Eire-Ireland:Journal of Irish Studies

Journal of Irish Studies: Editors’ introduction: language and identity in twentieth-century Ireland

Editors’ introduction: language and identity in twentieth-century Ireland

Maria Tymoczko

What the eye is to the lover … language–whatever language

history has made his or her mother-tongue–is to the patriot.

Through that language, encountered at mother’s knee and parted

with only at the grave, pasts are restored, fellowships are

imagined, and futures dreamed.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities

The exercise of power, in modern society, is increasingly achieved

through ideology, and more particularly through the ideological

workings of language.

Norman Fairclough, Language and Power

WHAT is the language of “the Irish patriot”? Can a country be composed of patriots who speak different languages? Can patriots have more than one language? Can a patriot be ignorant of his language? Questions such as these have been central to cultural and political debates in Ireland for more than a century, and they have problematized interpretations of history as well. Language issues were fundamental during the Irish Revival, they were cornerstones of Irish nationalism, and they remained part of public discourse both in the Irish Republic and in Northern Ireland throughout the twentieth century, continuing on into the twenty-first.

These questions about language derive from a paradigm of nationalism that took shape in the nineteenth century and that continues to inform contemporary understandings of nation. In this paradigm a people must have more than a territory to claim nationhood: there must be a language, a distinct culture, and a national history as well. Language–belonging to the social sphere and rooted in the depths of time–becomes a figure for the imagined community and its history projected into the past (Anderson 1991:144-45). From the middle of the nineteenth century, Irish nationalism has responded to this paradigm. It fueled the nineteenth-century publication program unearthing the medieval treasures in the Irish language–the annals, the laws, the lore, and the ancient literature–as well as the philological project of the twentieth-century Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, financed by the Irish state. It lies behind Douglas Hyde’s program to de-Anglicize Ireland and revive the Irish language, as well as late twentieth-century efforts to claim Ulster Scots as a distinct minority language. Such a paradigm made possible turn-of-the-century accusations of “West Briton.” (1) It drove the de Valera constitution of 1937 and public policy in the Republic for decades, and it continues to influence the way cultural and linguistic groups position themselves within European Union policies both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic.

Inspired by Enlightenment discourses and the ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite, nationalism in the eighteenth century did not share this fixation on language or privilege questions of language. Eighteenth-century paradigms of nationalism were more tolerant of coalitions across language boundaries, more inclusive along cultural lines. The difference can be seen in the 1798 Rising, which attempted to forge solidarity across faultlines of ethnicity, religion, and language. In many ways Daniel O’Connell was such an Irish patriot, speaking Irish fluently himself but content to encourage the nation to turn to the English language. Ironically for Ireland the shift from eighteenth-century to nineteenth-century models of nationalism coincided with the rapid decline of the Irish language. Having held onto the Irish language throughout the eighteenth century, the harsh restrictions of Penal Laws notwithstanding, in the nineteenth century the Irish people made a dramatic shift to English, and the majority gave up speaking Irish. The reasons for the shift are many–the required use of English in the national schools certainly, but more pressing were economic compulsions, factors that became inescapable to the citizenry after the terrible losses of the Great Famine in mid-century. (2)

Just when nationalism demanded the possession of a national language for nationhood, therefore, Irish was on the wane in Ireland, threatening the legitimacy of Ireland’s demand for sovereignty. Irish cultural nationalism and its political counterparts were largely English-language operations, but with the founding of the Gaelic League and the language movement, Irish nationalism took a stand, refusing to let Irish die or be reduced to a sort of archaeological trace, a political memory of a fossilized past. A sign of the new commitment to the Irish language is a story told about W.B. Yeats: once, when asked what his language was, Yeats answered unhestitatingly that it was Irish, acknowledging that unfortunately he did not know the language. For the bulk of Irish people in the twentieth century, Irish has become a second language at best, seen primarily as the language of ancestors: the language of the nation used to reflect the nation backward in time is, paradoxically, not the language that most people speak most of the time. Like their emigrant cousins of the Irish diaspora, the Irish in Ireland have also become migrants in culture and speech if not in space.

Yet this does not mean that the Irish language can be viewed as an epiphenomenon in Irish cultural and political life or in questions of Irish identity. One of the most significant aspects of the recommitment to Irish has been the practice of cultural translation in Ireland: the movement into English-language culture of many aspects of Irish-language literature, culture, and history, and the integration of the island’s multilingual heritage into a joint cultural field. Cultural translation and integration are patent in the literature of the Revival: the translation of Irish speech and the valorization of Hiberno-English by J.M. Synge, the retellings and refractions of Irish literature by Augusta Gregory and Douglas Hyde, and the use of Irish mythos by W.B. Yeats, just to name some of the obvious. (3) Such cultural translation continued throughout the twentieth century, becoming a normative basis for intellectual and artistic life in the Republic.

The result was a bicultural literary tradition in the twentieth century in Ireland, what Thomas Kinsella (1970, 1995) called first a “divided tradition” and then later a “dual tradition.” By the end of the twentieth century, whatever their primary language, most artists in Ireland could draw from all aspects of Ireland’s multilingual culture, crossing freely the lines of language and tradition, claiming as heritage for their artistic identity materials that had origins in Irish-language culture equally with English-language culture. For most people in Ireland, like Ireland’s writers, the habitual world of reference has become bicultural and, thus, implicitly bilingual: the dual tradition is the foundation of cultural literacy.

It is clear that a successful nationalist movement must involve more than rhetoric and linguistic shifts. Nonetheless, it is easy to dismiss or underestimate the ideological importance of the Irish literary efforts at the turn of the twentieth century unless we understand the relationship of language and power. Revivalist discourses about the rationale for using the Irish language at the turn of the twentieth century couched the matter largely in terms of the framework provided by nineteenth-century nationalism, as we have seen. Since then, however, new discourses and new frameworks have opened up other ways of interpreting the language movement and its program of cultural translation. These new modes of speaking about language in Ireland are predicated on the central intellectual shift in Western thought during the twentieth century: the abandonment of positivism, followed by a self-reflexive postpositivist insistence on the importance of frameworks and perspectives. Attention to frameworks reveals how language and power are related, indicating that language takes its meaning from larger ideological and discursive structures, and suggesting, in turn, that language can be used to shift those same ideological frameworks.

An important twentieth-century perspective that is useful for interpreting the relationship of language and identity in Ireland is postcolonial theory. Focusing on the power relations between the colonizing country and the colonized, postcolonial theory explores those asymmetries in terms of language, culture, and subject positions. Postcolonial theory sets in relief the way that English political and military dominance over Ireland–particularly as a result of the Tudor conquest and subsequent developments in the seventeenth century–undermined the position of Irish-language culture as an autonomous element in the European constellation. From the end of the seventeenth century, with the ascendancy of English power and the loss of Irish sovereignty, culture in the Irish language increasingly became Ireland’s other, subordinated to the developments and the dominant values in English-language culture. (4) Ironically, therefore, from being a major force in the creation of Europe in the early Middle Ages, Irish-language culture assumed roles analogous to those of the native cultures in Europe’s colonies. This changed status is central to what has made postcolonial theory germane to literary developments in Ireland during the last two centuries.

In its investigations postcolonial theory stresses the importance of culture and cultural issues: culture per se becomes problematized as colonized nations reach for political independence, because the subordination and eradication of native languages, ways of life, and cultural forms under colonization threaten to leave an emergent country politically liberated but still culturally bound to the colonizer after independence. The potential peril and the actual loss in this position inspired John Montague to develop the metaphors of the severed head and the grafted tongue, and to grapple with the problematic of language, a topic investigated by Robert Welch below. Beginning with the folk rhyme, “And who ever heard / Such a sight unsung / As a severed head / With a grafted tongue?,” Montague observes, “To grow / a second tongue, as / harsh a humiliation / as twice to be born.” (5) Within the framework of postcolonial theory, the reassertion of the Irish language and its associated cultural forms by the Irish Revival has clear political and ideological weight: language change becomes a form of action, a social practice. (6)

Postcolonial theorists have emphasized, however, that the postcolonial condition is not simply a matter of loss. It brings power as well: power to appropriate the colonizer’s culture and invest elements of it with new meanings, as well as power to subvert colonial cultural authority and cultural forms. (7) Homi Bhabha has located this form of power in hybridity, and he cautions that hybridity “is not a third term that resolves the tension between two cultures” (1985:156). Instead, it creates “a crisis for any concept of authority based on a system of recognition,” allowing “other ‘denied’ knowledges [to] enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority–its rules of recognition” (1985:156). (8)

Thus, cultural translation undermines the presence of colonialist authority, creating hybrid “objects of epistemological or moral contemplation.” By a partializing process–a “metonymy of presence”–such translation disturbs “the construction of discriminary knowledges” (Bhabha 1985:156-57). Subject peoples can engage in a process of resignification of received knowledge–both their own and those of dominant cultures-through cultural hybridity. Seen in this light, the language movement in Ireland and its attendant cultural translation were fundamental means of engaging in a struggle for power within the movement for independence and of shifting Irish identity. By undertaking the integration of Irish-language and English-language culture, the Revival established the conditions for the emergence of a decolonized cultural stance for Ireland. In drawing together the cultural domains that Ireland had inherited, the writers of the Revival made it possible for Irish literature and Irish culture to resist a marginalized position within English-language culture, providing a means of decentering the structures of cultural power as well. These are the strengths that the bicultural or dual literary tradition of twentieth-century Ireland could summon, and they are central to the preeminence of Irish literature in the English-speaking world throughout the last century.

Cultural struggles in the domain of language can wield this sort of power because of the properties of language itself. Postpositivist approaches to language stress the constructivist dimension of language. Language does not merely provide signs for preexisting structures of reality, as in a Platonic view of language: rather, language creates and establishes reality structures for speakers. The power of language to establish representations of the self, of the other, and of the world has come into focus with the abandonment of Platonic approaches to language. By extension, what is represented is what is known: language and knowledge are therefore intimately connected within the power structures of a culture. Such a post-positivst and post-Platonic perspective on language indicates how, by turning to the resources of the Irish language, cultural movements in Ireland found a way to break out of the prison-house of language constructed within dominant English-language culture for the Irish. Language revival, cultural translation, and hybridity were strategies of that break-out, forming the basis for reorganization of particular cultural discourses, as well as the order of discourse itself. This shift in the order of discourse impacted not only Ireland but England and other English-speaking countries also. (9)

Many of the discourses that imprisoned Irish culture have been well canvassed by Irish studies scholars. The stereotyping of the Irish by the English is particularly well known: the Irish were represented as animalistic, uncivilized, irrational, musical, happy and melancholic, violent and gentle, lazy and able to work like beasts, ignorant and cunning drunkards. L.P. Curtis notes the contradictions in the stereotypes; the political implication was that the Irish were so ambivalent and inconsistent that they could not know what they wanted in political institutions and could not be trusted to establish political consistency and order (1968: 54 ff., 1971:94-95). These stereotypes hardened throughout the nineteenth-century because of contemporary views about race, such that by the second half of the century the Irish had become simianized in dominant English culture. The language movement and its program of cultural translation were means of supplying alternate discourses and alternate models of Irishness that represented the Irish in new ways–as noble and heroic, for example–and that constructed new identities for both the Irish and the English in the process. (10) By interrupting ideological assumptions that undergird cultural coherence and support hegemony, (11) such alternative constructions of language are fundamental to the assertion of decolonized identities and inseparable from demands for justice.

The constructivist approach to language and representation outlined above illustrates the difficulty in defining people and their identities. But the problems go even deeper. Pierre Bourdieu has argued that culture–and, hence, personal and social identities–rests on dispositions which are expressed in terms of practices, often of a very particularized sort. Dispositions and practices are united in what he calls the habitus, “understood as a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions and makes possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks” (1977:82-83). Clearly it is difficult for those outside a system to define its cultural identity, because it is hard to perceive the dispositions and, hence, to understand the meaning of the practices. Bourdieu offers the further insight that it is also difficult for those inside a culture to describe their own habitus–and hence to define their own identity–because of a process of effacement that he describes as “history turned into nature,” history “denied as such” (1977:78). (12)

Language encodes both dispositions and practices. It is a fundamental aspect of any human culture that embodies its deepest perceptions, values, and social structures. (13) Language is also a major vehicle of the process of naturalizing history that Bourdieu delineates, for through language many aspects of life become experienced as “common sense”: the “obvious” way to talk and, hence, to think. (14) The naturalization processes in the constitution of the habitus and language present obstacles to innovation and change. Conversely, the reconstruction of discourses and representational structures can result from learning a new language or integrating the representations of two languages, whether that integration proceeds on an individual or a collective level. Language shift has the power to interrupt the dual processes of naturalization, thereby facilitating new perceptions of personal and cultural identities by bringing unconsciously accepted aspects of culture and language to conscious awareness. In part, therefore, the language revival movement in Ireland challenged dominant English-language culture by interrupting the naturalizations operating in language usage and identity formation. These challenges constituted a radical aspect of the language movement that later became tamed and coopted by the conservative power structures of the Irish state.

When a people is an imprisoned group and language operates as part of the enclosure, inevitably their own language becomes deformed, subject to the demands of the dominant group. But strategies of resistance arise as well, and these, too, have been theorized in critical literature, particularly with reference to postcolonial peoples, to African Americans, and to women. (15) A feature of resistant language is often its doubleness: the ability to say one thing and signify another, or the ability to say two things at once. Doubleness is also a characteristic of those who belong simultaneously to two speech communities, including those who are bilingual, the condition of many Irish people in the twentieth century and at present as well. A form of resistant double speech is irony, in which the meaning is the opposite of the surface structures of language, and irony is related to the literary mode of parody–the mode used by Brian O Nuallain (Flann O’Brien), for example, discussed by Sarah McKibben below. These types of resistant language are in part interesting because of the problems of recognition they pose; like hybridity, double language destabilizes traditional rules of recognition and communicates a coded message to an initiated community.

Bilingualism has been used as an effective political tool by many Irish people with a nationalist agenda. Doubleness is a risky way of life, however, for it breeds what has been called a double consciousness, a habitual way of viewing the world and the self from two frameworks simultaneously. In the extreme such doubling shifts from resistance to madness, and scholars have discussed the exposure to pathology faced by subjects who negotiate double consciousness as a way of life. (16) The process of becoming an artist is complex in such an environment. The doubleness of Irish culture and its relationship to the challenges and power of Irish writing were articulated overtly in the groundbreaking essays of Thomas Kinsella (1970, 1995), in which he discusses the Irish writer’s awareness of a divided and dual tradition, as we have seen. In a society where double consciousness is widespread, writing about the condition of doubleness becomes an analogue to the talking cure as a means of sorting through social and personal identities in order to find healing for both the community and the individual; this may be an impetus behind much of the great literature that came out of Ireland during the last century. Here, in an intimate autobiographical essay, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill discusses such factors in the formation of her own identity as an Irish writer.

These are some of the contemporary discourses of power that pertain to language and identity in Ireland, and they represent issues to track in any analysis of the subject matter. They supplement the earlier framework of nineteenth-century nationalism that dominated discussions of the issues in Ireland and open up “self-evident,” “self-explanatory,” and “obvious” phenomena to alternate understandings, to more fine-grade inspection, and to deeper explanation.

Throughout the twentieth century language was thematized in Ireland. It was used in emblematic and rather stereotypical ways by “patriots” and politicians, embedded in slogans and polemics, institutionalized in bureaucratic structures and educational requirements. The link to both social and personal identity was explicitly drawn. In turn, these symbolic manipulations of language and identity were deconstructed, contested, rewritten, and parodied by critics and cultural figures of every stripe. Nationalist pieties and practices were interrogated by artists, political thinkers, and social theorists throughout the twentieth century, resulting in rich and competing discourses about language and its role in individual lives, cultural contexts, and national identity in Ireland. As the century progressed, moreover, this dialogue changed and developed, making the body of materials available for scholarly consideration ever more complex.

In the 1960s in Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe and the Americas, discourses of power came to the fore in relationship to both language and identity in general public awareness. Language issues were important to the Irish protest movements of the mid-twentieth century; the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland shared its consciousness of the power inherent in language with the generation of 1968, as well as the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements elsewhere around the globe. When the Troubles began in earnest in Northern Ireland, language was reinstituted as a central ideological issue in the North. A renewed investigation of the impact of colonialism on language and identity in Ireland ensued in literary works, public discourses, and academic investigations alike, whether the condition in the North was viewed as a historical residue of colonization or a matter of continuing, overt governmental policy. Concurrent with the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, there was also a civil rights movement among Irish speakers in the Connemara Gaeltacht, who saw themselves treated as second-class citizens in the English-speaking Republic. Their movement addressed the failure of government policies with regard to language revival and the overwhelming use of English in the rest of Ireland, and it cast into high relief the powerful effects of globalization on minority languages everywhere.

All of these issues informed literature and other cultural domains–music, radio, film, the construction of public monuments, and even display practices in museums–in Ireland throughout the twentieth century, as illustrated in the essays of Heather Clark, Jerry White, Kathleen O’Brien, and E. Moore Quinn included in this volume. (17) And, perhaps not so strangely, as the century progressed, increasingly the language question in Ireland–the relationship of Irish, English, and Ulster Scots, chiefly–became a metaphor for struggles over language per se. That is, the question of Irish or English became a symbolic but reified way of talking about power in language in the abstract sense of the word. (18) This is why Brian Friel could write Translations entirely in English–despite the presupposition of its stage conventions that the characters are speaking English and Irish in turn–and have the thematic issues be immediately perceptible to audiences, as Maureen Hawkins argues in her essay in this collection. (19) It makes for powerful writing to have a debate about languages stand as a metaphor for the debate about language and the power that inheres in language. Theoretical considerations about language, power, and appropriate forms of speaking were debated within both major speech communities of Ireland, as Kaarina Hollo and Donald McNamara illustrate in their essays that follow here.

It is arguable that the cultural confidence so notable in Ireland at the end of the twentieth century would not have been possible without the reexaminations of language and power initiated by the Revival and pursued–however inadequately with respect to its stated goals of reviving Irish–in the Republic after independence. Irish cultural assertion that was first articulated in terms of language difference undergirds constructions of Irish identity later in the twentieth century expressed in other cultural terms: the popularity worldwide of Irish traditional music, the international recognition of Irish popular music and musicians (including U2, Bob Geldoff, The Cranberries, and Van Morrison), the entrepreneurial success of the Irish business community in international arenas, and the increasingly high-profile role Ireland plays in the European Union and other international political domains (signalled by the role of Irish peace-keeping forces in such places as Lebanon and East Timor, the tenure of Pat Cox as president of the European Parliament, and Mary Robinson’s position as United Nations commissioner for human rights).

Thus, the language movement, which began as an impulse of nineteenth-century nationalism with the goal of language restoration, (20) ended the twentieth century with very different objectives, meanings, and signification. English remained the dominant language in Ireland, but Ireland’s multilingualism and language difference became the lever differentiating Irish culture from the English-speaking cultures of England, the United States, Canada, and Australia, among others. Language difference became a central thread of Ireland’s decolonized culture and one sign deployed by the Republic of Ireland to secure its independent role in Europe. Choosing bilingualism and biculturalism, the Irish in the Republic have pioneered a new type of nationalism, in which nations can be imagined without linguistic uniformity (Anderson 1991:135-39). This type of nationalism is facilitated by the use of modern media, which can conjure up the imagined community simultaneously across different languages, making investments in and manipulations of media technologies in Ireland of particular interest to the concerns discussed here. (21)

Language variation was at the heart of struggles over Irish identity throughout the twentieth century. Based initially on archaizing and backward-looking models taken from medieval literature and the Gaelic Order, new identities were proposed for an Irish Ireland by the Revival. Amalgamated with religious and Victorian mores, the early nationalist models of identity were further developed in the Irish state into an ideal Irish identity that was isolated, antimodernist, and linked to stereotypes associated with romantic and sentimental conceptions of the Irish-speaking peasantry. Articulated by Eamon de Valera and written into the Irish constitution of 1937, this regressive model of Irish identity was dominant–though bitterly contested–throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century in the Republic. Linking the survival of the Irish language to such retrograde models of identity in itself virtually doomed the health of the language movement. By the end of the century, however, Ireland was poised between affinities with states using majoritarian languages and those communities speaking the lesser-used languages of Europe. Thus, beginning with an outworn nineteenth-century European paradigm of the relationship between language and identity, Ireland emerged at the end of the twentieth century with some of the most complex and modern responses to those same issues.

Oddly enough, debates about language, the thematization of language, and ideological connections between language and identity in the twentieth century have very long roots in Irish-speaking Ireland, reaching back to the Middle Ages. The thematization of language in Irish history and culture is more than a thousand years old. Long before self-consciousness about language can be traced in most Western European cultures, the Irish were aware of issues pertaining to language per se. In part we can attribute this self-consciousness to developments following the introduction of Christian Latin learning to Ireland. Because Latin had to be learned as a second language, Christian literacy spawned an interest in the mechanisms of language: phonology and grammar, but also practices of orthography and technologies of writing and book production. (22) The Irish became skilled linguists and turned their talents to representations of their own language; one result was an early literacy in the vernacular, dating from the sixth century.

It is possible to trace this self-consciousness about language in very concrete cultural manifestations, notably the development of a standardized form of literary Irish that eschewed any trace of regional dialect for a thousand years. In Ireland’s politically fragmented medieval culture, organized for centuries as numerous small tribal groups, high-prestige professional learned classes were entrusted with the linguistic cohesion that provided a sense of common heritage and cultural coherence in the Irish culture area. The poets, (23) judges, (24) and other learned classes promulgated a sense of cultural unity, holding the fragmented polity together with tales, history, genealogies, laws, and other types of lore that presuppose a shared culture. The force of this cultural and linguistic cohesion can be illustrated by the work of the bardic poets during the period 1200 to 1650, in which it is almost impossible to date a poem on linguistic grounds alone. The dialectal uniformity of written Irish for a millennium (ca. 650-1650) can be contrasted with the multitude of English dialects recorded in the literature from the earliest Old English to the period of the modern language. (25)

The ideological aspects of Ireland’s relationship to language and the awareness of the interplay between language and power are also evident from the earliest historical period. It is likely that these factors–the power associated with languages, and the unequal status and social value of languages, for example–were reinforced by practical linguistic encounters that the Irish had in their commercial, religious, and scholarly transactions in the high-stakes political environment of Europe in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. (26) The self-conscious use of language to promote authority and exclusivity can be exemplified in the various technical languages developed and consciously recognized by the professional learned classes, a prime example being berla na filed, ‘the language of the poets’, a language variety with a specialized vocabulary, professional jargon, and ways of speech that were fully understood only by those trained and initiated into the professional ranks of the poets.

The role of language per se is essential to the medieval Irish sense of cultural coherence, and it is perhaps not surprising that in such political circumstances regard for Irish itself became explicitly articulated. The esteem for the Irish language is reflected in Auraicept na nEces (The Scholars’ Primer), the first vernacular grammar in Western Europe. (27) This ancient Irish grammar, based on Latin models, was produced by the eighth century. It contains a legend about the origin of the Irish language, based on the biblical account of the Tower of Babel; the story explains that Irish was derived from the best elements of the seventy-two languages of the world that emerged after the tower fell, thus making Irish the best language of them all. The same tale was embedded in an episode of Lebor Gabala Erenn (The Book of Invasions), the central document of Irish pseudohistory, which also began to take shape by the eighth century at latest. (28) Thus at a very early period, Irish was constructed as an elect language on a par with Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, holy beyond most languages and descending from a hallowed past. The implications for the Irish sense of their own identity at the time are clear.

We have suggested here various theoretical frameworks for approaching the nexus of language and identity in twentieth-century Ireland but must close with a caveat. In studies that rely on theoretical approaches, there is a dialectic between theory and practice: theory suggests approaches to the data, and the data in turn interrogate theory. Through such a reciprocal relationship, theory is adjusted and fine-tuned. The Irish data on language and identity offer material for such refinements of the theories and discourses about power, language, and identity that we have discussed. For example, theories of translation between languages and cultures constitute such an area that profits from adjustments on the basis of Irish data, with the massive quantity of cultural translation over the period of more than a century offering challenges to many received approaches to translation. (29) Irish society indicates that binary models of language contestation are often–perhaps usually–too simple to encompass the observed phenomena in countries emerging from political domination, particularly when those descended from the indigenous population take up the colonizers’ language. Ireland’s actual language interface is also much more complex than the competition between Irish and English: other languages must be factored in at every phase of Irish history, including Ulster Scots in the twentieth century, in order to achieve a full understanding of historical circumstances and events. (30)

Models of postcolonial theory also require adjustment to incorporate Ireland’s data. Ireland can be approached both as a conventional colony of conquest and as a settler colony. Language debates and identity formation in these two models take on a different character and hold different roles; both models are relevant to different aspects of the situation in Ireland. The standard pieties of these two types of analysis are brought in question when the same phenomena can be looked at from these two (in ways incompatible) perspectives, suggesting a readjustment is needed in the models. Many of the issues touched on in this essay take radically different forms in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland–from the range of language opposition itself to identity constructions and artistic production. All these differences related to language and identity in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic merit careful investigation and theorization. Only by grossly simplifying and distorting the data, particularly in the domain of literary and textual production, can such differences be effaced or ignored between the cultures in the Republic and Northern Ireland. However similar in ethnic or religious orientation the people or groups under consideration, the cultural systems themselves are divergent, with the North looking toward London culturally as well as politically, as Heather Clark argues in her essay below. (31) In the same way the relationship between language and the emergence of nation requires rethinking on the basis of all Ireland’s data. Ireland had one nationalist movement, but two nations resulted, and the relationship between language and identity is different in those two nations. As Anderson argues, “If nationalness has about it an aura of fatality, it is nonetheless a fatality embedded in history” (1991:145); thus history is a final determinant, imposing itself on both language and identity, as Ireland’s history indicates so clearly.

Ireland serves as a good domain to address questions of language and identity because of the interest of the primary data it offers about these subjects and the challenges to the theory suggested by the data. It is also a fertile testing ground for considerations of language and identity for metatheoretical reasons, an excellent laboratory so to speak for evaluating contemporary theoretical discourses about language, identity, and power. In part this is so because Ireland struggled with these questions earlier than other countries emerging in the twentieth century from colonialism and cultural domination. The trajectory of the interrelations between language and nation-building, for example, is clearer and more apparent in Ireland than in most other similar cultural settings because of the greater length of time that the phenomena can be charted in Ireland. Ireland also offers a good means of interrogating theory because it is a relatively small and contained place; variables are easier to identify and to control for. Thus, certain inquiries can proceed in a more manageable fashion than would be the case with reference to larger societies. Ireland’s small size highlights as well phenomena associated with globalization and the power of the English language in the process of globalization. At the same time, despite its small size, the island offers a striking doubleness, as we have indicated: the two countries that emerged after 1922 set the questions of language and identity against a high relief of ideology, diverging in these specific areas over the course of the last eight decades, and allowing more than one paradigm to be investigated and tested within its small compass.

Finally, it is possible to learn a great deal about language and identity by looking at Ireland in the twentieth century because of the distinction of its writers and its literature. There is scarcely a culture, whatever its size, that produced in the twentieth century a larger body of outstanding writers than those of Ireland–and they are writers who are articulate about language, cultural identity, and the role of the artist in a multilingual nation. Language and identity are at the heart of literary discourses, and the testimony of Ireland’s writers about these issues is unparalleled, as are their self-reflexive formal means of integrating concerns related to language and identity in their literary works. As Fairclough (1989:172) observes, creativity flourishes when social struggles are in the process of destructuring and restructuring discourses and orders of discourse. These data are all the richer because of the differences in literary practice and literary production related to language and identity North and South.

In Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson writes “It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them–as emblems of nation-ness, like flags, costumes, folk-dances, and the rest” (1991:133). Some Irish studies scholars have made this mistake, discounting the importance of the Irish language in studies of the history and culture of Ireland, as well as in processes of identity formation on the island. This constitutes a failure to recognize the importance of the discourses about language in the critical frameworks offered by the twentieth century, an arrest of understanding regarding language that reflects the fixed and limited perspective of nineteenth-century nationalism. In fact the language movement and the linguistic complexity fostered in modern Ireland have been used to secure for Ireland a strong cultural position within the English-speaking world; to disambiguate it politically, economically, and culturally from dominant English-language nations; to build an autonomous decolonized culture; to claim a distinct place within the multilingual European Union; and to establish a place for itself in the globalized world economy.

The role of language in all these gains merits deeper investigation, and one purpose of the essays in this issue of Eire-Ireland and in its companion volume, Language and Tradition in Ireland (2003), is to contribute to dialogue about these subjects. (32) The essays that follow use examples from many cultural domains and range across many different discourses of power related to language and identity, exploring the relationship between the two and illustrating the variety of ways that language is thematized in twentieth-century Irish culture. Indicating the many stances taken by writers, artists, and other public figures on language and identity, the essays show how these issues have been contested as well, revealing how public discourses on language and identity meet and compete in Ireland. As Robert Welch and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill remind us in their essays, in twentieth-century Irish culture the question repeatedly arises: “who speaks for whom and of what?” This is not surprising, for the power of language is the power to set identity; it is the power to determine not simply the image of the nation, but individual lives as well.

(1) A good example is found in James Joyce’s “The Dead” (1969:188-90).

(2) The famine hit the Irish-speaking population disproportionately and disastrously; from 1851, after the famine, when Irish speakers constituted 25 percent of the population, Irish speakers declined to 12 percent in 1911, according to census figures (Edwards 1973:229). See Kiberd 1998 for the argument that the Irish voluntarily gave up speaking Irish, when faced with the exigencies of history.

(3) These issues are taken up in Tymoczko 1999 and Tymoczko forthcoming.

(4) McKenna 2003 discusses one mode of Irish resistance to this subordination.

(5) Montague 1972:31, 41; see also the discussion in Redshaw 2003.

(6) Cf. Fairclough 1989:vi-vii.

(7) More extensive discussions of these points are found in Bhabha 1994 and Ashcroft, et al., 1989.

(8) See Bhabha 1985, 1994 for a fuller discussion of the radical challenges of hybridity to hegemonic structures.

(9) Fairclough 1989 discusses the importance of the order of discourse in power structures, as well as means of shifting this order.

(10) In a sense through the language movement, nationalism adopted an anti-language, involving conscious oppositions to dominant discourses (cf. Fairclough 1989:91).

(11) Cf. Fairclough 1989:85.

(12) A full discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this essay.

(13) These questions are discussed at greater length in Tymoczko 1999:ch. 6, which traces the translation of “signature concepts” of early Irish culture, concepts that link values, practices, and social structures.

(14) Quoting Bourdieu, Fairclough (1989:41) observes, “it is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know.” See also the interesting discussion in Fairclough (1989:ch. 4) of the naturalization process operative in the formation of discourses and structures of discourse.

(15) For example, see Gates 1988.

(16) Du Bois [1903] 1989 and Fanon [1961] 1966 both discuss double consciousness and the risk of pathology among imprisoned populations.

(17) See also Smith 2003.

(18) Cf. Saussure’s langue.

(19) Note that Latin and Greek also are spoken in the play, but they appear as Latin and Greek (e.g., Friel 1984:405,427,435,446).

(20) As happened because of nineteenth-century nationalism in Finland, for example, with the result that the majority of the population speaks Finnish today.

(21) It remains to be seen if this ideal can now accommodate the cultural and linguistic diversity of Ireland’s new immigrants who come from around the world and speak its many languages.

(22) Cf. Parkes 1993:23-35.

(23) Old Irish fili, pl. filid.

(24) Old Irish brithem, pl. brithemain.

(25) See also Tymoczko 2003 and Tymoczko and Ireland 2003 on these issues.

(26) For a sense of the free flow of foreigners who came to Ireland as well as the Irish who travelled abroad, see Ireland 1999 and Richter 1999.

(27) Alqvist 1982 contains an edition of the canonical text; the text along with accrued legends, variants, and glosses is round in Calder 1917.

(28) See Macalister 1938-56:1.140-51.

(29) See the arguments in Tymoczko 1999.

(30) See McCoy and O’Reilly 2003, McKenna 2003, Cronin and O Cuilleanain 2003.

(31) Seen, for example, in patronage patterns, in publishing patterns, and so forth.

(32) See Language and Tradition in Ireland: Continuities and Displacements, ed. Maria Tymoczko and Colin Ireland (2003), the third volume in the publication series of the American Conference for Irish Studies.


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–. Eds. 2003. Language and Tradition in Ireland: Continuities and Displacements. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

MARIA TYMOCZKO is professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Trained as a specialist in medieval Irish literature, she also publishes on Irish writing in English and on translation. She is translator of Two Death Tales from the Ulster Cycle (1981). Her book on James Joyce, The Irish “Ulysses” (1994), and her study Translation in a Postcolonial Context: Early Irish Literature in English Translation (1999) have both won book awards from the American Conference for Irish Studies.

COLIN IRELAND is resident director of programs in Ireland for Arcadia University’s Center for Education Abroad. He is editor and translator of Old Irish Wisdom Attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria (1999) and has published on early Irish and English cultures in journals such as Celtica, Peritia, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, Neophilologus, and Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. He also lectures in Old and Middle English at University College Dublin.

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