[lg policy] Yhe Itish Languag and Marxism
haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Jun 12 10:33:27 EDT 2019
The Irish Language and Marxist Materialism
by KERRON Ó LUAIN <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/kerron-o-luain/>
“The night of the sword and bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk
and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed
by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was
visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle”
The above, written by renowned Kenyan thinker Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, sums up
much that is at the heart of Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin’s persuasive book here
under review. Language From Below: the Irish language, ideology and power
in 20th century Ireland
the relationship between material forces and the ideology surrounding the
Irish language during the past century or more.
Little treatment has been given to this subject, especially in book length.
Hence, the reasons for the varying attitudes that exist towards the Irish
language – some of them positive, others hostile, many apathetic – are not
well understood. Often, in the face of opposition, instead of turning to
class or economics as explanatory factors, proponents of the language frame
hostility to An Ghaeilge in simplistic “anti-Irish” terms.
Ó Croidheáin admits that Irish occupies a strange place in the national
consciousness; “it is true that not many Irish people speak the Irish
language, yet many Irish people still define their identity in terms of the
Irish language”. He thus seeks not only to address common
misinterpretations, but to offer solutions that may remedy the current
decline the Irish language is facing in its western communal heartlands,
and the pressures it faces in other spheres.
By getting to the economic “root” of language decline, as it were, he sets
out his stall for a reversal of fortunes in explicit Connollyite terms.
The book consists of five chapters and Ó Croidheáin opens with a
theoretical exploration of Marxism, ideology and language. As he explains,
“in each historical period the ruling ideology is separated from the ruling
class itself and given an independent existence”. At times, according to
French philosopher Louis Althusser, this phenomenon could be relatively
autonomous and act as a “social cement” even among non-élite sections of
For a period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Irish
fulfilled this role. It became first a “political weapon” and marker of
autonomy, and then, once the state was founded, an instrument of social
cohesion – only to be replaced later in the Free State’s existence by
Catholicism during the 1930s.
In writing about colonialism and language Ó Croidheáin turns frequently to
Ngugi, the Irish educationalist and revolutionary Pádraig Pearse, and
Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. He outlines the ideological power of the
English education system in Ireland, Kenya and further afield in turning
the colonized against their own cultures.
He also explores the debates among what might be termed decolonial literary
figures around the use of the native tongue, the tongue of the colonizer,
and translations, in their writings. For Frantz Fanon, in his essay “On
National Culture”, in The Wretched of the Earth
“The crystallisation of the national consciousness will both disrupt
literary styles and themes, and also create a completely new public. While
at the beginning the native intellectual used to produce his work to be
read exclusively by the oppressor, whether with the intention of charming
him or denouncing him through ethnical or subjectivist means, now the
native writer progressively takes on the habit of addressing his own people”
The author is always aware, however, of how resistance to colonialism in
the form of nationalism could be manipulated by the ruling class. Thus, the
advent of a cultural nationalism and its attendant “class conciliatory
ideology” in Ireland with the arrival of Thomas Davis and the Young
Irelanders, writing in The Nation during the 1840s, is viewed as the
starting point for this opportunity for social control by later nationalist
Ó Croidheáin subsequently utilizes the work of early modern English and
French philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rosseau, to
explain “the conflation of nation and state”. For Rosseau, as a member of
the rising bourgeoise, the state exists above all to defend individual
rights of property in the face of tyrannical monarchy.
As the bourgeoisie came to rule France following the revolution of 1789,
the French state consolidated to the detriment of the various nations
within it, not least of which were the Bretons and the Basques. The
languages of both, as with various French dialects, or patois, came under
increasing pressure from a centralized Parisian French language.
This type of utilitarianism also manifested in Ireland regarding Irish. The
thinking of English political economists such as John Stuart Mill were
readily absorbed by Catholic nationalist leaders like Daniel O’Connell
during the mid-nineteenth century who proclaimed of the language that he
was “sufficiently utilitarian not to regret its gradual passing”.
*A cultural revolution or a material one?*
Others, however, such as Douglas Hyde, had different ideas and wrote of the
necessity of “De-Anglicising” Ireland. A cultural revolution gained
traction in the 1890s – the establishment of Conradh na Gaeilge(The Gaelic
League) in 1893 a seminal moment.
The Conradh waged – in a modern, secular way – several rights-based battles
in its early years, attaining an improved status for Irish within the
British-run education and postal systems. At its Ard Fheis (annual meeting)
in 1915, radicals staged a coup and moved the organization towards
inserting itself at the heart of the tectonic shifts underway in Irish
politics by taking a separatist stance. Hyde, who contended that the
language issue should remain apolitical, resigned.
Yet, six of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation were members of
the Conradh. Their involvement in the Easter Rising, and the series of
events in subsequent years, not least the Black and Tan War, left an
indelible mark on Irish society, culminating in quasi-independence and the
foundation of the Twenty-Six County Irish state in 1922.
However, the Civil War of 1922-23, where British-backed Free State forces,
allied with the Catholic Church, strong farmers, and big business,
suppressed the radical republican forces, heralded a new dawn for the Irish
language. As Ó Croidheáin explains, “the desire for genuine social change
behind the revolutionary movement was diverted into cultural change in the
form of Gaelicisation policies”. The language was essentially wielded as a
tool of counter-revolution.
These policies, moreover, were largely confined to the education system,
and there was a lack of fundamental change in the social structure that
might allow the language to thrive once more. Thus, any gains made through
schooling in the 1920s “were constantly being undermined by the reality of
unemployment and education”.
In the 1930s, Éamon De Valera, Taoiseach (Prime Minister), and leader of
the populist nationalist Fianna Fáil party, placed Catholicism centre-stage
as a marker of Irish identity – particularly during the Eucharistic
Congress of 1932.
During the inter-war years, nationalist ideology, incorporating both the
Irish language and Catholicism, served as an instrument of state
consolidation. Élites utilized this communal “glue” to bind ordinary people
to the ideology of the state – particularly at points when the state felt
itself under threat, as it did from the IRA during the 1930s and into the
1940s during the Second World War, when the Free State sought to preserve
its neutrality above all else. But this unholy alliance between state and
language was counterproductive in many ways too:
“The status of Irish in the education system and state institutions,
burdened the language with an ideological slant that had implications for
the working-class and the people of the Gaeltacht. Language policy was
perceived as discriminatory among the poorly educated who saw Irish in
terms of reward or sanction for social mobility”
Measures to restore the Irish language to national prominence as anything
more than a symbolic marker of identity began to be reversed in the 1960s.
Following the adoption of T.K Whittaker’s Programme for Economic Expansion by
these same élites in 1958, appealing to external market forces, rather than
economic nationalism, became the order of the day.
With the demise of economic nationalism, came a corollary demise in
cultural nationalism, and the status of the Irish language in the civil
service began to be eroded. This process, whereby the language no longer
served the ruling-class, was only intensified with the joining of the
European Economic Community in 1973. Now wealth was to be gained, and
protected, through economic liberalism and English monolingualism.
The situation has remained largely unchanged since, as Ó Croidheáin is keen
to point out; “today, neo-colonialism in the form of Anglo-American mass
culture and multinational industry provides the engine for a new language
colonialism as the English language gains dominance in global culture”
However, Ó Croidheáin is not despondent, and throughout the book, but
particularly in the final chapter, he goes to great lengths to highlight
the transformative nature of struggle. One example he provides is that of
Norway during the late nineteenth century where the Landsmål movement,
proponents for a peasant dialect, in opposition to speakers of the
upper-class Bokmål dialect, managed to inspire “the peasantry to question
and challenge the power relationships inherent in the centre/periphery of
In Ireland, he points to the transformative struggle taken up by the people
of Ráth Chairn, a small Gaeltacht colony in the east of the country in Co.
Meath. Led during the mid-1930s by the great literary figure and activist,
Máirtín Ó Cadhain, the activism required to establish the settlement,
achieve recognition as a Gaeltacht, and attain the necessary infrastructure
over the course of years, empowered those involved, making them keenly
aware of their rights as citizens. Likewise, during the late 1960s and
early 70s in Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht Civil
Rights Movement), a similar empowerment was also discernable.
For Ó Cadhain, this struggle was not only about the preservation of the
language as it was for some (what Ó Croidheáin calls the “culturalists”),
nor was it simply for more “rights”, but it was far broader than that.
During the fiftieth commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1966, Ó Cadhain
“henceforward the Irish language movement would have to play an active role
in the struggle of the Irish people to fulfill the aims of the 1916
Manifesto. This is the Reconquest of Ireland, the revolution, the
revolution of the mind and heart, the revolution in wealth distribution,
property rights and living standards”.
Other positive developments such as the surge in all-Irish language
schooling, the Gaelscoil movement, from the 1970s, in both the southern and
northern states in Ireland, are identified by Ó Croidheáin. Taking the case
study of Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch in working-class north Dublin, he
demonstrates how the struggle for resources by parents in the face of
opposition by church and state, led to the cultivation of “self-respect,
self-sufficiency and fearlessness”.
Even here, however, he offers a salutary caution – and one that has proven
prophetic, whereby the years 2017-2018 were the first where the state has
arrested the growth of the Gaelscoil movement since its inception in 1973. Ó
Croidheáin, writing in 2006, warned that “without developing a wider
political critique of society such movements may lose their collective
force and be assimilated back into the dominant ideology of the state”.
All told, the author makes a forceful case for Irish language activists,
atá ag treabhadh an ghoirt, to move from a simple “culturalist” or
rights-based discourse and activism to a philosophy which unambiguously
advocates for a wholesale redistribution of power and wealth. As he
affirms, “linguistic issues can only be resolved when class questions, such
as the ownership and control of resources, becomes part of the overall
objective of political movements”.
Or, as Ó Cadhain boldly stated, “sé dualgas lucht na Gaeilge bheith ina
sóisialaigh” (it is the duty of Irish speakers to be socialists).
Finally, and perhaps without realizing it, Ó Croidheáin also demonstrates
clearly the untapped potential for a progressive movement that combines the
socialism of James Connolly with the cultural qualities and socialism of Ó
Cadhain, the Gaelscoil movement and the struggle to maintain the Gaeltacht.
Recent surveys, for example, have demonstrated how 25% of parents in the
state would send their children to a Gaelscoil if the opportunity existed,
but that around only 4% can avail of this, while another poll
that 60% believed the language was very important and should be supported.
Yet, certain sections of the Irish left adhere to a minimalistic
rights-oriented discourse when it comes to the Irish language. There is a
refusal to seriously engage with this dormant potential for fear of being
branded “nationalist” and “reactionary”.
The recent local and European elections – in which the radical and broad
left took a hammering – have demonstrated once again that another layer of
activism, above and beyond mere economism, is required to keep people
engaged, especially in times of limited political mobilization.
It is not enough to complain that there was no fervently active social
movement on housing to galvanize workers into turning out and voting, like
there was around the issue of water in 2014. The same groupings, despite
the fact they count many Irish speakers among their ranks and in prominent
positions, have never run an Irish language class for the benefit of the
public in the entirety of their existence.
Identity is important to people. Additionally, as Freire remarked, “without
a sense of identity, there can be no real struggle”. Unlike transient moods
surrounding politics and the economy, identity tends to remain fixed.
Crucially, the Irish language, as a signifier of identity, transcends
ethnic divisions and is no longer rigidly associated with “white ethnic
Irish Catholicity” – if it ever really was.
The Irish language could be harnessed through a grassroots movement to
build a new, secular and inclusive Republic, encompassing all colors and
creeds. It is up to the left to muster the political will to do so.
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
Language From Below: the Irish language, ideology and power in 20th century
Peter Lang, 345 pp., $72.
*Dr Kerron Ó Luain* is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His latest
journal article, featured in Irish Historical Studies, examines the links
between agrarian violence and constitutional politics on the Ulster
borderlands in the wake of the Great Famine
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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