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The Irishness of Britain and the Britishness of Ireland
David Webb on Pro-Irish, British Patriotism

The Royal Standard
This article was published in the August 2007 issue of Sovereignty, and was reprinted with permission from the original in the Dec 2006 issue of Right Now!
Right Now! has ceased publication and has been replaced by the 88-page, A5, Quarterly Review, available by sending £18 payable to Quarterly Review at PO Box 36, Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire, LN12 9AB.

Right: The Irish Harp features in the Royal Standard, as well as St Patrick's Cross in the Union Jack.

As an Englishman at least half of whose ancestors came from Ireland, from locations both north and south of the present 'border', I find the parlous state of the Irish Gaelic language, a language once spoken all across Europe with a literary tradition extending back for almost 2,000 years, a source of concern.

But, by studying Irish, am I breaking with Britishness?

To answer this question, I need to reject the political traditions of 'Irish nationalism' and 'Ulster unionism', which both strike me as highly stilted. I see past them both, to the possibility of an Ireland that is comfortable with itself and with its neighbours in the rest of the British Isles.

Ireland is, of course, one country, even if bizarrely divided for the past 80-odd years between two states. At the time of partition, there were unionists all over Ireland; they believed that Ireland was British in the same way as England or Scotland. Pre-partition Northern Protestants were proud to be Irish and played a leading role in attempts to preserve Irish Gaelic. The creation of the Irish Free State -- now the Republic of Ireland -- has, however, created confusion over Ireland's national identity, causing both unionists and nationalists to promote distorted versions of history.

In this context, the preservation of the Gaelic language, which would in other circumstances be thought to be a quintessentially conservative cause, has become just another arena for political and historical struggle. Whereas nationalists in the North are enthusiastically reviving Gaelic as a badge of their anti-British identity, unionists have become discouraged from learning what is the language of many of their ancestors, preferring to brandish Ullans, or Ulster Scots, as their answer to Gaelic.

My conviction is that there is an essential unity to the British Isles that was shattered by partition, and that the peoples of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales ought to be part of a United Kingdom.

Looked at from this point of view, the 'Irish nationalism' of Sinn Féin and its allies is not objectionable for its Irishness, but for its shameless encouragement of a 'victim' mentality among Irish people, who are taught to blame all the problems of Ireland, both past and present, on England.

However tragic some episodes in Ireland's history, the country shares nearly all facets of its culture with Great Britain, including a mixed Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Celtic heritage, a royal family (the Queen is a direct descendant of the High Kings of Ireland) and a common law tradition. Finally, the Gaelic language is also part of the heritage that Ireland shares with other parts of the British Isles, but is dubbed 'Irish' in the Republic of Ireland for political reasons, despite its being referred to in Gaelic as Gaedhilge, in order to pretend that somehow Gaelic is the national language in a way that Hiberno-English will never be.

Republican nationalism harps on episodes of Irish history taken out of context in a way that prevents genuine unity among the Irish people. Worst of all is the 'nationalist' discourse on the Irish Famine -- a natural disaster for which the republican nationalists like to blame Britain.

Frequent, assertions are made that the Famine killed off the Irish language, because 1,000,000 Irish speakers died in the Famine and Irish people were forced to beg for food in broken English. This obsessive focus on the misdeeds supposedly committed by the English diverts nationalist attention from issues such as immigration and multiculturalism, at the moment particularly relevant in Southern Ireland, which present graver threats to Irish survival than England ever did. Not surprisingly, the left-wing Sinn Féin is a party that openly supports mass immigration into Ireland.

Protestant unionism is just as stilted as republican nationalism in its own way. Now that Britain's other 26 counties are an 'independent country', Unionists are inclined to stress their Britishness at the expense of their Irishness.

But as English people will no doubt realise, the real national identities of the British Isles are the four historic nations that make up the composite British nation.

Northern unionists are living in a country whose Gaelic identity is stamped on the vast majority of place names, such as Belfast (Béal Feirste: the mouth of the sand bank), Antrim (Aontroim: solitary farm), Coleraine (Cuil Raithin: the nook or cranny of the ferns) and Ballymena (An Baile Meánach: middle town).

The culture of Ulster cannot be fully understood without reference to the Gaelic-speaking past, which is the cultural heritage of both unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. It is often supposed that the unionists are wholly of Scottish descent, but genealogical research reveals this to be untrue, and in fact the Protestant glens of Antrim were among the last holdouts of the Gaelic language in Northern Ireland, with the last speaker of East Ulster Irish not passing away until the 1980s.

The pre-partition unionists -- Irish unionists, not Ulster unionists -- were not alienated from their Gaelic heritage in the way that Northern Protestants have become today, precisely because they recognised the Britishness of Ireland as a whole. It seems that Ulster unionists, with their backs against the wall for 80 years, have been too accepting of the absurdity of partition and have failed to make the case for a healthier nationalism for Ireland.

Southern Ireland is never going to seek re-entry into the Union; a version of history that was far from universally accepted in the South in 1922 has since then been inculcated through the schools in the Southern population as a whole.

But the unionists can only stake their claim to Ireland by staking it to Ireland as a whole, not to the Northern six counties alone. If they are to embrace their genuine national identity, it is important for Unionists to assert the Britishness of the whole of Ireland and emphasise that partition was forced on Ireland by Roman Catholic extremism in the South.

The union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain needs to be publicly and frequently stated to be a permanent one, but one that is in accordance with Ireland's real national identity, history and culture.

Finally, in terms of language politics, if the unionist claim to Northern Ireland rests on a Scots heritage, then that is no claim to any part of Ireland at all. If Béal Feirste and Aontroim are theirs, then they need to start reclaiming their Gaelic identity.

The first problem faced by unionists learning Irish Gaelic is the domination of the language movement by republican extremists. Language students often insist that the English stamped out the Gaelic language in Ireland.

A healthy Irish nationalism that rejected republican victimhood would seek to counter this sort of historical distortion.

Famines in other countries have not led to language loss. Attempts to blame England for the Famine are wholly inadequate as an explanation for the loss of Gaelic. The truth, unpalatable to many, is that the Irish people voluntarily gave up Irish Gaelic in the 19th Century through a recognition of the backwardness of their society. A desire to see their children advance economically and socially led Irish parents to 'keep Irish from the children'.

The harsh fact is that England dominated Ireland for 800 years owing to the backwardness and tribal nature of Gaelic society. Had there been a potato blight in industrial England, which had gone through the scientific, agricultural and industrial revolutions, England could have afforded imports. Had Gaelic Ireland been an entrepreneurial society, with its own Isaac Newtons and George Stephensons, there would have been no need for famine victims to beg for food in English.

From this point of view, the deadbeat nature of much of Gaelic society, characterised by drunkenness and violence, was the factor that ineluctably led to the replacement of Gaelic by English, which was the language of progress and industrialisation.

Moreover, at the end of the 19th Century, Gaelic was still spoken by nearly 700,000 Irishmen, and it is an indictment of the successive Dublin governments that took power after 1922 that this number has been steadily reduced. The Gaedhealtacht (the remaining Irish-speaking areas of the country) currently has a population of just over 80,000, but it seems amazing that even within the Gaedhealtacht itself only around 10,000 people use Irish on a daily basis. Consequently, Irish people must face up to the reality that the southern Irish government itself has seldom done more than pay lip-service to the preservation of Gaelic. The near-extinction of Gaelic as a community language has Irish, not English, roots.

The Dublin government has helped to decrease interest in the Irish language in the Gaedhealtacht itself by the promotion of an artificial 'Official Standard' Irish, also known as the Irish of the civil service, that is based neither on any living dialect nor on historical principles. The standard is viewed as particularly inappropriate by speakers of the Ulster dialect of Irish, who are said to refuse to read standard Irish -- and there are periodic calls by language activists in Ulster for a rejection of the Official Standard.

However, the Official Standard has no legal status north of the border, and this gives the Northern Ireland government the opportunity to step forward as the preserver of a more authentic form of Irish, native to the province of Ulster.

The Dublin authorities began by abolishing the Gaelic script. Not content with this modernisation, the Irish authorities have implemented a full revision to Irish spelling, whose effect would be broadly similar to any attempt by the English government to persuade us to spell England as 'Ingland' and write night as 'nite'. Some of the new spellings are resented in the North precisely because they fail to represent Ulster pronunciation adequately.

The grammar and vocabulary of the Irish language have also been 'standardised', but in a way that leans towards forms prevalent in Munster, where the Irish language has almost collapsed, rather than Ulster, which is the home of many more native speakers. Dictionaries published by An Gum, the Irish government publisher, give a pronunciation for each word according to an artificial 'Central Dialect' drawn up by a government committee and not spoken by a single native speaker.

Speakers and learners of Ulster Irish lack official support from the Irish government. They lack dictionaries that give Ulster pronunciations for the head-words. They lack dictionaries that focus on Ulster vocabulary instead of an artificially standardised lexicon promoted by Dublin. The script and spelling reforms promoted by Dublin remain controversial.

Finally, native speakers of Ulster Irish are reluctant to read books written in the artificial standard Irish, which strikes them as unnatural. Learners of Irish in Northern Ireland are overwhelmingly interested in what they call 'our Irish' -- Ulster Irish -- rather than in some Dublin-inspired linguistic mishmash, although the available textbooks used in Northern Ireland tend to accept the inevitable by adopting a semi-Ulster, semi-standardised vocabulary.

The stupidities of the southern government form no part of Northern Ireland's heritage. The new spellings would not have been recognised by our Ulster ancestors.

The partition of Ireland therefore allows the possibility that some aspects of Ireland's genuine culture, including the real Irish language, can be promoted and preserved in a better way in the North, just as in many respects traditional Chinese culture is better preserved in Taiwan than in mainland China.

It is questionable how much public spending should be devoted to a language that has died out as a community language in Northern Ireland, but given that an increasing number of schools in the six counties are opting to teach through Irish, the Northern Ireland government needs to adopt a stance on Irish-language education.

It is important for Northern Protestants to stake their claim to Irish heritage. Creating a rival standard for Ulster Irish would enable them to do this, and could be sited within a grander strategy of forging a pro-Irish form of British patriotism with deeper roots in Irish culture and history than republican nationalism.

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