Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
(see also art website)

Language from Below: The Irish Language, Ideology and Power in 20th Century Ireland 

'An audacious and insightful study of a controversial topic, this book brings to the debate about the fate and future of the Irish language a shrewd blend of realism and analytic rigour. It shows how the question of Irish has always been bound up with the conflict of social classes within the island. An intrepid and deeply thoughtful work.'
Professor Declan Kiberd, School of English, University College Dublin.



The main objective of this book is to
critically investigate the relationship between the Irish language and politics through a survey of individuals and movements associated with the language. It is proposed that the status of the Irish language is dependent on the political ends or needs of élites in Irish society. This approach takes into account competing socialist and nationalist perspectives on language and society to demonstrate the different motivations for and class interest in Irish. 

A critical analysis of the theories of Ideology, Nationalism and Ethnicity lays the basis for an in-depth examination of the changing relationship between the Irish language and politics since the formation of Conradh na Gaeilge in 1893. The book also proposes possible future directions for the positive development of the Irish language under the main headings of Community, Education, State and Politics. 

It proposes that the present decline of the Irish language is part of a global system of international capitalism that seeks to homogenise markets by reducing national and linguistic boundaries, thereby increasing power and profits at the expense of the well-being and autonomy of national populations. Therefore, the struggle against linguistic homogenisation must become an essential element of political opposition to the power of such élites. A key argument underlying the book is that the struggle for rights is transformational and the assertion of language rights by individuals and communities plays an important part in changing the general relations of power.

Contents: Ideology - The Nation, Ethnicity and Language - Language Policy 1893-1945 - Language Policy 1946-2000 - Progressive Politics.
Peter Lang Publishing Group
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2006. 345 pp.
ISBN 3-03910-171-4 / US-ISBN 0-8204-6981-5 pb.

Language from Below is for sale at
Peter Lang academic publishers

Copies also on sale from author - 30 Euro


Foreword to Language from Below
by Prof. Michael Cronin

In a lecture delivered before the Cork National society on the 13 May 1892, William O’Brien MP warned his audience against substituting piety for politics on the question of language:

It was emigration […] that drove the Irish language out of fashion. Once the eyes of the Irish peasants were directed to a career in the golden English-speaking continents beyond the setting sun, their own instincts of self-preservation, even more than the exhortation of those responsible for the future, pointed to the English language as no less essential than a ship to sail in and passage ticket to enable them to embark on it, as a passport from their miserable surroundings to lands of plenty and independence beyond the billows. [1]

Although O’Brien’s prose is replete with the rhetoric of his age and cannot quite escape the dragnet of Arnoldian sentiment, he is enough of a politician to know that those who vote with their feet are as eloquent in their own way as those who gesticulate with their hands. Language may be discussed in texts, but it survives or perishes in contexts. What those contexts might be and how we might describe them has generally been left to the linguist as if the proper business of politicians was to run the world and for the linguists to parse it. What O’Brien suggested to his Cork audience, however, is that to understand what happens to a language is to understand what is happening to a society and an economy and even more importantly, what is happening ‘beyond the billows’.

In that wider world which is the setting for Irish linguistic fortunes, there are not only ‘lands of plenty and independence’ but ‘miserable surroundings’ that have brought other language communities to their knees. That misery and plenty often share the same space is borne out by the catastrophic incidence of language death in such favoured Irish emigrant destinations as Australia and the United States of America. Yet despite the ample evidence that the Irish are not alone in their linguistic predicament, there has been a remarkable reluctance until very recently to see the situation of Irish as ominously routine in its mistreatment rather than tragically exceptional in its treatment. Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin in Language from Below performs a signal service by opening up debates on Irish to the news from elsewhere. In particular, he interrogates very fundamental questions relating to ideology, ethnicity and class and brings to bear the insights of a whole array of thinkers to tease out the issues involved. The theoretical excavation is all the more necessary in that many debates conducted around language in Ireland assume that history is more a matter of opinion than record and that social class is a marketeer’s statistical whim rather than a ruthlessly enforced aspect of social life. More specifically, Language from Below, repeatedly shows how language fortunes are bound up with the political choices and economic positioning of a society. In other words, language is not only words but is part of or not, as the case might be, the broader political project in which the society is engaged.

Language from Below is alive to the ironies of a language of the dispossessed which became the language of possessors while the dispossessed were encouraged in Seamus Deane’s phrase to stay quaint and stay put. The work details the manner in which the Free State government and its Fianna Fáil successors mobilised Irish to copper-fasten the privileges of the Statist middle class while scrupulously ignoring the more radical political implications of the restoration of Irish. The situation was not helped by the fact that many language activists themselves were complicit in this class agenda and were largely content between dinner dances to pass endless motions in the polite wars of bureaucratic attrition. As Máirtín Ó Cadhain once observed:

[…] resolutions, delegations and goodwill can no longer billhook their way through the rank undergrowth of Government subsidiaries, the impenetrable jungle of semi-Ministries, semi-demi-Ministries, shadow Ministries, state companies, boards, institutes. [2]

The failure to properly analyze the relation between language politics and power relations in the society meant that frustrated hectoring rather than direct, political engagement became the order of the day. It was difficult, in effect, to look for change if you did not know what needed to be changed. Only when groups like Misneach and Gluaiseacht Cearta Sibihialta na Gaeltachta emerged in the 1960s did Irish-language activism finally move from the bar to the barricade and make the crucial link to political struggles ‘beyond the billows’. What Language from Below demonstrates, and this is why it is such an important book in our present age, is the continuing importance of collective social action. There would be no Irish-language schools, no Irish-language radio stations, no Irish-language television, no Irish-language press, if the Irish State had been expected to deliver on any or all of these things. On the contrary, one of the first, major obstacles systematically encountered by language activists in all of their campaigns was the obdurate refusal of the State to take them seriously or to make concessions. It was the concerted, continuous actions of groups of politically aware activists that eventually ensured that change came about and that initiatives bore fruit. In this respect, their actions challenge the more general political torpor of late modernity with its general suspicion of the value of political solidarity for social change. It was people acting together taking legal and political risks (change almost invariably involved breaking the law which in itself says much about the nature of our laws) that made things happen not polite petitions to indifferent functionaries. Paradoxically, as Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin demonstrates, it was by moving away from traditional cultural nationalism that activists got the State to take part of its avowedly nationalist project seriously. Rather than simply invoking the house gods of Faith and Fatherland, the placing of Irish within a global rights dis-course shifted the ground of argument and wrong footed the doughty warriors of pluralism (which came to mean everything except Irish).

Commenting on the great upsurge in critical thinking in the 1960s and 1970s, Terry Eagleton claims that, ‘it seems fair to say that much of the new cultural theory was born out of an extraordinarily creative dialogue with Marxism.’ [3] The difficulty is the origins of the dialogue are more often than not forgotten and ‘culture’ itself, as Eagleton points out, becomes a substitute for and not a way to explain politics. Language from Below is therefore refreshingly new and innovative in its re-opening of that dialogue with Marxist critical writings on language and society. The critical conversation is all the more important in that the formidable conservatism of the academy in post-independence Ireland meant that even when the dialogue was taking place elsewhere, Ireland remained largely silent or contented itself with philological musings on the copiousness of the copula. A conservative distaste for theory (other than its own, of course) can be matched by a radical distrust of theory. Too often, in the Irish-language movement and elsewhere in Irish civil society, a kind of desperate sloganeering has seduced progressive elements as if shallow phrases (‘No Blood for Oil’/Ní Tír gan Teanga) could ever become a substitute for deep thought.

Language from Below is precisely the kind of engaged and engaging analysis which is necessary if Irish is to play a central role in transformative and socially advanced politics in Ireland. Unless there is sustained attention given to the basic concepts that inform political action in the area of language, then we are condemned to the inarticulacy of the rant or the tragedy of unwanted outcomes. One outcome, which is generally given rather than desired, is the post-colonial condition itself. However, as Máirín Nic Eoin has pointed out, post-colonial criticism has often been loath to address questions of language except in the most general of terms and in the case of Ireland with one or two honourable exceptions usually comes to bury Irish rather than to praise it. In describing the findings of her research, Nic Eoin states:

Féachfar ar an aitheantas an-teoranta a thugann léann idirnáisiúnta an iarchoilíneachais do thábhacht teangacha dúchais ar nós na Gaeilge agus scrúdófar easnamh nó ionad fíor-imeallach na Gaeilge i gcuid na hÉireann de léann an iarchoilíneachais.

[We will examine the very limited attention paid by international postcolonial studies to the importance of native languages like Irish and we will examine the absence or the very marginal position of Irish in the Irish branch of postcolonial studies (translation).][4]

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is particularly aware of the dangers of a body of thought which can end up marginalising the very object of its analysis. He draws parallels with the work of many other writers and thinkers from post-colonial societies in his bid to think through the implications of colonial influences on attitudes to language in Ireland and language is, of course, central to how he conceives of Irish culture, society and economy. There is no sense in which he sees himself as primarily an Undertaker with Attitude, content to do the decent thing as Irish is dispatched to the graveyard of the nineteenth century and Anglophone critics are allowed to enjoy the Gaelic Wake unhindered by anything as untoward as a living language.

When Herodotus of Halicarnassus told his readers (or rather his listeners) what was the purpose of his Histories, he said that it was so that, ‘human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why two peoples fought each other.’ [5] In writing the history of language restoration from a broadly sympathetic perspective, the tendency can be to dwell on ‘great and marvellous deeds’ and explain away all language conflict in terms of ‘why two peoples fought each other’ (Outing the Brits). Neither the obituary mode nor the pieties of propaganda do much to advance our understanding of how language battles have been fought in Ireland and more importantly how the internal class dynamic within Irish society itself in the twentieth century has affected attitudes towards language and policies designed to promote or further its use in society. To this end, the chapters devoted to the history of language policy are invaluable in offering the reader a theoretically informed and politically astute reading of the various forces which combined to effect changes in public policy. Not only do these chapters properly contextualise what has happened to date in language politics in Ireland but they also provide a highly useful framework for any future thinking about language planning and language in society on the island.

In opening up the language situation in Ireland to theoretical speculation from elsewhere, Language from Below shows how elsewhere has much to learn from the experience, for better and for ill, of the Irish. As the world faces into the prospect of linguacide on an unprecedented scale, the local lessons of Irish have global significance. As more and more languages are forced into extinction or are increasingly minoritized by a small clutch of major languages, then how societies or governments or communities try to deal with these pressures is of importance to every inhabitant on the planet who sees language as an inalienable right rather than as an optional extra. The fact that the major language Irish has to contend with is English further adds to the interest of the specific linguistic situation as English features prominently in fears about the future cultural and linguistic diversity of the globe. Analyses that marry detailed theoretical reflection with extended considerations of actual historical and current practice are, therefore, particularly helpful in exploring how we might best ensure that peoples everywhere are allowed to speak their difference.

Our century has started more in terror than in triumph. The ruins of the Berlin Wall were a cause for celebration, the ruins of the Twin Towers and Fallujah a reason for despair. The planet continues to go deeper and deeper into ecological debt. It is thus easy to become despondent in the context of the brutal authoritarianism of the market and the criminalisation of all dissent but Language from Below is above all to do with change and possibility. It is a book which demonstrates how solidarity still matters and how ultimately Babel’s failure is humanity’s greatest achievement.

Professor Michael Cronin
Director, Centre for Translation and Textual Studies,
Dublin City University


[1] William O’Brien, ‘The Influence of the Irish Language’, Irish Ideas (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1893), p. 65.

[2] Máirtín Ó Cadhain, ‘Irish Above Politics’, Gaelic Weekly, 7 March 1964, p. 2.

[3] Terry Eagleton, After Theory (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 35.

[4] Máirín Nic Eoin, Trén bhFearann Breac: An Díláithriú Cultúir agus Nualitríocht na Gaeilge (Baile Átha Cliath: Cois Life, 2005), p. 18.

Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (London: Penguin, 1996).