Where’s Me Culture?    


Stephen Fry, the British actor, writer and commentator,  recently spoke at Trinity College Dublin after making a guest appearance on the  Irish language TV show, Ros na Rún.  Fry spoke warmly of his visit to the Gaeltacht and of observing children there speaking Irish.  The  Gaeltacht children, however, texted one another in English, not Irish.  The  books they read, Harry Potter, for example, were in English.  Fry noted  this duality; there is still a love and attachment to the Irish language and traditional culture but there are increasing pressures from the “rolling tide of  English” and from the modern world in general.  It would be difficult, Fry posited, for an ambitious person in today’s Ireland to achieve a high level of  success as an entrepreneur, for example, only using the Irish language.   Irish culture, of course,  has long  faced this rolling tide of English language and English culture.  Irish culture is now  increasingly facing, as many other cultures around the world are facing,  the pressures of commercialization and globalization. 

  In the past, British political control also brought direct suppression of native Irish culture.  The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 sought, with limited success, to stop the assimilation of the descendants of  the Norman English settlers into the native Irish society. In 1527 the Statutes of Galway banned the sport of hurling (but not  football).  However, it was The Great Hunger (an Gorta Mor) of the 1840s that, in addition to its toll in human life, inflicted a near mortal blow to traditional rural Irish culture.  As the G.A.A. historian Marcus de Búrca has written, the Famine “brought about a step drop in national morale.”  "Amongst the major casualties of the Famine were the field games and other traditional past times of rural Ireland, which in many areas suffered an irreversible loss.”. The Great Hunger of course, struck particularly hard in the Irish speaking areas of Connacht and Munster.   

  As de Búrca wrote, the Famine was not the only obstacle native games had to contend with in the 19th century.  “All over the  country hurling and football were either discreetly discouraged or openly prohibited by government officials such as policemen and magistrates, as well as by some of the Catholic clergy and many landlords.  The reasons given for  such action varied from fear of violence and insobriety to suspicion of games  being used for meeting of various nationalist bodies.  The over-all effect  was naturally a reduction in the extent of organized games.”   The  national schools, established in the 1830s, used only English and prohibited  Irish until 1871.  Emigration from Ireland came heavily from the poor Irish speaking areas.  Ironically this emigration was overwhelmingly to English speaking countries thus making English the language of the Irish Diaspora, which  in turn ensured that English would be the primary language of communication between the Diaspora and the Irish community at home. The Irish  language and traditional culture were, therefore,  in a very weakened state  in post-Famine Ireland.    

  The Gaelic cultural revival of the late nineteenth century, therefore, came just in time.   Cumann Luthchleas Gael  (G.A.A.) was founded in 1884, Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) in  1893.  In 1892 Douglas Hyde, gave a famous lecture on the “Necessity  for de-Anglicizing Ireland.”  Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector  who became the first president of Conradh na Gaeilge, warned that Ireland would have to preserve its language and native culture if it were to avoid becoming a pale imitation of England, or as others would call it “west  Britain.”   Hyde himself avoided politics, but many who became  involved in the cultural movement also became involved in the Irish independence cause.  Their influence was seen in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent 1919-1921 War of Independence following the Declaration of Independence by the First Dail Eireann in 1919.  Padraig Pearse, Cathal  Brugha, Sean T. O’Kelly and Eamonn DeValera, to cite just a few, were all  active in Conradh na Gaeilge; Austin Stack and Harry Boland were both leaders in the  G.A.A.      

  One of the selling points for ratification of the  Articles of Agreement (“Treaty”) with Britain in 1921 was that it would allow,  for the first time,  an Irish government to be in control of promoting  Irish culture and setting Irish language policy.   The Free State  relied primarily on the teaching of Irish to school children as the way to  spread the use of Irish as a spoken language.  That approach largely failed  to achieve its goal.  Generations of Irish men and women in the 26 counties  went through years of schooling in which Irish was taught and graduated with  limited ability and even less desire to speak their own  official  language.  This approach of relying on school education has been repeatedly  criticized over the last number of years, feasible alternative approaches,  however,  have been harder to come across.   

 Irish language activists have questioned the commitment  of successive 26 county administrations to promoting the Irish language.   Much governmental support has been symbolic and sometimes even the symbolic  support has been lacking.  Aer Lingus, for example, although still deemed  the national airline, has almost no Irish language content on its entertainment  channels.  A first time traveler to Ireland would have little clue that  any language other than English is spoken in  Ireland.       

There have, of course, also been some positive developments  regarding the language. Telifis na Gaeilge (now TG4), and the growth of Irish  language bunscoilenna are probably the two most visible examples.  Much of  the old stigma connecting the Irish language to poverty and backwardness is  gone.  The language even has a certain cache in some upper middle class  areas. But the Gaeltachtai, the area where Irish is actually still spoken as a  daily, native, language, is shrinking.  The standard of Irish spoken,  moreover, is declining as the English language more and more impinges on  Irish.  The producer of Ros na Rún, the TG4 Irish language soap opera  that Stephen Fry made his guest appearance on, has said that it is difficult to  find Irish actors with a high enough standard of Irish to appear on the  show.     

  Irish, as a minority language, also faces challenges  within Europe.  The late Nollaig O Gadhra, that well known historian and  Irish language activist, was successful as president of Conradh na Gaeilge in  getting Irish recognized as an official language of the EU.  Regardless of  ones thoughts about the EU, this was an impressive achievement for all the  language activists who were involved in that campaign.  Nollaig warned,  however, that Irish language activists would have to remain vigilant.  The  EU is not necessarily hospitable to minority languages.  Indeed, it has  recently been reported that EU grant scholars who submit applications in a EU  language other than English are "encouraged" to include an English  translation.  Elsewhere in Europe, the Politcnio di Milano an Italian  technical university of some 38,000 students announced in April 2012 that it was  going to shift to all English language instruction at the graduate level.   If other institutions of higher learning follow suit, the long term future for  European languages other than English could be grim.  In Ireland, once  nearly the entire population could speak English, Irish feel into increasing  disuse.  This is a problem that anyone attempting to speak Irish in Ireland  comes across, if everyone can speak English as well as Irish, why maintain two  languages.  Soon Europe as a whole may face this d dilemma .    

  Other aspects of Irish culture such as sports and music  do not face quite the same level of social pressures as the language does, but  they too have their challenges.  Gaelic games and the G.A.A. are still a  vital and integral part of Irish life.  The amateur and volunteer ethos of  the G.A.A. , however, is under increasing strain.  Local teams, especially  in rural areas, are finding it hard to find enough young people to keep local  clubs going.  Renewed emigration, much of it now to Canada and Australia,  is taking its toll.  In addition young people have many more outlets for  entertainment, many involving the computer and social media, that take them away  from outdoor activities of any kind.  The G.A.A. also faces pressures to  change some aspects of its core identity.  The G.A.A. was founded largely  by Fenians and it has always been an all Ireland organization.  Commercial  pressures from corporate sponsors, however,  may have played a part in the  G.A.A.'s abandonment of Rule 21, the rule that barred members of the British  Crown Forces from participating in the G.A.A. in Ireland.    In  2011 the British Queen paid an official visit to Croke Park, site of the  infamous 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre of G.A.A. players and spectators by British  Crown forces.  The fact that the British monarch and the British government  still claim the right to rule over part of Ireland was swept aside in the  laudatory tone of coverage of the event.  It was thought too polite to  mention that the power of the British crown as regards what it  considers  "Northern Ireland" came from its decision to overrule the democratic will of the  Irish people for a united independent 32 county republic.  Were it not for  the threats by Lloyd George for immediate and terrible war unless the Irish turn  their backs on the Republic, no British monarch today would be able to call  herself "Queen of Northern Ireland", yet this anachronistic and undemocratic  institution called the monarchy is somehow treasured in some sections of Irish  society.     

  As for traditional Irish music, recent years have  produced an amazing number of proficient musicians. Recent fleadh cheoils by  Ceoltas Ceoltoiri Eireann have been huge successes.  But current commercial  realities have made it difficult for professional Irish musicians.  Record  labels are reluctant to offer long term contracts and even well known musicians  are left without the security of a major record label.  Many now, of  course, produce, promote and distribute their own music.  While this gives  these musicians more input and control into the final product, it is a time and  energy consuming process.  The attempt to co-opt traditional music into  acceptance of British imposed partition of Ireland is seen in the attempt to  link this year's Fleadh Cheoill in Derry with the "Derry as UK City of Culture"  events.  There is obviously an attempt to have Irish cultural organization  compromise their historic core identities as national organizations.   

 There is also concern about preserving the physical  landscape of Irish history and culture.   In the 1970s there were  large scale protests when Dublin Corporation announced plans to build Civic  Offices on Wood Quay, site of one of the most important Viking archeological  sites in Europe.  Despite the campaign to preserve this invaluable cultural  and historical site, Wood Quay was built over.  More recently , the  National Graves Association of Ireland has been leading a energetic campaign to  fully preserve 16 Moore Street in Dublin, the location where the leaders of the  1916 Rising surrendered.  Presently, there is also an ongoing controversy  about the location of a new motorway designed to reduce traffic that critics  contend is too close to Hill of Tara in county Meath.   

  As for the future, it is up to the Irish people to  decide whether they wish to preserve and maintain their  unique cultural  heritage.  There is a cost to preserving this heritage, but there is a  larger cost in losing it.  Certainly the economic and political pressures  to abandon aspects of this heritage are strong.  Active support of this  cultural heritage is needed in response.  Criticism of government   language policy, for example,  is not enough.  Individuals must take  it upon themselves to try to learn the language, to use it and to speak it if  they want it to survive.  Similarly, Gaelic games and Irish traditional  music must be supported if they are to survive and flourish.  Irish people  must be willing to pay the costs involved in preserving historical sites if they  are to be maintained.  Fortunately there are still those in Ireland and in  Irish communities throughout the world who are motivated to preserve this  cultural and historical legacy and are working energetically to do so.   More are needed, however, to take an interest and to lend a hand.   Otherwise we may all wake up and find that the rolling tide has swept this  unique heritage that is Irish culture,  away.  

Contributed by: Tom Abernethy

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