Of­fi­cial Ire­land built a stage for Adams’s Ir­ish Lan­guage Act

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Viewpoint - De­clan Lynch

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’

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