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  • Saturday, November 11, 2006


    Forbidden Irish

    My housemate, She-Who-is-Known-as-Fierce-Celt, brought a story to my attention today. I think the relevance is cross-cultural and cross-national.

    The facts are a little blurry but a Celtic League press release (pdf) says:
    Ireland must call into question whether with the 'rebranding' of the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] as the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] anything has changed in relation to police attitudes to the nationalist community.

    Máire Nic an Bhaird, a young woman from Belfast, experienced at first hand the attitude of the PSNI whilst chatting in Irish in the street with some of her teacher friends. It is alleged that a member of the PSNI left his vehicle and insulted her, demanding that she stop speaking that 'leprechaun language' and speak the 'Queens English in her country'. When, understandably she refused and stood up for her rights she was arrested and charged with obstruction and disorderly behaviour. [emphasis and bracket info added.]
    Irish (sometimes called Irish Gaelic) is the native language of Éire (Ireland). Speaking it was, shall we say, strongly discouraged during 19th and 20th centuries when England controlled the country. Thus it also has very strong connections to the Republican movement in Ireland, although I doubt its use is exclusive to that political community. In fact, it is slated to become an officially recognized language of the European Union on January 1, 2007.

    Of interest to me is the response on some of the message boards. (Here) It's obvious many people look down on the language, denigrating the woman merely for speaking it at all. I can't find any information indicating that Máire Nic an Bhaird, the 24 year old teacher who was arrested, did anything aggressive beyond answering the policeman in Irish rather than addressing him in English. Yet I've seen people assert that she was shouting Republican slogans at the policeman. The level of vitriol aimed at her is astonishing and reflects an obvious conflation of the language with the IRA's tactics and bombs.

    On ElBlogador, I found this at the end of the comments by someone named Colleen:
    I was in Belfast this morning to lend support to Máire Nic an Bhaird, the 24 year old school teacher that was put in jail over night for speaking her native language on the streets of the city in which she lives. I spoke to her briefly and asked her many of the questions that have been posed here in this forum. On the night in question it appears that she was announcing to friends that she had a lift home and saying goodbye to them in Irish. She was not chanting republican slogans! A police man approached her and actually grabbed hold of her and said she couldn't speak Irish. She was doing nothing wrong at all. She was not trying to get out of a misconduct scrape by using Irish, she was minding her own business and the police officer approached HER. He told her that he would put her in jail if she continued to speak Irish -- that she lived in the UK and that English was the language she should be speaking. She responded calmly to him that he could not put her in jail for speaking in Irish. But he did. I agree that the way the case is being described in the media puts such an emphasis on efforts to have her trial in Irish that no one has grasped how awful the incident really was. It is also very unfortunate that other political parties in addition to Sinn Féin have not condemed this incident. I watched the film 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley' a few months ago and in the very beginnng a 17 year old boy is shot for giving his name in Irish. It's a startling scene and I remember thinking how grateful I was that I lived in an era where this couldn't happen. I went today to stand outside the courthouse in Belfast because I'm appalled that such antiquated attitudes toward the Irish language are oficially upheld anywhere, least of all Belfast, and that these attitudes have not been immediately and severely criticized by the public at large. No matter what one's interest, ability or personal feeling towards the Irish language is, how could anyone not agree that people are allowed to speak it in private conversations on the street wherever they choose? [sic throughout and emphasis mine]
    I think it takes little imagination to transfer this situation to the US where non-English speakers are routinely demonized. Aggressive measures to make English the "official" US language are common despite evidence that the overwhelming majority of immigrants (legal and illegal) become conversationally proficient in English within their first year in the US. Yet many US citizens seem fearstriken by the idea of a "brown menace" threatening to consume "white" culture.

    To borrow from Futurama's Bender: "Racism is such an ugly word. I prefer Xenophobia. The "X" makes it sexy."

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