I recounted in this column recently my attempts to get an Achill Islander to teach me a little bit of Irish. It was during a short holiday break on the island, one of the most beautiful places I know, my memories brought back when I was having some of the photographs we took printed out this week.
Yes, I must be one of the few people left who actually likes old fashioned photographs to stick in albums and frames.
Wandering around the island, admiring the stunning sea views I encountered an elderly local man carrying a shopping bag. I decided he would be the very man to enhance my pathetic grasp of the language. All I wanted was to be able to express a farewell greeting in Irish. He looked taken aback and said they only spoke English there.
I think of that little man often when I hear the likes of Mary Lou and Gerry Adams speaking in Irish. I’m easily impressed by others’ grasp of any language since I’m no linguist myself, but I’ve no way of knowing if the said Shinners are speaking the language fluently or just struggling through thinking they have one over on us. There are some distinguished newspaper commentators here who claim Gerry etc can’t speak it all that well.
But we northerners won’t know for sure and since my generation, with other more dashing things to do in our retirement, will probably never learn enough of it to even pass ourselves.
Sinn Fein might think they’re doing us a good turn by insisting on an Irish Language Act but I suspect their insistence has other motives, so the word ‘ulterior’ comes to mind. About the only distinguished southern Irish politician appearing to have some sympathy with us non speakers up in the north is the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. On RTE’s Claire Byrne Live show he said ``the act can’t be seen as a victory and we’re going to shove it down their (unionists’) throats’’.
He seemed to think that Sinn Fein had got the message alright. Tell that to the average man or woman on the Shankill Road and you might get a mouthful or at least a very funny look.
We are not the only country, of course, scrapping over language. The Government in Madrid has threatened Catalan, which, like Sinn Fein, seeks independence from the mother country, that it is considering using direct rule to bring the Spanish language back to schools in Catalan.
Madrid has been accused of ‘authoritarian behaviour and inflaming Spanish nationalism’. Yet, it appears that two Catalan groups which ‘advocate bilingual education’ have had meetings with the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy about the issue. Catalan’s independence leader Carles Puigdemont who is now in exile after his recent failed grab for independence claims the Government in Madrid is `fanning divisions’ trying to `divide Catalan students by their language’.
At present state schools in Catalan teach mostly in Catalan. The talks between Rajoy and the two Catalan groups want `parents to be able to choose studies also using Castilian Spanish as a vehicular language and for a mandated minimum level of 25 per cent of teaching in Spanish’.
Far be it for me to understand all this but I’m just mulling over the whole idea of another country being in much the same state of apoplexy as ourselves when it comes to language. Why should language cause such divisions? Your average Prod will tell us that the Shinners are using language as a political bargaining tool and if they get their way our lovely province could die under a sea of green flags and bi-lingual signs which is not at all what we are used to.
I do have some sympathy though with that view and when I heard left-wing commentator Polly Toynbee last week describing Ulster as being a place where ‘‘extreme Free Presbyterians are in control’’ I wondered what planet she was on. Also on the panel was a South African commentator who asked ‘‘why don’t the British just withdraw from Ireland?’’ I had nothing to hand to throw at the television screen at the time but I retired to bed furious at such ignorance. We are so bad at getting our message across.