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In these last days of empire, Britain is slowly withdrawing into some isolated hikikomori state, distrusting old European relationships, trying to build a future by longing for a past that never was. This former empire, fretfully and not always functionally, has had to reconsider what it means now to be British.

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The debate over Brexit, so steeped in desire for sovereignty and nostalgia for the days of the empire, often overlooks something crucial: Britain is not just a land that is forever England. There are actually other countries in the United Kingdom. Scotland and Northern Ireland, two Gaelic countries, each with their own rich cultures and native languages, voted to stay with their European friends and neighbors. What of their rights and sovereignty?

Breaking up is hard to do

As strong as the cultural ties are between the countries that make up Great Britain, this kind of split has happened before. But Brexiteers don’t always see the strong parallels between Great Britain wanting to leave the European Union, and that one time, still in living memory, when the Republic of Ireland wanted to leave the United Kingdom.

Many conservative politicians have displayed a mindboggling ignorance about parts of their own nation that are not English, dismissing them as trivial or unimportant, only to realize too late that, for one, the knotty Irish border problem is probably not one that should unravel on its own. One Tory MP simply assumed that all English people would be automatically entitled to Irish passports which would presumably allow them all the benefits of the EU… and still have their Brexit. Eager Eurosceptic politicians may not have seriously considered the fracturing of the United Kingdom as a result of Brexit, but there’s a growing momentum for Scottish independence, a united Ireland, and even talk of an independent Wales. These would not be adrift and anchorless countries, going it alone, but nations with European futures.

The Easter Rising

These days, leaving means an exchange of petulant words and white papers. But back at the turn of the twentieth century, during the Easter Rising of 1916, disagreement with these kinds of Anglo-Saxon attitudes of superior entitlement meant over 3000 people were arrested, fifteen Irish revolutionary leaders were executed… and at least one linguist was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Eoin MacNeill
Eoin MacNeill

Yes, one of the most influential thinkers and leaders of the Irish revolution was a linguistic scholar turned political revolutionary, Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill was a co-founder of the Conradh na Gaeilge, the Gaelic League, which aimed to preserve Irish language and culture. He became a key figure of the Gaelic revival. No one could have guessed that the grassroots revival of an almost dead language would be so dangerous, so threatening, to those who were in favor of the union with Britain. Brigittine M. French’s essay on the curious linguistic history of Irish independence shows how, while Britain has often had mixed feelings about its place in Europe, the conception of Ireland as linguistically and culturally European, rather than British, was one of the central motivations for independence.  French argues that Eoin MacNeill’s scientifically-approached linguistic research on the Irish language, as well as his linguistic ideology that language and nationhood were intertwined (and this could be inclusive rather than negatively exclusive), would play a huge role in the quest for Irish sovereignty for all those who thought of themselves as Irish.

MacNeill’s Gaelic League cofounder was the more well-known and charismatic Douglas Hyde. Hyde would eventually become the first president of the Republic, while MacNeill (after being released from prison and then later re-arrested, with all his scholarly research confiscated) would become the first minister of Education. The highly influential Gaelic League was at first intensely dedicated to “the preservation of Irish as the National Language of Ireland, the extension of its use as a spoken language, the study and publication of existing Irish literature, and the cultivation of a modern literature in Irish.”

What is the Irish Language?

Not everyone knows that Ireland has its own language. It’s actually one of Europe’s first, pre-Christian literary languages, thousands of years older than English. Yet it’s now spoken regularly by only about 2% of the Irish population. It’s called “Gaeilge” in Irish, and “Irish” in English by the Irish, and often (improperly) “Gaelic” by non-Irish others, or “Irish Gaelic” to distinguish it from its mostly mutually intelligible dialectal sibling, “Scottish Gaelic” (also known, confusingly, as “Gaelic”). And of course there’s (Irish) English, which is the more prominently spoken of Ireland’s two official languages, as Irish speaker Manchán Magan found in his documentary series No Béarla (No English), in which he attempts to travel around his own country using just Irish, only to be continually asked to “speak English.” In linguistically-fraught Northern Ireland, unionist politicians regularly disrespect and are stridently opposed to government support of any official status for the language, undercutting its links to an Irish identity, even going so far as to furiously scratch Irish words off manhole covers.

What manner of dire things happened to make an ancient language once spoken by the Irish majority decline in popularity and cause so much hate? Classical Irish, an early modern literary standard of the language used by the Irish majority, began to fade out by the seventeenth century, as its speakers were “annihilated or dispersed” through a concerted, long-running campaign of ethnic cleansing, in which a third of the population was killed through execution or starvation or banished into slavery in the Carribbean. The destruction of the language was often part of official British policy, such as the law that the Irish must take on English surnames or lose their property. In 1585, British statesman Sir Henry Sidney told the king he thought the best solution for controlling these unruly people who refused to accept they were British was “all brehons [judges], carraghes, bards, rhymers, friars, monks, Jesuits, pardoners, nuns and such like, to be executed by martial law… Irish habits for men and women to be abolished, and the English tongue to be extended.” Army commander Sir Charles Coote simplified this in 1641 by ordering his men to just kill all Irish adults and children “more than a span long.”

When yet another attempt at independence in the eighteenth century, supported by France, was crushed, Ireland fully merged with Great Britain. The language of the colonists, English, took over as a majority language. The only spoken Irish that remained were the dialects of the rural poor. The quality of life for these speakers declined so markedly in the nineteenth century, with the Great Famine, that Irish became stigmatized as the language of outcasts and the dispossessed, where the majority opinion, even for some Irish leaders, was that “even in Ireland the respectable people do not speak it, only the wilder sort.”

With that kind of history, it’s remarkable that the Irish are still on speaking terms with the English language, much less friends with their once oppressive neighbor.

Language and National Identity

We’re often told that in terms of Ireland it’s differences in factors like class and religion that group people apart politically, such as Catholics (pro-independence) vs. Protestants (pro-union). In truth there are people of diverse beliefs on either side. It’s interesting to note that independent Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, was an upper middle class Protestant, voted in by Catholics, and worked together with Eoin MacNeill, a middle class Catholic, in both revolution and language revival.

Language seems like such an ordinary, insignificant part of our lives. We use it to pass the salt, remember the milk, and make small talk with our neighbors. But language, even a homely community language, can be a powerful symbol and expression of shared national identity, what it means to be the same, from the same place. Both Hyde and MacNeill were well aware that language was central to a debate on nationalism, uniting a people, diverse in ethnicities, religion, dialects or beliefs, into a community and a country. Hyde declared “in Anglicising ourselves wholesale we have thrown away with a light heart the best claim we have upon the world’s recognition of us as a separate nationality. […] What do the Spectator and Saturday Review harp on? That we ought to be content as an integral part of the United Kingdom because we have lost the robes of nationality, our language and customs.”

Many countries and cultures celebrate their language as an expression of their unique identity. This designation can start to seem negative when the expression of other ways of speaking is tied to systemic punishment, shame, or hate speech. The United States for one doesn’t actually have an official language, but that doesn’t stop some Americans from raging at Spanish speakers to “speak English, this is America”, even to the point of violence. Yet the Spanish language has an older history in America, having been introduced to the lands that would eventually become the United States by way of Christopher Columbus. The first Spanish settlement at St Augustine, Florida was founded in 1565, just as Shakespeare was probably about to utter his first baby words and certainly much earlier than the first English settlement in Jamestown in 1607. A country can support more than one language without diluting what it means to be from that country. Certainly a lack of one language shouldn’t invalidate a people’s national identity.

The relationship of language to nationalist movements can indeed be problematic, but, drawing on a long history of linguistic persecution, Eoin MacNeill did not believe in championing just one way of speaking while forbidding others. The diversity of the Irish people could be united as the same through the joint ownership of their slowly dying ancient language. MacNeill believed in taking in all of its living dialects, instead of choosing just one and imposing that as a standard, while refusing all others. That evolved language would be tied to a modern Irish identity and culture, which was different from an expression of that culture in the more predominantly spoken English language.

“If Irish is to become once more the language of a nation, it must shape itself to express all the thoughts of a modern nation’s life… The view [of Irish as an inferior language to English] more than anything else, led to the weakening in Ireland of that instinct, universal among nations, of recognizing in the national language the most essential element of national life.”

Remarkably, as MacNeill showed, even something as simple and as strange as spelling and phonetics can help define a national identity and culture.

The Curious Irish Spelling System

As English speakers, we look at spelling and its phonetics from an Anglo perspective, in which one letter represents one sound and that a perfectly phonetic, one-to-one system is the ideal. We never think to think in any other way. English spelling is of course far from perfect, with many irregular, archaic forms still in use, and more than one letter used for one sound, such as “th.” In the gilded age, there was a perfect mania, a “cult of efficiency,” for spelling to be reformed and simplified, bankrolled by Andrew Carnegie. A prominent engineer, Frank B. Gilbreth, believed spelling just needed fixing to match the ideal and confidently thought that “it should not be difficult to convince anyone that standardizing spelling is primarily a problem in finding the One Best Way, which is the special work of the engineer.” This assumes there’s only one way to use the Roman alphabet, which MacNeill decried.

“Owing to the fact that most of us learn to spell in English first, many imagine that spelling according to the English system, or want of a system, has a kind of divine right or prior claim to the representation of sounds. […] We daily hear that such and such a thing is written “phonetically,” meaning that it is spelled in the English way.”

Carnegie and Gilbreth would have been horrified or amazed, as many people are, if they’d seen Irish words written down. Irish used to use its own writing system, Ogham, before it moved to the Latin alphabet and had to do the best with what that imperfect system could give. Full of strings of vowels and consonants clumped bewilderingly together, such as in bhfaighidh” “will get” (which is pronounced almost as a monosyllable), Irish spelling looks so weird and unwieldy from an English spelling perspective, that Irish names like Saoirse, Siobhan, and Niamh are often mispronounced by non-Irish speakers who want to sound out every letter the English way.

In fact the Irish spelling system, simplified in the 1940s to remove many archaic spellings, though complex, is fairly regular, phonetic and logical, once you know the very un-English code, compared to some of the more illogically phonetic archaic forms we might encounter in English. Irish also maintains a relationship to the phonology, morphology, syntax, and history of the language in a useful way that is otherwise erased in English spelling.

Irish’s spelling system elides the concept of an alphabet as indicated one sound for one symbol. Left to form Irish words with a borrowed, reduced Latin alphabet that didn’t have enough letters (especially when it came to things like typesetting and typewriters, there was not much choice), Irish uses sequences of silent letters that indicate more precisely how a word is to be pronounced and more clearly shows the relationship of sounds to each other. In English for example, we might be amazed once we realise that “b” and “v” and even “w” are phonetically related since we use different symbols for them, but in Irish, with “b”, “bh” [v] and “bh” [w] (depending on the vowel that follows) the relationship is clear. It’s a pretty clever system.

Ireland’s Place in European Culture

But it can be harder to achieve Irish literacy if you’re bogged down with English phonetic assumptions. By encouraging people to appreciate the Irish language in a more Irish-centric way, even down to the sound and the letter, MacNeill was advocating for more independence and separation from a thinking that gave English modes of writing a higher default status.

MacNeill’s research on the Irish language as its own independent entity unrelated to English customs was influential partially thanks to help and support from a growing pan-European scientific interest in Celtic languages and Romanticism, particularly Irish culture. German linguistic scholars especially were arguing for an inclusion of the Celtic family of languages into Indo-European, which had been disregarded before. It was this kind of scientific and linguistic enquiry that was a foundation for the much maligned Irish identity and language to really claim its place and status as a historically significant and older European culture… and helped fuel the growing desire for independence by its people.

A far cry from a traditional British suspicion of the European continent, Irish revolutionary leaders, through linguistic scholarship of their very own language, were embracing an independent Irish way of thinking, their connections to a rich European past and looking forward to a European future.


Editors’ Note: An earlier draft of this piece misspelled “Gaeilge” as “Gaelige;” the error has been corrected.


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Language in Society, Vol. 38, No. 5 (Nov., 2009), pp. 607-625
Cambridge University Press
The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Vol. 9, No. 3 (July 2010), pp. 365-394
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age & Progressive Era
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol. 89C (1989), pp. 127-165
Royal Irish Academy
Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 30 (2010), pp. 207-235
Department of Celtic Languages & Literatures, Harvard University
The Crane Bag, Vol. 5, No. 2, Irish Language and Culture: An tEagrán Gaelac (1981), pp. 76-82
Richard Kearney
The Crane Bag, Vol. 5, No. 2, Irish Language and Culture: An tEagrán Gaelac (1981), pp. 71-75
Richard Kearney