The Irish language under the Orange State

Jame Craig

James Craig (Lord Craigavon) – first Prime Minister of the Orange State

(Aistriúchán Béarla ar an alt thíos, An Ghaeilge faoin Stát Oráisteach)

Of all the faults with the Spotlight programme on the Irish language (of which there were many) there was one major omission that I want to draw attention to, and that is the way the language and the language community were treated under the Orange state.

In 1920 the British government decided to impose partition on Ireland. In the Six Counties, unionist built a one-party state that strove to fortify its connection to Britain and to suppress any Irish characteristic of the territory.

At the time of partition there were still mini-Gaeltachts spread around the state. It was denied that any such language of language community existed, going so far as to remove references to the Irish language from the 1921 census onwards.

This approach was visible in the education system from the first day. The first education minister, Lord Londonderry, made sure that restraints and limits would be placed on the opportunities for Irish to be learnt.

This policy succeeded well and between 1924 and 1927 there was a 50% drop in the number of pupils studying Irish. Every subsequent education minister continued with the policy.

They were clever enough not to place an outright ban on the teaching of Irish as they understood that it would be counter-productive. When a unionist MP criticised the government for having Irish on the curriculum at all, the second education minister (Lord Charlemont) responded:

“Now if you want to make any sort of Irishman do something the surest way is to tell him that it’s forbidden […] all I can say is that forbidding it under pressure will stimulate it to such an extent that the very dogs in Belfast – at any rate, the Falls Road dogs – will bark in Irish.”

When a nationalist MP questioned the Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, about this policy, he replied:

“What use is it to us here in this progressive, busy part of the Empire to teach our children the Irish language? What use would it be to them? Is it not leading them along a road which has no practical value?”

Outside of the education system it could be seen that there was a deliberate policy to give no recognition to Gaelic culture or to the language. In terms of broadcasting, the BBC’s monopoly in radio and later in television was used for the benefit of the state.

The managers and directors of these stations were members of the Establishment and the BBC’s view was clear from a document of theirs from 1930:

“[The BBC Regional Service] reflects the sentiments of the people who have always maintained unswerving loyalty to British ideals and British culture. Northern Ireland relies on broadcasting to strengthen its common loyalties with Britain.”

There was no coverage of Gaelic games for many years, and the ban on broadcasting in Irish lasted until the 1980s.

In August 1945 the nationalist MP Eddie McAteer spoke a few words of Irish in the Stormont parliament and unionist politicians began shouting “No foreign language here” – including Prime Minister Basil Brooke and the education minister Lieutenant-Colonel Samual Hall-Thompson.

In 1949 Brian Faulkner MP (who would later be Prime Minister) complained that a council in Newry wanted to name streets in Irish, “in a language which is not our language”, and as a result an amendment was made to the Public Health and Local Government Act that banned Irish language streetnames.

In the following years the Public Order Act and the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act were passed, which strengthened the Special Powers Act and denied that there was a space for any bit of Irish culture yet again.

This is only a glance at the ways in which the Orange State treated the Irish language and the Irish language community.

Despite all of the distortions by the BBC, unionist hostility to the language cannot be blamed on republicans ‘politicising’ the language, in 1981 or 1916 or at any other time.

That hostility goes way back. Cathal O’Byrne wrote about the foundation of the Gaelic League in this city in 1895,

“The League was never considered quite ‘respectable’ – that awful Belfast word – by the planters. To be a Gaelic Leaguer was to be a suspect always.”

Before that, in 1892, the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury was able to proclaim that,

“Ulster Unionism is based on hereditary and irrevocable enmity to everything Irish.”

And in 1875 Samuel Ferguson wrote about Queen’s University,

“All things Celtic are regarded by our educated classes as of questionable ton and an idea exists that it is inexpedient to encourage anything intended to foster Irish sentiment.”

In the 1970s unionist paramilitaries carried out a number of gun and bomb attacks on the Irish language department at the same university.

The more things have changed over the past 100 years, the more they have stayed the same.



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