Thursday, March 14, 2013

Un-nationhood? Language & perceptions of privilege in Irish society

Today I discovered a little blog where somebody waves their arms persistently and wildly about the disgraceful state of this country towards native speakers, and how their rights are persistently denied.

Hang on, you say, isn't Irish (or Gaelige), our native language? Enshrined as such in the constitution, empowered by law, every state agency there is having to hire many happy minions of adoring speakers (including some great friends) to ensure that happens?
Indeed it is, but read on.
This chap, anyway, claims to have been arrested, because when he was asked a question by a member of the Gardaí Síochána, they wouldn't (or probably couldn't) understand him, and he refused to speak in plain English.
So it appears that he was made accompany them to the nearest station, where he had to wait for a suitably competent Irish speaker to arrive, and continue whatever business it was in said language. The gentleman in question is now crying "discrimination." In fact he's a whole blog dedicated to it.

Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa had nothing on this.

It was a horrible aspect of colonial rule here that official business, regardless of your spoken tongue, was to be done as Bearla (in English). As a result, those who couldn't speak English were fundamentally disadvantaged, particularly before the courts, where there is significant evidence to suggest that people were tried and found guilty without even knowing what they were charged with. This was - of course - an appalling practice. Those who couldn't speak English couldn't partake in so much of society that by the tail end of the 19th century, considerable swathes of the populace no longer had a grasp of the language, and spoke only English. To such an extent, that pre-revival, it was seen as a mark of peasantry and impoverishment to do so (something which kind of lingers this day, to be honest).

Post independence, every effort was made to reinstate the mother tongue. As we know, it failed horribly and had unintended consequences.  Native speakers were given grants, additional resources were put into native speaking regions to attempt to invigorate them (even artificially creating one, Rathcairn, in county Meath). Those who took examinations through the means of Irish were given bonus scores in order to incentivise education through Irish: one of a few very successful efforts. Funding was given to organisations promoting music, art etc, through the medium. Those in state jobs who had responsibilities involving Irish were rewarded for it. Hell, there were even jobs specifically for translations etc. Outside of education and arts, it didn't really succeed. Increasing urbanisation and the cultural dominance of Britain and the USA over Irish culture has largely denied traditional culture a full revival. In some ways, this has become a good thing.
For example, it is often, fairly, resented that native speakers are automatically given higher exam grades, because this conveys an advantage over similarly able students. Most particularly, it deliberately discriminates against those coming from outside Ireland or whose families are not Irish. I genuinely think this is unintentional: I don't think anybody sat there in the 1920s and specifically designed laws to prevent Germans or Italians from getting jobs in the civil service, etc, although there was a tacit intention to weed out Anglicism and force colonial English back to whence they came.

While rural areas still suffer crushing impoverishment as a result of isolation and the crawl of urbanisation, first language is no longer the primary determiner of disadvantage. Go to the very isolated part of the south west Donegal and listen to the kids talking: its not Irish that they speak. Their disadvantage is not due to language, but to geography, ignorance, clueless capitalist notions about investment, and sometimes, more than a little intransigence. The scourge of "ruralism as amenity" has probably done more harm than any other factor in recent decades (i.e. the horrible practice of living in an urban area while maintaining a "holiday home" in a rural region for leisure only - not the more beneficial practice of long range working, where people at least attempt to live in the rural area and work remotely or commute long distances). If anything, speaking Gaelige fluently is for many, a means to some small advantage.

The resentment against native speakers described in the blog is not atypical, but the result of years of relative discrimination against non speakers that resulted from well intentioned but flawed practices. My own father's education suffered badly because he could only get into an Irish-speaking school, but he didn't have sufficient Irish to learn properly so he failed his group cert and dropped out at 14 with no qualifications. Every other person I know who went to the same school did extremely well: indicating that the ability to speak fluently conveyed advantage on users. It also opened up whole areas of work previously unavailable: for example, if you are a mathematician or physicist and want to work in Met Eireann, having fluent Irish could be very useful indeed, for translating forecasts or data into Irish. It might sound ridiculous, but its true.

Some of you will be familiar with Hugo Hamilton's wonderful book (and subsequent play) "A Speckled People." Hamilton, the son of a Corkman and a German mother, describes in detail his father's fascist tendencies that led him to ban his children from speaking English or fraternising with English speakers, which horribly isolated them in south county Dublin. Dublin wasn't exactly crawling with German speakers and native speakers were thinner there in his fathers circles. Hamilton accurately examines the dichotomy between "official" Ireland and informal Ireland, where in practice, while Irish was a useful tool to advancement, English was essential for everyday life. He also examines the ugly fascist underbelly of his father's beliefs, and the tragic back stories buried behind his parents lives: that his grandfather was in the British naval service and his mother's sexual abuse in Germany at the hands of a high-ranking businessman.

But rightly, many people are angry at the effective result of some of policies. For example, you cannot work as a primary level teacher in this country, unless you can speak and teach Irish to a considerable level. This makes it very close to impossible for foreign teachers or those trained abroad to work at all in the primary sector. Think what this means: it means every single child in this country will be taught by somebody with a degree of fluency, who is almost certainly born and bred here. This, I suspect, is a very strong reason why despite atrocities of the extreme ends of the republican movement, the nationalist movement in its post-revival republican form has survived almost intact. Only in a very tiny handful of private schools will you see a different culture - or a small very large, progressive schools in urban Dublin (such the one I went to in Brackenstown - where you didn't see the Padraig Pearse posters or learn Amhrán na bhFiann - in fact I only learned it at the grand old age of 36 in a choir that was singing on the pitch for - ironically - a soccer match!)

To to some extent, the special place of the language and its speakers has both marginalised and advantaged it. In practice, there is a level of advantage open to speakers, should they wish to take advantage of it. In reality, most choose not to and just enjoy the language for its own self and as part of their heritage. Yet there is still a cultural hangover of the association of traditional culture with impoverishment, and a resultant fetishisation of misfortune along with it. Thus the blogger almost delights in his being (in his perception) maltreated by the Bearlachas, although the ludicrousness of the implicit colonial looking down on him is as nonsensical as it is (more plainly put) in Hamilton's biographical novel. Hamilton, in contrast, is plainly aware that the reason that his father is, for example, not lauded in the ESB for his Irishery, is not because his colleagues look down on him, but because either they don't actually speak the language or it is irrelevant to the work which they carry out (ESB spent nearly 50 years designing and building the national grid) and so of little value. The blogger, in contrast, expect his implicit privilige as a native speaker to be respected, even where it is of little use (or in the case of the Garda incident, probably unhelpful), and in the alleged arrest, he uses it to reverse the position of privilege felt by him as somebody with greater linguistic skills than the Garda in order to force the Garda to commit an injustice in order to ultimately, prove the "unworthiness" of the Garda to hold his post as a non native speaker: in other words, to reference the ludicrous suggestion that the language is "necessary" for all areas of public life in order to exclude and discriminate against the "other" - even though they are in fact the majority.

In doing so, the blogger does what legendary radical feminist Cathy Brennan and others do more aggressively with their campaigns against transsexual women: they turn their privilege as non gender disphoric women into a perceived "disadvantage" compared to the transwomens status as biologically "born males", even though it does not on any level advantage them on the gender continuum (and indeed is almost certainly, in their context, a disadvantage). This enables them to claim persecution from a perceived patriarchy which doesn't really exist, but in reality actually represents most disadvantaged folk than themselves.

Similarly, the truly disadvantaged of the lingual world in Ireland are those with poor educations, from working class backgrounds were educational attainment is not valued, and migrants who may already be struggled to cope as 2nd language speakers. What if the Garda in question was born and educated abroad? Would the situation still be one of somebody being "arrested for speaking Irish"? No, it would be a case of somebody of privilege enabling that privilege in order to disarm (politically) the Garda. The message is: that the non-Irish speaking Garda is "unworthy" of his/her position because he or she cannot speak the language. And that, is what that bloggers blog is truly about: highlighting the essential unworthiness and inferiority of the non Irish speaker in today's Ireland.

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