What have the Queen, Barack Obama and Peter Robinson done for the Irish language?
It is quite possible the Queen or as she is now affectionately known by those close to her as Banrion Eilis a Do, Barack O’Bama and Peter Robinson have done more for normalising the use of the Irish language than so many efforts by very genuine people with a love for the Irish language historically. When Queen Elizabeth took to her feet in Dublin Castle and uttered the memorable words Ingaeilge – “A Uachtarain agus a chairde” for me, it was like a dam had burst. In one fell swoop she conferred a legitimacy on a language I love, not for any reasons of politics. No one in my immediate family had a word of Irish when we were growing up at home. I stumbled upon it when I was eight years old through an old man who had a few words and later I came to know that an uncle who was political in disposition had a working knowledge of Irish. The real influence on me ended up being a Presbyterian minister called Terence Mc Caughey ( TP) who taught me some Scottish Gaelic and pseudo Irish history in Trinity College in Dublin.
In Northern Ireland in using Irish even in middle class catholic company, not to speak of the attitude of Unionists, I often felt I was being viewed as a sort of ‘subversive.’ I struggled for years to find an intellectual defence. I failed miserably and then during a debate in Oxford on ‘Unionism and the Irish language’ again my great mentor TP Mc Caughey found the oh so simple language to articulate my dilemma. Asked, coming from his background, ‘what the Irish language did for him?’ The Rev Mc Caughey answered ” it just makes me a fuller person.” He went on to say he was not in the business of shoving it down people’s throats and he left it there. He answered my prayer. I too feel a fuller person for having learned Irish. I feel a fuller person too for having made an effort to greet young Poles in their own language when they pour a cup of coffee for me in Belfast, Dublin or London. I love languages.
I can well imagine the joy and sense of achievement the Queen must have felt in fluently articulating her salutation in Irish and the response it evoked in President Mary Mc Aleese and the assembled body in the banqueting hall of Dublin Castle. The effort made by the Queen to master those words was a master stroke and a credit to her and her advisors.
“A Uachtarain agus a Chairde ” contained within it a much more profound connotation. Those words officially underpinned equality and respect for Ireland as a nation and generously afforded it its right to its own language and free standing identity.
It was wonderful to listen and to hear Barack O’Bama, as he is now known affectionately in Offaly, being even more prolific and expansive in adopting the Irish language, making it chime with his election war cry “is feidir linn” “we can.” He was however a follower in using Irish after the Queen. Emulating Banrion Eilis a Do was always going to be hard.
Just as nationalists on the island of Ireland have now found it within them to soften their focus in their attitudes towards the royal family in the wake of the Queen’s visit to the Irish Republic, hopefully the Protestant Unionist community will learn to be more tolerant towards the Irish language. “Sin e” as First Minister Peter Robinson said, at the start of the last Stormont Castle Executive press conference.
The Queen could do great justice to the language and to the people by speaking as Gaeilge the next time she visits northern Ireland! I remember reading that a 19th Century Grand Master of the Orange Lodge of Ireland had his gravestone inscribed in Irish. Whilst unionism has by in large rejected the language in recent years, it had a past with it, and can have a future with it, which should be welcomed by all. Sin é!