More Irish Than the Irish Themselves?

Published in Issue 2 (Summer 1999), Letters, Letters, Volume 7

Sir,—I refer to the article by Steven G. Ellis in your Spring 1999 issue, ‘“More Irish Than the Irish Themselves”? the “Anglo-Irish” in Tudor Ireland’. For the Tudor period especially, Dr Ellis attempts to restore to the people he calls ‘the English of Ireland’ their English identity, and argues that our modern Irish identity is a product of Tudor state formation, and that it owes little to that of the Old Irish. The Irish nation of old, he says, spanned two countries, Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland. Dr Ellis admits that he has been pilloried as an Englishman who opposes Irish nationalism. What a hopeless mish-mash! Dr Ellis would seek to banish one set of errors by replacing them with a completely new set.
Long ago Eoin Mac Néill distinguished clearly between nationality and nationalism. English nationalism has gone to Dr Ellis’s head. He could do worse than follow Mac Néill. Firstly, Dr Ellis insists on the Englishness of the descendants of the twelfth-century colonists. When exactly did their ruling elite become English? For that matter, when did that elite in England become English? After all, French was spoken by these people in Ireland until the latter part of the fourteenth century. Even after that, French was used as a lingua franca for certain commercial and legal purposes. Does the mere fact of speaking English, or using English as a written language, make a people English? If so, many African nations would qualify.
The notion that Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland were the one nation until the mid-sixteenth century, or so, is pure codology, and ignores the respective histories of both countries. Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic were becoming separate languages from about the thirteenth century. Only in areas such as Rathlin Island was there an intermediate dialect. Portuguese and Spanish had the one origin, but they are definitely separate languages today, and have been so for several centuries. Try convincing a Catalan that his/her language is really the same language as Castilian! Dr Ellis conveniently avoids the difficult subject of Manx Gaelic, which was in fact a creole of Gaelic and Norse. That is not to say that the language of Bardic Poetry, so-called ‘Classical Modern Irish’, was not understood over this whole area by the very small elite who practised it. Classical Arabic forms a bond between the various Arab nations, but not all vernacular Arab languages are universally understood by Arabs.
Politically, most Irish Gaelic chieftains, for the period in question, were loyal to the English crown. But so weak was the connection with the English crown, that outward adherence paradoxically assured these Gaelic chieftains of independence for most practical purposes. In spite of what Dr Ellis says, it is clear from his book that there was a considerable amount of Gaelicisation of Norman and English colonists. It is widely acknowledged that there was inter-marriage. Inter-marriage can make a nonsense of the most ingrained racism.
In the end, what brought about inchoate political unity between the Old Irish, the Normans, and their English fellow-travellers, was their adherence, in varying degrees, to the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Even then a division develops between the Ultramontane wing, and the Gallican wing. There were prominent Irish Gaelic writers on both wings. Because the Stuarts were failing to deliver, the separatist element was strengthened in the Ultramontane wing. One could have expected the development of a Gallican wing, given the Norman influence. The fact that the Irish Gaelic language declined over the centuries was not something that was absolutely inevitable. Genocide, famine, wars, emigration, and finally native anglicisation—all these took their toll in the end.
As the bardic poet, Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa, said, in another context, ‘ionmholta malairt bhisigh’ [a change for the better is praiseworthy]. Dr Ellis’s contribution is hardly an improvement.—Yours etc.,


See pp.22-26  this issue.


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