“Mo Ghile Mear”, lyrics composed later in the the 18th Century lamenting the failing of an earlier Rising, a traditional Irish air at least generations old, combined in the 1970s, sung today in great style.
I have not researched the origins of this myself but the theme is well-known, so from relying on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: “Mo Ghile Mear” (translated “My Gallant Darling”, “My Spirited Lad” and variants) is an Irish song. The modern form of the song was composed in the early 1970s by Dónal Ó Liatháin (1934–2008), using a traditional air collected in Cúil Aodha, County Cork, and lyrics selected from Irish-language poems by Seán “Clárach” Mac Domhnaill (1691–1754).
The lyrics are partially based on Bímse Buan ar Buairt Gach Ló (“My Heart is Sore with Sorrow Deep” (but “Gach Ló” means “every day” and there is no mention of “My Heart” in the title – D. Breatnach), c. 1746), a lament of the failure of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The original poem is in the voice of the personification of Ireland, Éire, lamenting the exile of Bonnie Prince Charlie.Mo ghile mear is a term applied to the Pretender in numerous Jacobite songs of the period. O’Daly (1866) reports that many of the Irish Jacobite songs were set to the tune The White Cockade. This is in origin a love song of the 17th century, the “White Cockade” (cnotadh bán) being an ornament of ribbons worn by young women, but the term was re-interpreted to mean a military cockade in the Jacobite context.
Another part of the lyrics is based in an earlier Jacobite poem by Mac Domhnaill. This was published in Edward Walsh‘s Irish Popular Songs (Dublin, 1847) under the title of “Air Bharr na gCnoc ‘san Ime gCéin — Over the Hills and Far Away”. Walsh notes that this poem was “said to be the first Jacobite effort” by Mac Domhnaill, written during the Jacobite rising of 1715, so that here the exiled hero is the “Old Pretender”, James Francis Edward Stuart.
The composition of the modern song is associated with composer Seán Ó Riada, who established an Irish-language choir inCúil Aodha, County Cork, in the 1960s. The tune to which it is now set was collected by Ó Riada from an elderly resident of Cúil Aodha called Domhnall Ó Buachalla. Ó Riada died prematurely in 1971, and the song was composed about a year after his death, in c. 1972, with Ó Riada himself now becoming the departed hero lamented in the text. The point of departure for the song was the tape recording of Domhnall Ó Buachalla singing the tune. Ó Riada’s son Peadar suggested to Dónal Ó Liatháin that he should make a song from this melody.
Ó Liatháin decided to select verses from Mac Domhnaill’s poem and set them to the tune. He chose those that were the most “universal”, so that the modern song is no longer an explicit reference to the Jacobite rising but in its origin a lament for the death of Seán Ó Riada.
THIS RENDITION is to my mind and ear an excellent one in traditional-type arrangement and voices (not to mention looks of certain of the singers) and all involved are to be commended. I have not always liked the group’s rendition but this is just wonderful.
In history, we fought in Ireland for two foreign royals at two different times and on each occasion they left us in the lurch.
Language is a treasure chest, full of jewels: history, philosophy, humour, politics, sex, literature, natural history ….. It is a chest full of wonders but it has some horrors in it too. I want now just to run my fingers through a few of those jewels, letsome of those wonders trickle through my fingers and before your eyes.
Language is composed of symbols – spoken words, then squiggles to represent those words on stone, wood, paper and electronic screens. In visual interaction, those symbols are accompanied by other symbols such as facial expression, hand gestures, bodily posture, tone, pitch, volume, emphasis …. yes, and chemical emissions. Different languages — sophisticated whole systems of symbols – have been developed for communication of information and recording but not only for those: for expression of emotion too. And each carries the history, philosophy etc of the particular culture that gave rise to that language and often many other cultures too. In turn, language comes to leave its imprint on the speakers of the language, to mold their very minds to some extent, shaping their culture. So when a language dies, much more dies than just a system of recording and communication.
We can see residues of Irish and the Gaelic culture in the way Irish people speak English, even those who have not been Irish-speaking in generations. We go to see a filum, sweep with a floor brush instead of “a broom”, reply to a question with a positive or negative of the same verb (will you go? I will/ I will not). Or we might have a thirst on us and go to a pub if the humour was on us. That pronunciation of an imaginary vowel between the ‘L’ and the ‘M’ is a residue of the Irish language and having physical and emotional feelings being on us, instead of having them, as in standard English, are the ghosts of expression in Irish. When other cultures are happy to thank us a thousand we say thanks a million, not because we are a thousand times more thankful than every other culture but probably because a million sounds like the Irish word for thousand, míle, from Go raibh míle maith agat.
* * *
Recently I was reading a novel, mostly based in Exeter, a city in Devon, SW England and I learned that the city’s name is derived primarily from the river Exe, with the ‘ter‘ being part of the noun ‘ceaster’ which meant first a Roman military camp (caster) and later, a town. Many place-names in England contain that ‘ceaster’, ‘caster’ or its variant ‘chester, for example “Lancaster” and “Manchester”.
Of course, with regard to the ‘Exe’, I could not help but think of ‘uisce’, the Irish word for “water”. And I’ve known for some time that Devon and Somerset have a great many megalithic monuments (more than Ireland even I read somewhere) and that nearby Cornwall has a surviving Celtic tongue (though spoken by few today). Anyway, I did a little digging with the help of the Oracle of Delphi, which today goes by the name of Google (which by the way in a short space of time has become an internationally-recognised noun and verb!).
The Wikipedia entry for Exeter tells us that the river Exe in the name of the city is from Old Brittonic, a Celtic language and means “ ‘water’ or more exactly ‘full of fish’”. Well that sounds pretty much like the meaning of the word “uisce” in Irish, which is also a Celtic language. But the Wikipedia entry for the river itself, as distinct from the town, says that the word “comes from the Common Brittonic word ‘iska’” meaning ‘water’ etc. But then the entry goes on to make the extraordinary claim that the word is unrelated to the word “whisky” while at the same time stating the latter word comes from classical Irish/Gaelic “uisce beatha” (‘water of life’). But since the Brittonic word for the river means ‘water’ and the Irish ‘uisce beatha’ (which became ‘whisky’) means ‘water of life’, then the words iska/ exe and uisce are obviously not only closely related but almost exactly the same!
Perhaps the entry meant something else and merely expressed it badly.
However, I am grateful to Wikipedia for drawing my attention to the connection between the Celtic words for ‘water’, ‘river’ and ‘fish’. Because the word for ‘fish’ in Irish is of course ‘iasc‘ which is not a million miles away in sound from ‘exe’ or even ‘uisce’. And if we were to stick the letter ‘P’ before the word ‘iasc‘, which the Gaels would never do, given that they avoided that letter and sound whenever they could, we would get the word ‘piasc‘, quite like the plural word for fish in Welsh, ‘pysg‘. And of course sisters of this word can be seen through some of the Romance languages, which in many ways are close to the Celtic: pez in Castillian, peixos in Catalan, peixe in Portuguese, pesce in Italian. And of course, for the astrologers, Pisces (Pis-kays) from the Latin, the star sign of the fish.
Now, the Greek word for ‘fish’ is psari, not all that similar (although it begins with the letter P too) but here’s a weird coincidence: the Greek name for the fish symbol used by early Christians, which is supposedly based on the first letters of the Greek words for Jesus, anointed, son, God and saviour ….. is the ‘ichtus‘. And the sound of ichtus is not a million miles away from the sound of iasc!
Anyway, back to Exeter, probably a Celtic settlement in a Celtic land by a river with a Celtic name, in a Celtic language, later a Roman town (perhaps preceded by a Roman military camp) with the word for ‘town’ coming from Latin, then overlaid by Saxon language.
“Old Brittonic” is the name given by philologists to the Celtic language once spoken all over Britain and of which the remaining survivors are Welsh and Cornish and, on the European mainland, Breton in Brittany and some words in Gallego in Galicia. Philologists call that branch of the Celtic languages ‘P-Celtic‘ because of its many old words beginning with the letter “P” which in Irish and other Goidelic or Q-Celtic languages (Manx and Scots Gaedhlig) begin with the letter “C”.
Exeter is an old place name in Devon and old place-names – as distinct from new ones like “Sea-View” used by property merchants to sell housing estates – tell us a lot about the history and culture of the people who named them and, often, something about their past in nature (for example all the places named after trees in this now-deforested Ireland).
Twenty-six, more than half the names of the 50 states that form the USA, are formed from Native American words or phrases. The original Americans, dispossessed, so many of them wiped out and a very small minority remaining in their ancestral lands, must find it hard to insist on the usage of their own place-names. Yet many of those have survived – European colonisers learned the names from the natives and for convenience continued to use them in their European languages so that they have now become US English words.
Of the Anglicised names of the 32 Counties of Ireland, only three are not of Irish origin – and the “English” names of those three were given to them by the Vikings. We are surrounded by the signs of our native language and culture but, for most of us, also cut off from them. This is hard to justify since unlike the Native Americans, for the most part, we have absorbed the invaders and we remain the majority on our land.
And yes, “Britain” and “Britons” were words associated with Celtic culture, derived from Praetani or Pretani, meaning “the people of Britain” and perhaps once a dominant Celtic tribe. Yes, and “Scotland”, it turns out, referred to a land in the north of Britain colonised by the Irish, to which they brought their language which has now developed into Scots Gaedhlig. And in the Middle Ages, a “Scotus” (Scot) was more likely to be an Irishman than what we today call a “Scotsman”.
And the “Scots” language of the poetry of Robbie Burns, including its practically extinct variant “Ulster Scots”, is actually based on German from Saxony and, except for some words, not Celtic at all!
Yes, it can all be a bit confusing. But interesting too.
“We bring colour to Grafton Street, not ‘clutter’!” was the response of street traders in Grafton Street to a request from multinational property company Hines to Dublin City Council to remove the street trading stalls away from Grafton Street, to which Hines allege they bring “clutter”. The street traders also pointed out that they and their predecessors had been on that street much longer than Hines.
Although the request to Dublin City Council had been made in August, it only hit the news earlier this week and brought a swift response of outrage from the street traders, some public representatives and ordinary members of the public. Broadcaster Joe Duffy joined the chorus and also referred to the difficulties experienced by the street traders on Moore Street with an unhelpful DCC Management.
Hines PR people soon found themselves removing their feet from their mouths and eating not only their words in public but very humble pie.
Dublin architecture, history and soul is under constant attack by property speculators, both native and foreign, to whom everything is a potential ‘development site’ and a possible source of profit – and without the production of a single commodity.
GRAFTON STREET THEN AND NOW
Dublin’s Grafton Street was a premier Dublin residential street as the upper classes deserted the north for the south side of Liffey river in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Perhaps that was the spur for the street becoming known for prostitution in the period. According to Wikipedia: “In the 1870s, 1,500 prostitutes were reputed to work in the street.”
When the O’Connell Bridge (then the Carlisle Bridge) was completed in 1795 (just in time to hang United Irishmen from it), it led not only to the doubling of the length of Drogheda Street, which then became Sackville Street but also to much traffic backwards and forwards across the river to both sides of the city centre. Grafton Street soon became a premier shopping street with many Irish-based companies selling fresh, preserved and tinned food, higher end male and female clothing, jewelry and ‘exotic’ imports such as coffee through Bewley’s Oriental Café (1927). This state of affairs persisted into the late 1960s but in the decades since then however, the profile of the street has changed to feature mostly British high street outlets and a Mac Donalds fast food place.
For two centuries there have been street traders selling a variety of products on the street, of which the flower-sellers, newspaper stand and a hat and jewelry stall are all that remains.
The street was very narrow to accommodate both pedestrian and vehicle traffic both sides of the street and pedestrianisation of Grafton Street began in 1971, however at an extremely pedestrian rate (pun intended), not being completed until 1983 and it was paved the following year, repaved in 1988 and then partially again more recently. The pedestrianisation facilitated performance by buskers (street musicians) and music and song of high quality may be heard any day in different genres from Irish traditional to world rock and classical. Perhaps they would have been the next to be accused of “clutter”?
The Dice Man (Thom McGinty 1952–1995) regularly carried out his performances there too. Dublin world-famous musician Phil Lynott (1949-1986) had a statue commemorating him placed in Harry Street, just off the north end of Grafton Street in 2005 while the statue of fictional sea-food street trader Molly Malone was moved from the north end of Grafton Street to a less crowded space in Suffolk Street in 2014.
The street features in much of Irish literature and some song but also in images: two are particularly striking: IRA men walking up a wet Grafton Street during the Civil War and Flower Sellers, Grafton Street by impressionist Irish artist (and musician) Norman Teeling (b. 1944). It was also the scene of the shooting dead by the IRA of a G-man, the political plain-clothes branch of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, in 1921.
WE BRING COLOUR TO THE STREET, NOT ‘CLUTTER’
Talking briefly to some street traders there on Wednesday about the threat to move them, one of them remarked: “We bring colour to Grafton Street, not ‘clutter’” and reiterated their declaration that they and their predecessors had been on that street long before Hines.
Another controversial recent initiative in Moore Street has been the changing of the traditional Irish-language Christmas lighting decoration and the ‘renaming’ of the street to “the Grafton Quarter”. Irish language comment on the new design? “Tá sé gránna!” Indeed. Sometimes it seems as though the poor property magnates can’t put a foot right.
Perhaps Hines had ideas of greater expansion, changing the street into a “quarter” which, as some Dublin City Councillors have pointed out, does not exist.
All that aside, doing away with Irish language Christmas lighting and wanting to get rid of flower-sellers doesn’t accord very well with Point Four of Hines’ own Guiding Principles: “Hines is committed to fostering an inclusive culture where diversity is respected and valued.”
(Reading time: Introduction, one minute; Part One: 5 mins; Part Two 2 mins: Part Three: 3 mins; Part Four: 2 mins; Total: 13 mins.)
Although I often think about the big questions – and am generally guided by my philosophy on them, my mind and energy are usually too occupied with specific struggles to focus on them for long. Recently however I had the opportunity and the need to think about the war, the one we have yet to win.
But to which war am I referring? The Irish war of national liberation that has been flaring up for centuries, being lost each time before flaring up again? Or the class war, which has had a few sharp Irish episodes but has been, for the most part in Ireland, in abeyance? The answer is BOTH, though it may seem that my emphasis in the discussion, certainly in the early part, is on the national liberation war.
In order to imagine how we might win, it is helpful to examine past struggles and analyse what went wrong with them. Pessimists love to focus on those things I know – but in order to push us towards reformism or just surrender; my approach instead is from a revolutionary perspective.
Generally, Socialists analysing the class struggle don’t even ask themselves why we have not had a revolution yet. From week to week, month to month, they tend to focus on this or that particular trade union or social struggle but without going into the big picture. It seems as though they can’t even imagine a socialist uprising in Ireland, it’s just too far away to think about, apparently. But if one can’t even imagine such a revolution, how could one consider the necessary steps to get there?
Irish Republicans on the other hand are often thinking in terms of revolution, usually including armed struggle. However it seems to me that Irish Republicans don’t like analysing past failures of the movement but when they do, their verdicts tend to be that the leaders betrayed the struggle or that taking part in public elections corrupted the movement; or that infiltration, spies and informers was the problem. And some other reasons. The thing is, although all those things played a particular part, they are not the fundamental reason.
PART ONE: THE THIRTY-YEARS’ WAR – DOOMED TO LOSE
(Reading time this section: less than 5 minutes)
The national liberation war that began in 1969 in the Six Counties and ended in 1998 (though some armed incidents continue from time to time) began as a civil rights struggle and changed into a war of communal defence and of national liberation. The military part of the struggle for the most part took place in the occupied Six Counties. The political element of the struggle was waged all over Ireland (and abroad) but in the main consisted of support for the struggle in the Six occupied Counties.
Fought in that way, the struggle was bound to lose. It could never win. How could anyone imagine that they could win a struggle fought against a world power in one-sixth of the country, where even the population there was divided against them? What could they have been thinking?
To my mind, there are only two possible sane replies to that question, which is that they believed: 1) that the British ruling class would get worn down by struggle and leave and/ or 2) that the Irish ruling class would intervene in some way to assist the struggle and make continued British occupation untenable.
1) ‘The British ruling class would get worn down and leave’: This theory must have depended on British repression being condemned abroad and being unpopular at home but had to rest fundamentally on the British having no great stake in continuing its possession of its colony there.
Anyone who thought that (and there were many who did and still many who do, not just Irish Republicans) made a fundamental error. Time and again the British ruling class has shown its determination to hang on to what might be considered its first colony, even as the ruling class’ composition changed from feudal-colonialist to capitalist-imperialist and as the world changed around it.
Even when the British ruling class, weakened by WW1 and facing an Irish guerrilla war which enjoyed the support of the vast majority of Irish people, with national liberation uprisings breaking out across its Empire and with its repression in Ireland increasingly unpopular at home, entered into negotiations with the Irish resistance, it held on to a foothold, the Six Counties.
Subsequently, it had that colony managed in a permanent state of emergency laws, with institutionalised sectarian discrimination at all official levels and outbreaks of pogroms in the street and workplace.
That became even more exposed during the civil rights struggle and the national liberation war that followed when the British State compromised whatever good international reputationremained to its Armed Forces, its judiciary, its legal establishment, its media and its very legal framework.
Even now, when many believe that the Good Friday Agreement means that a 50% plus-one-vote in favour in the Six Counties will be sufficient to end Partition, they do not realise that such a decision will have to also obtain a majority in the British Parliament and be endorsed by the British Monarch. They are also forgetting the broken promises that surrounded Partition in the first place.
When analysing what holding on to the Six Counties has cost the British State in terms of reputation, military and financial contributions, one can only rationally assume that continuing to hold on to that foothold is of great importance to the British State. One may speculate as to the reasons underlying that but the central fact cannot be denied.
2) ‘The Irish ruling class would intervene in some way to assist the struggle and make continued British occupation untenable’:
There was some basis for this belief in that a section of Fianna Fáil, a party that had emerged from a split in Sinn Féin in the 1930s and had become one of the mainstream parties in the Irish state, had retained some traditional commitment to seeking a united Ireland. However it was a thin enough basis on which to depend in a national liberation struggle since that section had no majority within the party itself, to say nothing of the foreign-dependent nature of the Irish native capitalist class, the Gombeens, as a whole.
The question came to a trial of strength in the Arms Crisis of 1970, in which at least two Fianna Fáil Government Ministers were involved in secretly buying arms for the defence of nationalist areas in the Six Counties (since the IRA had insufficient weapons at the time) from rampaging Loyalist mobs and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (including the part-time B-Specials). The Ministers alleged that they had acted in the full knowledge of the rest of the Government. By the time the whole affair was over, two Ministers had been sacked and another two resigned in protest.
If it had not been clear before that the Gombeens, the native Irish capitalist class was no patriotic capitalist class but rather a neo-colonial one, it should have been clear after that. But the armed struggle in the Six Counties intensified, especially after the massacres of unarmed civilians carried out by British Paratroopers the following year, 1971 in Belfast and again in Derry in 1972. And the war lasted until 1998.
If, as had been demonstrated to be the case that the British ruling class were determined to hold on to the Six Counties and the Irish ruling class was not going to seriously challenge that possession, did the Republican movement have any other option than to fight on a war that they could not possibly win?
I am clear that it did.
Clearly, in order to have a chance of success, the war had to be extended to the other five-fifths of the country, which is to say into the territory under the control of the Irish native capitalist class. This class had seized power after the War of Independence (1919-1921) and had beaten and suppressed its opposition duringand afterthe Civil War (1922-1923) and furthermore was supported by a powerful ally, the Irish Catholic Church. Since the founding of the first Irish Republican organisation, the United Irishmen of the late 1790s, the Catholic Church hierarchy had opposed Irish Republicanism; it had condemned four Irish priests who participated in the uprising of 1798, excommunicated the Fenians, had at first condemned the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence only to latch on to it at the end along with the Gombeen class.
The general Irish population likely would not have supported or sustained an armed struggle in the 1970s against the Gombeen class but that class could have been fought politically, through agitation and mobilisation, on many social, political and economic fronts. Without going into the specific details of each, these were:
against the huge wastage of Irish youth through emigration
to remedy the shortage of affordable housing (which in part contributed to the above)
to end unemployment (also contributing hugely to emigration)
to raise the level of wages and lower wage earners’ taxation
for the right to divorce
for equality for women in law
for the right to contraception devices and medication for men and women
against decriminalisation and for equal rights for gay and lesbians
to halt the decline of the Irish language, in particular of the rural Irish-speaking areas
to improve services for the rural areas
to oppose the open-door policy for foreign multinationals to exploit Irish natural and human resources
to secularise the education service
and the health service.
to remove the privileged status of the Catholic Church within the state.
The Republican movement in general, with some exceptions, declined to take on any of those struggles. They did not organise in the trade union movement, left the social struggles to others and most of all, declined to take on the Catholic Church on any issue except its opposition to the national liberation struggle. Even there, it was happy to publicly avail of the services of members of the Church clergy who supported them. Republicanism was, from its very beginning, as well as anti-monarchist, about separation of Church and State but it was difficult to see that in the Irish Republican movement, particularly after the War of Independence.
A full half of those fourteen points above (nos. 5,6, 7, 8, 12, 13 and 14) would have meant taking on the Church head-on and no doubt the hierarchy would have hindered the struggle over most of the others too, due to its strong links with the State and its ruling class.
Because of its tactical and no doubt ideological refusal to take up those struggles, the Republican movement could do little more in the 26-County state than to agitate for solidarity with the beleaguered nationalist population inside the British colony.
Though this could be effective for a time it could not become a mass movement, nor survive a long struggle, without any remedy being sought for the issues facing the population within the state.
The wonder is not that the majority leadership of the Republican Movement threw in the towel on the military struggle in 1998 but that they had waited so long to do it. Of course, they never admitted the true nature of what they were doing: abandoning the armed struggle and revolution in total and instead, using their negotiating position to advance themselves politically – not in the economic, social and political struggle envisioned above but rather in a political struggle to find themselves a place among the Gombeen political class in the Irish state and as accomplices in the governing of the colonial state.
PART 2: COLLECTING THE FORCES FOR REVOLUTION
(Reading time this section: 2 minutes)
A successful revolution in Ireland, as in most places, would require the involvement of a mass movement. That mass movement would be unlikely to be one that had national self-determination as its only aim – certainly not in the 26 Counties (the Irish state). Mass movements arise at times around different issues and exist as long as the issue does or instead until the movement gets worn down or broken up. Such movements arose around the Household Tax and, later, around the additional Water Charges.
Even though the objectives of such movements are often not revolutionary, the participation in them by revolutionaries is necessary if, in the future, there is to be a revolution. Revolutionary activists can make contacts and prove themselves by the way they participate whilst at the same time pointing out that a revolution is necessary in order to resolve all these issues completely and permanently. Such activists can also influence the movement (or sections of it) to act in more revolutionary ways, so that the movement can be guided by – and imbued with — revolutionary spirit.
Working people in struggles come up against concrete problems which need to be resolved in order to move forward. Prior to 1913 in Ireland, workers learned the need for unity in struggle which was emphasised by the employers’ attempts to break the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in August 1913. The attacks on them by the Dublin Metropolitan Police illustrated the need for organised defence and Larkin and Connolly called for the formation of what became the Irish Citizen Army, which later also fought prominently in the 1916 Rising.
Trade unions are the only mass organisations of the working class in Ireland and it is necessary for revolutionaries to be active within them. Currently, other than social democrats, it is mainly members of both trotskyist parties and independent activists who engage politically with the trade unions. Those members are mostly in clerical work and their political work tends to concentrate on employment demands around wages and working conditions. When they introduce politics it is generally to get some motion passed by their branch. Also at times, they will campaign to get a perceived left-wing candidate elected to some position within the trade union bureaucracy.
None of the above are without value but they remain disjointed in terms of program and often confined to just one trade union. Not only that, but often the Left party involved will engage in order to recruit some new members and in order also to retain their own members by providing them with activity. When broad front trade union groups are formed, they tend to become an arena where the dominant trotskyist parties compete for dominance.
If we are to have a successful revolution – and in particular a socialist one – participation in the struggles of workers in the trade union movement is absolutely necessary. But participation should be primarily among the rank and file of the trade union and also across trade unions, focused on providing solidarity to members of whichever union is in struggle – in addition to encouraging unorganised workers to organise and become active. The objective is not to help make one trade union or one section more militant but rather to create a militant workers‘ solidarity movement within the whole trade union movement. It is essential to have members in the ‘blue-collar’ work unions or departments as well as in the clerical unions or sections. And the cross-union organisation I advocated should be independent — the preserve of no political party.
Participation in such struggles provides an opportunity for revolutionaries to make contact with people who are activists but not yet revolutionaries and to give those people an opportunity to evaluate the revolutionaries in terms of their actual practice. Revolutionaries can support the people struggling for worthwhile reforms while at the same time pointing to their partial and temporary nature. Revolutionary activists can play an educational role in the mass movements while at the same time becoming educated themselves by the daily reality faced by the masses in this system.
PART 3: THE ABSOLUTE NEED FOR UNITY – BUT WHAT KIND?
(Reading time this section: 3 minutes)
It is, most people would think, a ‘no-brainer’ (i.e an obvious truth) that unity is necessary in the struggle to overthrow the current system. It might be thought surprising, therefore, that disunity is more the rule among those who aspire to revolution.
Generally, those who claim to be revolutionary socialists will not unite with Irish Republicans. In addition, those socialists of one party will often fail to unite with those of a different party. The same dynamic is to be seen among Irish Republicans also.
There have been many attempts to overcome this problem. In the 1930s the Republican Congress sought to unite Irish Republicans with revolutionary socialists. In the face of hostility within the mainstream Republican movement and also with divisions among the communist element in Ireland at the time, faced in addition with anti-communist hysteria whipped up by the Catholic Church, the experiment failed. The leadership of the Sinn Féin and the IRA of the later 1960s tried to combine socialism and republicanism within one party and military organisation, an attempt that crashed when it was discovered that the arms necessary to defend ‘nationalist’ community areas in the Six Counties, particularly in Belfast, were unavailable, leading to an acrimonious split in the movement. A subsequent attempt to combine the socialist and republican elements in another organisation survived a little longer but also failed for a number of reasons, some internal and also due to Irish State repression.
There have been some attempts to unite the non-republican Left itself also, which usually failed due in part to ideological differences but also to political sectarianism and personality clashes. Currently both trotskyist parties have an uneasy working relationship, the small grouping of Independents for Change exists also, the Communist Party is very small too and the anarchists are scattered and unable for years now, for the most part, to mount united action.
Attempts to unite the various parts of the Irish Republican movement have, in general, focused on creating a new organisation or absorbing activists unhappy with one organisation into another.
A frequent approach has been for some people to sit down and produce what they consider solid policy and a constitution, then to propose this format to others around which to unite. Even when accepting amendments from the elements they seek to recruit, these attempts too have largely failed.
It seems a rational approach: if we want unity, surely first we have to agree on what for, how, etc, etc before we can go into action? I believe, contrary though it may seem, that actually we should unite in action first. Uniting in action tends to break down barriers of mistrust that are built on hearsay or suspicions fostered by sectarian elements. Action also tends to clarify certain questions that until then are theoretical only. Of course, at some point, action will need to be guided by worked out policy but initially the action itself can be sufficient guide, especially since approaching the question the other way around has been so generally unproductive.
The question then arises: with whom to unite? In general, I would say that the answer is: with all with whom we can, in actual practice, unite: different types of revolutionary socialists (including anarchists), Irish Republicans, Left social democrats, human and civil rights activists.
There are some exceptions I think necessary to mention: fascists, racists, religious sectarians and parties that participate in Government. Fascists seek to impose an undemocratic regime completely hostile to the interests of working people and, far from our uniting with them, need to be defeated; racists and religious sectarians seek to divide the movement along lines of ethnicity or religious affiliation. Revolutionaries need to draw a clear line of distinction between the movements of resistance and those who participate in a native capitalist or colonial government, i.e the management organisations of the enemy.
Many issues lend themselves to united action but perhaps none more so, and none are more essential, than against repression.
PART FOUR: UNITY AGAINST REPRESSION
(Reading time this section: 3 minutes)
All revolutionary movements – and many that are progressive but not revolutionary – face repression at some point in their existence. Not to recognise that fact and to have some kind of preparation for it, even if very basic, is indicative of a non-revolutionary attitude to the State. Nor have we any reason in Ireland to be complacent on this question.
The Irish State turned to military suppression in the first year of its existence as did also the colonial statelet. Detentions, torture, murders and official executions were carried out by Free State forces over a number of years, followed by censorship and arrests, all facilitated by emergency repressive legislation. In the Six Counties, in addition to similar even more repressive legislation, there were two sectarian militarised police forces and sectarian civilian organisations.
After a change of government, the Irish State introduced internment without trial during the Emergency (1939-1946), the Offences Against the State Act in 1939, Special Criminal (sic) Courts in 1972 and the Amendment to the OAS in that same year.
The Six County statelet had the Special Powers Act (1922) and brought in internment without trial in 1971 (the Ballymurphy Massacre that year and the Derry Massacre the following year, both by the Parachute Regiment, were of people protesting the introduction of internment). The statelet also introduced the Emergency Provisions Act and the no-jury Diplock Courts in 1973 and, though technically abolished in 2007, non-jury trials can and do take place up to today.
The British state targeted the Irish diaspora in Britain in 1974 with the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act and that same year and the following, framed and convicted nearly a score of innocent people of bombings in five different cases – had the death penalty not been previously abolished for murder, most of them would have been executed. It took the victims over 15 years to win their freedom, by which time one had died in jail. Brought in as a temporary measure, the PTA continued in force until 1989 but a general Terrorism Act was brought into British Law in 2000 and remains in force today.
State repression rarely targets the whole population and, particularly in a capitalist “democracy” focuses on particular groups which it fears or feels it can safely persecute. However, we should also recall Pastor Niemoller’s words about the creeping repression which even the German Nazi state instituted, going after first one group, then another, and another …. Among the list of groups targeted eventually by the Nazis were Jews, Roma, Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Social Democrats, Jehova’s Witnesses, Free Masons, Gays and Lesbians, Mentally Ill or challenged, physically challenged ….
It is in the interests of the vast majority of the population to oppose repression of different groups, whether those groups be based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, citizenship status or democratic politics. Not everyone recognises this of course but one might expect that political activists challenging the status quo would do so. Sadly, experience shows that they do not in practice (though they may acknowledge it intellectually).
With some periodic exceptions, socialist groups in Ireland do not support protests against repression of republicans. Furthermore, some republican groups will not support others when the latter are subjected to repression. Yet at any time, Republicans of any group can be and are regularly harassed in public or raided at home; their employers may be warned about them by the political police; they may be detained on special repressive legislation, denied bail, effectively interned; they can be easily convicted in the non-jury Special Criminal Courts or Diplock Courts; ex-prisoners released on licence in the Six Counties can be returned to jail without any charge or possibility of defence.
The Irish State’s non-jury Special Criminal Court is a tempting facility for putting away people whom the State finds annoying and it is widely thought it was considered for the trials of the Jobstown protesters. The result of the trial, where the jury clearly took a different view to the presiding judge, may well have justified the opinion of those in the State who considered sending the defendants to the SCC.
Unity against repression is a fundamental need of a healthy society and of movements that challenge the status quo. Practical unity in any kind of action also tends to break down barriers and assists general revolutionarybroad unity. Unity against repression is so basic a need that agreement with this or that individual is unnecessary, nor with this or that organisation in order to defend them against repression. Basic democratic rights were fought for by generations and have to be defended; in addition they give activists some room to act without being jailed. On this basis, all must unite in practice and political sectarianism has no place in that.
Without some basic unity in practice across the sector challenging the status quo, there can be no revolution. But more than that: we stand together against repression ….. or we go to jail separately.
Diarmuid Breatnach is a veteran independent revolutionary activist, currently particularly active in committees against repression, in some areas of internationalist solidarity and in defence of historical memory.
Ireland has broken off its love affair with the USA but the breakup’s been coming for a long time. Of course it was always a kind of mythical USA that was the love object, of film stars, rock n’ roll, friendly presidents, Irish-U.Stater politicians, of U.Stater tourists – never the real USA, good or bad. One could feel the tensions in the relationship during the Viet Nam War, though that was mostly to be seen in the youth and some lefties. But then came the lying scandals in the US Presidency of Nixon and Clinton and the naked warmongering throughout all, including the Bushes, Snr. and Jnr.
Ireland, below the level of its Gombeen politicians, has split up with the USA (at the level of ITS politicians and millionaires [often the same thing]) but it has been a relatively civilised breakup and thankfully with no children (well, apart from the Irish illegal immigrants – sorry, undocumented visitors).
While some businesses in an Dún Beag might have turned a profit out the Fear Mór’s visit, having the Chief of the World Superpower drop in on us has cost us – around 10 million euro, according to the Irish Independent. Loads of extra Gardaí on the ground in Co. Clare and Limerick, in the air and on sea, does not come cheap (though I’m sure the overtime was welcome). All would have been bad enough if we had invited him but we hadn’t. Will the Irish Government present the US Presidency with an itemised bill? Probably not.
At the invitation of The Irish Examiner, a number of organisations and individuals had written letters to Trump for publication (see link below); most were critical and these included Amnesty International, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, National Union of Journalists, National Women’s Council of Ireland, National Union of Students; Brendan Ogle, Tara Flynn and Clare Daly. For entertainment value I’d pick out the IPSC’s and Tara Flynn’s (well, she is a comedian). The ICCL also had a newspaper advertisement criticising Trump, which was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union and figured logos of a number of other civil rights organisations.
There were protests in various parts of the country, including one to greet his arrival at Shannon airport (hopefully US munitions and troop carriers were pulled to one side so as not to hinder his landing). The Irish Times said there were about 200 protesters there so, on past reporting, there could have been anything between 300 and 1,000. It is not easy to get to Shannon airport unless one has a car, even from Galway the gaps between bus arrival times are substantial. And no train station.
Dublin had a showy and packed anti-Trump rally, with a Baby Trump blimp floating above the crowd outside the Garden of Remembrance. An activist brought big letter placards which, with the help of volunteers from the crowd, spelled out anti-trump messages in English and in Irish. Indeed an interesting feature was a number of placards partly or completely in Irish.
The theme of “welcome” or “fáilte” was of course played upon in reverse, in speech and placard, with more than a hinted reference to the old Bord Fáilte slogan inviting tourists to the land of “céad míle fáilte”.
The event was managed by Unite Against Racism which is, for the most part, People Before Profit, which in turn is really the Socialist Workers’ Party. A number of other left-wing party flags could be seen too. A group of Shinners were at the rally with their trademark flags (never go anywhere without the party’s flag) but no “dissidents” were present as a group, though I certainly noted some as individuals.
The speakers at the rally covered a number of themes, including of course misogyny, migrants, Palestine, war-making and imperialism. Liam Herrick of the ICCL was an unusual sight to see on an outdoors protest platform, speaking at the second part of the rally. Curiously, the rally organisers had sent a major part of the attendance off to march around the city centre for awhile and of course, when they got back, they had shed a great part of their numbers. A torrential downpour no doubt encouraged the desertions.
Coming towards the end of the rally, a performer accompanied himself on guitar while he rendered some songs for the diminished attendance. Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Crash at Los Gatos” (also known as “Deportees”) would have been an apposite choice, a song about Mexican labourers being employed in the south-eastern US fruit harvests and then driven back across the Border. Guthrie was moved to sing about them when in 1948 a plane carrying mostly deported Mexicans crashed, killing all on board and though the names of the crew were given in the news reports, the Mexicans were referred to only as “deportees”.
At the rally, eventually Trump was deflated (the blimp, I mean), tethering weight bags emptied of water, placards were packed, flags furled …. and I went to get some shopping.
AN GORTA MÓR COMMEMORATED IN SLIGO, DUBLIN AND CELTIC PARK
(Reading time of article text: 5 minutes)
A small crowd gathered at the Garden of Remembrance, Dublin on Sunday afternoon to commemorate the Great Hunger, an Gorta Mór on National Famine Day. Led by a lone piper, they marched through O’Connell St., the city’s main street, some of them in period costume, to the Great Hunger Memorial on the Custom House Quay, North Dock and later on to the iconic sailing ship, the Jeannie Johnson.
With some adults and children dressed in period clothes, some of them tattered to represent the destitution of the starving poor, they marched down O’Connell Street led by the lone piper and turned left at the Bridge, proceeding along to Custom Quay’s North Dock and the Great Hunger memorial. There they were addressed by Michael Blanch of the organising committee and by Niall Ring, Lord Mayor (coming to the end of his year in that role), who had accompanied them from the Garden of Remembrance.
Some sentences in Irish were spoken by the MC of the event and by the Lord Mayor, while Michael Blanch referenced the deadly impact the Great Hunger had on the Irish language (i.e with the depopulation of the main Irish-speaking areas of the western seaboard). The Irish Tricolour came in for a mention in the Dublin commemoration also; it had been presented to William Smith O’Brien by women in Paris during the revolution there of 1848 and the Young Irelanders had staged their own uprising that year also, small and certainly too late, easily crushed by the British colonial forces. The huge Irish diaspora was also mostly a result of the Great Hunger and had contributed significantly to the formation and membership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians, founded simultaneously in 1858 on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin and in New York. The IRB, in turn, had been the main driving force behind the 1916 Rising.
Tourists and other passers-by stopped to watch as wreaths were laid on on the statues of the monument and an Irish-language version of Amazing Grace was sung by a young girl in period costume. A currach (small traditional Irish sea-craft), containing a woman and two young girls in period costume and rowed by a man, pulled into place on the Liffey across from the group; one of the girls placed a wreath in a cardboard box into the river, to commemorate the Irish diaspora and those who had perished during their journeys. Participants then threw single red roses bouquets into the river also and floral wreaths were deposited around the statues of the 1977 memorial by sculptor Rowan Gillespie. And the piper played a lament, Hector the Hero.
The gathering moved on then to the sailing ship the Jeannie Johnson, to hear Evelyn Campbell sing her Famine Song and Diarmuid Breatnach sing Skibereen and Fields of Athenry. After that, some repaired to the Teachers’ Club, where tea, sandwiches, gur cake and biscuits were on offer. By coincidence, a Musical Society were relaxing there too and it was not long before songs from different parts of the world were being exchanged from different parts of the room.
THE CAMPAIGN FOR A NATIONAL IRISH FAMINE DAY
The Great Hunger is the preferred term in English by many for the terrible disaster that struck Ireland in the mid-19th Century, for people starved alongside what was for a while at least, an abundance of food.
For three successive years, a fungus-like oomycete infested the potato crop, staple diet of most of the population. AlthoughPhytophthora infestanshad attacked the potato crops on the European mainland and in Britain also, nowhere was the disaster of the dimensions it grew to in Ireland: nowhere else were the the majority of the population obliged to sustain themselves on the potato while yielding up every other edible product (except perhaps milk) to pay the landlord’s rent on land conquered from the ancestors of the starving, thousands of soldiers and police being on hand to ensure the hungry paid up. “The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight”, wrote Young Irelander journalist John Mitchell, “but the English created the Famine.”
Well over one million Irish starved or died of attendant diseases in less than five years during the reign of Queen Victoria, while ships left Irish ports laden with food and grain was fermented to make lucrative whiskey and beer. Another million emigrated and it is estimated that about one third of those also died – of drowning, of disease aboard ship or of the various dangers migrants faced. Five years after the potato crop failed, estimates put the population of Ireland at around six million, from the over 8 million of before. Over the next decade, another million would leave, paid to go, lied to go, forced to go, or gone out of desperation and loss of faith in any future in the country of their birth under foreign domination.
In 2008 it was agreed by the Irish Government that there would be a national Famine Day in the Irish calendar of national events and it would take place on the third Sunday in May. The State commemoration this year was held in Sligo, attended by Leo Varadkar (who was met by a protest of the Sligo Women’s Cervical Smear Action Group). The ceremony was covered in the RTÉ news which was shown on TV in the Teacher’s Club. Michael Blanch told those present that the campaign he and his wife had started in 2004 through the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims, had resulted in this national event and that it was also being commemorated by the Glasgow Celtic team in the special jerseys they wore that day (in their Scottish Premiership win 2-1 against Hearts). The symbol is black and white which are the colours of the Commemoration and he had also wanted GAA teams playing on this day to wear it on their jerseys (the Munster Hurling Championship match between Limerick and Cork was also being shown that afternoon on the TV screen in the Teachers’ Club).
Two quite different celebrations of International Workers’ Day took place in Dublin on the afternoon of the appropriate date, 1st of May. One was small and of a decidely revolutionary flavour while the other, much larger, was of a more mixed nature and tending towards the reformist. In addition, a workers’ solidarity picket was mounted on a Dublin city centre eatery.
NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS
The first of the celebrations was organised by theAnti-Imperialist Action Ireland organisation and took place at the James Connolly Monument in Dublin’s Beresford Place. There a statue of James Connolly stands upon a plinth, behind the the design of the Irish Citizen Army flag, based upon the constellation that in Ireland is called the Starry Plough but in the USA is known as the Big Dipper. James Connolly was a revolutionary socialist and trade union organiser, historian, journalist and songwriter who was Commander of the Dublin insurrectionary forces in the 1916 Rising. The Irish Citizen Army, possibly the first formaly-organised army for and of the workers, had been formed during the Dublin Lockout as a defence force against the attacks of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.
The ICA took part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin and after the surrender of the insurrectionary forces, 16 participants, including two of the ICA, were executed by British firing squad: Michael Mallin on 8th May and James Connoly on 12th May.
In the here and now, on their way to the Connolly Monument, a number of participants were stopped by a man in plain clothes identifying himself as a police officer, i.e a member of the Garda Special Branch. He wished to know their names, which they declined to give them.
At the Monument, both speakers for the Anti-Imperialist Action Ireland organisation were youths.
The first to speak gave his oration in Irish on behalf of Macra – Irish Socialist Republican Youth and said that they were there to celebrate socialism, trade unionism and workers oppressed throughout the world and, that although James Connolly had been murdered in Kilmainham Jail, his work was ongoing.
Stating that James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army had gone out in 1916 to break with imperialism and found a socialist society, the youth went on to say that “Macra is a revolutionary organisation with socialism as one of our objectives and we also believe in the words of Pearse: ‘Ireland not only free but Gaelic, not only Gaelic but free.’ Free from the bankers, free from landlords, free from poverty.”
The speaker concluded in Irish and in English with the renowned sentence from the Communist Manifesto.: “Bíodh critheagla ar aicmí cheannais roimh réabhlóid Chumannach. Níl tada le cailiúint ag na Prólatáirigh ach a slabhraí. Tá saol mór le gnóthú acu. Oibrithe an tSaoil Mhóir, cuirigí le chéile!”
“Let the ruling classes tremble before a communist revolution. The Proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains, they have the whole world to gain. Workers of the world unite!”
The second speaker delivered his speech in English and linked the liberation of Ireland with the liberation of the working class and went on to praise Séamus Costello (1939-1977), which he said had embodied that aspiration. The youth praised the creation of the Irish Republican Socialist Party by Costello as well as the creation of the Irish National Liberation Army and Costello’s participation and membership in a number of democratic organisations — including his election to Bray District Council.
Condemning “the bankers and politicians” who bring deprivation to the workers, the speaker said that they try to point the finger instead at Muslims and migrants but it is not migrants who cause job losses, create homelessness etc but “the elite”. The speaker ended by saying he wished to remember all those who had given their lives for Irish freedom.
WE WANT THE EARTH
Diarmuid Breatnach was then introduced to sing Be Moderate, a song with an ironic title by James Connolly. “The Irish working class does not have a huge history in Ireland, apart from a short period in the early decades of the last century,” Breatnach said, giving as reasons the forced underdevelopment of Irish industry, the British-fostered sectarianism in the most industrialised north-east and the focus on the national struggle as a competing pole of attraction.
“The Irish abroad, however, have made a huge contribution to the workers’ movement,” Breatnach said. “And in 1889, Jim Connell from near Cill Scíre in Co. Meath, composed lyrics of The Red Flag to the air of the White Cockade, starting it on the train to his home in South London from a demonstration in central London and apparently completing it in the home of another Irish man.
The song was later adopted by the International Workers of the World, a syndicalist organisation mostly active in the USA, Breatnach said and reminded them that James Connolly joined the IWW when he migrated to the USA. “In 1907, James Connolly published a songbook, Songs of Freedom, in which he included the lyrics of Be Moderate,” Breatnach stated and went on to say that no air had been published to which the words should be sung. As a result Be Moderate has been sung to a number of airs but in London Breatnach heard it sung by an avant-garde musical composer and Marxist-Leninist, Cornelius Cardew, to the air of A Nation Once Again. In Breatnach’s opinion the lyrics fit well to this air and it also provides a chorus, which he encouraged the participants to sing.
James Connolly’s lyrics were sung by Breatnach then, competing with sounds of passing traffic on the ground and the occasional trains rumbling by on the bridge overhead, participants joining in on the chorus:
We only want the Earth,
We only want the Earth
And our demands most moderate are:
We only want the Earth!
and the last line of the last verse “We want the Earth!” echoing across Beresford Place.
TRADE UNION AND POLITICAL ORGANISATION BANNERS
Across the road, a stage and crowd barriers were being set up outside Liberty Hall, the multi-storeyed headquarters of SIPTU, the largest union in Ireland and which, by amalgamations, had grown from the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union, originally formed early in the 20th Century by Jim Larkin, James Connolly and others (and the destruction of which had been the object of the 1913 Lockout). The stage was being prepared for speakers to address a rally which would follow a Mayday parade from Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance (a small park dedicated “to those who gave their lives for Irish freedom”).
Even the larger Mayday demonstrations in Dublin, although organised through the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, i.e with affiliation from most trade unions in the city, do not tend to be very big by comparison with other cities in many other parts of the world.
Banners of some unions mixed with those of political organisations and campaign groups, including the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign and another against Irish state participation in PESCO, which is seen by many as an embryonic EU Army and undermining the Irish state’s neutrality.
Led by a lone piper, the parade made its way past crowds of onlookers down Dublin city’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, then left along Eden Quay to Liberty Hall where they were to be addressed by speakers on the temporary stage in Beresford Place, across from the Connolly Monument.
Meanwhile, a small group had left, to form a picket line outside the Ivy Dawson Street restaurant, in solidarity with staff and in opposition to the management appropriating a portion of the tips left for staff, with more to join them there later from the Mayday parade.
A NOTE ON THE HISTORICAL ORIGIN OF INTERNATIONAL WORKERS’ DAY
The First of May has been celebrated as the international day for workers since 1892, to call for the 8-hour maximum working day, socialism and universal peace. Its inspiration was a train of events that began with a workers’ strike and demonstrations on May 1st 1886 in many parts of the USA but in Chicago ended in the State execution of four anarchists, with police and state militia massacres of workers along the way as well as with acts of workers’ resistance. The celebration and commemoration throughout the world was formally agreed at the Second Congress of the Second International Workers’ Association in Brussels in 1892 and at its Sixth Congress (Amsterdam, 1904) declared it mandatory for the proletarian organisations of all countries to stop work on that day, wherever that could be done without injury to the workers(bearing in mind violently repressive regimes).
In many states around the world now, the 1st of May is a public and bank holiday and has been so in Ireland since 1994. Its public celebration was banned under the fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal but is legal in both those states now; however it is still banned in some other states while in some areas, though not banned, may be subject to attack by police, army, state agents or by fascist elements.
This is an article about grammar, religion and politics. While the last two are often discussed in the same conversation, grammar is usually absent as a subject. But it has its place here.
SWEARING AND CURSING
“Don’t curse!” or “Don’t swear!” a parent or an elder might have said to us when we were children or teenagers. And particularly when we were teenagers we did exactly what we had been told not to, certainly the boys, in a mistaken sign of manhood. As a verse in the English folk song The Shoals of Herring has it, in fact:
“Well you’re up on deck, you’re a fisherman,
You can swear and show a manly bearing,
Take a turn on deck with the other fellows
As you hunt the bonny shoals of herring.”
A related admonition was against “taking the Lord’s name in vain”, which was a prohibition of blasphemy, the misuse of Yahweh’s name, taken from Exodus 20.7: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord they God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain.” 1
So most of us grew up thinking that swearing and cursing were the same thing and more or less careful about which company in which to use those words – or not. But we were mistaken, cursing and swearing are not the same thing at all.
We are familiar with swearing in some formal settings, such as courts of law, for example: “I swear by almighty God that the evidence I give shall be the truth, the whole truth ….”2 and also with swearing for entry into some organisations (frequently the armed forces).
“Bejaysus”, common in Dublin, is from “by Jesus” and “bedad” is probably a disguised “by God”. The Cockney’s “Blimey” was originally “May God blind me” (e.g “if I am not telling the truth”).
The use of “Bloody” in informal society was often a swearing upon the “blood of Christ” or, strangely sometimes, the blood of “Mary”, the mother of Christ in the religions of “the Book” (Bible, Talmud or Koran). Of course “bloody” could be used pejoratively in the sense of “blood-stained”3, in which case it was not swearing but might still raise objections in some quarters of society, or descriptive of a massacre as in “Bloody Sunday”4.
In fact, swearing is to call a divine Power to witness the truth of what we are saying (in courts of law, for example) and that we intend to carry out the expectations of the organisation (e.g in the armed forces). In swearing, we utter an “oath”. Nowadays, most people who are not highly religious probably attach little importance to the form of words, though some institutions persevere with them. But in older times and not even so long ago, most people viewed an oath as a very important thing.
To break an oath of allegiance in some countries and in some periods incurred severe penalties, including death. “Oath-breaker” was an epithet that might be attached to the name of an “outlaw”, one who had broken his oath of service to a Saxon, Norman or English Lord in the Middle Ages.
The required Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, simultaneously to the Head of the Anglican Church, prevented many Catholics for centuries from entry into many professions and from being elected as a public representative. And the British Crown was itself particularly worried for centuries by alternative “oath-bound societies” that were seeking united workers’ actions, such as agrarian defence organisations and trade unions, or equality and improvement in social conditions, for example political organisations. Laws were passed against the dispensing and swearing of such oaths.
Cursing, although it may sometimes “take the Lord’s name in vain”, is something else completely. We know in Ireland of the “Curse of Cromwell” but more frequent probably was Mallacht na bPréacháin “the Curse of the crows”, which wished upon the victim a childless land, to be inherited only by the crows. Scread mhaidne was another ill-wish to lay upon someone, that he or she may die in agony, screaming into the morning. Ná feice tú Dia sounded less terrifying but might have been more frightening for a very religious person: “May you (never) see God!”.
“Damn” and “Goddamn” are abbreviations of “May God damn …” (“you, her, it, them” etc) and to utter them in many circles in the USA is considered evidence of bad rearing. They are curses which are also oaths, in calling upon the Devine being to add power to the curse.
Typically, curses and oath-curses use the subjunctive in grammar and, although seemingly strange, this connects them to blessings and greetings. Go raibh maith agat (may you have good”) is the Irish for “thank you” and Go mba hé duit (“may it be [the same] for you”) is the reply to the Irish greetings Sé do bheatha or Móra duit.Slán abhaile (“Safe home”) is an abbreviation of Go dtéigh tú slán etc (“May you go safely home”). All of these are in the subjunctive form of speech. Vaya con Dios (“May you go with God”) is a castillian-language (Spanish) farewell wish we might come across in tales set in the south-west USA or in Latin America; that is also in the subjunctive. In fact “farewell” was “fare thee well” and probably originally, “May thee fare well”. Instead of the “Go to Hell” or “I hope you break your neck” one might hear today, centuries ago one would have heard “May you go to Hell” or “May you break your neck”.
This constant use of the subjunctive to wish well or ill upon others suggests to me that it was widely believed, at some stage in society, at least in most European societies, that one could make something happen by using a certain form of words. That form was the subjunctive; however, according to many who study language, the subjunctive is disappearing in European language and remains most in use preserved in everyday greetings and well-wishes – and the occasional curse.
It seems to me that the reason for this gradual disappearance is that we no longer believe we can make things happen by the way that we say them. We may wish them – and show the object person that we wish them – but we can’t make them happen. Nor can we expect a thing to happen with anything like a confidence that invoking a God will bring the wish, for good or ill, to fruition.
Earlier in this discussion I touched on oath-bound societies and the apprehension with which they were often regarded by those in power. Well, the Fenians were such an organisation. Formed on St. Patrick’s Day 1858, in Ireland as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and in the USA as the Irish Fenian Brotherhood, it was a popular movement until the Irish Civil War (1919-1922). Because of their revolutionary credentials and democratic program, they were accepted into the International Workingmen’s Association (the First Socialist International 1864-1889). As a true Republican organisation, they sought the separation of Church and State5 and in that, apparently incurred the wrath of Pope Pius IX (Giovanni Maria Mastai-Feretti, ruled from 1846 to his death in 1878). He excommunicated the Fenians.
Although a significant number of Fenians (particularly in the leadership) were of Protestant background (Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Unitarian), most of the Fenians had been brought up in the religious faith of the majority in Ireland, Catholicism. Not only would excommunication be painful to Catholic Fenians but could also lead to their being shunned by other Catholics who might otherwise have supported them. In the end this did not occur to anything like the extent that would have pleased the Catholic Church hierarchy or the British rulers of Ireland, as Irish Catholics have historically shown an ability to set to one side the teachings of the Church when they appear in contradiction to their struggle for national self-determination.
But obviously the public excommunication did the movement some harm and hurt many Fenians who were also strongly Catholic, such as John O’Mahony, co-founder in the USA, who left the Fenians as he approached his death so that he might be administered the last rites of the Church6.
In an Irish secondary school run by the Christian Brothers, we were taught that the opposition of the Catholic Church to the Fenians (and presumably to the subsequent Republican military organisations), rather than being due to their struggle for Irish independence, was the secret organisation’s dispensing and repetition of an oath of allegiance. Perhaps we were too ill-informed (I know that I was) to bring up the question of oaths given in other circumstances, such as in giving evidence in court or in military service, circumstances with which the Church appeared to have no problem.
Had one of us done so, our Christian Brother teachers might have replied that what was wrong was “taking the Lord’s name in vain” and explained that “in vain” did not, in the English at the time of translation of Bible texts, mean only “for no important purpose” but also “for no good purpose” and that would of course have included “for an evil purpose”.
Had we questioned what the “evil purpose” might have been in the case of the Fenians, we would have put our teachers in some difficulty.
What for example in the two versions of the Fenian Oath recorded, might be considered “evil”?
“I, A.B., do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will do my utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to make Ireland an independent democratic republic; that I will yield implicit obedience, in all things not contrary to the law of God, to the commands of my superior officers; and that I shall preserve inviolable secrecy regarding all the transactions of this secret society that may be confided to me. So help me God! Amen.”
“I, A.B., in the presence of Almighty God, do solemnly swear allegiance to the Irish Republic, now virtually established; and that I will do my very utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to defend its independence and integrity; and, finally, that I will yield implicit obedience in all things, not contrary to the laws of God, to the commands of my superior officers. So help me God! Amen.”
Would a Christian brother have admitted opposition, not only by himself but by the Catholic Church, the dogma of which he was explaining, to the establishment of an “Irish Republic”, or even to “an independent democratic republic”? And if not, what then? The use of armed force, i.e violence? Since when has the Catholic Church hierarchy been against violence in or of itself? Did it not support some side in most inter-European wars and Spanish, French and Portuguese colonial wars? In fact, did the Catholic hierarchy not itself initiate some wars and did the Vatican not have its own army, as pointed out by Fr. Sean McManus in the USA7?
If the objection were not to “a democratic Republic”, against which Pius IX was definitely set, in that he opposed the separation of Church and State, then surely the only honest reply could have been: “The Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland made a deal first with the British occupation that if they gave Catholics equal rights and let us build up our power here, we would not support their overthrow. Since then we made a similar deal with the Irish State and its rulers. And we intend to honour that deal.”
2In the courts of many countries one is now permitted to use the words “I affirm that the evidence I shall give …” and one may sometimes be asked by the presiding judge whether one is an atheist, or agnostic – presumably as otherwise the failure to “swear by Almighty God” might be regarded as suspect.
3“Bloody Queen Mary” was an example, Mary Tudor, Mary I Queen of England (1560-1558; ruled ’53-’58), who had nearly 300 Protestants burned at the stake for “heresy”. )
4In Irish history, three are generally recognised: Dublin 1913, Dublin 1920 and Derry 1972.
5Not all organisations dubbing themselves “Republican” do in fact uphold this principle and in fact it could be said that the Irish Republican movement from the early 20th Century until its end did not generally do so, in that it rarely confronted the Church on its social policies or interference in lay matters, except when the Church condemned Republican actions. Also a great many Republican commemorations included the officiating of a member of the Catholic clergy.
6See the Irish Echo article in Links & References.
The Basques have a saying in their language which means “The first and last words in Euskera” (Basque language: “Lehen eta azken hitzak euskeraz”). The Irish would do well to adopt the slogan or dictum for their own: “Na céad focail agus na focail deiridh i nGaeilge”.
The Basques developed their slogan (the word is from the Irish, slua-ghairm: to call the crowd/ multitude/ troop) in their movement to conserve their native language and spread it among those who had lost it. The Basque homeland (certainly once larger than it is now) is today situated on the north-west of the Spanish state and the south-west of the French one. Their language is considered an older arrival than all other languages extant upon the continent, to be not of Indo-European origin and so not of the same family group as any of the nearby Romance languages: Galician, Asturian, Castillian, Languedoc (Occitan), French, Catalan.
Within the territories they control, Spanish and French state administrations have dominated and suppressed all the languages other than respectively Castillian and French; they have done so through official disregard, censure, shaming, even physical punishment and jail. But the Basques have struggled to keep their language alive and to spread it among those who have lost it. And they have been much more successful at doing so than we Irish have at doing the same thing with an Ghaeilge. The Catalans have done even better yet, certainly in Catalunya itself1.
So, why the slogan of “first and last words in Euskera” and what happens in-between? Is it intended like the “cúpla focal” (“couple of words”) of Irish politicians (and increasingly, not even that many), a kind of mini-lip-service? Not at all, its intention is restorative towards the language and is a practical measure which anyone can adopt — indeed we in Ireland should embrace it for our own language.
When we meet someone, we greet them and, in Ireland, the majority of us do so in English. Having done so, the rest of the conversation is likely to continue in English too. Taking our leave of them, naturally, we tend to do so in English also.
The impression on anyone within hearing of this exchange and so many like it is that Irish does not exist or, if it does, hardly anyone in Ireland knows it or, if they do, don’t use it in their daily life. Not far from the truth, one might comment. Indeed but the reality is that a lot more know the language (or some of it at least) than one might think.
Let’s return to that interaction touched upon earlier, when one person meets another. It could be a customer in a bar, restaurant or shop. One of them says “Hello”, the other replies likewise and from there onwards the verbal communication is all in English. Or another scenario, a friend or acquaintance of one, introduces another in English and both who are strangers proceed in English also.
Perhaps the customer and the shop assistant, waiter or bartender in the first example were fluent Irish-speakers or at least competent – none knows this about the other and they continue in the dominant language, English; each may return home later without having spoken a word of Irish that day. The strangers being introduced to one another by a mutual acquaintance, perhaps at work on in a social setting, may have a similar experience.
THE FIRST WORDS
Suppose that instead the customer or person being introduced had greeted in Irish? The recipient of the greeting now has the choice, assuming some knowledge of the language, to respond likewise. Should this occur, they can now proceed to the limits of their knowledge of the language or of the situation in which they find themselves. Other factors govern the choice being made but we can discuss those later.
What of the impression on those others within hearing? They might be surprised or even astonished, impressed or embarrassed; however everyone is reminded that Irish exists, that it is a medium of verbal communication and that some people in Ireland use it, even outside the shrinking Irish-language reserves.
Of course, that was perhaps only two people heard speaking it in a whole month or even a year. But what if more people did the same? Why, some of those who overhear might even adopt the same habit, na céad focail in nGaeilge! Gradually at first and then suddenly, everybody would seem to be greeting in Irish! Why, it might even be worth learning a little oneself! At least enough to reply and take the conversation a sentence or two forward ….
In addition, sometimes the experience flushes out other Irish speakers too. On the top deck of a bus heading into the city centre one day, I could hear some young lads at the back of the bus (where else!) speaking in Irish. I could tell that they were not fluent but one at least was doing reasonably well. As they passed me to get off in Sráid Uí Chonaill, I remarked in Irish to them that it was great to hear the language being spoken in public. While they stumbled over a reply to me, the man across the aisle from me addressed them also, in fluent Ulster Irish. What an experience that must have been for the young lads but certainly for us, two Irish speakers a few feet away from one another and totally unaware, until that moment, of the other’s existence.
On another occasion at a demonstration in Dublin, I and another holding a banner between us were conversing in Irish – loudly as of necessity. Ahead of us, another group began to call back in Irish too. Spreagann Gaeilge Gaeilge, commented the comrade on the other end of our banner (“Irish [language] inspires Irish”).
AND THE LAST WORDS
What about the last words being in Irish – just a courtesy or a whim of some kind? Well, imagine one greeted the stranger, shop assistant, waiter or bartender in Irish and the reply came in English (which at the moment would probably be the case)? Thereafter the conversation flows in English but, as the Irish speaker is leaving, she says “Slán”. By now, the other has recovered a little from being somewhat wrong-footed by being addressed in Irish and furthermore, since the customer is leaving, is not worried about exposing what he considers to be his shamefully little knowledge of the language, so he replies also in Irish, “Slán”.
Of course, that situation was not momentous for the survival of the language but neither was it totally negative. The Irish speaker draws a little comfort from it. The other feels perhaps a little pride, is maybe even encouraged to respond in Irish should he see that person again or if some other addresses him in Irish. How hard can that be? He’d do it in Greek in Crete, in Spanish in Torremolinos or in Cancun, even though all he has is a few phrases from the tourist guidebook.
Of course, it is not the same. In the first place, the linguistic environment in Greece is Greek, in Torremolinos and Cancun, Spanish. Even migrant workers there will have learned the language. Not everyone around one in Ireland is speaking Irish in public, in fact, in most places, almost no-one is.
Secondly, there is no expectation of the English-speaker to be fluent in Greek or in Spanish. No expectation that the Irish person can speak Irish either, one might think. But actually, there kind of is. Inside the head of every Irish person there is the knowledge that this is their language and a feeling, buried deeply or lightly, that perhaps they should be able to speak it.
This feeling or knowledge can manifest itself in a reluctance to expose one’s limited knowledge of Irish to the perverse but understandable extent of refusing to speak it at all. Or of responding aggressively. Those are possible outcomes but so are more positive ones.
A person who has very little Irish may think: “But if I reply ‘Dia’s Muire dhuit’ and she lets loose with a flood of Irish, I won’t know what she’s saying and I’ll be mortified! Better to say nothing at all and not be so ashamed.” Of course, that is one choice. But it is not the only possible one. He could, instead, after she spoke to him some sentences in Irish he did not understand, reply in a sentence learned off by heart: “Gabh mo leithscéil ach níl ach cúpla focal agam” (“Excuse me, I have but a few words”). She might in turn reply: “Go raibh maith agat, úsáid a bhfuil agat” (“Thanks, use what you have”).
And why should the initiative be only with the person fluent in Irish? The person who knows only a few words is just as capable of making greetings and farewells in Irish — in fact I would go further and say that the language needs them to do that, to make that the norm.
In those kinds of exchanges, there will be a positive outcome for each participant. Not a huge step forward for the language in general but for anyone overhearing, a reminder that the Irish language does exist and perhaps that in this case, a person who did not seem know it well, still chose to learn a few words and use them. All of that goes to the credit side of the ledger in the psychological struggle for the maintenance and restoration of Irish.
An issue that is often raised with regard to speaking in Irish in the company of non-speakers, is one of politeness. It is generally considered rude to speak in a language that other people in the company do not understand. Strangely enough, people tend to think that more about people speaking Irish in Ireland than they do about people speaking French, German or Spanish among themselves here.
The issue must be faced. Neither of those languages is in any danger but Irish is – and in serious danger. Despite the growth of nurseries, primary and some secondary schools teaching through Irish, the actual daily use of the language is in decline. And the Gaeltachtanna — those areas where the language of the home has always been Irish – are shrinking at an alarming rate.
We need to find social strategies for linguistically-mixed company, whether it be occasional translation for the non-Irish speakers, or the tolerance of the latter – or conversing parts in Irish and parts in English. For the sake of the language we cannot allow the rules of politeness to deprive us of every social occasion to speak in the language other than some tiny domains hidden away somewhere, small groups of us meeting like conspirators in places where we are unlikely to meet anyone we know.
Another issue often raised is related to foreigners, whether they be migrants or visitors. I would say that the same rules apply. Most of those have their own language as well and speak it among themselves, in public too. And they must surely wonder why we don’t speak our own. The children of migrants are learning Irish at school and many are competent, some fluent in it. Some of their parents know a few words too: a Nepalese in a bar serves me through Irish and a Pakistani in a shop thanks me or tells me I am welcome, in Irish also.
In the public library, you may wish to greet in Irish and hand the returned books towards them saying: “Isteach”; the likelihood of you being misunderstood is minimal. Then, with the books you are borrowing, “Amach”. In the Post Office, you can ask for “Stampa i gcóir Sasana, le do thoill” or “Stampa i gcóir na hEorpa”. To the question “Payment by cash or card?” when you present your utility bill, you may wish to show notes and reply “Le h-airgead” or, displaying your card, “Le cárta”. “Do you want a bag?” “Níl, go raibh maith agat”, with a shake of the head. Leaving the bus or the taxi, you could say: “Go raibh maith agat, slán”. Sometimes, you will hear a reply in Irish and it will probably lift your heart a little. And the world around you will hear a little too …. and wonder.
None of that on its own, of course, will save the Irish language. But I think it will help. And now, on the crest of a small wave, might be a good time to do it: when the number and percentage of students attending all-Irish language schools is at an all-time high; when a survey of third-level students, whatever their feelings about how it was taught, show a majority supporting the retention of Irish as a compulsory subject on the curriculum. However, studies in the 1980s revealed a pattern of fall-off in Irish competency outside the Gaeltachts as the years went by; they need an environment encouraging the regular use of the language – use it or lose it.
The pro-independence political parties in the southern Basque Country make their public speeches either totally in Euskera or bilingually, in Euskera and Castillian. It is the same with the majority Basque trade unions. Also with the feminist and environmental movements, those against repression, against animal abuse, etc. In their public discourse, all organisations and parties in Catalunya that are not specifically Spanish-unionist (and even some of those), use Catalan first in public and Castillian secondly, if at all.
None of Ireland’s political parties (mainstream or oppositional), trade unions or campaigns (other than those specifically for the language) does anything much to promote the Irish language and some are hostile to it. That means it is up to us as individuals – everything we do for it can help at least a little.
So, as the Basques say, the first and last words in the language.
Do ye likewise; go out and multiply.
1Catalan is spoken elsewhere than in Catalunya, for example in the Paisos Catalans (“Catalan Countries”) such as Valencia and the Balearic Islands, where it is not as strong as it is currently in Catalunya, also in part of Sardinia.
When one hears or reads the words “Gaelic Ireland”, the reference usually takes one of four forms:
“Gaelic Ireland”, when used in a historical sense, is a reference to either a time when the majority of Irish people spoke the Irish language (up to 1800 CE many scholars agree) or to a time when the Gaelic order of society was dominant or when the Gaelic Order survived in some part of Ireland (for example up to the Flight of the Earls in 1607) .
Perhaps used to describe those shrinking parts of Ireland where Irish remains the mother tongue, more normally called the “Gaeltacht” or “Gaeltachtaí”.
This is a usage which corresponds somewhat to the historical sense above but is also imbued with nostalgia, a regret for what passed then and perhaps a wish to restore it. Despite the accusations of many of those hostile to the Irish language, relatively few people — including among Irish speakers, have any wish to return to that historical period.
When referred to in this way, it is to link Irish-speaking with out-of-date things, some kind of anachronism, a backward thing, not suitable for our modern society; frequently linked also to Irish nationalism and De Valera’s concept of the desirable kind of society for Ireland and the 1937 Constitution, therefore linked also to the social and political dominance of the Catholic Church. Such a disdainful attitude is often connected to the disparaging way in which a person may speak about a “Gaeilgeoir” — it is as though the person referring to the Gaeilgeoir, which originally meant only “Irish language speaker”, has in mind a devout Catholic wearing an Aran jumper and generally unfashionable clothes and hairstyle, with a gold “fáinne” (a ring-shaped pin awarded for proficiency in Irish) in his or her jacket (probably Irish tweed).
I fear that this type of attitude is present in most enunciations of “Gaelic Ireland” — certainly outside those of the historical sense.
Although by no means associating the writer of a recent article with this contemptuous opinion of Irish speakers, there was more than a hint of a disparaging attitude expressed, in my opinion, in an article much-praised by many Republicans and some socialists, commenting on the racist expressions of some people after the recent lethal incident in Drogheda recently. Dieter Reinisch, whom I understand to be a left-wing Irish Republican, wrote to separate Irish racist commentators on the recent fatal incident in Drogheda from Irish Republicanism.
The article had a progressive intent and made some valuable points but it also linked this Irish racism with “Gaelic Ireland nationalism”1. Although the article does this through reference to individuals it smears “Gaelic Ireland” through doing so. I would doubt that those Irish racists were even Irish speakers, never mind campaigners for the retention of the language.
IRISH NATIONALISM AND REPUBLICANISM
Reinisch is of course correct historically to say that Irish Republicanism is not fundamentally linked to “Gaelic Ireland” but what is the point he is making? Irish nationalism as a force, in the sense of wanting and acting to achieve an Ireland under its own cultural-social order and not under the economic, social and political rule of a foreign power, can be traced as far back as the time of the O’Neill and O’Donnell partnership, who tried to unite the clans of the native people, the Gael, to oust English occupation from Ireland. They came close to succeeding but in the end, failed and with their exile and that of other Irish clan chiefs the Gaelic Order of society collapsed. The Gaelic Order by the way was in many ways socially superior to that of the feudal Norman invaders, which is one reason why most of the invaders adopted so much of it that, less than two centuries after the start of their invasion of Ireland, their England-based relatives called them “the degenerate English” and passed laws to forbid their adoption of Irish custom and law and end their integration into Gaelic Ireland.2
Irish nationalism continued to try to assert itself, finding large-scale expression at two particular moments in the 17th Century – firstly against Cromwell and secondly against William of Orange. Irish nationalism at that point fought in alliance with the Gall-Ghael, the Irish-speaking or bilingual descendants of the Norman invaders (“the degenerate English”, according to their England-based relatives in 1366), who were mostly concerned with preserving and defending their religion against the imposition of the English Reformation.
A kind of Irish nationalism later began to develop among the colonial settlers, a similar type to that expatriate or colonist nationalism developing among the colonists of Northern America and of what is now called Latin America. Since what made them Irish rather than English, Welsh or Scots was that they lived in Ireland (and for many, had been there for a few generations), they looked through the history of Gaelic Ireland to establish a historical background. They organised the Granard Harp Festival in 1786 and the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792. Edward Bunting noted down the airs played at the latter and published a collection in 1796 (and twice again over following decades).
The colonists of North and Latin America did not, for the most part, incorporate the original natives into their new nationalism3. They did not incorporate them in Ireland either but the United Irishmen did have that as their program and they did try to make it a reality. When Grattan’s attempt to open the Anglican-sectarian Irish Parliament to Presbyterians and Catholics failed through bribery and fear of Anglicans being outvoted, of planters losing the lands their ancestors had grabbed, the United Men became convinced that only armed insurrection could bring about a majority (male) democracy and Irish control of Irish affairs. And the symbol on their flag was that of Gaelic Ireland: the Harp. Underneath it, they had the words: “It is new-strung and shall be heard”.
Reinisch in his article quotes approvingly on three separate occasions from the writings and speeches of Seán Ó Brádaigh. It might surprise some readers to know that this same Ó Brádaigh and his brother the late Ruairí, were Irish-speakers and writers and promoted the speaking of the language.They were for a Gaelic Ireland, albeit a Republican one. They and the organisation they helped create, Provisional Sinn Féin and Provisional IRA, unfortunately in many ways bowed to the influence of the Catholic Church, even thoughthe hierarchy and many clergy denounced them continuously. Mac Stiofáin, who also gets a mention in Reinisch’s article, told me once that although he believed Church and State should be separated, in true republican fashion, also maintained that there should be no freedom to propagandise against religion!
Could Irish Republicanism in the 1700s not have adopted the language of the majority of the people? Some did indeed learn Irish and probably most Ulster Presbyterians, at least outside Belfast city, were at least competent in the basics up to 1798 and many probably fluent. It is hard to imagine that anyone living in Mayo in that year, whether planter or native, was not conversant with the Irish language and certainly it would have been the language of the vast majority there and in the surrounding counties. Wexford is generally agreed an exception by historians, in having been the most Anglicised of Irish counties in 1798.
English was the dominant language of the State and of the colonist administration. But also of the United Irishmen leaders, we can assume – certainly it was the dominant language of their political discourse as recorded in both their own publications and in the reports of the Crown spies and witnesses. Radical and revolutionary ideas were coming in from Revolutionary France and from the revolutionaries of the United States, as Reinisch relates but also very importantly from England – for example Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man”. The native Irish were either totally excluded from the strata of society where – and the language in which — these ideas were being discussed or they occupied a much more insecure position in which they tried to improve their situation through English without calling down disfavour or even repression upon themselves. There was probably a strata which tried to advance itself under colonial rule and considered that Irish would ‘hold them back’.
There is very little contemporary folk record in existence in Irish of the United Irishmen and one must go to Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin4, Irish language scholar, poet and Unitedman who was “out” or “up” that fateful year, to find his “Buachaillí Loch Garman” (“the Boys of Wexford”) and lyrics of “Sliabh na mBan” to the song’s wonderful air …. and probably “Maidin Luan Chincíse” too.5
The Rising of 1798 failed as did Emmet’s attempt in 1803. Irish Republicanism and Irish nationalism continued to exist and were partly asserted by O’Connell’s campaigns for Catholic civil rights and repeal of the Union as well as by trends such as those of Mitchell and the “Young Irelanders”, most of the latter being Protestants and often hostile to what they saw as O’Connell’s linking Irish nationalism to Catholicism. Mitchell was not a democratic republican but other Young Irelanders were.
Here again, the creation (or renewal) of an Irish nationalism did not incorporate the Irish language although there were nods in its direction. Again, most of its leaders were Protestants but they looked back, as others of colonist background had before, to a Gaelic Ireland. Take Thomas Davis’ celebration of the 1798 uprising in Mayo:
That chainless wave and lovely land Freedom and nationhood demand; Be sure the great God never planned For slumb’ring slaves a home so grand. And long a brave and haughty race Honoured and sentinelled the place. Sing, Oh! not even their sons’ disgrace Can quite destroy their glory’s trace.
For often, in O’Connor’s van, To triumph dashed each Connacht clan. And fleet as deer the Normans ran Thro’ Corrsliabh Pass and Ardrahan; And later times saw deeds as brave, And glory guards Clanricard’s grave, Sing, Oh! they died their land to save At Aughrim’s slopes and Shannon’s wave.
Davis here looks to the history of the Gaelic clans of Connacht resisting foreign invasion, incorporating also the mostly Gaelicised Norman-Irish clan of Clanricarde, the Mac Williams who became Burkes or De Búrca.
It is well to remember, particularly for those who link “Gaelic Ireland” with Irish Catholic nationalism, that many of those prominent in the latter category had no time for the Irish language – in fact, on that issue at least, they would have seemed very at home among those today who say the words “Gaelic Ireland” with a sneer. Daniel O’Connell, who was a native Irish speaker and apparently spoke only Irish until five years of age, stated that he was “sufficiently utilitarian not to regret ….. the gradual abandonment” (of the Irish language) – and this at a time when probably 40% of the country’s population were Irish-speaking.
Irish nationalism and republicanism continued as a strong thread through Irish history, peaking again in the late 19th Century with the Fenians. The Irish Republican Brotherhood or ‘Fenians’ as we know them in that period today contained many Irish-speakers including the famous O’Donabháin Rosa, who wrote his biography in Irish but the Irish language was still not their main language of political literature.
Some of the IRB were deeply working class and they were accepted into the First International Working Men’s Association in England, championed by Marx and Engels (the latter was learning Irish with the intention of writing a history of Ireland which sadly he did not bring to fruition). In the USA also most of the Fenians would have been working class although they included some of the upper middle class among the Irish diaspora. The Fenian conspiracy in Ireland was discovered and plans for insurrection largely upset, leaders and journalists arrested and the military units considered at risk sent away out of Ireland.
IRISH LANGUAGE REVIVAL
Another kind of Irish nationalism saw a resurgence in the later years of the 20th Century and, again, it was the Anglo-Irish, descendants of planters and mostly Protestant, who were the intelligentsia leading it. A kind of antiquarian and romantic interest in the Irish language and culture was followed by a more practical and restorative one and the Gaelic League (now Connradh na Gaeilge) was founded in 1893 by a group led by Douglas Hyde (Dubhghlas de hÍde)6, an Anglican and son of Anglican clergy, who became fluent in the language. This was followed in 1898 with the founding of the Irish Texts Society, a publishing initiative with Hyde as one of the founders and its publication of Dineen’s thick dictionary, Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla, which was first published in 1904 (and still a wonderful source of words and phrases).
The Gaelic League promoted Irish dance, games and culture in addition to the language. Although Hyde’s passion for an Ghaeilge originated in his childhood and early adolescence in Co. Roscommon, he graduated in 1884 as a Moderator in Modern Literature from Trinity College, Dublin, where he had became fluent in French, Latin, German, Greek and Hebrew.
The League/ Connradh grew fast, branches and courses attracting not only the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and upper middle classes but also other social strata. In fact it became a mass movement, with 600 branches in 1903 and through its influence the language was introduced to 1,300 national schools.7
A year later, Conradh na Gaeilge’s membership extended to some 50,000 members in 600 branches8, probably assisted by rising nationalist feeling but in turn it certainly fed that outlook. As a mass movement, it took in professionals and others of middle-class background, as well as labourers and tradesmen.
Among the many prominent Irish nationalists and Republicans (called “progressive nationalists” at the time) of those years was Patrick Pearse/ Pádraig Mac Piarais and Reinisch reminds us that his father was not Irish. Son of a Cornishman and Unitarian who formally converted to Catholicism, Pearse soon gained prominence as a writer and speaker in both English and the Irish language and also founded a school to teach through the medium of the Irish language.
Like many other active Republicans of his day, Pearse was recruited into the IRB and chosen to give the seminal oration at the interment of repatriated Fenian O’Donobháin Rosa’s body in 1915. As related earlier, O’Donobháin Rosa was an Irish speaker and when Pearse spoke at his grave, first in Irish which is rarely quoted, in the rest of his speech in English he said: “The clear true eyes of this man almost alone in his day visioned Ireland as we of to-day would surely have her: not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well.”
Pearse was chosen again as Commander-in-Chief of the insurrectionary forces in the 1916 Rising. Pearse’s memory is often attacked by ‘revisionist’ historians and some of the “Gaelic Ireland with a sneer” crowd – accusations of a repressed homosexual identity, of ‘green nationalism’, of blood-thirst etc. However, a fair assessment of his life would reveal a political activist who sympathised with the workers fighting the Lockout in 1913 and objected to Redmond’s refusal to allow women to speak at a meeting on Home Rule; would find also an individual generous with his time and energy, a talented writer who sought the creation of a modern literature in Irish on a par with those of England, France and Germany, as well as being an educator and proponent of progressive youth educational theory that stands well the test of time.
Pearse was among the people that Hyde accused of politicising the language, which Hyde gave as his reason for resignation of the Presidency of Connradh na Gaeilge. Looking back now, we might well ask how could it have been otherwise? Everything cultural of a national aspect was becoming politicised in those years: sport, song, drama, literature, journalism, oratory, lectures, representational art – even cooperatives, trade unions and some commercial ventures – why expect language to be any different? In fact, surely instead expect politicisation there first of all!
The other Irish nationalists of the time, the Irish Parliamentary Party led by John Redmond, ‘constitutionalist’, Catholic and socially conservative, expressed no great interest in the Irish language. Another branch of Irish constitutional nationalism, represented by William Martin Murphy, was no friend of the Irish language either and ran the most vicious campaigns against the Irish Republicans.
Of the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence, four (Ceannt, MacDiarmada, Mac Donagh and Patrick Pearse) were members of the Connradh. The remaining three were at least neutral or approving of the movement. Of the fifteen executions by British firing squads and one by hanging following the Rising, at least six were members of the Gaelic League. Large numbers of activists and leaders in the Republican movement from 1916 to 1922 were Irish speakers, either fluent or at least competent and christening records of the period show increasing numbers of Irish language names (or Irish versions of names from abroad) given to children. This period was the last great flowering of the Irish language as a mass movement in modern history.9
What of the Left in Ireland? A house painter by trade, Peadar Kearney (Peadar Ó Cearnaigh)10 of Catholic background joined the Gaelic League and at some point attendees at Irish classes he taught included the socialist writer and founder of the Irish Citizen Army, Sean O’Casey11 (Seán Ó Cathasaigh), of Anglican background. Irish was taught in Liberty Hall, HQ of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union.
Later, native Irish speaker Peadar O’Donnell, republican fighter, socialist activist and writer, was employed for a while teaching in Aranmore, Co. Donegal, an Irish-speaking area, where he apparently adopted socialism and joined the IT&GWU, for which he also became an organiser. In later years he founded the ill-fated Republican Congress, fought against Franco and founded The Bell literary journal. O’Donnell seems to have written little in Irish but in his acclaimed “Islanders”, the construction of dialogue is clearly derived from the Irish language. Later still, Brendan Behan (Breandán Ó Beacháin), a socialist Republican, wrote in Irish and in English and a Republican who became a Marxist, Connemara man Máirtín Ó Cadhain12, wrote in Irish and campaigned on the rights of Irish speakers and of people living in the Gaeltacht.
In and around those names there would have been many others, Left activists and supporters, unknown now but native speakers or those who learned the language, thought it important and spoke it.
Many socialists seem sometimes to think that the “unity of the working class” is best achieved by doing away with different cultures. They seem to forget that though there is one working class, there are a great many national cultures — and what a poor world it would be if those cultures disappeared.
THE STATE AND POLITICAL PARTIES
Some of the attacks on “Gaelic Ireland” seek to tie it first of all to the right-wing neo-colonial state set up in 1921, or the form it took after 1922, or as mentioned earlier, the De Valera/ Fianna Fáil state from the mid-1930s.
The New State
When the Irish Free State was set up as a compromise with British imperialism and colonialism, backed by a section of the nationalist-Republican movement and in alliance with Irish gombeen capitalism and the Catholic Church, it was actually a very insecure and uncertain endeavour. This perhaps explains the ferocity of the State in the Civil War and afterwards, with large-scale repression, 83 official executions and around a 120 assassinations of Republicans – in less than a 12-month period. Two years later, in 1924 the State faced an attempted Army mutiny and possible coup d’etat, led by Major-General Liam Tobin, with a number of prominent right-wing nationalist politicians in support.
The new owners of the State tried to ensure that nationalist symbols were not left unclaimed to be appropriated by Irish Republicans and so appropriated them themselves: the Tricolour, the Soldiers’ Song and the Irish language. However, this was no foregone conclusion nor an easy process. They had to bear in mind also the British, who had merely stepped off stage into the wings, who were also on stage in the Six Counties, as well as the large constituency of Unionists on both sides of the Border.
For example, God Save the King was played and sung at some State and many other formal occasions, though The Soldiers’ Song was sung by many Republicans. Let Erin Remember was the song favoured by some in the State and it was the air played for the Irish State at the 1924 Paris Olympics. After a struggle, The Soldiers’ Song was finally agreed as the National Anthem in 1926.
Far from being enthusiasts for any kind of “Gaelic Ireland”, the new State continued to use English as the language of administration, even in areas where 80% of the population were Irish-speaking.
A qualification in Irish was required to apply for state jobs but a high level of fluency was not needed13, “and few public employees were ever required to use Irish in the course of their work. On the other hand, state employees had to have perfect command of English and had to use it constantly. Because most public employees had a poor command of Irish, it was impossible to deal with them in Irish. If an Irish speaker wanted to apply for a grant, obtain electricity, or complain about being over-taxed, they would typically have had to do so in English.”14 As late as 1986, a Bord na Gaeilge report noted “…the administrative agencies of the state have been among the strongest forces for Anglicisation in Gaeltacht areas”15
The two main daily newspapers at the time in Ireland were the right-wing nationalist Irish Independent and the Unionist-minded Anglophile Irish Times16 and neither promoted the Irish language nor even covered Gaelic games, although they reported on rugby and cricket matches.
Fianna Fáil and the Blueshirts
Fianna Fail was created early in 1926 and in 1932, only six years later it was in government of the State. One year later, the right-wing Army Comrades Association adopted the uniform which included the blue shirt and by that time had over 30,000 members and battles were taking place between them and the IRA and other Republicans. Eoin O’Duffy had been an IRA guerrilla leader in the Irish War of Independence, a general in the Free State Army in the Civil War and Commissioner of the state’s police force, the Garda Síochána from 1922 to 1933. After Fianna Fáil’s easy re-election in February 1933, De Valera dismissed O’Duffy as Commissioner and a few months later O’Duffy took leadership of the ACA and renamed it the National Guard, adopting the straight-arm Roman salute favoured by the fascists.
That same year the Blueshirts planned a march on Dublin, believed my many historians to be a prelude to a coup d’etat; certainly De Valera thought so and, unsure of the Army’s loyalty, banned the march and subsequently outlawed the organisation. That year also Fine Gael was formed, incorporating the Blueshirts, Cumann na nGaedhal and the National Centre Party, with O’Duffy as its President.
De Valera founded the daily newspaper Irish Press in 1931 which had an alternative version of its title in Irish – Scéala Éireann – and as well as covering the GAA games, had sections in Irish. However the position of the Irish language in the affairs of the State did not change.
Throughout Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments, the Gaeltacht – the Irish-speaking areas – continued to suffer deprivation of resources. Even by the early 1960s, many homes in those areas did not have electricity, running water or sewage drains. Primary schools typically had a headmaster and female teacher to administer and teach all subjects at all levels. Deprivation led to massive emigration, not only to the metropolis but also to the USA and to Britain. Today, the Gaeltacht is 9.1% the size of what it was when the Irish State was created or, in other words, the State has presided over a Gaeltacht decline of over 90%17 — as a friend commented: “Not even Cromwell or the Great Hunger wreaked such linguistic devastation”.
In the 1960s, no matter what party was in government or in local authority, Irish-language campaigners had to fight for minimal funding for land allocation, schools and broadcasting in Irish. People went to jail for civil disobedience and were fined for refusing to pay for their TV and radio licences and, briefly, a pirate Gaeltacht radio station was in operation.
The Labour Party and Sinn Féin
The Labour Party, whether to the right or left, has never shown itself to be a friend of the Irish language.
Sinn Fein (Provisional) would nominally be expected to be supportive of the Irish language but the real test is in its campaigning and practice within its own party. Its public and internal meetings are held in English (as with other Republican parties) and throughout the three decades of the war in the Six Counties it did not organise or mobilise the Gaeltacht people to improve their position and defend their communities from emigration and the penetration and eventual supremacy of the English language.
In conclusion, to associate the Irish language or culture with any of the political parties or any administration of the State is fundamentally incorrect from a historical point of view.
FOCAL SCOIR ORIN CONCLUSION
Would those who sneer when they say “Gaelic Ireland” do likewise at the mention of “French France”, “Spanish Spain”18, “Italian Italy”, “German Germany” or “Polish Poland”? I think not. No, national cultures are not sneered at by the Right or the Left in Ireland – only Irish culture and, particularly, the language.
John Kells Ingram19, an academic, mathematician and writer of planter descent from southeast Donegal (and probably bilingual), in 1843 wrote the lyrics “In Memory of the Dead” (better known as “Who Fears to Speak of ’98”). He was decrying the distancing by Daniel O’Connell and his Catholic movement from the deeds and principles of the United Irish Men in 1798. If I may paraphrase him a little to refer to the kind of Irish person today who says “Gaelic Ireland” with a sneer: “He’s all a knave or half a slave, who slights his people’s culture thus”.
3The North American republicans did not admit the Indigenous People as citizens and many set out to exterminate them. Many also condoned slavery and some owned slaves. The Latin American republicans also mostly sought the expropriation of Indigenous people and also organised massacres but, for the most part, abandoned slavery earlier than the USA.
4Cork poet and strong Republican Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766/-1837) is usually credited with writing Buachaillí Loch Garman and Sliabh na mBan (although one source, probably mistaken, credits his son Peadar with the latter two). Mícheál’s work as a scribe, scholar and teacher was a useful cover for acting as a United Irishmen courier.
5There are a few songs from Mayo too, by unknown authors.
6Douglas Hyde (Dubhghlas De hÍde) was elected first Uachtarán na hÉireann (President of the Irish state) from 1938-1945.
10Peadar Kearney was a member of the Irish Volunteers and IRB, fought in 1916 and was interned; he became a prolific writer of nationalist ballads — but also of “Labour’s Call”, a song with very socialist lyrics – and is the co-author with Patrick Heeney of “The Soldiers’ Song”, the national anthem of the Irish state.
11Sean O’Casey (1880-1964) was born in Dublin into a lower middle-class family in straitened circumstances.
12Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-1970); interned by the Irish State during the 2nd World War years and later activist for the Gaeltacht which led to the founding of the Rath Cairn Gaeltacht in Co. Meath. Ó Cadhain’s most famous written work, the novel “Cré na Cille” (1949) was later translated into many languages. Ó Cadhain was also a founder and leading activist of the original Irish-language civil rights campaign Misneach which engaged in agitation and civil disobedience (another campaign by the same name now exists) in Dublin and other places.
13Hence the jibe about the mere “cúpla focal” of Irish of politicians and civil servants.
18In fact, there are ground for objecting to the terminology of “French France” and “Spanish Spain” but only because those two states do not value and even suppress the other national languages within their state boundaries, e.g Euskera, Catalan, Occitan, Corse, Asturian, Galician ….
20Franz Omar Fanon (1925-1961) was born and raised in Martinique; qualifying as an MD and psychiatrist, practised in Algeria during the war of liberation against the French, where he was a covert member of the resistance. Fanon was a politically radical intellectual, Pan-Africanist and Marxist humanist whose written work is very influential in particular in “post-colonial studies”. He described the psychopathology of colonisation in quite accessible writing, showing how – among other things – the colonised internalise the image of themselves projected by the coloniser and aspire to the “sophistication” of the latter and his culture (see two of his works listed in the Sources & References section.