In recent years, the Irish language is back in the news owing to the seemingly never-ending saga of the proposed Irish Language Act, or Acht na Gaeilge, in Northern Ireland.
With Stormont in disarray, and power-sharing now a distant memory, the issue has been temporarily brushed aside. Viewed largely as a refusal by unionist politicians to concede ground to Irish cultural identity, it has been a reminder of the political power of cultural questions.
In the 1960s, questions in the Republic around the place of the Irish language existed too, with a reform movement suggesting that the state break some of its ties to the language, removing compulsory Irish from the civil service and reducing its significance within the educational system.
This movement, known as the Language Freedom Movement, included a number of prominent Irish speakers within its ranks, such as the author John B. Keane. With public meetings ending in disarray and violence among attendees, the LFM’s brief existence was a controversial one, but it arguably succeeded in bringing about reforms in the relationship between the state and the language.
Against the backdrop of high youth migration from the Irish-language strongholds in the south and west of the country, both Irish language activists and critics of the place afforded to the language in public life pondered the future. Wryly, a contemporary observed in the early 1960s that if emigration from Ireland’s Gaeltacht areas were to continue apace, perhaps the Gaeltacht’s of the future would exist only in London’s Kilburn and other migrant destinations.
In this public discourse, opposing views clashed against the backdrop of the Golden Jubilee of the Easter Rising, a time of real self-reflection among the Irish people. Irish language activists, in particular from the campaigning group Misneach, maintained that the state had consistently failed native Irish-speaking communities.
In the Ireland of the day, where the Catholic Church maintained its policy of hostility to Trinity College (described as “a moral danger to the faith of Irish Catholics”), a Trinity academic was an unlikely champion of the native tongue, but Máirtín Ó Cadhain was no typical academic. A former recruitment officer in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army, he had sworn a young Brendan Behan into the organisation.
Ó Cadhain’s politics were ultimately more red than green, and he viewed the Irish language as something that stood in stark contrast to the values of an increasingly materialist Ireland. To him it was the language of the people.
In his political philosophy, “sí an Ghaeilge athghabháil na hÉireann, agus is í athghabháil na hÉireann slánu na Gaeilge”. Fundamentally, this meant that the revival of Irish and the revival of the nation were linked at their core. A friend recalled that he “rescued the language from fanatics and cranks, from the prudes, the purists, and the academics only interested in the Irish of past ages”.
Standing in the opposing corner, the founders of the Language Freedom Movement maintained that by binding itself to the Irish language, the state was discriminating against non-Irish speakers. John B. Keane maintained that “they believed in the idea of the Irish language, but carried no torch for Irish and demanded fair play to given to other languages”.
Launched in March 1966, mere weeks before the anniversary of the Rising, it would be difficult to imagine a worse time to begin such a discussion, no matter how good the intentions. Tensions boiled over dramatically in September, when the LFM hosted a public meeting at the Mansion House, advertised by a poster depicting the “Gaelic language policy” as a well-fed cash cow sitting on top of the Irish educational system.
Broadcaster Gay Byrne, who chaired the meeting, later recalled that the gathering was “fairly fractious”. There were around 2,000 people in attendance, and it was clear most were hostile to the objectives of the gathering.
The Irish Times reported the following day that as John B. Keane rose to speak, “a man in the front of the audience jumped on the stage and seized the Tricolour, shouting that it should not be displayed at a meeting of this kind”, while there was ironic and derisive waving of Union Jacks, coupled with a rendition of “God Save the Queen” from nationalists, surely a first in Dublin. Stink bombs, scuffles (captured on camera by RTÉ) and more added to the sense of mayhem.
The language of some in the LFM was provocative; Christopher Morris, its president, insisted that “Gaelic has become the tail that wagged the nation”, and dismissed the decidedly left-wing Irish language group Misneach as “neo-fascist”, a disparaging remark that could only lead to altercation. Following the Mansion House debacle, it was clear that LFM public meetings would be targeted by Irish language groups, though just who orchestrated the disturbances at such events was hotly contested.
In their study The Lost Revolution, Brian Hanley and Scott Millar write that Ó Cadhain had approached the IRA’s Dublin leadership to ensure that LFM meetings were turned into a shambles. In this, they succeeded. The Mansion House meeting ended with Sinn Féin President Tomás Mac Giolla addressing the gathering, as the LFM banner was “ripped down and thrown into the body of the hall where it was torn to pieces”. In the words of one journalist, “the meeting ended as it began – in pandemonium”.
Ultimately, the LFM could claim a contribution towards some reform of the position of the Irish language in Irish public life. In 1974, the language was removed as a requirement to enter the civil service, while reforms were introduced into the educational system which meant that a student who failed the language at Leaving Cert level was no longer deemed to have failed in their overall examinations as a result.
While the Irish language is currently enjoying a revival of sorts – reflected in particular in the number of emerging Gaelscoils across the island – the controversies around Acht na Gaeilge are far from over.