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NUI Galway


General Global Overview - The Gaeltachtaí - The Galltacht - National identity - Origins of Nationalism - Linguistic Nationalism - Irish language history - Elite Instrument - International Aspects – Colonialism - Power and agency - Future for Irish?



The gradual decline of the Irish language through the nineteenth century was noted, pessimistically, by the writer of the 1871 census report who wrote that:

The disappearance of this ancient member of the Celtic family of tongues from living speech may be somewhat delayed or somewhat accelerated by circumstances beyond calculation or conjecture, but there can be no error in the belief that within relatively a few years [sic] Irish will have taken its place among the languages that have ceased to exist.

Of course, that was twenty years before the cultural revolution inaugurated by the founding of Conradh na Gaeilge [or the Gaelic League as it is known in English] in 1893 with its objective of keeping Irish spoken in Ireland and which ultimately lead to the re-invigoration of Irish national consciousness itself. But just how successful was this national movement in its stated aims of turning Ireland back into a Gaelic-speaking nation? Moving forward to today we can see that negative perceptions of the position of Irish have more in common with the 1871 census report, despite the fact that Ireland has gone through major social and political changes. The number of Irish-speakers in the Gaeltacht is still diminishing and the government appears helpless to halt the decline. This reduction is also noted in some quarters internationally, for example, the catalogue of a major exhibition called The Celts: The Origins of Europe, mounted in Venice in the late 1990s with the help of twenty-seven major European cultural and scientific organisations states that:

With the final disappearance of the Celtic languages there will be no further excuse for referring to the peoples of Brittany, Ireland, Scotland and Wales as Celts, for there was never any justification other than the linguistic one for that appellation. Without their languages the populations of these countries will more easily lose their identity and be absorbed into the dominant cultures of Britain and France, ultimately to be swallowed up in a greater European identity. Thus will end a cultural and literary tradition which reaches back on the island of Britain and Ireland to the end of the Roman Empire. This will be the first time that a European linguistic family with such a long and distinguished literary history will have passed into oblivion.

Indeed, the UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages is quite negative regarding the ‘Present state of the [Irish] language’ as ‘Endangered [in the Republic of Ireland; [and] Extinct in Northern Ireland]’. Endangered languages are defined by UNESCO as those ‘with some children speakers at least in part of their range but decreasingly so’.

Yet, despite such negative overtones the Irish language has entered into the modern world in many different ways: Internet sites, new terminology, Irish-medium radio and television, publishing houses producing a broad range of books and magazines in Irish. The prevalence of such material is commented on in a recent slim volume entitled Voices Silenced: Has Irish a future? by James McCloskey, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz who writes:

It occurs to me first that, for a linguistic community that has been told over and over again that it is dead or as good as dead, this is a most lively, interesting, and enjoyable network to be a part of - even in the peripheral way in which I can participate in it from this distance. It occurs to me also that from the perspective of people that I know who are involved in work with other endangered languages, this all seems utterly extraordinary.

In fact, the ultimate pessimist regarding the Irish language, Reg Hindley, whose book The Death of the Irish Language caused uproar in Irish-language circles, had this to say:

The metamorphosis of Irish from the disparaged and unwritten dialects of an impoverished and remotely located peasantry into the modern literary but second language of a privileged urban elite is indeed a great achievement […]

Even the world-renowned writer on sociolinguistics, Joshua Fishman, whose general view on the future of Irish is also somewhat pessimistic, noted that:

What the revivalists have accomplished against great odds, and their current levels of devotion, achievement and involvement, all border on the miraculous; […] Indeed, many threatened languages in Europe and elsewhere would consider themselves fortunate to achieve during the coming century the level of RLS [Reversing Language Shift] that Irish has achieved during the past century.

So why are there such conflicting views on the position of Irish today?

The Gaeltachts in Northern Ireland

As UNESCO Red Book notes, it is certainly true that the Irish language communities became extinct in Northern Ireland. The partitioning of Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act in 1920 resulted in a hard line anti-nationalist policy regarding the language as fear that its use and promotion might have a power which could not be controlled by the state. For example, James Craig who became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (1921-1940) declared the following with reference to the withdrawal of grants for the teaching of Irish:

What use is it to us here in this progressive, busy part of the Empire to teach our children the Irish language? What use would it be to them? Is it not leading them along a road which has no practical value? We have not stopped such teaching [...] We have stopped the grants simply because we do not see that these boys being taught Irish would be any better citizens [...].

The existence of Gaeltacht or bilingual areas in the six counties was dismissed, a move which led to their extinction. The census figures of 1851 and 1891 demonstrated the weak presence of Irish-speakers respectively as follows: Antrim (1.2%) and (0.4%); Armagh (7.0%) and (2.4%); Derry (2.8%) and (1.8%); Down (0.4%) and (0.3%); Fermanagh (2.3%) and (0.8%) and Tyrone (5.0%) and (3.9%). It can be noted that in general the reduction in speakers in all these areas between 1851 and 1891 is around 40-50 per cent. There were minor Gaeltachtaí in Tyrone, the Sperrins (Derry), the Antrim Glens and Rathlin Island that had all but died out by the 1940s. In more recent decades, however the Irish language revival has been most vigorous in Nationalist dominated areas and the language has always had varying degrees of support among Protestants in the North. In 1991, for example, 142,003 reported a knowledge of Irish in the Northern Ireland Census, the first to include a question of the language since the 1911 Census.


The Gaeltachtaí

The situation in the south, however, was quite different. The Gaeltachtaí struggled along with varying degrees of help from the new Irish state. Historically, the number of native speakers of Irish had been relatively large by today’s terms. Despite the long-term effects of the Great Hunger, in which the Irish-speaking areas were badly affected, there remained a substantial population of Irish-speakers in the Western and South-Western districts of Ireland in the 1890s. According to the Census of Population (1891) nearly 700,000 Irish-speakers lived in Munster and Connacht, accounting for 90 percent of all Irish-speakers. In stark contrast, 10 counties of Leinster returned proportions of 1-5 per cent.

The conservative policies of the new Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) had little effect on the continued haemorrhaging of the Gaeltacht and eventually jolted Conradh na Gaeilge into a national awareness campaign with the slogan "Sabhailigí an Ghaeltacht [Save the Gaeltacht]. The government took note and formed the Gaeltacht Commission. Part of the Commission’s brief was to define the Gaeltacht areas through a special census carried out in 1925. The population of the Gaeltachtaí was found to have declined further with nearly 170,000 Irish-speakers in the Fíor-Ghaeltacht and 300,000 in the Breac-Ghaeltacht [or mixed areas]. The commission also found that only 10 per cent of Public Servants could deal with the Gaeltacht residents through Irish.


In 1958 the government decided to set up a committee to examine the general position of Irish called An Coimisiún um Athbheochan na Gaeilge (Commission for the Restoration of the Irish Language). The Coimisiún published a report, An Tuarascáil Dheiridh, in 1963. In general, the Tuarascáil Dheiridh covered a diverse range of aspects of Irish society such as the Gaeltacht; the education system; the media, literature, film and theatre; business, the churches, the family and Irish language organisations. It was noted that in the Gaeltacht the use of English in official documents, through forms, posters and advertisements was common. The Coimisiún pointed out that individuals had refused to accept official forms and correspondence in English before being given their right to use Irish. The cultural forces referred to by the Coimisiún, such as radio programmes in English, English-language magazines, and English-language books distributed by the County Library Service, contributed to turning the use of Irish by the Gaeltacht people into a "private language". Here, we see the beginnings of a process whereby a language is used in decreasing domains of social and political life. Thus, lack of leadership, inadequate measures or downright hostility by government and state have lead to the continual decline and in some cases, extinction, in the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht areas.

Positive changes in the Gaeltacht

The mediocre response of the government contained in the 1965 White Paper, Athbheochan na Gaeilge [Irish Revival] left some communities with no alternative but to struggle for a redistribution of resources. In 1969, Gluaiseacht ar son Cearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta [The Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement] began demonstrating in Galway for civil rights for people in the Gaeltacht. The group set up an illegal Irish language radio station, Saor Raidió Chonamara which made its first broadcast from Ros Muc during Easter 1970. Before long the radio station was closed down by the authorities but demands for an official radio station continued. On 26 November 1970 the government stated its intention to set up Raidió na Gaeltachta. The government then announced that the new station would operate under the aegis of RTÉ on 7 July 1971 and on 2 April 1972 Raidió na Gaeltachta broadcast to the public for the first time. Just over a year later, the station commenced broadcasting to a national audience. The founding of Raidió na Gaeltachta was a major achievement for Gaeltacht communities. After much struggle, the people of the Gaeltacht had the means to express themselves in their own language and learn about other dialects in a way that had never happened before. A similar sitiuation occurred which resulted in the founding of an Irish–medium television station.

Ever since the foundation of RTÉ in 1961, the issue of broadcasting through Irish has been a cause for some concern. Dissatisfaction with the amount of airtime devoted to Irish-language programmes led to calls for a separate Irish language television station. It was at the beginning of October 1987 in Ros Muc that the first Irish language television broadcasting took place. Around twelve people, members of a local organisation called Cumhacht [Power] set up a transmitter and filmed the Irish-language festival "Oireachtas na nGael". Spurred on by Cumhacht’s activities, the Feachtas Náisiúnta Teilifíse [National Television Campaign] was founded in 1990. Twenty-eight organisations were registered with the Feachtas whose basic demands were ‘that a television channel be established to serve the needs of the people of the Gaeltacht and Irish speakers throughout the country, including the Six Counties, and that its centre of operations would be in the Gaeltacht’. With the increasing strength of the Irish language lobby the government finally responded and agreed to set up an Irish language channel. Teilifís na Gaeilge [TnaG] or TG4 as it was subsequently renamed to fit in more snugly with RTE1, Network2 and TV3 in the TV guides. Like Raidió na Gaeltachta, TG4 was originally fought for on a minority rights basis (some activists sought a community-based station to be called Teilifís na Gaeltachta), but the concept of a national, language-based station gained more support as a more realistic option for such a high-cost organisation. After years of campaigning, Teilifís na Gaeilge finally began broadcasting 31 October 1996.

Despite such developments the future of the Gaeltacht is not bright. The recent Coimisiún na Gaeltachta Report summarised issues raised at public meetings which included the following complaints that ‘State services are contributing very much to the spread of English in the Gaeltacht areas’, that ‘the ‘Gaeltacht has specific educational requirements but there is no specific policy for the Gaeltacht’, that the ‘Gaeltacht community is unhappy with Local Authorities e.g. they are unhappy with present planning system which allows too many people with no Irish coming to live in the Gaeltacht’ and that ‘major investment in physical and IT infrastructure for the Gaeltacht’ was needed to develop and maintain the language.

The difficulties faced by the communities of the Gaeltacht are compounded by unrealistic expectations of their ability to maintain and conserve the language. For example, one of the recommendations the Coimisiún was expected to make to the government included reinforcing ‘the fact that their future as Gaeltacht areas will depend on the acquisition, usage, maintenance and development of the Irish language in those areas,’ and recommends that ‘in seven years time, areas wherein at least 50% of the community are daily Irish speakers will be entitled to full recognition as Gaeltacht areas.

This sounds more like a threat - use Irish or lose grants. Gaeltacht is a construct that is now being used against the people of those areas. The government defines these areas as Gaelachtaí to divert responsibility away from its own major role as potential leaders of the restoration of Irish in Ireland. They then put the burden of maintaining the language on these communities while at the same time leading the push for further integration of Irish society into supra-national global structures based on Anglo-American cultural, political and linguistic hegemony.

The Galltacht

While the continuity of Irish in the Gaeltacht has largely depended on the struggle of the people themselves to increase the domains of usage of Irish, that struggle also had implications for the Galltacht [English-speaking areas] as the change in the status of the language on a national scale improved the situation for learners who were not surrounded by native speakers like in the Gaeltacht. The increase in interest in Irish outside the Gaeltacht can be demonstrated by the growth of Irish-medium Primary schools called Gaelscoileanna. The national voluntary association, also called Gaelscoileanna, was set up in 1973 with the aim of providing support and help to all-Irish schools and information, help and advice to parents "who wish to found all-Irish schools or develop a school as a ‘Gaelscoil’." The numbers of gaelscoileanna grew from 11 in 1971 to 134 in September 1999. Other developments for the Irish language have been in third level education. In Dublin City University an Irish language faculty offers an all-Irish degree programme entitled Airgeadas, Ríomhaireacht agus Fiontraíocht [Finance, Computing and Enterprise]. Despite the fact that it is possible to undergo Irish-medium education at all levels, the lack of actual usage of the Irish language in Irish society remains a vexed question. The promotion of the language falls back on voluntary organisations in the absence of legislative powers to ensure its development as a living language. Thus while there is discontinuity in the use of Irish in the Galltacht there a continuity of attempts, through education, to make sure that the language remains in the consciousness of the people.

national identity

For many people the Irish language is an important and irreplaceable part of our national identity which distinguishes us from other ethnic groups and nations. However, ethnic identity may also be manipulated to suit the political aspirations of various sections of society. The ability of certain groups to turn ethnicity to their benefit is not surprising when one makes a critical re-examination of the attributes of an ethnic community as defined by Anthony Smith in his book National Identity. An ethnic group might have ‘a collective proper name’ but the unequal distribution of wealth within the group means that the group is not, for example, an economically homogenous entity. This in turn creates an imbalance of power, which has its historical roots in the structure of society itself and calls into question the ‘myth of common ancestry’. The achievement and maintenance of power positions by an elite within the group is often the result of conflict and a history of aggression, calling into question the homogeneity of ‘shared historical memories’.


The Irish language formed part of the ethnic myths which ‘transmit a sense of identity to succeeding generations’, according to John Hutchinson, writing in The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic Revival and the Creation of the Irish Nation State. In examining ethnic identity, Hutchinson refers to Smith’s primordialist view of ethnicity as more than a tool for mobilising groups. ‘Primordialism’ is generally associated with the writings of Edward Shills and Clifford Geertz. Shills became aware of the strength of certain social bonds through his studies of religion while Geertz described the ‘overpowering’ feeling which ties like ‘blood’ and ‘race’ had on individual members of ethnic groups. By stirring up latent memories, according to Hutchinson, ‘state bureaucratic elites have excited ethnic sentiment in the process of mobilizing men and resources, of propaganda (dichotomizing between us and them), of territorialization (linking peoples to specific lands) and of centralization.’

The difficulty with examining ethnic symbols is that the closer one looks the more diverse and particular they become. With language, for example, a standardised language takes the place of one language (out of many) which is itself based on the dialect of a particular area. The issue is not what is chosen to represent group identity but why it is chosen. In contrast to ‘primordialism’, the ‘instrumentalists’ envision ethnicity as a socially constructed set of symbols which serve a specific purpose and are inclusive rather than exclusive. ‘Instrumentalist’ ethnicity allows ‘individuals to ‘cut and mix’ from a variety of ethnic heritages and cultures to forge their own individual or group identities’. The mutability of ethnic symbols can lead to their manipulation by the middle and upper classes. This can be seen with ethnic groups that become more and more distant from their ethnic origins and follow their material interests by using ethnic ties to form political interest groups. The instrumentalist approach to identity describes not merely the process of defining the community but also the competition between different elites who manipulate ethnic symbols in the service of their own interests. While primordialism by definition may not be easily manipulated in terms of its meaning, its usefulness for elites consists in having the power to be able to switch it on or off depending on whether or not the elite has attained its aims. Political or cultural nationalism is often the main vehicle through which these aims are accomplished.


Origins of Nationalism

To understand the ways in which the concept of the nation and nationhood came to be developed as a unificatory philosophy and developed into a class conciliatory ideology it is necessary to re-examine some of the early writers texts on the nation and state. These ideas had serious implications for the position of many languages in Europe both then and today as language became a highly manipulable symbol of identity. Such implications also affected the attitude of elites in Ireland towards the Irish language which I shall deal with later on.

During the nineteenth century nationalism became the main ideology for expressing the feeling of a shared existence. In the pre-modern polity, society was made up of separate feudal sovereignties that were at the same time local power centres. Thus, different ethnic groups lived in insular, heterogeneous communities with local and agrarian independent economies. The economy developed as kingdoms expanded into other ethnic areas. The transition from ethnicity to nationhood happened when the members of different ethnic groups developed a common culture making them into a "nation". The rise of nationalism occurred during a time of the growth of competition between countries trying to assert their independence. At the same time, the industrial revolution caused a profound change in the social and economic make up of society internally with the creation of classes and class antagonism.

The rise of nationalism has been associated with the rhetoric of democracy in the form of a nation-state. The conflation of nation and state derives partly from the doctrine of popular sovereignty crystallised by such writers as Locke and Rousseau. Locke believed in the "natural law" that a man’s labour was his own. The produce of his labour was his private property and this formed the basis of civil government as men united to preserve their property. Civil society was deemed to be the rule of the majority as Locke writes, "the beginning of politic society depends upon the consent of the individuals to join into and make one society".

For Locke then, "[t]he reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property". Locke represents a certain class of individuals in society, the rising bourgeoisie. His concern is the maintenance and consolidation of the new property relations in society. The potential for the abuse of power or the strengthening of corrupt forces in society posing a threat to the new status quo are described by Locke:

But things not always changing equally, and private interest often keeping up customs and privileges, when the reasons of them are ceased, it often comes to pass, that in governments, where part of the legislative consists of representatives chosen by the people, that in tract of time this representation becomes very unequal and disproportionate to the reasons it was at first established upon.

However, Locke argued for the right of revolution against rulers and tyrants who acted contrary to the "common good". Political power, he argued, was the "power to make laws, and annex whole, by cutting off those parts, and those only, which are so corrupt, that they threaten the sound and healthy without which no severity is lawful." The origin of power is found not in a specific "people" or "nation", but arose "only from compact and agreement, and the mutual consent of those who make up the community."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right [1762], is much more specific about the relation between a "people" and "nation", which is subject to the state through the "laws". He contends that "[t]here is for nations as for men a period of youth, or, if you will, of maturity, which they must await before they are subjected to laws; but it is not always easy to discern when a people is mature, and if the time is anticipated, the labour is aborted." The "nation", then, is assumed to be made up of the "people" who are already a community with one or more features in common and thus ready for the strictures of statehood. Rousseau asks, "[w]hat nation, then is adapted, for legislation? That which is already united, by some bond of interest, origin, or convention". Ironically, while Rousseau assumes the "people" to be a monolithic group, he is not necessarily a large-nation chauvinist. Rousseau notes that,

"with regard to the best constitution of a state, there are limits to its possible extent so that it may be neither too great to enable it to be well governed, nor too small to enable it to maintain itself single-handed. There is in every body politic a maximum of force which it cannot exceed, and which is often diminished as the state is aggrandised. The more the social bond is extended, the more it is weakened; and, in general, a small state is proportionally stronger than a large one."

So, in theory at least, Rousseau could have supported Scottish, Basque or Catalan separatism. However, the rhetoric of nationhood dug deep and obscured minority differences. The nation was perceived to have a timeless quality that only needed to be structured correctly. Thus, Thomas Paine writes in Rights of Man [1791]: "[t]he present National Assembly of France is, strictly speaking, the personal social compact. The members of it are the delegates of the Nation in its original character: future assemblies will be the delegates of the Nation in its organised character."(original emphasis) Thus, the nation was seen as an a priori entity that denied the existence of heterogeneous cultures. Indeed, according to Eugen Weber in Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, the many people living within France were not conscious of being French until long after the French Revolution. Paine’s primary concern was the democratic process and he states that "[t]he representatives of the nation who compose the National Assembly, and who are the legislative power, originate in and from the people by election, as an inherent right in the people." He defined the nation as "essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual, or any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly deriving from it." Paine also writes, "[i]t has become evident, that no Constitution, worthy of being called by that name, could be established on anything less than a national ground." Paine extends his concept of the nation as one people to include a territorial definition, despite the fact that ethnic groups, for example the Basque people, were not wholly situated within the defined borders of the "national" territory. Therefore, the cultural and linguistic homogeneity by which the "nation" was defined took place after the formation of the state and can only be properly described as state-building.

Thus the rhetoric of nationhood served elites in society who endeavoured to wallpaper over ethnic differences and then gave it a retrospective character to consolidate its usefulness as a social and political whip. Such processes of thinking also affected those writers on language who developed what is known as linguistic nationalism.

Linguistic Nationalism

For writers such as Herder, Schlegel, and Humboldt, the question of nationhood is defined in linguistic terms. Is it necessary for all the people of a "nation" to speak the same language? And where does this idea come from and how relevant is it today? While it is claimed that Herder was the first to assert the link between language and nation, Herder’s formulation can be traced back to the work of J. Harris in his Hermes [1751] in which Harris claims that

"we shall be led to observe how Nations, like single men, have their peculiar ideas; how these peculiar Ideas become THE GENIUS OF THEIR LANGUAGE." (Original emphasis)

Herder’s ideas about the interrelationship between nationality, mentality and language became an important element of German Romanticism and developed into various forms of cultural nationalism in the nineteenth century. This movement was related to political nationalism but was more concerned with understanding history through the investigation of language.

For Herder, in On the Origin of Language [1772], "language was the historical repository of human genius: "what else after all, is the entire structure of language but a manner of growth of his spirit, a history of his discoveries?" He enlarges on this point by stating that

"every stem word, with its family - rightly placed and soundly evolved - would be a chart of the progress of the human spirit, a history of its development, and a complete dictionary of that kind would be a most remarkable sample of the inventive skill of the human soul".

Herder’s theory became the philosophical basis of the ideas of many nationalists. The idea of a common unity through language was taken and used to define the political nation. According to Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation [1808]:

Wherever the German language was spoken, everyone who had first seen the light of day in its domain could consider himself as in a double sense a citizen, on the one hand, of the State where he was born and to whose care he was in the

first instance commended, and, on the other hand, of the whole common fatherland of the German nation.

Friedrich von Schlegel had similar ideas about language. In The Philosophy of Life and the Philosophy of Language [1847] von Schlegel described language in general "as being the storehouse of tradition where it lives on from nation to nation, and as

being the clue of material and spiritual connexion which joins century to century - the common memory of the human race." In Ireland, Thomas Davis, the Irish nationalist, was well known for a doctrine of nationality that he propagated through The Nation,

of which he was one of the founders. He described his tenets as "a nationality that would embrace all creeds, races and classes within the island [...] which would establish internal union and external independence". As a Protestant of mixed English and Anglo-Irish parentage, his nationalist views and writings put him into conflict with the colonial strategies of the empire. By proclaiming the slogan "gan teanga, gan tír" he tried to redress some of the worst effects of colonial policies.

Davis, through his negative comments about the English language and culture, challenged the status quo but also counter-attacked the simianism of anti-Irish propaganda. He describes the Celt abandoning "his wild speech for the mongrel of a hundred breeds called English" and the unsuitability of the "Anglo-Saxon garb" for the Gaelic mind. Davis’s references to the Celt, in his essay "Our National Language", are provocative yet describe a situation which had its roots in the reality of the colonial policy of assimilation. Together with the slogan "gan teanga, gan tír", Davis showed conservative tendencies not radically different from some of the extraordinarily national chauvinist outpourings of Fichte who also took extreme positions in his project of nation unification. For example, Fichte writes,

the German, if only he makes use of all his advantages, can always be superior to the foreigner and understand him fully, even better than the foreigner understands himself, and can translate the foreigner to the fullest extent. On the other hand, the foreigner can never understand the true German without a thorough and extremely laborious study of the German language, and there is no doubt that he will leave what is genuinely German untranslated.

The relationship between language and thought was fundamental to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s thinking. Writing in On Language: The Diversity of Human Language-Structure and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind [1836] von

Humboldt states that "[f]rom every language, therefore, we can infer backwards to the national character." Thus, again we see the final stage in the process of the construction of nationality. A diverse people born in a particular area were now considered to have a national character and similar ways of thinking that extended back into the mists of time.

The nation, now defined by its "language", "history" and its "national character" was concretised by the state as the most dominant national group exerted a political hegemony through attempted linguistic and cultural homogeneity both in the West and the "Third World". However, writers like V. I. Lenin and James Connolly challenged the presuppositions of national culture and pointed out the diverse nature of its origins and the class nature of its functions. In every nation, there is an exploited working class and peasantry, who, at some stage in their history, have rebelled against the prevailing order.

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels noted the primordial basis of social conflict but viewed such conflicts as deceptive reflections of the real struggle going on between opposing classes. Marx and Engels argue that:

out of [the] contradiction between the interest of the individual and that of the community the latter takes an independent form as the State, divorced from the real interests of individual and community, and at the same time as an illusory communal life, always based, however, on the real ties existing in every family and tribal conglomeration - such as flesh and blood, language, division of labour on a larger scale, and other interests - and especially […] on the classes, already determined by the division of labour, which in every such mass of men separate out, and of which one dominates all the others.(original emphasis)

Marx and Engels maintained that the struggles between democracy, aristocracy, monarchy etc. within the state "are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another". The ethnic ideal and the nation-state ideal, are both created in this context. The primordialist concept of ethnicity assumes, for example, a common religion; a common self of the whole group or nation. However, as Kofi Buenor Hadjor points out:

Human beings of whatever culture do not posses an inherent self. Man is the product of society and specific social circumstances. Moreover, no society produces a common spirit which motivates every section of society. Society is composed of classes which often have conflicting interests and outlooks.

Lenin opposed aggressive bourgeois nationalism, which he believed stultified and disunited the working class, enabling the ruling élites to exercise their power with little or no resistance. Therefore, it was necessary for the working class to fight domestic and foreign bourgeois nationalism. His advice was prescient, having been written in 1913, only a year before the outbreak of the Great War when nation was set against nation as rivals in the political and economic interests of the ruling class.

James Connolly also stressed the pernicious use of national cultures in the hands of dominant élites with self-serving aims. In Labour in Irish History [1910] Connolly writes:

War, religion, race, language, political reform, patriotism - apart from whatever intrinsic merits they may possess - all serve in the hands of the possessing class as counter-irritants, whose functions by engendering heat in such parts of the body politic as are farthest removed from the seat of economic enquiry, and consequently of class consciousness on the part of the proletariat.

While working class movements often make strategic alliances with nationalist movements in the face of external threat, that is not to say that there is common agreement on political aims or methods. In every group with a common language, inequalities exist which create class tensions. Therefore, any movement questioning the structure of society will do so in the common language. However, very few political entities contain one homogeneous group. The long-term effects of an unequal political and economic structure on dominated groups within a state must also be taken into account. The Irish nation was a dominated group within the larger entity of Great Britain and suffered language decline in the same way as minority groups suffered within the centralising French State. In challenging the state structures of power and its hegemonic culture, language relations must become politicised but only to the extent that the language issue is, as Connolly writes, "the echo of the battle".

Irish language history

So how did such theories of nationalism and linguistic nationalism affect the Irish language in Ireland? A standard procedure for dividing the periods of Irish language history since the beginning of the last century has been as follows. The Antiquarian period extends from 1807 with the founding of the Gaelic Society to 1892 and is succeeded by the Revival period from 1893 with the formation of Conradh na Gaeilge up to 1921. The Restoration period extends from the formation of the state in 1922 up to 1964. The Bilingualist period extends from the government White Paper Athbheochan na Gaeilge in 1965 and continues to the present time. During these different periods, the source for such changes in attitude towards the Irish language derives from different groups of people with different outlooks on the best means for the recovery of the language and its concomitant culture. During the Antiquarian period, the motivation came from historians. However, the Irish language was seen in a static abstracted sense. During the Revival period, we find moderate and radical Nationalists elevating a highly idealised model of the Gaeltacht native Irish-speaker. The Restoration period began with Independence but also with political rule by conservative politicians who could not back up rhetoric with concrete policies and enough resources. The present Bilingualist period appears to have full state backing (financial and linguistic) for the reasonable demands of a bilingual state yet the Gaeltacht has receded further and the initiative for Irish-medium schools has come from parents rather than from the state.

The different descriptions, however, have a positive ring about them which give the impression that the period described corresponds with the realities on the ground. Was the Irish language revived during the Revival period? Had it died? Was the Irish language restored during the Restoration period? If so, why the subsequent need for a bilingual period? During the Bilingualist period does the Irish population use, in equal amounts, the Irish language and the English language in their daily lives? Do they have the opportunity to choose jobs where the means of communication will be in either language? Such questions lead one to re-assess the terms used to describe the position of Irish throughout its recent history and to try and re-formulate a more critical description of the history of the Irish language based on the broader aims and objectives of national political movements before and after the formation of the state. The sympathy and support for the language consistent with the different periods was never matched by real progress in the day-to-day use of the language.

Elite Instrument

The strength of the nationalist idea lay in its contextualisation of the subject, placing humanity in a time and place. Language became the main vehicle for identity because it linked the individual to the group and the present to the past. Language was associated with thought and the development of the ideas of a people, as imagination, creativity and ability to solve problems were all expressed through language. From the early nineteenth century to the present day the usefulness of the Irish language for the aims of Irish elites has ebbed and flowed. Inspired by the humanist intellectuals of European culture, Irish intellectuals from the 1740’s have sought to demonstrate the importance of the Celtic past and its role in the development of world civilization. Cultural nationalism was founded on an historicist ideology which, as Hutchinson shows, was a reaction ‘against both traditional ethnocentric and universalist rationalist belief systems’ and interpreted ‘the world in polycentric terms as naturally divided into unique peoples, each with its separate origins in space and time, its laws of growth and decay, and its special creative role to play in human progress.’ Historicism became a major tool with which individuals could be re-presented as a community and as a product of historical evolution. It had the added advantage of defining a primordial community which would ward off the subterranean threats of class conflict of ‘over-civilised’ societies. The antiquarian societies of the early nineteenth century were the crystallisation of a movement ‘to construct an authentic history of Ireland on the basis of original documents’.

While the Irish language and Gaelic culture formed the bedrock of Ireland’s claim to civilisation, historical scholars such as John O’Donovan (1809-61) and Eugene O’Curry (1796-1862), both native Irish speakers, were not very optimistic for the future of the language. Indeed Daniel O’Connell, also a native Irish speaker, considered political independence and religious freedom more important than an identity based on language. However, Irish elites at this time did not have the same separatist aspirations as the more radical demotic groupings such as the United Irishmen. As the struggle of inter-elite competition intensified the Irish language took on a deeper significance. The opposing camps vied for public support under the banners of Irish-Ireland and Anglo-Irish Ireland. Irish had now become the symbol of cultural anti-colonialism par excellence. The formation of the Gaelic League in 1893 represented the crystallisation of a new wave of cultural nationalists who were ready to challenge the cultural hegemony of the Ascendancy. In the words of Douglas Hyde: ‘I am persuaded that nothing less than the national language essential in the national university can convince the Irish-speaking population that they really and truly possess in their language a great asset of the highest material importance’.

One commentator, Rev. G. Hannay, noted in 1906 that ‘[T]he Gaelic Revival is a Renaissance’ in which Irishmen became ‘accessible to ideas’ resulting in ‘the recreated life of our country’. However by the 1910’s the language movement had already taken on a political character and Irish became the shibboleth for political anti-colonialism. In an article headed ‘The Gaelic League and Politics’ in Irish Freedom, Irish is described as ‘a political weapon of the first importance against English encroachment’ and a ‘common bulwark against England’. It was during this period of time that the popularity of the Irish language reached its zenith. With the formation of the Irish Free State the role for Irish changed again as Irish became a vehicle for the consolidation of the state. Brown notes that the new government committed itself ‘to one radical policy - the apparently revolutionary policy of language revival’ which he describes as ‘comprehensible’ in the context of a government which was ‘anxious to establish its legitimacy in the face of the republicans’ uncompromising zeal’. He describes the revival as ‘a cause of unexceptional nationalist authenticity’ but denies that opportunism was the motive behind government support as the revivalist ideology of the Gaelic League had profoundly affected the Irish revolutionary movement.

The role of Irish declined during the 1930’s as the language became a proxy Catholicism. Irish was perceived not just as a political/cultural barrier to English aggression but now it had taken on a more developed moral role as defender and protector of the faith from external ‘evil’ and materialist corruption. Irish by its nature would insulate the Irish people. In the 1920’s an organisation called An Rioghacht or the League of the Kingship of Christ was founded to extend the Catholicisation of public life in the Free State. In a pamphlet, published by An Rioghacht (1930), called Ireland’s Peril, the Rev. E. Cahill S.J. conflates Catholicism and ‘tradition’ in rhetoric which contrasted with the general non-sectarian policy of the language movement. He asserted that ‘[t]he old Catholic Irish tradition of the Gaeltacht is one of the nation’s best bulwarks against the materialism of the English-speaking world, by which it is surrounded.’

The ‘spirituality’ of the Gaeltacht and the spirituality of Catholicism merged in the depiction of the people of the Gaeltacht as morally superior despite widespread poverty. Thus the mixture of language and religion could stave off any rumblings of dissent while at the same time inducing a false sense of pride in a ‘simpler’ yet ‘spiritually superior’ way of life. By the 1940’s and 1950’s the Irish language had fallen out of favour with Irish elites. It became an instrument of self advancement, an ossified symbol of more radical times. In the magazine The Bell, Sean O’Faoláin criticised again and again the Gaelic revival which had become ‘mere jobbery’, and ‘the enthusiasts for the language ‘vivisectionists’ who had actually "done irreparable harm to the language"’. According to Brown, O’Faoláin believed that ‘Ireland’s cultural grandeur, whatever the truth of former times, was now merely a myth that gave comfort to an insecure, uprooted middle class which had cashed in on the revolution and had instinctively resisted change ever since.’

The resultant stagnation of the 1950’s was reversed in the 1960’s with the opening up of the Irish economy to foreign investment and the first application for membership of the EEC. With Ireland’s membership of the EEC in 1972 and the emerging Northern conflict, the Irish language was looked upon as a symbol of regressive nationalism as Irish elites rushed headlong into the social and economic modernisation of Irish society. The decline of the influence of the Catholic Church has also meant the decline of Catholicism as a factor of Irish identity. By the end of the 1970’s and up to the mid 1980’s the Irish language declined even further as a manipulable symbol for Irish elites. Irish was now viewed by elites as a symbol of regressive traditionalism in a modern world of satellite television, the Internet and globalised industries. Its role was perceived as impossibly old-fashioned and ‘useless’ and its continuing prevalence only operated to the detriment of European languages. More recent developments such as Irish-language television, Gaelscoileanna and the forthcoming Language Act will hopefully serve to create a ‘parity of esteem’ for the Irish language and its speakers and thereby improve the conditions for its growth and development.


International Aspects

Like many other social, cultural and political issues in Ireland, it seems that a shift from national to international perspectives on endangered languages may be necessary to further the cause of Irish. The mounting concern for the state of the world’s languages is demonstrated by the growth in organizations, international agreements, websites and books dedicated to the global preservation of endangered languages. For example, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages which came into force on the 1st of March, 1998 goes a long way in offsetting the worst aspects of national chauvinism or unfettered domination of the state by one cultural, linguistic or religious group over other members of the same state. However, a misunderstanding of the linguistic situation in Ireland may lead some to see Irish as a minority or regional language. It is true that, in an overall context, a minority of people speak Irish and more people speak Irish in certain regions of Ireland. However Irish is not the language of an ethnic minority and is not restricted to any region in Ireland as it is taught in most schools. While the Charter refers specifically to regional or minority languages it also includes official languages that are less widely used in the whole or part of its territory, yet the Irish Government has still not signed the charter.


It is to be hoped that in the process of developing global awareness through such international agreements on culture, environment, etc regarding limited natural resources that awareness of certain limited cultural resources, e.g. our range of languages will also benefit. These processes would ultimately put pressure on national governments to take local concerns seriously and introduce measures recommended by international agreements.

In his book Language Death, David Crystal raises the question of why we should care about endangered languages. He believes that languages express identity, are repositories of history, contribute to the sum of human knowledge, are interesting in themselves and that we need diversity. Such exo-definitions of language [exogenous - originating from the outside] are laudable and help to define why language is important. Awareness of scientific research puts one in the frustrating position of knowing what is happening but not being able to really change the situation on the ground. Such arguments are conceived to encourage people to be aware of ethnic and national groups on a linguistic level. This awareness can lead people to see their struggle to preserve their languages as a ‘language war’. However, within every linguistic group there are those who do not care if their language is dying, others who believe it is not possible to save their language and still others who want to speak the language of another more dominant group. As Jean-Louis Calvet notes, ‘users are choosers’. He writes:

The term "language war" is a convenient metaphor, but languages themselves cannot wage war on each other. It is people who struggle, fight or agree with each other. We can follow their conflictual relationships by looking at the relationships between their languages.

However, the varying positions on their language held by individuals are generally limited by a set of structural choices. One’s options are directly and indirectly determined by the actual position of the language in its social and political context at any given time. One may choose to learn or speak one’s lesser-used language but the prevailing political situation means that access to jobs, education, state benefits etc are denied to the speaker in that language. The imbalance of power, which is the reason for linguistic imbalance in the first place, reveals the real choices one can make.


One writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya, made the choice to use and speak the lesser-used Gikuyu, his native language, as a form of resistance to colonialism and neo-colonialism. Ngugi has written many novels and books on cultural theory and combines linguistic awareness with multi-faceted challenges to the status quo in Kenya. He describes two ways in which the language of the coloniser was used to capture the cultures, values and the minds of the colonised. In Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Ngugi argues that at first, these other languages, which contained the culture and the history of the captive nations, would be "thrown on the rubbish heap and left there to perish. These languages were experienced as incomprehensible noise from the dark Tower of Babel." They were suppressed so that the indigenous population would not have their own mirrors in which to observe themselves and their enemies. Secondly, the language of the conqueror was elevated to the language of the elect: He writes, "[t]hus equipped with the linguistic means to escape from the dark Tower of Babel, the newly ordained, or those ready to be ordained as servants of the new order, had their minds systematically removed from the world and the history carried by their original languages." Ngugi emphasises the fact that English also had its democratic traditions which reflected the democratic struggles and heritage of the British and American people.

Unlike modern nations like Japan and Germany where English is used as a means of communication with the outside world, the English language and African languages never met under conditions of equality, independence and democracy. English was represented as a monoglossic language at home to counter centrifugal heteroglossic (or polyglossic) forces which could threaten the centralising state while abroad English became an important cultural force for the repression of linguistic and cultural

differences. For Ngugi, physical subjugation was achieved by means of the bullet but "language was the means of the spiritual subjugation". The cultural aspect of colonialism becomes for Ngugi the most important method for the maintenance of ideological control - particularly the educational system whereby "the night of the sword and the 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.

Language for Ngugi was the most important aspect of colonial power because it is through language that power fascinated and imprisoned the soul. Thus, language became an important site of cultural and political struggle. Political awareness of language led Ngugi to reject English as vehicle for his writings and his book Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature became his "farewell to English" in favour of Gikuyu and Kiswahili. He writes, "I was becoming increasingly uneasy about the English language. After I had written A Grain of Wheat I underwent a crisis. I knew whom I was writing about but whom was I writing for? The peasants whose struggles fed the novel would never read it". He realised that the acquisition of the language of the colonist becomes a status symbol and soon becomes alienated from the language and the values of the masses. As such, a national language had to be developed but not at the expense of regional languages.

The oft quoted "farewell to English" of Ngugi’s "A Statement" in Decolonising the Mind also includes the following sentence: "However, I hope that through the age old medium of translation I shall be able to continue dialogue with all." Ngugi’s desire is not just for a dialogical heteroglossia with his own people but also a dialogical polyglossia with the empire. By giving importance to his own people and language he is counteracting the propaganda of "racial difference" which tries to marginalise and isolate oppressed peoples.

Power and agency

Only by becoming aware of power and how it operates can oppressed peoples begin to resist its grip. In The True Worlds: A Transnational Perspective, Johan Galtung considers power to be both a relation and a quality. Accordingly, power-over-others is a relation and power-over-oneself is a quality. He discusses three means used to exert power: ideological, remunerative or punitive. In the first case, power depends on "ideas" (persuasion); in the second, "carrots" (bargaining); and in the third, power depends on "sticks" (force). These forms of power can only work "if the power receiver really receives the pressure, which presupposes a certain degree of submissiveness, dependency, and fear, respectively. Their antidotes are self-respect, self-sufficiency, and fearlessness." Therefore, as Galtung contends, "[a]utonomy is here seen as power-over-oneself so as to be able to withstand what others might have of power-over-others."

So, how do minorities or oppressed peoples gain access to power? Galtung describes two approaches: the "balance approach" and the "autonomy approach". In the balance approach "the power receiver has the same resources for persuasion, bargaining, and force at his disposal and can turn them the other way." In the autonomy approach the subject "refuses to receive, by developing autonomy or power-over-himself". If a person refuses to be a power receiver then power cannot reach that person.

In Rinkeby, Sweden in 1984, for example, a school strike over the medium through which immigrant Finnish children would be taught lasted for eight weeks, before the group’s demands were recognised by the state. The parents reacted against planned changes believing that the Swedish authorities were trying to integrate the children completely. The children found the Swedish-medium classes difficult to follow and were punished for using Finnish. A strike committee was formed and then they decided to teach the children themselves.

Skutnabb-Kangas notes how the attitude of the parents towards the authorities changed from submissiveness to self-respect. As one striker stated:

Until the strike we had been objects for authoritarian care. Now we are the subjects of our own lives. Through the strike we grew stronger because we learned to believe in ourselves and trust in other women to stand on our side and fight together with us.


The difficulties experienced by communities in obtaining resources from the state has led to activist groups taking control of the situation themselves. A practical example of one such community is Ráth Cairn, a small Gaeltacht in County Meath. Ráth Cairn was founded by the Department of Lands between the years 1935 and 1937 when a total of 40 families from Connemara were re-settled due to extreme poverty arising out of congestion and poor land in the west of Ireland. A large estate was divided up and each family given land and a house. As early as October 1935, the community complained of their treatment by the Department. They got little help and had been given fewer cattle than had been promised to them. They had cut peat but a promised road had not been built. According to Comharchumann Ráth Cairn’s Plean Forbartha: Plean an Dá Mhíle 1998 - 2003:

This community was left to fend for itself from the nineteen-thirties to the mid nineteen-sixties. It is a miracle that it survived at all let alone surviving as an Irish language speaking (Gaeltacht) community. It was due to planning, structure and worthwhile aims that it survived intact from the mid-sixties to the present.

The thinly disguised criticism of government policy demonstrates the tenacity of a group who even had to struggle hard to gain official recognition of Ráth Cairn as a Gaeltacht area. After a long campaign by Craobh Cearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta, Ráth Cairn was given official recognition in 1967. Comharchumann [co-op] Ráth Cairn was formed in 1974 to plan and undertake development plans in the area and subsequently founded or assisted in, inter alia, the construction of the Community Centre, a second level college, Sports field and changing rooms, Irish classes, weekend and summer language courses, a professional translation service and water and turf schemes for the community.

This refusal to defer to a dominant power and take responsibility for the language and other problems relating to structural issues is an important step in the struggle for a society in which linguistic diversity is not just accepted but has all the structural measures in place for its maintenance and use. The people of Rathcairn became the subjects of their own lives and challenged the structural imbalance in Irish society to bring about many changes. Similarly in other countries it has been ‘shown that in many cases of language death, the shift occurred not because of an increase in the available choices, but because of a decrease in choice brought about by the exercise of undemocratic power.


Future for Irish?

So what is the future for Irish? It is obvious that Gaeltacht communities and Galltacht communities have much in common. Many aspects of the Rathcairn example could be applied to any community in Ireland irrespective of its language. Furthermore, communities all over Ireland are trying to develop the position of the Irish language in Ireland today.

If one takes in to consideration the all-Ireland nature of the Irish language structures today whether they be political agreements, mass media, grants etc then the concept Gaeltacht sounds strangely old-fashioned. Soon it may have no basis for its continued use. The recent Coimisiún na Gaeltachta report notes that:

If the criterion for defining Gaeltacht boundaries was that 80% of the community must be Irish speakers as was initially set down by Coimisiún na Gaeltachta in 1926, then, according to the 1996 Census, only 14 district electoral divisions of the 154 would qualify for Gaeltacht status. If this trend continues it is only a matter of time before the Gaeltacht as understood historically will cease to exist.

I believe that this may not be such a bad thing. The type of research into the position of the language which tries to find out who is speaking Irish and when, becomes a succession of depressing statistics in which forms filled out are influenced as much by eligibility for grants as levels of ability. We are now entering a new era where the spread of Irish speakers is fundamentally changing from strict concentrations of native speakers in particular areas to more general support for the language around the country.

The recognition of different kinds of communities of Irish speakers, eg virtual communities which can be global, groups and individuals who always use Irish, social and cultural centres where people can go to learn and speak Irish etc would put a positive spin on the language rather than the fetishism of maps, statistics, tables and electoral divisions in which the numbers will always be decreasing.

On that basis I would suggest a new more radical policy of treating all communities around the island of Ireland in the same way according to their efforts in using, teaching and promoting Irish. Thus a suburb of Dublin like Clondalkin, which has won the Glor na Gael prize in the past, would be treated equally with a Gaeltacht community. The continuing constitutional support for the Irish language as ‘the first official language’ reveals the popular support for the language even if it is not reflected in widespread usage. There are many speakers of Irish at all levels of society including the government. Thus responsibility for language revival could be applied to most people in Ireland today. In fact there are no reasons left why the government itself cannot lead the way on the language question. Regular all-party debates in Irish [using the simultaneous translation facilities if necessary] would increase the prestige of the language, inspiring others to speak Irish while at the same time undermining the cynics who argue that Irish is a dead language which nobody speaks any more. The general levels of wealth, education and resources in Ireland now leave little excuse for neglecting this historic cultural issue. The restoration of the Irish language in Ireland would not only be of profound cultural significance for the Irish people but it would also set an example for governments dealing with linguistic diversity and create an optimistic outlook for endangered languages throughout the world.


In Ireland, the constant deferral to government agendas set by Irish elites, multinational companies; and political and cultural commentators with conservative views presented as ‘common sense’, has serious implications for the Irish language. By becoming dependent on a global economic and cultural system over which we have little or no control, we risk losing our autonomy and becoming gripped by submissiveness, dependency, and fear as the vagaries of that system increasingly affects our lives. As with many languages around the world, the more one becomes integrated into its unequal system the less one’s own voice matters. Despite the fact that ‘the European Commission recommends that every citizen of the Union should speak at least two European languages in addition to their own native language, such leadership in Ireland is not evident in the current political situation and the dominant political parties may never rise to the challenge. If not then it will be up to active communities to demand such changes or else create new political movements with new agendas for economic, social and cultural change in Ireland.