Twelve years ago, my wife and I were passing thru the small town of Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon. It is actually on the county line with County Mayo and was “moved” from County Mayo in a re-arrangement of administrative lines at the end of the 19th century. Even in 2018, there is some resentment.
Anyway, it was our intention to visit a small heritage centre at Frenchpark, a village about five miles away. The heritage centre is dedicated to Douglas Hyde, academic and folklorist, a founder of the Gaelic League and the first President of Ireland. He died in 1945.
Hyde was brought up in Frenchpark. His father was the local Church of Ireland rector and the family was part of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy in the west of Ireland.
But Douglas Hyde was an odd fish. The servants spoke Gaelic. And young Douglas was fascinated by the words and the stories and threw himself right into the Gaelic revival in late Victorian times.
The story is told that Douglas went to the market in Ballaghaderreen and reprimanded a boy- trader who was shouting in English.
“Cant you speak Irish” asked Dougie.
“Shure isn’t it Irish I’m speaking” replied the boy-trader.
A variation of this anecdote is told by Gaelic speakers to demonstrate the parlous state of the Irish language at the end of the 19th century.
My take is that I am on the side of the youngster in Ballaghaderreen.
Which brings me to Ballaghaderreen in 2006. Driving in from County Mayo, there is a square….or more accurately a triangle in the town. The road-sign to Frenchpark was unclear. I was 90 per cent certain of the route (I had been before) but my wife insisted that I get out of the car and actually ask someone.
I asked a young man. But he wasn’t very sure. He was from Eastern Europe and his English wasn’t very good. …although better than my Polish, Czech and Hungarian. So I went into a local shop, bought two “99s” (ice cream) and the young woman behind the counter pointed the way to Frenchpark. She was Czech and her English was perfect.
Ballaghaderreen…huh. As we drove the five miles to Frenchpark and the grave of our first President, we laughed about how Douglas Hyde would be turning in that grave.
Was that young Czech-born woman speaking Irish in much the same way as the boy-trader, nearly a century and a half previously.
The revival of the Irish/Gaelic language has been a priority for all governments from Independence. It is regarded as the first National Language. It is our First National Hypocrisy. And our first National Failure.
A few words might explain it. It is easier explained in a bi-lingual way.
I am English. I speak English. I am Irish. I speak Irish.
So in the English language, there is no distinction between the nationality and the language. But say the same words in “Irish” and this is how it looks. Forgive any spelling errors as I don’t speak more than a few words and phrases and I am not going to do Google Translate.
Is Sasanach mé. Tá Béarla agam. Is Éireanach mé. Tá Gaeilige agam.
So in Irish we actually make a distinction between nationality and language.
For all the emotion associated with the Irish language, I don’t understand its totemic importance to Sinn Féin. Id love to see the Irish language flourish but I am not sure that it is as central to my identity as an Irish person that many nationalists and republicans claim.