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24 July 2017

How politicians both north and south can stop Irish language being a weapon in SFs arsenal

Late in the day the DUP is learning to treat Gaelic with respect, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Edwin Poots spoke up for the Irish language at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal
Edwin Poots spoke up for the Irish language at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal

There’s some good news from the MacGill Summer School in Donegal where Edwin Poots was involved in a sensible discussion of the Irish language. It was in November 2014 that Gregory Campbell gave Sinn Fein the gift that was “Curry my yoghurt, can coca coalyer”, his mockery in the Assembly of the term “Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle” (“Thank you, Mr Speaker”).

The late Terry Wogan, England’s favourite Irishman, occasionally used to say on air “Ta se mahogany gaspipe” (“It’s a mahogany gaspipe”) to denote Irish gibberish. 

The phrase is attributed to Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen, aka Brian O’Nolan, a satirical genius from Strabane.

Among his finest works is An Beal Bocht, a parody of a misery memoir.

In English it’s The Poor Mouth, from the expression “to put on the poor mouth”, used of people who wildly exaggerate their misfortunes.

How he would have enjoyed ridiculing the Mopery (MOPE — Most Oppressed People Ever — an invention of that fine historian Liam Kennedy) of Sinn Fein, who try to compensate for being shameless apologists for murder by seizing every opportunity to produce grievances.  

Since these days most of the grievances are bogus, Mr Campbell’s crassness was leaped upon triumphantly by Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, who made an official complaint to the Speaker’s office. 

As Jim Allister of the TUV pointed out, this row led to a serious issue about the Department of Education being required to “proactively encourage and facilitate” Irish being missed.

Mr Campbell should have remembered his manners.

It’s OK for a Northern Irish Catholic to call himself a “taig”, for a black to use the “n-word”, or for a gay to call him/herself “queer”, but normal courtesy precludes outsiders from using the terms.  

Similarly, Wogan was free to laugh at the language he learned at school, but Mr Campbell should have left it alone, for it comes from a rich culture that deserves respect, even though a cynical political party uses it as a weapon.

Arlene Foster’s visit to Our Lady’s Grammar School in Newry last April, where she said thank you in Irish, was welcome, especially her statement that: “There’s nothing to fear from engaging with another culture.”

It was late in the day, but had a big impact.

And there, last week in Glenties at MacGill, that haunt of Irish politicians, was Poots saying that while he deplored Irish being used as a weapon, “anyone who speaks and loves the Irish language is as much a part of Northern Ireland life as a collarette-wearing Orangeman”, and he wanted them “to feel at home and feel respected and part of society”.

He then went on to say “Maireann an chraobh ar an bhfal ach ni mhaireann an lamh do chuir”, which he translated as “The branch lives on the hedge though the hand that planted it be dead”. 

Mr Poots claimed this old Irish saying was a reminder that “actions today will live long after we are gone” (I loved the remark by Newton Emerson — an equal opportunities Northern Irish satirist — that: “Any other interpretation of plants, handling and the branch would be entirely coincidental.”).

Mr Poots shared a platform with Joe McHugh, Minister of State for Gaeilge, the Gaeltacht and the Islands, who famously had to immerse himself in Irish in order to be able to hold a conversation in it. His boss from Monaghan, Presbyterian Heather Humphreys, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, whose father is an Orangeman, cannot speak Irish at all.

“I want to say to Edwin that the Irish language does not belong to any political party, north or south. It belongs to all those who wish to engage with it,” said Mr McHugh.  

“The Presbyterian community in particular helped to save the language over many years.” 

Both Mr McHugh and Mrs Humphreys are the product of a system of force-feeding Irish that failed utterly to restore the language.

Like most Irish parliamentarians, they will have no sympathy for an Irish Language Act that is exclusionary, expensive, counter-productive and for the benefit of Sinn Fein.

More initiatives like those of Mrs Foster and Mr Poots, and unionists could enlist southern politicians to help them rescue Irish from the enemy’s arsenal.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards