There is a Sinéad O’Connor song that had a strong impact on me as a young person. It speaks of the loss of language, culture, history, and the effects it can have on a nation. I revisited this song recently in response to some new information I learned about language revitalization and found new layers of truth in it. The song is called “Famine”:
Famine – full lyrics
The song begins:
Okay, I want to talk about Ireland
Specifically I want to talk about the “famine”
About the fact that there never really was one
There was no “famine”
See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes
All of the other food
Meat fish vegetables
Were shipped out of the country under armed guard
To England while the Irish people starved
And then in the middle of all this
They gave us money not to teach our children Irish
And so we lost our history
And this is what I think is still hurting we
The Irish people and language suffered serious losses due to the occupation of Ireland by the English. Starting in the late 18th century, economic pressures and the flourishing of English in Dublin began to erode the security of the Irish language. Emigration and urban jobs were seen as ways out of poverty, and this meant that English, not Irish, was the language of the future. The days of Irish-speaking poets and nobility were long gone. The upper classes in Ireland were now exclusively English-speaking.
Nevertheless in 1800, Irish was still the main language of 85% of the country’s inhabitants. Written accounts by British visitors to Ireland describe the difficulty that many encountered in trying to communicate in English beyond the Pale. This would, however, change drastically over the next century. In 1831 the British established the National School system with English as the sole language of instruction, violently contributing to the decline of the Irish language and the stigma attached to it.
It is often said that the Irish language was beaten out of the people, and this is to be taken quite literally. National School children were forced to wear a small wooden stick hung on a string around their necks in order to monitor their language use. Every time they were caught speaking Irish the schoolmaster would cut a notch in the stick, and at the end of the day they would be beaten or punished that many times.
See we’re like a child that’s been battered
Has to drive itself out of it’s head because it’s frightened
Still feels all the painful feelings
But they lose contact with the memory
Meanwhile, people were forcibly removed from their lands and food became scarce as much of the farmland was used for raising beef cattle for export to England. Other crops and livestock were also sent to England in vast quantities. Furthermore, locals were prohibited from fishing and gathering seaweed, leaving them with little else to eat but potatoes. In 1845, when the Phytophthora infestans blight wiped out much of Europe’s potato crop, the Irish began to lose their main source of food and were simply left to starve.
Widespread death and emigration reduced the country’s population by about 20% over the next 10 years, and those remaining were often coerced to give up their religion and language for scraps of food. The Irish identity became synonymous with poverty, backwardness, shame, and inferiority, and many realised that the quickest way to make themselves seem more “civilised”, i.e. less Irish, was to simply speak English. By 1860 only about 30% of the population spoke Irish, and by 1921 that number was reduced to less than 15%. Almost a hundred years into independence, the stigma attached to Irish is still very real, and the language has never recovered.
from “Rebuilding the Celtic Languages” by Diarmuid Ó Néill
from “Rebuilding the Celtic Languages” by Diarmuid Ó Néill
So let’s take a look shall we
The highest statistics of child abuse in the EEC
And we say we’re a Christian country
But we’ve lost contact with our history
See we used to worship God as a mother
We’re suffering from post traumatic stress disorder
Look at all our old men in the pubs
Look at all our young people on drugs
In O’Connor’s song, she suggests that Ireland still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. It’s chilling to conceive of a mental health diagnosis on a national level – that a people affected by a trauma collectively suffer the symptoms that come with the inability to process and deal with that trauma, and furthermore, that these symptoms are echoed for generations to come. Recent research has in fact shown evidence of the effects of trauma on DNA – effects that are inherited in the DNA of subsequent generations.
As far as Irish is concerned, I personally have often thought that there is something pathological about Ireland’s relationship to its national language. The shame felt by our ancestors for speaking the language has now been converted into the shame that we feel for not being able to speak it, or for speaking it inadequately. The language has become something that divides us, rather than unites us. Those who speak Irish are often discouraged from using it by the reactions of those who do not. Speaking Irish in public can even be met with hostility, as if one’s use of the language is a challenge to another’s Irish-ness.
A TV Series on TG4, Ireland’s Irish language television station, tackled the question of what exactly would happen if someone simply went about their daily life in Ireland speaking only in Irish outside the Gaeltacht, or designated Irish-speaking regions. In No Béarla, Manchán Magan took a road trip around the country speaking only in Irish and was met with a wide variety of reactions, ranging from curiosity to hostility, but almost never nonchalance. It’s as if speaking Irish is the least natural thing that Irish people could do with each other.
More recently, a column in the Irish Times written by Rosita Boland last May, sparked a heated national debate over the usefulness of Irish. Boland declared, “I do not like having my national identity pinned to a language I never use and cannot speak.” She laments the dry, lackluster way the language is taught in schools, and I agree that this is a tragedy. However she seems to equate her own lack of interest in the language to Irish being a completely useless language altogether. Her bitterness towards having had the language imposed on her in school is all too common.
In September of last year Cormac Ó Bruic, an Irish-speaker from the Kerry Gaeltacht, was forbidden from speaking Irish at his job in a Cork pub. The pub owner claimed that it was not about the Irish language itself but rather about practical communication, citing that he had an international staff of native speakers of several languages who all spoke English on the job. The difference that seems to elude Ó Bruic’s boss regarding the use of Irish in his pub is that his pub is in, well…Ireland.
Stories like this are by no means unusual, and Irish-speakers often have to take an almost apologetic approach to using the language. The country is clearly suffering some kind of linguistic identity crisis. Polls show that people feel favourably about the Irish language and believe it is an important part of Irish culture, but when it comes to actually engaging with it, all affection disappears and dysfunction reigns. Is this the PTSD kicking in?
It’s perhaps not entirely useful to draw such a literal connection between the state of the Irish language and actual symptoms of PTSD in a human – I wouldn’t want to erase the experiences that individuals have with immediate trauma – but a few points of comparison are worth noting. “Efforts to avoid thoughts and activities” that are reminders of trauma could certainly describe much of Ireland’s disinterest or reluctance towards the language. Cormac Ó Bruin’s boss could be said to have had a sort of “exaggerated startle response” to Irish being spoken by his employees. Irritability and anger are not unheard of reactions to the use of Irish either. A bartender once snarled “Who do you think you are?!” at me for ordering a pint in Irish…in a Gaeltacht. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of Irish people out there who support the language, but non-supporters do seem to harbour an inordinate amount of hostility towards it.
So how do we heal? Or do we, as so many suggest, just be done with the language and put it out of its misery? Revivalist linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann would argue that there is strong evidence in support of holding on to our heritage language, particularly for the sake of mental health. I recently took his online AdelaideX course entitled “Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages” in which he presents evidence gathered in Canadian and Australian aboriginal communities that links language revitalization with improved mental health on the community level. Communities that have retained their native languages or are engaged in the process of language revitalization are likely to have lower suicide rates and better overall mental health as compared with communities who have lost their languages. In essence, people thrive when they have a strong sense of identity and a strong sense of place in the world. The pride, sense of belonging, and well-being that can come with linguistic decolonization is not to be underestimated. This is what it means for a community to heal.
I think that O’Connor was really onto something with “Famine”, and I think that Ireland’s complicated relationship with her language can be healed. Irish needs to be a source of pride rather than shame. The language has to be normalized again. We have to stop associating Irish with the isolated, rural Gaeltacht, and realise that the language is relevant anywhere in Ireland. We also have to work through our collective shame around our language’s decline and rediscover its value in the world of today. Then perhaps we can create a more hospitable environment for those who want to make Irish an active part of their every day lives.
And if there ever is gonna be healing
There has to be remembering
And then grieving
So that there then can be forgiving
There has to be knowledge and understanding