Gaeilge más féidir: Reflecting on Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh’s Language, Resistance and Revival

I began this blog with the intent of using it to meditate on questions of language and literature in my life. The Irish language is, unquestionably, both a central piece of my own linguistic awareness and a lightning rod for complicated emotions among those who do (or purposefully don’t) speak it. Indeed, its long and storied past inspired Translations, the Brian Friel play from which I took my epigraph. Irish, Gaeilge, is curiously invisible to the outside world, spoken fluently by a relatively small number of Gaeilgeóirí. Yet its mark on those who use it seems more emotionally indelible than the sway of many other languages. Perhaps this influence is due to the language’s tie to a very specific identity and sense of belonging, perhaps to the precariousness of its continued existence. Whatever the reason, suffice it to say that Irish inspires some remarkably strong feelings.

It is strange to me to think that I began to learn Irish in earnest almost three years ago. The time seems both implausibly short and impossibly long. In that period, I have made many Irish-speaking friends and developed an immense respect for the language movement. While in the United States Irish can seem like an obscure hobby or a way of clinging to a fast-disappearing ethnic identity, in reality it is so much more than that. It belongs to a broader network of threatened languages, and like each and every one, it is valuable for both its beauty and its embodiment of a Weltenschauung other than that of colonial and neocolonial powers. The language belongs first and foremost to the Irish, but Irish Gaeilgeóirí have been remarkably welcoming of the interest shown by the diaspora and the broader world community in their language. I have come to see Gaeilge as a precious tool, snatched from colonial destruction only by Irish resilience and resistance.

Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh takes up the theme of resistance to colonial oppression in his newly-published Language, Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland. This work gives a brief history of both the Irish language movement and Irish republicanism (and particularly prison resistance), portraying the two as intimately connected throughout the twentieth century. While he includes a brief account of earlier history, Mac Ionnrachtaigh is most interested in the role which language-based resistance in Long Kesh prison has impacted cultural and political movements in the North of Ireland. The greatest strength of this section is undoubtedly the wealth of first-hand testimony which the author has gathered from former inmates and internees, a feat partially enabled by the fact that the author’s father, Terry Enright, was himself interned at Long Kesh. Language, Resistance and Revival thus provides a uniquely intimate account of the role which the Irish language played in the prison experience of republican internees and in their later reintegration into the outside community.

Mac Ionnrachtaigh’s book is both academic and unabashedly political. The theory-heavy first chapter draws on all the classic authors on colonialism and decolonization (Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Ngugi wa Thiong’o) as well as a range of Irish academics with whom I am less familiar. Although this section served to illuminate the author’s political vision for the book, I found it to be unnecessarily dense, due in part to a dearth of paraphrase and synthesis. While I deeply sympathize with a young academic’s need to justify everything s/he has to say, I do think that Mac Ionnrachtaigh could have put more of a personal touch on this theoretical exposition. The casual reader might wish to skip ahead to the more engaging personal accounts of later chapters, perhaps returning to the theory after gaining a handle on the practical details of the argument.

In spite of certain points of academic density, Language, Resistance and Revival engages earnestly with what the author perceives as the challenges currently facing the entwined republican and Irish-speaking communities of the North of Ireland. I had the pleasure of meeting Fergal Mac Ionnrachtaigh at a launching event for his book which took place in Amherst, Massachusetts this past spring; I was deeply impressed with him both as an academic and as an activist. His passion and his optimism for Gaeilge as a means to liberation shone through even better in person than on the page. Ultimately, it is people like Fergal who inspire me to keep working with and for the Irish language, because they remind me that it is neither irrelevant nor an impossible dream. I can claim no language other than English as my own, but I will gladly work on behalf of a community who has accepted me as warmly as have the Gaeilgeóirí.

Book cited: Mac Ionnrachtaigh, Fergal. Language, Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland. London: Pluto Press, 2013.