I’ve been reading a biography of Alice Milligan, an amazing woman from the wonderful town of Omagh. She came from a fiercely anti-Home Rule Methodist family, yet she spent her long life (she died in the 1950s) promoting Irish republicanism. An integral part of that work, she believed, was the promotion of Irish culture in all its forms, particularly the language.
So when I was chatting to a woman the other day about learning Irish, I asked her why was she doing it. “Because I’m Irish” I was told. So I suggested there must be more to it than that, given that there are about six million Irish people and not all of them were learning Irish like her. Big mistake. I immediately got my lug-hole filled with sharpish reproof for daring to think I could know her motivation for learning Irish better than she did, things had come to a pretty pass when someone like me could claim he knew more about her motivation than she did, etc, etc, etc. Wham, bam, shut your mouth, man.
On the same day I was talking to a man who’s well up on the development of the Irish language in the north. He explained to me how there’s been a phenomenal growth in the language over the past fifteen years or so – from nowhere to fifty Irish-medium schools across the north. So, I asked, could he explain why it was almost exclusively nationalists who were behind this revival, given that - I was going to say given that it was northern Protestants who saved the language in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – hence the McAdam part of the MacAdam-Ó Fiach Cultúrlann building in Belfast, for example. I was going to ask that but I couldn't, because my companion had wheeled away calling over his shoulder that he wasn’t going to get into that, if I wanted to talk about Irish development, fine, but not that.
Two little stories that show the sensitivity of some Irish speakers about linking Irish culture with our social/political situation. Alice Milligan had very definite views on that. Some, she said, wanted to make the language a glorious jewelled brooch they placed under glass in a museum, for admiration. Others, like her, wanted to wear it on their breast and bring it shining into the world of events and political effort.
So is it the Alice Milligans that some commentators are thinking of, when they claim republicanism has “hi-jacked the language”? Maybe. But if you look at Irish history, you’ll see how Irish culture, especially the language, during Milligan's time and before and after, weaves in and out of political commitment. Maybe some devotees of the Irish language are afraid the Protestant/unionist horses will take fright from the language, if it’s seen as standing too close to politics. And so they pretend no such link exists and get shirty with anyone who even hints otherwise?