Could Irish language issue be solved with a look at history?

Sandra Chapman
Sandra Chapman

With all this fuss from Sinn Fein about an Irish Language Act I wonder has that party ever stopped to think what living in Northern Ireland means to all those who voted for the DUP recently, giving them two extra seats making them King makers at Westminster?

The deal between the Conservatives and Unionists has drawn insults from some Conservatives – they’ve called us leeches, dimwits and crackpots (that latter insult came too from a national daily newspaper which should have known better) - all of them forgetting that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and a majority want it to stay that way which is why the DUP won those extra seats in the election leaving Sinn Fein diminished somewhat.

Protestors calling for an Irish language act

Protestors calling for an Irish language act

In all of this we have to ask why Ulster Protestants regard themselves wholly and totally British, not Irish as Sinn Fein and other nationalist parties see us. We have to look at our history.

The British only withdrew from the southern part of Ireland when the Irish rose against them in the 1916 Easter Uprising.

The Irish shot themselves in the foot then because for the next half century they remained virtually destitute until they joined the European Union and received, at one time, £13m a day in aid.

Their economy today is such that it’s impossible to afford a home in Dublin unless you have a six-figure salary, it costs 100 euro to attend a hospital A&E unit, 50 euro to visit a GP and food prices are well above those in the north. Sinn Fein don’t talk about this, of course.

While the southern Irish struggled to rebuild their nation after 1916, in the British north 30 years on, we were benefitting from a National Health Service, unemployment benefits when needed, free education and from the late 50s onwards increasing quality of living as employment opportunities rose. Why wouldn’t we want to do our best for the largest political Party at Westminster and keep it in power?

I’ve often had discussions with people about whether we regard ourselves as Irish or British. Why, in fact, do we believe ourselves to be the latter when we live on an island which is called Ireland and which, for centuries, was ruled by warring Gaelic chiefs before the English?

When Queen Elizabeth 1 came to the throne of England in 1558, in relation to Ireland, she chose a divide and conquer policy which eventually led to weakened Gaelic power. Some Gaelic chiefs including Shane O’Neill in the northern part of the country, were able to do deals with the English Queen, all conversations conducted in Latin.

Queen Elizabeth knew of and respected Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley despite her constantly giving the Queen’s navy grief in Irish waters. When Grace’s son’s life was in danger, most of her ships had been taken from her and she wanted to get one particular English General off her back, she wrote to the Queen in 1593 asking for a meeting.

The Queen agreed to meet her with Grace O’Malley sailing her own ship to England. The two women conducted their conversation in Latin, the language often used by the English in their dealings with Irish chieftains according to Anne Chambers who wrote the biography Granuaile- The Life and Times of Grace O’Malley, in 1998. Grace got what she wanted from the Queen and returned to Ireland and, not surprisingly, renewed her pirating ways.

So this dip into history tells us that centuries back Gaelic wasn’t the only language of the Irish. Latin was prominent too, at least amongst the hierarchy.

I suspect most Protestants in Ulster today don’t feel Irish because our ancestors lived under British rule and the north, after 1916, continued to be British which it remains today. Had those Gaelic chiefs of yore not spent their time fighting with each other perhaps our story might be different.