We're delighted to present an extract from Caoimhín De Barra's Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution, published by Currach Books.
I was living in Newark, Delaware, when I heard about two Welsh guys who were also living in the town. I was told that they were both 6’8 and had played rugby in Wales. As a member of the local rugby club, I decided to try and recruit them to play for us, so I managed to get hold of one of their telephone numbers. I began exchanging texts with Chris, who said that he and his brother John would love to come and play rugby with us. So I arranged to pick the two of them up and drive them to training.
At this time, I had started learning Welsh myself so I could read Welsh primary sources for my doctoral research, and I was hoping the two lads spoke it. So not long after I picked them up for training, I asked if they spoke Welsh. They both responded defensively, saying it was a "dead" language that no one spoke, that it was "useless" and that they were quite content not speaking it. I let the matter drop. Anyway, John only came to one or two training sessions before he packed in the rugby, but Chris played on and off with us for about a year. One day, maybe six months after that first conversation in the car, we were chatting about something or other when suddenly he said "I really wish I was fluent in Welsh". He had obviously totally forgotten what he had said to me before, so what could explain this change of attitude?
My theory is that nothing had actually changed, but rather what I was seeing was a kind of bipolar attitude that many Welsh (and Irish) people have about their respective languages. In other words, that many people simultaneously have a strong desire to speak the language, and a resentment towards the language because they can’t speak it.
The root cause of this identity crisis is nationalism. Nationalism is often dismissed as something that only affects people on the fringe of society, but in reality, it influences the thinking of almost every human being alive today. The entire world is divided into nation-states, and at one stage or another, we all must reflect on what it means to be part of "our" nation. Humans are social creatures, and a part of figuring out who we ourselves are is understanding our group identity.
Now we all have multiple groups with which we identify, but one of them is our "nation", which Benedict Anderson aptly labels an "imagined community" because we see ourselves as being part of a group with millions of people that we will never know or meet. But the Irish language presents a problem in resolving our Irish identity. Nationalism is founded on the idea that a people move together through time, maintaining similar characteristics and markers of identity. One of these national traits is language, but we are aware that, unlike other nations, we have largely lost our language. The natural psychological response is that in order to be part of this nation that has existed for thousands of years, one should be able to speak the language that has always been spoken by our people. That means that an identity crisis is provoked in all of us at some stage about not speaking Irish.
This crisis is resolved in three different ways. For many people, there is a resignation that the ship has sailed and there is nothing they can do to reclaim the language for themselves. This usually is accompanied by a detached, albeit generally positive, view of Irish. Other people end up with a feeling of shame, guilt and a sense of personal failing for not having acquired the language. In some cases, this actually serves as a spur for people to attempt, and sometimes succeed, in learning the language. Even those who do not actually learn the language tend to be quite vocal in their opinions and actions in supporting Irish. But the third group resolves the identity crisis in a different way. Aware that they will never speak Irish, they subconsciously realize (correctly, as it happens) that there would be no identity crisis, and they would be much more secure about their Irishness, if the Irish language had never existed. This ultimately channels itself into a hatred for the language and for any reminder that it is spoken by anybody.
This is what I call "Frank Fitts Syndrome". If you have ever seen American Beauty, you will get the reference. Frank Fitts is vehemently homophobic throughout the movie, complaining about his neighbours being "faggots" who "always have to rub it in your face". He is also deeply concerned that his son is involved in a homosexual relationship with his other neighbour, Lester Burnham. Of course, what we learn at the end of the movie is that Fitts is a repressed gay man himself. Just as he expressed a violent hatred of gay people because of his sexual longings, so too we have Irish people hating Irish because they secretly want to possess it.
As I was preparing the final draft of this book, I decided to tell Chris that I had written about our two conversations regarding the Welsh language. I was a little nervous that he might be upset that I had decided to perform an amateur psychoanalysis of him and share it with the world. I sent him the draft and awaited his response. A few minutes later, he texted the following: "You are 10000% right about the language and how we hate it because we can’t speak it. We also love it because it gives us identity from those English *****".
If we can get many of the Irish people who "hate" the Irish language to truly understand where their resentment comes from, then we can dispel much of the negativity surrounding Irish and plan for it to have a brighter future.
Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution (published by Currach Books) is out now.