Language, Ethnicity, and the State: Minority Languages in the eu ch5: Irish Language, Irish Identity

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Language, Ethnicity, and the State: Minority Languages in the EU

  • Ch5: Irish Language, Irish Identity

  • By Camille C. O’Reilly


  • Irish was sole language until 1169 Anglo-Norman invasion

  • Irish was dominant language until 1601 defeat Battle of Kinsale -- after that English was enforced and Irish went into decline, Irish speakers economically & socially marginalized

  • Late 18th-19th c Celtic revival focused mainly on history -- did not promote language use

  • 1845-49 famine and emigration disproportionately affected Irish speakers

  • Irish language justified identification of Irish nation, but this relationship developed differently north vs. south

The Republic of Ireland (South)

  • Partition 1922

  • Post-partition South: Irish is “national” language, English is an official language

  • 1920s-30s language strategy for the impoverished 16% of Ireland where Irish was still spoken: 1) economic development, 2) revival strategy for other 84%, 3) use Irish in public service, 4) modernize and standardize Irish

The Republic of Ireland, cont’d.

  • 1922-1948 -- pursuit of 4 points (above) to support nationalist ideology

  • 1948-1970 -- stagnation and decline in public support for state policy

  • 1970-present -- benign neglect, language maintenance only, not revival

The Republic of Ireland, cont’d.

  • Public opinion

    • Strong association between language and identity, but this does not correlate with use
    • Even most positive language users are pessimistic about its future
    • Antipathy toward language/nationalism due to violence in North
  • However, Irish-medium schools are growing

Northern Ireland: revival & opposition

  • N Ireland is part of UK, a primarily Protestant state with an Irish Catholic minority (1/3) population

  • Learning/speaking Irish has political implications for Irish nationalism in opposition to British identity

Northern Ireland: revival & opposition, cont’d.

  • 1922-1972 -- Anti-Irish state, where Irish is a foreign language (treated like German, French in schools, and its teaching has been gradually restricted more and more), banned from BBC

  • 1970s-present -- number of Irish-medium schools has been growing, language revival activity in Belfast: newspaper, theater, café, newspaper, development of employment opportunities for Irish speakers

Northern Ireland: revival & opposition, cont’d.

  • Irish people have very different political agendas, but agree on the importance of the Irish language

  • Irish language provides a non-violent venue for asserting Irish identity, which is becoming more accepted in N. Ireland

Irish language, Irish identity

  • Notions of Irish identity and its link to language have changed over time and are different in North and South

  • Both North and South have a variety of discourses (ideological directions)

    • North: decolonizing vs. cultural discourse vs. rights discourse
    • South: national language discourse, cultural discourse, minority language discourse, dead language discourse

Irish language, Irish identity, cont’d.

  • Northern discourses:

    • decolonizing -- focuses on political (and cultural) independence, Sinn Fein, aggressive nationalism
    • cultural -- the language has inherent value for its beauty and uniqueness, interest in history, songs, literature
    • rights discourse -- language is part of human rights, Irish language is “multipoliticized”

Irish language, Irish identity, cont’d.

  • Southern discourses:

    • national language -- emphasis on pride for one’s own language, overcoming insecurity about Irish identity
    • cultural discourse (similar to North)
    • minority language (similar to rights) -- Irish language seeks parity of esteem with other regional languages of Europe, gov’t has responsibility to support minority language
    • dead language -- Irish cannot be fully revived, is not as useful in the EU, and represents extreme nationalism

Irish language, Irish identity, cont’d.

  • North -- language is part of a political identity that sets Irish apart from British in the face of British economic and cultural hegemony

  • South -- Irish suffer from an inferiority complex which they would like to overcome

Irish identity, Irish language & EU

  • Republic of Ireland -- gov’t officials would rather pass responsibility on to EU, but this is unlikely to provide significant change, and public fears EU will contribute to loss of Irish -- desire to revive Irish so that it can be one of the languages of the EU, part of that pluralism > Europeanism

  • Northern Ireland -- EU membership has helped Irish, despite British reluctance to sign Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (signed 2000), increased association of language with Irish identity > nationalism

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