Irish nationalism a liability to the Irish language?

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2016), Letters, Volume 24

Sir,—In his review of Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh’s I mBéal an Bháis: The Great Famine and the language shift in nineteenth-century Ireland (HI 24.1, Jan./Feb. 2016), Proinsias Ó Drisceoil makes a number of extremely valid points, amongst them (a) that the Irish colleges in Europe did their best to keep the language alive and (b) that the Catholic Church in Ireland itself had a crucial role in destroying the language. This is truly an example of the Irish diaspora being ‘níos Gaelaí ná na Gaeil iad féin’. However, there are certain aspects of the review that I wish to take issue with. His description of groups such as Cuideacht Gaedhilge Uladh as being ‘barely noticed’ confused me. People who are genuinely interested in the history of the language, such as Prof. Alan Titley, have done their best to document these groups. Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh’s focus on such groups, while commendable and justified, is not ground-breaking in itself. On we go from puzzling to misleading: the suggestion that nineteenth-century Irish nationalism was a liability to Irish seems somewhat ambiguous, insofar as he doesn’t go into too much detail. Is it he suggesting that nationalist groups were somehow fighting against the language? Not even the most dedicated ‘revisionist’ historian would opt for the latter explanation (touch wood!). I wanted to voice such doubts in the interest of honouring several noteworthy nationalists who, as individuals, certainly did their best for Irish: William Smith O’Brien and John Mitchel of the Young Irelanders; Mícheál Caomhánach (Michael Cavanagh); John O’Mahony (Seán Ó Mathúna); and Marcas Ó Roighin (Mark Ryan) of the Fenian movement. Of all of the above, Mitchel is an exception in that his language activities are not documented on the bibliographical database but rather in The sword of light (1939) by Brendan Ryan. Perhaps, in conclusion, we can amend Mr Ó Drisceoil’s sentiments slightly by acknowledging the fact that nationalists/republicans, as individuals rather than groups, were no more at fault than anyone else?—Yours etc.,


Glanmire, Co. Cork


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