Official Ireland built a stage for Adams’s Irish Language Act
OF all the tricks that Gerry Adams ever pulled, this one about the Irish Language Act is perhaps the most inspired. It may even be his masterpiece.
That it has come so late in his career is a testament not just to the brilliance of the Act itself, but to the indefatigable character of its inventor, whose work it seems is never done in the pursuit of his visions.
From Martin McGuinness you got a sense that IRA/ Sinn Fein had reached the end of something — it might not have been the truth but it was definitely a sense, an impression he gave, that his best work, as it were, was behind him.
Adams, meanwhile, was just about to enter this remarkable late period, pushing 70 and still flourishing, still capable of landing such a haymaker.
Yes, it was a new trick — but like the best tricks of this nature it drew on a familiar resource, on a tradition stretching back to antiquity. He took a sad song, and made it better.
It was there all the time, this Irish Language Act — or at least the Irish language was there, but it took a special talent to work it up into an Act. It took Gerry Adams to see the possibilities of it, the potential it had for causing trouble in Northern Ireland and eventually (with any luck) in the Republic, unrecognised by so many — but not by one Gearoid Mac Adhaimh.
Anyone unfamiliar with “the situation” in Northern Ireland might assume that for this Irish Language Act to be the “red line” issue for republicans in 2017, it must have been burning away as a source of grievance for decades, maybe even for centuries. In fact it has only been around in any meaningful sense since... oh, let me see... last week?
But it is said to represent more ancient themes such as parity of esteem and human rights and so forth, which Gerry Adams feels that his people are not getting, and will not be getting until a sufficient number of them are employed translating official documents into Irish, or converting the road signs of Northern Ireland into bilingual form.
For this, he is declaring an end to whatever they were calling a government up there. For this, he has called off the whole show.
But even as he savours it, he would have to admit that his inspiration for this stunningly cynical manoeuvre is not really coming from the North, and its attitude to the Irish language. It is coming from the South.
This is the true genius of it, the way it draws so cleverly on Ireland’s vast store of unmitigated bullshit in that domain. This is why it is working, and why Adams knew it would work — the heavy lifting had already been done by Official Ireland itself, which has devoted itself for generations to the construction of elaborate fictions about the Irish language, what it is, and what it means.
Readers will know that I have written much on this, not by way of argument about the language itself, but about the state of mind of a ruling class which can maintain and encourage a belief in things which are demonstrably non-existent. About the psychology of that official culture which can take a statistic from the Census — such as the one about 1.7 people being able to “speak Irish” — and proceed on that basis, knowing it to be ridiculous.
I have suggested that if we can pretend that loads of people can speak a language when we know for sure that this almost never happens outside of an institutional setting, then it shows that we have quite a large capacity for official self-delusion. And that this is bound to manifest itself in areas beyond the relatively small one of Irish language policy — so that, on reflection, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that we seem to keep going bankrupt. Or that we have a police force which has moved itself largely into the realm of fiction. Or that there’s nobody in charge any more, who knows how to build a house.
I have been drawn to Irish language policy as the chief indicator of this tendency, because it is so crushingly obvious. Because in my entire life on this island, nobody has ever initiated a conversation with me in this language, outside of one of those institutions in which it is artificially preserved. Because we know all this, for sure, as individuals, and yet on some grander level we are prepared to entertain an alternative version — a false version, if you like.
And wherever any false version of Ireland is being propagated, at some point in the proceedings there is always a chance that you’ll see the familiar silhouette of one Gearoid Mac Adhaimh — as he is never called.
He knows that Official Ireland loves the Irish language, or at least loves to pretend that it loves the Irish language, and so he knows they are stymied here. That they can hardly be calling bulls**t on him for his Act, when their own act has been going on since the foundation of the State.
He knows how intellectually lazy they are, how there was once a time when writers such as John B Keane would protest loudly against Compulsory Irish, but that there is now virtually nobody from that neighbourhood who sees anything wrong with it, or who can be bothered mentioning it in civilised company. So it is working beautifully for him, this trick which is taking its strength from the weakness of the South on this subject, which can be heard to excellent effect when some DUP type arrives on RTE to oppose the Irish Language Act — or at least its recent elevation to a high place in the pantheon of republican pieties.
If you could name one “core value” still left in RTE, it is a devotion to the Irish language, or at least to the maintenance of the body of fiction which supports that thriving industry — thriving to the extent that recently we learned that the cost of translating material into Irish was reportedly the reason for a major overspend on a European Parliament project. And the Taoiseach, like many upper middle-class people before him, is apparently all for it, choosing de Varad as the Irish version of his name, or, if you like, making up an Irish version of his name. Knowing that it never did anyone any harm before, in the higher echelons of this Republic.
Ah, they really do love that stuff, in Official Ireland. So when some loyalist bozo appears on RTE Radio dissing the Irish language as a dead thing, you will hear the presenter immediately jump in with an instinctive rebuttal, perhaps some line about “the success of the gaelscoil movement”. And at that moment, if you listen carefully, you will also hear the chuckling of Gearoid Mac Adhaimh, as the bourgeois bi-lingualists of the South do his dirty work for him.
It is he who is performing the trick, but it is they who have built the stage for him. And some of them are cheering too.
‘Their own act has been going on since the foundation of the State’