those who experience it. Your refusal to look at the event “warts and all” as they did marks you out from the men who were actually there.

    You do not obviously know how historians work, nor do you understand how the past is assessed, or you would not be so glib about “verifiable evidence”. I’ve offered you perfectly acceptable corroboration for a statement I’d posted in good faith. I ask you again, why is it so utterly important to you to deny a simple piece of perfectly credible historical memory?

  • Cue Bono

    Youve offered absolutely nothing. Not one iota of evidence for anything you have said. Zilch.

    Personally I think you have insulted the memories of men like Lieutenant Ernest McClure of the 10th Inniskillings who fought to the death at the Schwaben Redoubt and who were never seen again. Maybe you should research him, but doubtless you would uncover some hidden ‘evidence’ that would brand him and his men cowards. The casualties on the 1st July speak for themselves, as does the praise heaped upon the Ulster Division by the rest of the British army.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “Youve offered absolutely nothing. Not one iota of evidence for anything you have said. Zilch.”

    “Jack Sheldon “The German Army on the Somme”, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2005. pp.154/5″

    No, Cue Bono, I did not say that the achievement of those who fought and died through the day was any lessened by the collapse of morale as darkness fell.The story, go and read it, is there and its true. I first heard the story from amongst people who had fought and were disgusted by the uses made of their experiences by the Politicians of the day who had not fought, but found their simplified story useful as a cloak to be thrown over the whole Unionist community, a lever to put pressure on Westminster, and best of all, an assurance that those who had not seen them avoiding trench service would identify them with the men who fought and died. I met a man who had been with Craig’s brother when he died in the Swabian Redoubt, who was particularly enraged at the use Lord Craigavon made of the loss for years. It was from him that I heard the phrase “shroud waving” for the political use of such things. This is something that I have found utterly offensive ever since.

    You insult the memory of the men there who were Irish speakers with your own sneering implications for which you yourself can present “not one iota of evidence for anything you have” implied. You would have an Ulster Division entirely denuded of its humanity, fearless, Empire Loyalists, ready to rise from the dead in support of whatever fashion Unionism espouses at this time. Most of these men thought of themselves as Irishmen, Irish Unionists, yes, but they were involved in an Irish identity and its cultural expressions. The men fleeing from the Swabian Redoubt did “run like sheep”, another phrase I’d heard from someone who was actually there, this did not mean he was contemptious of them, was insulting their memory, it was probably an expression of thet moments stress humour, remembered. Your attempt to censor the reality is the greatest insult that anyone could offer the men who were really there. Anyone willing to use the dead in the hagiographic manner that edits out reality are like those politicians in the early days of partition that the Newtownards unemployed ex-service men mocked with a Snowman “memorial”, something that melts after it has been needed. And yes, I can provide a source.

  • Cue Bono

    Post your relevant quotes. Without them you appear to be talking BS on stilts.

  • Cue Bono

    I do understand how historians work. When they make claims they back them up with evidence. You do not.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Cue Bono, the book is freely available, and I have cited for you the pages above. Get it from a library or buy it on Amazon, like a normal person. If I quoted the pages at sufficent length, I’d be infringing Jack Sheldon’s copyright, and I take the copyright law seriously. As does Mick, who would be in the soup if I did as you ask. All you need to do is to read the information from the Bavarian War diaries as quoted. But with an open mind.

    “BS on stilts”, eh? I see that submariner was correct and you are simply trolling. You have no conception of what history is, are not interested in factual responses, simply in that haze of myth that supports your comfort zones. Your favouring of crude simplifications and propaganda lies grossly insults the memory of the men who actually experienced these terrible things, in the manner of the “praise” from those politicians speaking the11th November whose families took no part in either war. I’ve done everything that any reasonable person should expect to meet your requests for information and have confounded you at every turn where you have made sly digs.

    I cannot see that we have anything further to exchange usefully on these issues.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    All historical proof comes back to primary source evidence, such as I have been offering from the very start, the testemony of those who experienced the events or ofthose who haves poken to them. Where else do you think history comes from? I did offer you three books that showed the broad extent of Protestant interest in Irish, and also suggested that you then carefully, note “carefully”, check through the 1911 census. You could go on and compare names you find claiming “Irish and English” or “Irish” with the regimental lists and even the sheets of the Ulster Covenant. That’s all the evidence any reasonable person, certianly any historian, would seek in this matter.

    Do teh work and come back with your findings, having been told these things by honourable and honest persons who were there, I know them to be true.

  • Cue Bono

    If you are going to make outrageous claims at least have the decency to produce some sort of evidence to back them up. Otherwise you just make yourself look like a fool.

  • Cue Bono

    The thing about primary source evidence is that you are expected to produce it. “I heard it down the pub.” Does not cut it in academia.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    CB, the citation I’ve offered you backs my comments up entirely! I was put on to the book it is in by the most reputable historian of the Ulster Division, too! Go and look it up before making yourself look foolish in the yes of any serious historian who is aware of the facts with your bizarre denial of a well known historical fact!

  • Cue Bono

    Er, what citation?