Let us begin with the comments section from a Youtube video of Michael D. Higgins’ presidential inauguration in 2011, the moment when the national anthem is played and many of the participants sang along with varying degrees of commitment and enthusiasm, a moment of palpable awkwardness. A comment that could have come from the pen of D.P. Moran himself sets the tone: “You see the mumbling and fumbling, even by An Uachtarán (sic.) English-speaking all, they persist in this charlatanic flummery, miming and mummery”.
A shrewd and appropriately poetic observation that may have a much wider, even metaphorical extension than the issue of mere competency in the Irish language and, of course, the day that was in it. Other commenters continued in this vein, “It is funny because many Irish are extremely anti-british BUT hate their own language”. Funny indeed, but not funny-haha, for this is a remark that more or less summarises in just one sentence the essential core of Douglas Hyde’s 1892 address, ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland’. We can conclude this very brief review with a comment that really captures a certain aspect of the Irish Ireland movement, “[f]orget the ’32 County Republic’, without the language Ireland might as well rejoin the commonwealth”.
How remarkable it is to notice from a brief perusal of the comment section of a YouTube video that essentially nothing has changed since Hyde and Moran’s time, at least not in matters bearing on the well-being of the national psyche. Maybe there has been a change. Perhaps things have become worse?
We have very fine motorways, ingenious globalist finance schemes that are the envy of the world, we are garrisoned by the Silicon Valley Expeditionary Force, and we lead the world in the production of erection pills. These are all very impressive achievements if you are signed up to the Globalist’s “Ireland Inc.” vision but somewhat less inspiring if you hold to another.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the controversial figure of D.P. Moran (1869-1936) was an important influence on the cultural discussion that paralleled the political struggle for independence in Ireland at this time through his journal the Leader, founded in 1900. Not only his own writing, but his skill and vision as an editor, propelled The Leader to become a central locus of discussion and debate in what was known as the ‘Irish Ireland’ movement. Readers interested in a general account of D.P. Moran and his work should start with Paul Delaney’s 2003 article ‘D.P. Moran and the Leader: Writing an Irish Ireland Through Partition‘ and which contains much additional information in the notes.
The formal movement which emerged in the late nineteenth century as the vanguard of a revival of Gaelic Ireland was of course Conradh na Gaeilge, founded by Douglas Hyde in 1893. Plainly, the address he gave – mentioned above – is a kind of national call to “walk the walk”, or in this case, to talk the only talk, which might salve the soul of a nation. On the eve of the 1916 Rising, many Gaelic revivalists as well as political nationalists felt an impending sense of doom that the Irish nation was on the precipice, not of physical destruction but of an essentially cultural, even spiritual, oblivion.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger has observed in another context how obliviation involves not merely an obliviating of the matter at hand as conscious act, for we would surely remember doing such a thing, but rather a forgetting of a forgetting. Complete obliviation comes when I do not remember that I have forgotten something: I have forgotten it and I have forgotten that I have forgotten it. This had become the strategic aim of the Elizabethan conquests and continued (continues?) to guide state policy here for a considerable period thereafter, namely, to obliviate the Irishness of the Irish and make of them good Englishmen.
The radical transformation of the Irish proposed by Edmund Spenser and his contemporaries would have to complete this oblivation in order for it to be truly successful. He understood all too well that real and lasting conquest will come not so much from crushing the body but from wiping the mind and recreating a new identity, and the only medium through which this mental conquest take place must be language: “wordes are the image of the minde, soe as, the[y] proceeding from the minde, the mynd must be needes affected with the wordes. Soe that the speach being Irish, the hart must needes be Irishe; for out of the aboundance of the hart, the tonge speaketh” (Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, 1596). Replacing one system of images with another will at the same time transform the mind, from Irishman to Englishman.
Now, it should be readily apparent that the success of such a project rests on the degree to which obliviation can be brought to completion. Consider this; do any of the current inhabitants of Anatolia pine over the loss of Hittite? Are there disconsolate Iraqis lamenting the passing of Sumerian in ballads composed in Arabic and sung in the coffee houses of Baghdad? Hardly likely as these respective languages, insofar as they can be reconstructed at all, are solely the province of a small group of international scholars of ancient near eastern languages. These languages have been effectively obliviated and with them, the mentalities and worlds they constituted.
That what I’m calling the Spenser project has not entirely succeeded is down to the fidelity of native Irish speakers, and all those who elect to use Irish regularly and often under unfavourable circumstances both at home and abroad. Since one of the most important aims of state policy then (and now?) was the eradication of Catholicism from the Gaelic Irish, and as this is a topic of such major importance, it will be set aside for a separate article.
That Spenser’s project has not been entirely successful does not mean that all is well, rather it has created a very unhealthy mentality that to this day continues to bedevil Irish well-being within individuals and as a nation. Much emphasis has been placed on the external and physical damage wreaked by colonial conquest and foreign domination upon the Irish nation, but all too little has been devoted to examining the internal or mental, emotional and even spiritual damage.
The historian J.J. Lee referred to an ‘elusive but crucial psychological factors that inspired [an] instinct of inferiority’. These manifest on the cultural plane as begrudgery, ambiguous attitudes to authority, compensatory over-inflated and self-aggrandising tendencies, retreats into fantasy, silence, and an inability to cope with diversity of viewpoints, among other traits. For an overview of this topic from a psychological perspective see Garret O’Connor’s article ‘Recognising and Healing Malignant Shame.’
Hyde believed that language is the front-line, so to speak, wherein this mentality replicates itself trans-generationally; “[it] continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them; how it continues to clamour for recognition as a distinct nationality, and at the same time throws away with both hands what would make it so.” I might add that this mentality is seen at its strongest and concentrated form among the Irish bourgeois-state class.
This mentality has had layers added and been rendered somewhat more complex with the advent of Globalisation, the cultural hegemony of America, and the reflexive tendency to look abroad for any and all solutions to problems on the underlying assumption that nothing good can come from within. Local solutions are routinely derided as “Irish solutions to Irish problems”, sometimes with just cause. The relevant Wiki article defines this phrase as “any official response to a controversial issue which is timid, half-baked, or expedient, which is an unsatisfactory compromise, or sidesteps the fundamental issue.” Some commentators of the Irish condition, the present author included, contend that underlying this mentality and its accompanying tendencies is a deep psychical wound, and while acknowledging that this claim is deemed by some to be objectionable, it is nevertheless defensible.
From the beginning, Irish Irelanders were well aware of a ‘psychical wound’ which the loss of the language left in its wake, in addition to the deep and unresolved traumas of a violent history of cultural and at times physical destruction. Their understanding of this matter was informed by an intuitive grasp of the problem even though it may have lacked a theoretical frame-work which could provide a powerful explanatory framework with which to deal constructively with this pressing issue.
Subsequently though, intellectuals have been drawing on psychology, empirical anthropology, and the methods broadly associated with postcolonial theory in order to articulate some kind of theoretical analysis of the effects of colonialism on subject peoples. Readers of John Waters will already be familiar with some of the central claims and their possible applications to the Irish situation.
Chief among these is the psychological harm caused by conquest and enslavement. Harm of this nature transmits across generations, as it were, an original trauma that is replicated through continual re-enactment, a phenomenon well-recognised among therapists working with abuse survivors. This is entirely to be expected if we agree with Spenser that conquest must primarily be a mental and linguistic action. It follows then that the deepest and most harmful damage is going to be on the mental and linguistic plane.
D.P. Moran took this aspect of the Irish situation with all the seriousness and gravity that it deserves, and as such it was thematically omnipresent not only in the pages of The Leader, but throughout his book The Philosophy of Irish Ireland (1905), a valuable exposé of its topic. On a hopeful note, something must be stirring since it was republished by the UCD Press in 2006.
Let us consider two readily recognisable examples. One of the character types that emerges in Moran’s writing is the very familiar figure of the Westbrit or Seoinín. In a remarkable passage from his book, in the chapter entitled ‘Politics, Nationality and Snobs‘, he traced out the psychological movements that led to the creation of the West Briton, and cautioned us not to mock him, but rather to see that “the West British jackeens are really no subjects for satire either. They are melancholy monuments to the incapacity of those who took the moulding of the country in their own hands.”
Moran’s argument, which he develops in detail, seems to proceed from the claim that the very failure to reforge the Gaelic nation in the context of a project of cultural reconstruction produces, among other types, the Westbrit, the product of a personal disappointment at an impoverished mainstream Anglophone culture. Simply consider the kind of dreck that RTE routinely shovels in our faces (those of us who still subject themselves to it, that is). Instead, practically all energies were diverted into nationalist politics of either the Home Rule or Separatist stripe. Politics can be seen here as a kind of distraction from the vital national business of existential recovery and healing.
Independent Ireland never really decolonised itself. If you want to see what decolonisation looks like, consider what happened in Hong Kong in 1997. At the stroke of midnight of the beginning of July 1st as the Union Jack came down, and the flag of the People’s Republic of China was raised, a fleet of vans with workmen spread across the territory unscrewing and removing every symbol of British rule, every ‘ER’, every lion and unicorn, every crown, so that when the citizens of Hong Kong arose the next morning and went about their business, not a trace of the British state was left to be seen anywhere. All this shows is what observers of the situation there always knew – the British never really got into the minds of the Chinese people. One hundred years on, the lion and the unicorn is still atop the Custom House. A failure in the external domain indicates failure internally.
For Irish Ireland such a reforging they claimed must be grounded in the language. Everyday business, public and private they argued, ought to take place through the medium of Irish as this is simply the normal state of affairs for any distinct people, it’s what makes them truly distinct.
What Hyde and Moran seem to be driving at throughout their work, is that language is a world and that inability or unwillingness to speak a particular language results in exclusion from that world. Edmund Spenser himself was of this view as is made plain in the quoted passage above. Lacking a particular language is no great loss in itself for the simple fact of the matter is that as we cannot master all the languages of the world, we are perforce excluded from as many worlds as there are languages that we cannot speak. This we can and do live with even though it is always personally enriching to devote some effort to mastering at last one foreign language. But it is surely a matter of the most profound sorrow and regret when the world you are excluded from is that of your not so distant ancestors and the rich and variegated world of the Gael developed over millennia. This exclusion results in a radical break with our trans-millennial identity and heritage as a distinct people, who possess the oldest language in Europe after Greek.
At this point, the question must surely become: “Who are you?” For years now, we have been saturated with endless (and boring) discussions revolving around questions as to what it means to be Irish, but with no satisfactory conclusion. Of course not! Because the elephant in the room is assiduously avoided throughout. It is necessarily an endless inquiry because a priori there is tacit agreement that the obvious solution to the problem that generates the question in the first place will not be adopted, namely, to restore our own language to the condition of normality. And to anticipate a frequent objection; normalising Irish does not mean abandoning English. The Dutch are renowned for their fluency in English, yet Dutch is the normal language of national life in the Netherlands.
Douglas Hyde laid down the challenge to the nation to reclaim itself. The loss of the language, what he called the “greatest blow and the sorest stroke” if accepted means that ‘Spenser’ wins. It also means that political independence would turn out to be a cruel pretence, its original achievement a Pyhrric victory. This might help explain the ease with which Official Ireland so speedily dumps anything that is authentically native, so eager are they to please their masters elsewhere and often without even being asked. School history has been the latest casualty as it becomes an elective-only subject.
The foundation of the Gaelic League, organs such as the The Leader and indeed the Irish Ireland movement generally, was animated by a determination that ‘Spenserism’, so to speak, will not succeed. Ranged against those so determined were, in their day, the seemingly irresistible forces of Anglicisation, and in ours, Globalisation; truly, a David and Goliath encounter both then and now. In the light of the Youtube comments with which we started, now it is surely as timely as ever to re-open the discussion and very evidently very little seems to have changed since the days of Hyde, Moran and the Irish Ireland movement.