Misneach was set up back in the sixties by socialist-republican Gaeilgeoir and modernist author Máirtín Ó Cadhain. It’s recently been revived by a group of Irish-language activists with a fiercely anti-capitalist bent. Tomás Lynch caught up with Misneach member Seanán Mac Aoidh to talk about the ructions over the Irish language Act in the North and all things Gaeilge.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the Irish Language Act, and what the whole controversy over it in the North is about?
When the statelet of Northern Ireland was being set up in 1922 there were quite a substantial number of Gaeltacht areas in the North, so there were a good number of native speakers of Irish in the North. Those were systematically crushed by the unionist government in the North. I mean one of their first actions was to ban Irish from the curriculum, to remove all funding for it. The majority of people who speak it in the North now speak it because of the revival effort.
But there’s a very strong Irish language community in West Belfast, in South Armagh, in a lot of different places across the North. I think a lot of people in the South would be quite surprised – they come to Belfast and they hear Irish in the shops and on the streets.
It’s all around you, much more than any urban area outside of Galway in the South. The Irish Language Act is needed because there’s a lot of people in the North, thousands and thousands of people who speak Irish.
What is the new electoral arrangement going to look like – it doesn’t seem like there’s been any breakthroughs in recent months?
The fact that the Tories are in power in England and the DUP are backing them up means it’s a very difficult situation for us to make any progress. What does give me hope and what does give me courage to keep working at this is that a massive community-rooted campaign has grown up in the North around the Irish language. It’s mobilized people more than I’ve ever seen before – it’s given people a very strong sense of purpose and a feeling that we’re going to win. There’s a massive feeling of being disrespected in the North, on numerous of different levels, every time the DUP comes out joking about someone speaking Irish, about the words they can’t understand. Every time something like that happens it adds fuel to the fire.
Is it possible even to make the comparison or to ask – is the language healthier in the North than it is in the South?
In some senses, yes. Speaking in terms of urban areas, I’ve lived in Galway which would be considered the main city in the South that would be bilingual. In my opinion Irish in Belfast is much healthier than it is in Galway. Now Galway probably has more Irish speakers, there’s certainly a lot of Irish being spoken around Galway and you’ll find it in pubs and everything, but talking about civil society and about community groups and organizations that actually operate with the language there seems to be much more of that happening in West Belfast.
Getting back to a kind of a class perspective on it, when the Free State was founded in the South a lot of the Irish language movement was kind of co-opted by the state and it became more middle-class and connected to the education system. In the North that never happened. I think the whole language movement in the North is much more working class and much more emergent in communities and that’s made a massive difference.
I think average community people in the North feel they have ownership over the whole language movement. Since this whole campaign has started off and all these insults have been thrown around the interest in the language has just skyrocketed.
You’ll have the likes of Kevin Myers writing saying the Irish language is elitist, which is complete bullshit as far as I’m concerned. What I’m saying is that the language revival has been co-opted by the state in the South, Conradh na Gaeilge is funded by the state, it really cuts through radicalism. The official Irish language movement is connected to the state, the radicalism has been completely sucked out of it in the South.
Misneach talk about linguistic rights a lot – what does it mean for a language to have rights?
A language is all-encompassing. The struggle for a language is total struggle, it involves the entire life of a human being and is very much a social and an economic struggle as well. A language is everything you do in your life, every conversation you have, every activity that involves reading or writing or listening, which is almost everything a human does, is through a language. If the state is in opposition to the language you speak with yourself and your friends and your family it’s a very alienating thing.
Economic and social forces in this country are still driving out the language and driving the people who speak the language out of the country, and the struggle for the language is a struggle for those people, to keep them in this country and to give them a good standard of living.
Misneach refer to themselves as an anti-capitalist organization. How does that tie in the with struggle over the Irish language?
Ultimately as we see it the only thing that can ensure the survival of Irish as a spoken community language in the north is to move away from capitalism, because it’s the capitalist system itself that’s destroying the language. The solutions to it revolve around strengthening the community and public ownership – whether that be in the community or certain things governed at the state or provincial level. Its definitely socialist solutions that we need.
Language planning in the Gaeltacht is a community-led process where the needs of the community come before the needs of the individual. Its fundamentally at odds with neoliberalism.
If you’re asking in a 100 years will Irish be spoken as a community language in Ireland, I’d be fearful for the future of the language in the current economic system because the stats are clearly showing that there’s a massive reduction year after year.
It’s not a natural process, it’s completely man-made, nothing natural about it. Emigration and unemployment are not natural, they’re manmade.
What about the relationship of the left to Irish? You mentioned the cliché of it being seen as a middle class thing. I think some people see it as a kind of ‘traditionalist’ thing and find it hard to reconcile it with what they would consider ‘progressive’ politics.
It’s a very very lazy position on the left for certain people to just disregard Irish speakers. One thing is you have this kind of ‘vulgar Marxist’ kind of idea that ‘the Revolution is going to come out of the cities in Ireland and that rural people don’t really matter anyway so we don’t have to be bothered about them.’
The only people that they really focus on who do speak Irish, for example in Dublin, are maybe some of these middle class people who use Irish in a kind of symbolic way. I mean I don’t know how many middle class families actually speak Irish at home as their main language, I suspect there aren’t very many. The vast majority of Irish speakers in Ireland who actually speak the language day-to-day are people on the West coast of Ireland who are in no way middle-class. They’re very much disregarded by this kind of industrialist, vulgar kind of form of left-wingism.
Photos from Misneach