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Tír gan Teanga, Tír gan Anam: An Irish Stew?

The Letter, Issue 1, Summer 1994, Pages 1 - 16


Cormac Gallagher


This morning I am going to try to approach a topic which has been in the back of my mind for many years and which the theme of this congress and the presence of colleagues from varied linguistic backgrounds has obliged me to consider more explicitly: the position of Irish people with regard to their native tongue and in particular the effect of the position on our patients' sense of identity and on a practice of psychoanalysis that lays such emphasis on speech and language.

It is not a theme that I feel I could approach with any degree of serenity before a purely Irish audience because of the negative reactions that it would almost certainly give rise to. From infant classes up to university entrance, and later in application for state jobs, the national policy of making Irish the spoken language of the country meant that compulsory Irish was a near universal experience for citizens of the Irish republic since the 1920's and the confusion of tongues resulting from this schooling in a language which had virtually no place outside the classroom came to be seen as a root cause of learning disabilities and other manifestations of psychological distress.

From an ideological point of view the Irish language became the badge of a very unpleasant type of Catholic nationalism which, in the words of Flann O'Brien, assumed a "mystical relationship between the jig, the Irish language, abstinence from alcohol, morality and salvation" and erected a further unnecessary barrier between the different racial stocks inhabiting this island. Not surprisingly, lack of proficiency in a language that had been studied for ten years at school, became a mark of enlightenment and superior social standing and connoted a rejection of the vulgarity and insularity associated with the whole notion of a Gaelic speaking Ireland.

For many then the publication in 1990 of Reg Hindley's book The Death of the Irish Language [1], with its demonstration that the residual number of native Irish speakers who are in a position to transmit the language to their children is exactly 8,751, was welcomed as the final proof that this chapter of Irish history should now be closed.

But, as Hindley indicates, his obituary is a qualified one and despite the imminent death of the language in traditional Irish speaking areas he admits that transformation rather than death might be a better way to describe what has been happening:

"The metamorphosis of Irish from the disparaged and unwritten dialects of an impoverished and remotely located peasantry into the modern literary but second language of a privileged urban elite is indeed a great achievement and one without international parallels except for the still more remarkable revival of Hebrew in the unique circumstances of modern Israel"[2].

The position of the Irish people towards their language has often struck outside observers as peculiar when compared to that of other colonised peoples. Of course English had to be learnt. A vigorous policy of anglicisation had long been enforced as a requirement for successful colonisation since as the pre-Shakespearean Edmund Spenser put it: "the speache beinge Irishe the harte must nedes be Irishe for out of the abundance of the harte the tonge speaketh"[3]. Later the developing power of the English language made it an essential tool for effective dealings with the outside world. But these factors alone do not seem sufficient to linguists to account for the radical decline of Irish as a spoken language. One Canadian professor has gone so far as to speak of the language committing suicide, a metaphor which may throw some light on the clinical experience of hearing contemporary native Irish speakers describe the loss of their language as like living with a permanently open wound. Others have spoken about the schizophrenic position of the Irish with regard to their language, a theme recently evoked in the very first interview by someone who came to me requesting an analysis.

In this very preliminary exploration I am not going to begin from clinical experience. Instead, in an attempt to clear my own head and to help you see your way in a confusing situation, I am going to present three figures who, as reflectors or formers of the Irish psyche, illustrate what I believe are some of the forces that have determined, and continue to determine, the position of the Irish with respect to a language which is enshrined in the constitution as the national language and as such is the first official language of the state.

Daniel O'Connell: Liberation by anglicisation

The Irish people repudiated the Irish language between 1750, when virtually the whole island outside the towns and the planted north-east was Gaelic speaking, and 1900 when only half of one percent of the population reported themselves as monoglot Irish speakers[4].

There is some paradox in the fact that the political leader most closely associated with that decline, either because he favoured it or did not attempt to arrest it, also came to be known as the Liberator of the native Irish people. The paradoxes associated with Daniel O'Connell, the man who gives his name to the main thoroughfare of the nation's capital, do not end there. Born in the most westerly tip of Ireland of an old Gaelic clan who by their isolation and ingenuity had managed to hold onto some of their land in the cataclysm that had befallen the Irish chieftains throughout the seventeenth century, O'Connell, following the ancient Irish custom of fosterage, was brought up in poverty in the mud cabin of a herdsman with Irish as his only language - an experience which his biographer claims gave him an intuitive sympathy with the native heart and mind that subsequent politicians have never equalled.

O’Connell then was totally and unselfconsciously bilingual and bicultural, absolutely assured of his Irishness with none of the restless questionings about identity that would characterise the Romantic nationalism which succeeded him. As such his attitude to the Irish language seems curiously casual.

"1 am sufficiently utilitarian" he told an inquirer in 1833 "not to regret its gradual abandonment. A diversity of tongues is no benefit; it was first imposed on mankind as a curse, at the building of Babel. It would be of vast advantage to mankind if all the inhabitants of the earth spoke the same language. Therefore though the Irish language is connected with many recollections that twine around the heart of Irishmen, yet the superior utility of the English tongue, as the medium of all modern communication, is so great that I can witness without a sigh the gradual disuse of Irish"[5].

The principal aim of O'Connell was to raise the spirit of the Irish Catholic masses who had been cowed into slavery by a century of repressive legislation introduced by the English parliament to ensure that the seventeenth century rebellions, which had marked the death throes of the native Gaelic civilization, did not recur. Without land, without schools, without access to the professions, without the right to exercise their religion, the people had learned to cringe before their masters in a way quite recently remarked on by a visiting American analyst as still being characteristically Irish.

O'Connell's reaction to this legislation was that of an outraged hereditary chieftain who found himself abased and marginalized in his own country. But since he had ruled out physical violence after himself having experienced the effects of the Terror during his schooldays at St. Omer, O'Connell as a barrister first and then as a politician set out to be a master of English law in order to subvert that law. It was the policy he advocated to the impoverished millions he mobilized: "Master the language of the master in order to defeat the master".

His indifference to the loss of the cultural heritage of the Irish language may have been due in part to his turning away from Europe, and in particular France, to an idealization of George Washington who had "found his country a pitiful province of England... [and] left her an independent and mighty nation". But O'Connell was no separatist. He was content to have his people become "West Britons", as he put it, if they were accorded the economic and political rights enjoyed by other British subjects. Such a vision left very little place to linguistic and cultural considerations.

The Catholic hierarchy which also began to reassert itself around this time was as indifferent to the native language as O'Connell. Indeed since the only Irish Bible had been translated by Protestants, the Church saw the anglicisation of their flock as a protection against the efforts of the evangelizing missionaries who used it to maximize the inroads they were making into Gaelic speaking Ireland. The soul of the Irish people was to be saved not through the preservation of the language of their ancestors but through their adherence to the teaching of a Church which, with its universalist mission, was seduced by the power of English as an instrument of communication.

O'Connell and the bishops dreamt of recreating the Golden Age, when Ireland was an island of saints and scholars sending its learned missionaries to a Europe plunged in the ignorance of the Dark Ages. The missionary expansion of the Irish Church throughout the world in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries surpassed all their expectations. But curiously the achievement of these modern apostles could be seen from another perspective as a work of colonization and deculturation which served as an adjunct to the British imperial expansionism of which they themselves had been the first victims. I would hazard a guess that the moralistic and anti-intellectual stance of modern Irish Catholicism, particularly in Ireland and America, has its roots in this utilitarian rejection of the Irish language which arose from an insensitivity to the place of language in the creation of subjectivity.

Perhaps we can throw some light on the mysterious change in the national psychology which around 1800 led to a collective decision to abandon the Irish language in favour of English, by seeing it as the dawning of a new spirit of utilitarianism usually seen as foreign to the Irish character. O'Connell, a friend of Bentham, who liked to describe himself as "Catholic man of business", cultivated that spirit and the psychoanalyst in Ireland is obliged to recognise how powerfully the utilitarian approach to language continues to influence both the theories of mental illness that enjoy the greatest vogue in this country and the patients that we welcome into analysis.

Throughout the nineteenth century the Irish, despite a famine which halved the population, began systematically to win back the land and the freedom they had been dispossessed of, and to reassert their Catholicism with ever-increasing confidence. An Irish diaspora was created which today numbers 70 million people who have made their mark as priests, politicians and business men in their communities of adoption. In all of this the non-usefulness of the Irish language remained the criterion which ensured its accelerating abandonment.

Both among the rapidly diminishing population of native speakers and those subjected to compulsory Irish in the efforts to revive the language the most corrosive question has always been: What use is it? - as if a language were not what creates a subject or a people, rather than being simply an instrument of communication to be abandoned when a more useful one appears.

Patrick Pearse: "Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam"

The Irish people by their actions throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear in their vast majority to have been in profound disaccord with the thesis underlying the theme of this Congress. Can we even say that they disproved it. They at least did not see themselves as the servants of language, moulded by its signifying structure, but rather as its masters.

It was left to members of the Irish Protestant ascendancy who dreamt of an Ireland united by a sense of its Celtic past to warn that adopting the language of one's masters, especially at the cost of one's own, was not a path to emancipation but rather to a more profound spiritual slavery. By the mid-eighteenth century the language was the only aspect of native Irish culture that had not been colonized and destroyed. It had been, writes a contemporary Welsh observer, the Irishman's "key.... to a world of treasures, the world of his history, his dreams, his beliefs, indeed, his self-esteem; into that world the foreigner could not follow him"[6]. But now in the utilitarian search for political muscle it was being sacrificed.

By the middle of the nineteenth century Thomas Davis, who today stands in Dame Street confronting his alma mater, Trinity College, was already warning that "a people without a language of its own is only half a nation", but it was almost the end of the century before Douglas Hyde, another Trinity graduate, who would become the first President of Ireland, began fully to articulate what he saw as the linguistic and cultural suicide that accompanied the growing political power of Irish Catholics. A child of the manse, Hyde had been astonished to discover that some of the illiterate peasants around his home had miraculously preserved the oral tradition of a literature that had been composed centuries earlier. The horror he felt at the uncaring way in which the continuity of Irish life was being destroyed can be sensed in a quotation from his Literary history of Ireland, published in 1901:

"A friend of mine travelling in the County Clare sent me three Irish MSS the other day, which he found the children tearing to pieces on the floor. One of these, about one hundred years old, contained a saga called 'the love of Dubhlaca for Mongon', which M d’Arbois de Jubainville had searched the libraries of Europe for in vain. It is true that another copy of it has since been discovered, and printed and annotated with all the learning and critical acumen of two such world-renowned scholars as Professor Kuno Meyer and Mr Alfred Nutt both of whom considered it of the highest value as elucidating the psychology of the ancient Irish. The copy thus recovered and sent to me is twice as long as that printed by Kuno Meyer, and had the copy from which he printed it been lost it would be unique"[7].

The spectacle of Irish peasants allowing children to desecrate a precious manuscript might have confirmed David Hume in his view of the Irish as buried in barbarism and ignorance from the beginning of time, and owing what little civilization they had acquired to their British colonizers. But for Hyde and his successors it meant that the Irish, led by political and ecclesiastical masters, were abandoning a literary and cultural tradition which could be traced back in an unbroken line to the Celtic civilizations of Hallstat and La Tene. The language of Vercingertorix - and Asterix - might have fled mainland Europe since the Roman conquest but it had been substantially preserved and developed in Ireland for two millennia and after having survived the vicissitudes of a turbulent history it was now being thrown away.

The art-work of the pre-Roman Celtic sites flourished in Ireland until the tradition disappeared under the force of invasions which laid waste the monasteries of Early Christian Ireland, but what had survived destruction was the literary tradition comprising cycles of heroic and historical literature which described the adventures of heroes like Cuchulainn, Fionn McCumhaill- and of course Cormac Mac Airt. The greatest of these tales, The Táin, which was still told by illiterate storytellers well into the twentieth century, is reckoned to have been composed in the fourth century and formed part of the repertoire of hundreds of tales and poems which the professional Irish poets had to be ready to recite.

The oral tradition so characteristic of the European Celts was supplemented by a manuscript tradition after the christianisation of Ireland and this tradition too continued into the twentieth century. The circumstances which excluded Gaelic writers from the towns meant that the Gutenberg revolution passed Irish literature by to such an extent that Foras feasa ar Éirinn, a history of Ireland written in the early seventeenth century, became well known in hundreds of manuscript editions even though it was not printed in full until the early twentieth century.

Hyde, with the Gaelic League of which he was a founder, was not content with antiquarian laments about the loss of a glorious past nor satisfied to consign the study of that past to specialists in Celtic Studies. In the atmosphere of political disillusion following the fall of Parnell he began a missionary programme aimed at restoring Irish as the spoken language of the Irish people and, as he put it in a lecture to the National Literary Society on November 25 1892, "with the aid of the foremost foreign scholars to bring about a tone of thought which would make it disgraceful for an educated Irishman,., to be ignorant of his own language - would make it as disgraceful as for an educated Jew to be quite ignorant of Hebrew..."[8]. This in a spirit not of political but cultural nationalism which sat easily with Unionists and Home Rulers, Protestants and Catholics alike.

The Gaelic League opened a new chapter in the history of the relationship of the Irish to their language. Its message touched a deep chord in the Irish psyche. Hundreds of branches sprang up where people began to recover the language that had been lost by their parents and grandparents, and a crucial step forward was taken when Irish was made a required subject for matriculation in the new National University of Ireland.

One of the most prominent activists in the work of the Gaelic League was a young man who made his name first as a journalist and then as editor of the League's newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis - The Sword of Light. Patrick Pearse was executed after the Easter Rising of 1916 and even today is such a potent symbol of violent republican nationalism that his name is scarcely ever evoked except by revisionist historians who stigmatize him as a nostalgic utopian who transformed his dream of a Gaelic Ireland into the nightmare that we are still living on this island. Up to the mid-1960's he was revered - far more than the rather shadowy figure of O'Connell-as the true Liberator of his people. The place he held in the popular imagination can be gauged by the fact that when Galway Cathedral was opened in 1965 it contained a side-altar which featured busts of three hereos of modern Ireland: Pope John XXIII, President John F. Kennedy and Patrick Pearse.

But what makes Pearse such an essential element in trying to situate the position of the Irish with regard to their language, and what has undergone a certain amnesia on the part of Pearse,s friends as well as his enemies, is that it was this spirit of cultural rather than political nationalism that dominated almost his whole life. When Tom Kettle, a distinguished Home Ruler who was also to die in 1916, but with the British army in France, argued that Irish political independence was indispensable, Pearse disagreed:

… the language movement is not merely more important than the political movement, but it is on a different and altogether higher plane... Political autonomy… may... be necessary to the continued existence of the Nation - in the case of Ireland it probably is - but it is not, in itself, an essential of nationality[9]".

What finally converted Pearse, around 1912, to the republican doctrine of physical force and gave rise to the spate of inflammatory articles and speeches by which he is best remembered is not our concern here except to note that it was not part of the logic of the revival of the Irish language. Only a tiny, a very tiny, minority of Irish language enthusiasts accepted as necessary the link between the Irish language revival and the need for a violent separation from Britain. Whatever about his life-long addiction to tales about the warlike exploits of Ireland's mythological heroes and whatever sustenance he drew from those myths when he finally was moved to violence, Pearse came very late to political action and even later to military action and despite his title of President of the Provisional Government of Ireland, he was by no means the effective political or military leader of the Rising.

What seems to have given him his extraordinary power over the Irish psyche, a power that was amplified through the poetry of William Butler Yeats, was that he became identified with the revival of Irish. In a very real sense he was less a martyr for Ireland than for the Irish language, which he saw as embodying the nation's soul. "Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam", a country without a language is a country without a soul, was for the generations who followed him the epitome of Pearse's message. What he meant by the soul he tried to formulate in an article entitled "The Spiritual Nation".

"When I was a child I believed that there was actually a woman called Erin... This I no longer believe as a physical possibility, nor can I convince myself that a friend of mine is right in thinking that there is actually a mystical entity which is the soul of Ireland. But I believe that there is really a spiritual tradition which is the soul of Ireland, the thing which makes Ireland a living nation... The spiritual thing which is the essential thing in nationality would seem to reside chiefly in language (if by language we understand literature and folklore as well as sounds and idioms), and to be preserved chiefly by language"[10].

Pearse’s goal was not simply the static preservation or the passive relearning of the tradition. He also wanted to transform Irish into a modern literary language. Along with an idealization of the Irish peasantry from whom his mother was descended Pearse also inherited a very practical streak from his father, a free-thinking Englishman who had built up the largest stonemasonry business in Ireland after pragmatically converting to the faith of his biggest customers, the Catholic clergy. He experimented with new forms of short story writing, set up a bi-lingual school much admired by educationalists, and produced a considerable body of translations of Irish prose and poetry. Even if his ultimate fate had been less romantically heroic there is no doubt that his work would still entitle him to the place given him by the most contemporary critics as a founding father of the modern Irish literary tradition.

James Joyce: An Irish stew?

James Joyce’s relationship to the Irish language has generally been seen by his biographers as having begun and ended in the Spring of 1899 when the seventeen-year-old Joyce began to attend Irish classes given by the nineteen-year-old Pearse at the Jesuit University College in Dublin. Joyce, the story goes, found the earnest Pearse a bore and was so irritated by his habit of denigrating English in order to elevate Irish that he left after a few classes in order to study Ibsen's Norwegian.

Critics have so stressed the poverty of his Irish library and his ignorance of Gaelic scholarship that it comes as a surprise to find Joyce's most recent biographer, Peter Costello, hinting at an interest in the activities of the Gaelic League that goes far beyond what is usually accepted. This is partly based on the Census form of 1901, in which Joyce's father noted that James both spoke and wrote Irish, and previously unnoticed records of his attendance at meetings of the League.

Whatever about these newly discovered biographical details Joyce's work, especially the Portrait, provides ample evidence of his, or his alter ego Stephen Daedalus', struggle with the place the Irish artist is to give to Irish.

Part of this struggle had to do with the realization that even for someone as remote from the Irish-speaking tradition as himself - although he was distantly related to Daniel O'Connell - the English language was still the language of the coloniser. This is vividly portrayed in his brooding on an encounter with the English-born Dean of Studies who professes never to have heard the word "tundish", which Stephen had used instead of "funnel":

"The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine. I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language".

"Tundish" returns to haunt him as he prepares for his exile: "I looked it up and find it English and good blunt English too. Damn the Dean of Studies with his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us? Damn him one way or the other!"

The unease at speaking an English language which fails to capture something essentially Irish is reflected too in Ulysses. "I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money", says the professor in the "Aeolus" chapter.

When he made the first gramophone record of his work, Joyce chose from the same chapter a speech defending the revival of the Irish language, comparing the attractions of English for the Irish to the seductions Egyptian civilization offered the Jews:

"But, ladies and gentlemen, had the youthful Moses listened to and accepted that view of life, had he bowed his head and bowed his will and bowed his spirit before that arrogant admonition he would never have brought the chosen people out of the house of bondage nor followed the pillar of cloud by day. He would never have spoken with the Eternal amid lightnings on Sinai's mountain top nor ever have come down with the light of inspiration shining in his countenance and bearing in his arms the tables of the law, graven in the language of the outlaw"

If this speech is as some critics would have it a statement of Joyce's artistic credo it must seem that he acknowledges the efforts of the revivalists to bring the people out of bondage as being not dissimilar to his own.

But to Joyce the voice bidding him "be true to his country and help to raise up her fallen language and tradition"[11] was just another seduction he would have to resist. To it as to the voice of his mother calling him back to the practice of religion he would ultimately answer, 'I will not serve". In the Portrait his friend Davin, who "worshipped the sorrowful legend of Ireland" and like Pearse had "shaped his rude imagination by the broken lights of Irish myth", tries to win Stephen Daedalus back to the Gaelic League and is scornfully rebuffed.

"My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made?.. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets".

The Ireland that Pearse saw as a lonely mother - an Cailleach Béara - calling her sons and daughters to vindicate her, Joyce saw as "the old sow that eats her farrow". To wake from the nightmare of Irish history and be faithful to his calling as an artist involved physical flight from Ireland. Like many other exiles he found that the trip to Holyhead was the shortest route to Tara.

The work that he fled Ireland to pursue could scarcely be defined in a more chauvinistic way: "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race". Joyce was just as concerned about the soul of his race as any of the Irish language revivalists. But for him it was a bat-like soul, at home only in the twilight, characterised by a grossness of intelligence and a bluntness of feeling which in Davin expressed itself "by a dull stare of terror in the eyes, the terror of soul of a starving Irish village in which the curfew was still a nightly fear". Rather than seeking it in the past Joyce saw the creation of the Irish soul as a task to be accomplished by going forward to encounter the reality of experience. Not for him Yeat's attempt to remember the loveliness which had long faded from the world; "I desire to press in my arms the loveliness which has not yet come into the world".

In place of the terrible beauty that inflamed the imagination of Pearse and Yeats, Joyce put into circulation a new signifier well fitted to test the consistency of Irish myths of uniqueness - an Irish Jew. This signifier allows of another signification - an Irish stew, a dish which in its lack of structure and sophistication, provides not a bad metaphor for the incoherence of a post-colonial society which has yet to find its way.

Into this formlessness Leopold Bloom introduces a spirit of universalism and braves the gibes and threats of nationalists to insist on his right to call himself Irish and to defy a definition based on racial or linguistic purity. His rejection of violence as a way to right Ireland's wrongs mirrors that of Joyce:

"Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life”.

It is ironic that modern Israel is constantly invoked by Irish language enthusiasts as proof that a long-dead language can be revived and become spoken by a modern state. There is no doubt that they are right in claiming that Irish is as suitable a medium for modern communication as Hungarian or Finnish or Hebrew.

If a century of Irish revivalism has failed to convince the Irish people that to lose their language is to lose their soul perhaps it is because the soul has lost its appeal as that which must at all costs be saved. It may be that to point out the pivotal role of language in the assumption of their subjectivity and their desire could produce a different effect.

In any case it seems to me that to put the consequences of the death of the Irish language on the agenda of analysts working in Ireland can scarcely fail to produce fruitful questions both for the language and for psychoanalysis.



[1] R. Hindley. The Death of the Irish Language, London, Routledge, 1990.

[2] ibid p. 42.

[3] J. Caerwyn Williams and P. Ford. The Irish Literary Tradition. Cardiff, University of

Wales Press, 1992, p. 255

[4] Hindley, op. cit. p .19.

[5] O. MacDonagh. The Life of Daniel O'Connell 1775 -1847. London, Weidenfeld and

Nicolson, 1991, p .11.

[6] Williams and Ford, op. cit. p. 8.

[7] ibid p. 6.

[8] R. O'Glaisne. Dubhglas de h'Ide (1860 -1949). Dublin, Conradh na Gaeilge, 1991, p. 97.

[9] R.D. Edwards. Patrick Pearse, The Triumph of Failure. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1990,

p. 71.

[10] P. MacAonghusa and L. O'Reagain (Eds). The Best of Pearse. Cork, Mercier Press, 1967, p.153.

[11] J. Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London, Paladin Books, 1988, p. 86.

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