Sunday, March 11, 2007

Diarmuit MacGiollaChríost's "The Irish Language in Ireland."
Linguist List review.
Happily, looking for information about this enormously expensive (even for Routledge, which means a helluva lot of moola for us non-tenure tracked, non-granted, non-largessed wandering scholars and goliards) academic book, I found that the on-line scholars at LinguistList had a copy sitting around looking for a reviewer. My credentials were offered, my expertise accepted, and here's my Nov. 2005 review. It's in the format asked for by LL. I have posted my review of MacMurchaidh's "Who Needs Irish?" on this blog today also.
AUTHOR: Mac Giolla Chríost, Diarmait
TITLE: The Irish Language in Ireland
SUBTITLE: From Goidel to globalisation
PUBLISHER: Routledge
SERIES: Routledge studies in linguistics
YEAR: 2005

{My name}, Humanities, {XXX University, City}

This volume overlaps three areas: sociological theory on ethnicity and identity formation within a globalized context; a historical synopsis of the Irish language; analyses of surveys and public policy addressing its use in both the Republic and the North of Ireland. Aimed at an academic rather than a general audience, this study would be appropriate for research-level university libraries. Its hefty price of £80 should not impede the wider impact upon which the author, a lecturer in the School of Welsh at Cardiff University, intends this book to have to foment practical policies that encourage the future survival and growth of Irish-speaking communities.

In about 250 pages, Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost contributes enough material to keep not so much scholars as workers in the area of linguistic promotion inspired for years. He manages to avoid polemic, ignores romanticization, and provides sophisticated models upon which informed initiatives to nourish Irish-language use can be constructed. Although the density of considerable amounts of data may overwhelm any casual reader seeking a concise introduction to the fortunes of the past and present conditions within which Irish has emerged and endured, for those already familiar with sociological and public policy analyses, this study condenses immense efforts to direct discourse about the state and fate of Irish into a previously neglected intersection between academic and community-based efforts. The author applies research too often languishing upon government and academic shelves into a theory-laden but careful examination for a public forum.

This appeal heightens the relevance of Mac Giolla Chríost’s thesis. But, his presumed audience may remain narrower than his message deserves. With such impacted concentration of so much research, the book remains curiously uneven. Its three stubbornly discrete levels, even partially synthesized, lack crossover appeal for the majority of an already specialized readership to whom this book–and I would emphasize its implicitly stated need to put its many theories vigorously to work within everyday Irish life–would be received and understood, let alone shifted into action that would strengthen the tenuous grip of the Irish language upon a rapidly globalizing and quickly shrinking native core for whom the language represents a necessary, daily commitment.

With its first sixty pages, the crushingly erudite foundation for this densely related investigation that attempts to stimulate tangible progress into furthering Irish-language community-based efforts nearly stifles in the cradle the book’s well-intentioned, engaged ambitions. Only one paragraph in this vast chapter addresses the Irish language within half-digested, half-quoted segments of sociological contexts. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “capital value” deserves the depth excavated here, but how this “capital” is invested within Irish begins to appear only in the next chapters, surveying linguistic history. Such a delay frustrates a reader anticipating when progressing through this dauntingly erudite terrain as to how Bourdieu’s theory applies to Irish.

In the historical chapters, Mac Giolla Chríost’s pace quickens. Perhaps too rapidly for any newcomer, yet the amount of material remarked remains impressive, given the evident editorial constraints upon how much coverage appears to have been allotted to a topic that in itself could have consumed easily twice the length of this study. For instance, the emergence of Hisperic Latin deserves more than a sentence, given that such accomplished fluidity between the two languages demonstrates how, as the author here can only hint, early medieval Irish with Latin flourished within permeable conditions akin to those encountered by present-day speakers. In his summation of the 1366 Statute of Kilkenny which has been regarded by some historians as more hyperbole than feasible, Mac Giolla Chríost reminds us that the English overlords would not have fulminated for the first time formally against the use of Irish and imposed harsh penalties upon its use unless their law kept its clout. Although Tony Crowley’s sourcebook on the “politics of language” (2000) is not cited, this and his companion study (2005) provide novices with easily accessible contexts for the impacts of anti-Irish language policy up to independence from Britain.

By the nineteenth century, the contraction of Irish--after centuries of its relegation by both Irish and English speakers to a traditional rather than modern attitude inculcated by clerical, political, and eventually educational authority--ensured that only “symbolic capital” remained. Its daily users, antiquarians and scholars who already regarded it as a dead language, and administrators who condemned it as preventing economic progress and practical literacy among the natives all hastened its neglect as an oral rather than written vernacular. This worsened the fragmentation of the language among the active remnant, now divided by geography as depopulation, the Famine, and anglicization combined against its territorial and demographic claims. Mac Giolla Chríost’s division of Irish into the “popular vernacular” opposed by the “bureaucratic mediation of the English map” (97) sums up the invasion of the indigenous Irish mentality and polity as the land and its people were renamed. Irrelevant to many native as well as nearly all English politicians within the nationalists emerging before the Famine, Irish next suffered a nearly fatal loss of many of its speakers from its remaining home bases in western and southwestern regions. The author comments upon the anglicizing medium of “American letters” sent home–nearly always in English despite the Irish spoken by many of the emigrant writers–but cites neither Kerby Miller’s use of them to immigration (1986) nor his co-edited collection of such letters (2003). Further analysis of such documents would strengthen Mac Giolla Chríost’s employment of this factor as accelerating the erosion of Irish among many speakers later in the nineteenth century.

English became the chosen vehicle of emancipation for native Irish, emigrants or not. Irish, increasingly denigrated as antonymous with “modernity,” relegated to a few rural redoubts by the twentieth century, could not then, phoenix-like, spread its reborn wings to stoke for long the revolutionary fervor that fired up many of the middle classes and urbanizing Irish into leading their war for independence. The idealism shared by Gaelic Revivalists and republican activists was illuminated by the “symbolic capital” invested in the Irish language, but the practical failure of the Free State post-1922 in sustaining the energy of the previous decades meant again that Irish dwindled. Between the partial freedom of Ireland and 1939, native speakers declined by a hundred thousand. The nation’s recognition of the linguistic heartlands as Gaeltachtaí neither protected the language nor inspired its replacement among the rest of an English-speaking island in which its official language was not its everyday language. Regrettably, essential recent work is not cited that analyzes the 1911 census basis for this collapse (FitzGerald 2003) and that maps (Walsh 2002) this well-intentioned attempt to define linguistic reservations from which, it was proposed, Irish could then reverse its retreat and regain its lost lands. The comparative isolation and economic poverty of these Gaeltachtaí, however, doomed any but a posthumous reward for attenuated Irish. Compulsory Irish in the schools, its often unprepared teachers, and its requirement as entry into civil service, the police, or university earned “school” Irish not the affection but the enmity of millions. (Not cited by Mac Giolla Chríost, see Kelly 2002; cf. Hamilton 2003, Ó Treasaigh 2002) This mentality eliminated any pride or comprehension among many Irish that their “official language” was other than symbolic capital invested in and pocketed largely for only ceremonial display, most often indulged in by the most greedy and the grasping.

Such convolutions, rhetorically and practically, meant that for twentieth-century Ireland, the Free State’s thwarted ambition to revive the language became the Republic’s lip service, the “cupla focal” ritually commencing a political speech or an Aer Lingus announcement for flight departure. Mac Giolla Chríost reminds readers that while prominent revivalists as Douglas Hyde blamed earlier loss of Irish upon imperial compulsion, for most of this last century, an arguably independent Irish polity had only itself to blame. While this judgement sounds overly harsh considering overwhelming handicaps with which a nascent State had to contend under a British-dominated economic hegemony and postwar internecine conflict, the Free State gave “an aspirational rather than actual” constitutional status to the Irish language. (121) Any ideological well-spring imagined by revolutionaries and revivalists purified by Irish neither invigorated English-speaking millions nor sustained thousands who remained at its mytholgized cisterns. By the 1940s, maintenance of rural Gaeltachtaí became unofficially status quo for language policy. No wider recovery of the ancestral language would occur throughout the rest of the island.

The second half of the twentieth century found the Republic presiding over what appeared to be the deathbed of Irish. That it survived the past century as a living community language, as Mac Giolla Chríost admits, is miraculous. The European Union refused to grant official status to Irish, the only “official language” of a member state so denied. (This was overturned only in 2005.) Standardization of its spelling--overcoming what had been its territorial fragmentation into dialects with cumbersome orthography dissonant with its voiced varieties as taught in schools-- and dictionaries codifying Irish appeared around mid-century, solidifying scholarly advances. Even as the language stagnated in its “official” capacity, research expanded into its relevance. Government boards then floundered–in bringing industrialization into the Conamara Gaeltacht, for example, native workers often returned from outside the “reservation” with non-Irish speaking spouses and children; managers were likewise recruited many times only among non-Irish speakers or even non-Irish, exacerbating the symptoms that the Gaeltacht sought to remedy.

Recent reforms in the Republic and across the border show renewed commitment to addressing job, schooling, and community-based problems. While the author states that the role of Raidio na Gaeltachta (RnG) has not yet been “rigorously examined” (131), Watson (2003) applies Jürgen Habermas’ (1992) nation-praxis to RnG contexts. The TnG television channel, newspapers, and the Internet do not gain deep coverage here, but these media demand further analysis within their Irish-language presentation and reception. 1960s activism from the West of Ireland’s Cearta Sibhialta and Language Rights Movements (see Fennell 1985, 1993; Quinn 2001), noted in passing here, struggled decades to bring broadcasting to fruition after long government neglect, but such triumphs witness to the combination of symbolic with financial capital that Bourdieu situates and for which not only grassroots agitators but lecturers (if in rarified prose) such as Mac Giolla Chríost advocate. If the passivity too long associated with Irish is to be overcome, and its “symbolic capital” exchanged and traded as a global commodity, Mac Giolla Chríost urges that the shopworn display demands investment and remodeling for a multiethnic, ideologically complex, non-sectarian and trans-political identity. The chapter on its status in the North further delineates the current state of Irish and how it may be expanded in a post-Agreement, peacetime society. Any ideal Irish-speaking Ireland has expired but idealism inspires a minority increasingly urbanized, determined by consumer choice rather than by legislative fiat to broaden its market.

In the 2002 census, twice the number speak Irish in its cities as in its Gaeltachtaí. Surveys filling many of the book’s remaining pages quantify the current health of the language as a daily medium. Space prevents incorporation of even a broad summary, but Northern Irish fieldwork done by Mac Giolla Chríost deserves attention. He demonstrates rejuvenation; 48% of those questioned under twenty-four years of age affirmed some use of Irish. Cohorts within the best-educated, the professional classes, females employed, and males unemployed ranked highest. He counters charges of sectarian or political bias by comparing uneven patterns across predominantly Catholic and Nationalist areas. Linguistic resurgence is not confined to stereotypical demographics. As post-Agreement cultural efforts continue, Mac Giolla Chríost locates also a decline from earlier 1980s surveys in political or sectarian motivations for studying, or neglecting, the Irish language among largely urbanized Northern Irish populations. As in the rest of Ireland, the role of all-Irish schools and the cultural support given speakers foster a small but growing, voluntary cadre of those investing in their chosen reclamation of Irish.

The closing chapter spirals back to widen sociological issues with which the study opened. Mac Giolla Chríost calls for a redefined ethnic and civic discourse that does not separate into citizen and consumer an Irish-language speaker. That is, he criticizes the Republic for treating users as if relegated to the former identity, concerned with “rights, equality, and rigidity,” or the latter, favoring “choice, empowerment, and flexibility.” (197) Legal challenges to moribund government delivery of services to its Irish-speaking constituencies have, in 2003, resulted in special provisions. Yet, the Republic’s policies remain often meshed in only a binary response, ignoring individual Irish speakers while nodding to those geographically favored (and as speakers, then state-subsidized–a topic needing more investigation than given) by Gaeltacht residency. Breaking this dichotomy, Mac Giolla Chríost contends, becomes an essential priority.

His conclusions recapitulate three concerns. First, given diffusion among Gaeltachtai, he rallies for community-based “moral ownership, agenda-setting and action.”(198) Next, he demands recognition of the multi-ethnic, multiple identities chosen by contemporary Irish people away from the petrified “passive totem” of Irishness towards a dynamically fluent, evolving identity. (see Mac Murchaidh 2004; Nic Eoin 2005) Finally, he strives to bring the urban environment into language and policy engagement. His final words on this vexed “language question” and intricately compiled report remind readers of the shift away from a fatalistic pronouncement for Irish. In its “modern past,” it was devastated by “a fateful encounter with empire.” (236) Now, an honest confrontation forces us to view its post-modern future. Unlike so many venerably “dead” languages, its survival still depends upon our own power to kill off Irish or sustain its long life.

Given the diligence with which Mac Giolla Chríost has carried out his investigation, the neglect of more accessible, recently published works such as those I have mentioned in favor of often more obscure sources puzzled me. The uneven integration of the opening section and closing section both dependent upon theory weigh down these chapters, and leave the central portions stranded. The historical chapters condense millennia into a few relatively straightforward pages. The survey material, however, appears to have been imported from another project, and again is not sufficiently blended into the previous historical coverage. It is left to the patient reader to balance the sociological theory, the rise and fall of the Irish language, its current prospects in both the Republic and the North, and ethnic, political, and policy considerations. The application that Mac Giolla Chríost intends for this considerably diverse material and for which this volume documents as urgent remains for an audience capable of comprehending a vast amount of data, and to bring what is proposed through this English-language medium into the realm of Irish. The expense of this book may imply that it will find only a small readership to subsidize the labor of its author. The relevance of its message should remind a larger readership of the necessity to intervene and direct the survival of the Irish language towards the broader, global as well as territorially contiguous market that has been the traditional consumers of Irish. Certainly, as the Linguist List itself shows, the links between the past strongholds and the present dispersion of Irish point also to its spread among the electronic as well as its internal and external diasporas.

Crowley, Tony (2000) The Politics of Language in Ireland 1366-1922: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge.

Crowley, Tony (2005) Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-2004. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP.

Fennell, Desmond (1985) Beyond Nationalism. Dublin: Ward River.

Fennell, Desmond (1993) Heresy: The Battle of Ideas in Modern Ireland. Belfast: Blackstaff.

FitzGerald, Garret (2003) Irish-Speaking in the pre-Famine period: a study based on the 1911 census data for people born before 1851 and still alive in 1911. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. 103-C, 191-283.

Habermas, Jürgen (1992) Citizenship and national identity: some reflections on the future of Europe. Praxis International 12.1, 1-19.

Hamilton, Hugo (2003) The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood. New York: Fourth Estate-HarperCollins.

Kelly, Adrian (2002) Compulsory Irish: The language and the education system 1870s-1970s. Dublin: Irish Academic.

Mac Murchaidh, Ciarán, ed. “Who Needs Irish?” Reflections on the Importance of the Irish Language Today. Dublin: Veritas.

Miller, Kerby (1988) Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Diaspora to North America. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP.

Miller, Kerby, et al., eds. (2003) Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America 1675-1815. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP.

Nic Eoin, Máirín (2005) 'Trén bhFearann Breac': An Díláithriú Cultúir agus Nualitríocht na Gaeilge. Dublin: Cois Life.

Ó Treasaigh, Lorcán (2002) Céard é English? Dublin: Cois Life.

Quinn, Toner, ed (2001) Desmond Fennell: his life and work. Dublin: Veritas.

Walsh, John (2002) Díchoimisiúnú Teanga: Coimisiún na Gaeltachta 1926. Dublin: Cois Life.

Watson, Iarfhlaith (2003) Broadcasting in Irish. Minority language, radio, television and identity. Dublin: Four Courts.

{My name}, a lifelong learner of Irish, teaches in the Humanities course sequence at {name of employer}. His research interests include the representation of the Irish language within English-language literature and culture, macaronic and multilingual uses of Irish within English, and rhetorical applications of Irish republicanism. Since its founding, he has served as contributing editor to the on-line Belfast-based journal The Blanket.

[ P.S. My image for the blog courtesy of Dr Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin, an artist and critic living in Dublin with whom I have had the welcome if brief opportunity twice to chat at IASIL. This is from his series of 1916-themed paintings, among many more on his site Even if I had never met him, I'd heartily concur that he's a talented painter. As well as a fine analyst of Irish language & politics in his 2006 book, which I will review soon, from Peter Lang AG the Swiss publisher: Language from Below: The Irish Language, Ideology and Power in 20th-Century Ireland. ISBN 3-03910-171-4. This painting above is a dipytch juxtaposing the revolution of James Connolly and his fellow signers of the Proclamation of the Republic for Saoirse (Freedom) in the 1916 struggle with that of ár nDúshlán (Our Challenge) for today's multicultural Ireland, among whose hundreds of thousands-- ten percent of Ireland now foreign-born-- and their new Irish sons and daughters I look forward to many more speakers of not only Béarla but pride in their adapted cultural legacy and its perpetuation, an dhúchas.

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