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Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Uncle Tom Fintan shouts three cheers for monoglot Anglophones


Fintan O’Toole’s article on the glory of the English language in today’s Observer is about as toe curlingly craven as it is possible to get for an Irish commentator. Entitled - This glorious and unruly English language that lets everyone in - can be read here:

Reading this article, we are left in no doubt that (as far as the non Irish speaking O’Toole is concerned) English is a far superior language to both Irish Gaeilge and its close cousin Scottish Gaelic (Gaeilge na hAlban). Why would anyone, not least a prominent cultural commentator in Ireland, seek to "diss" any language, never mind their own indigenous language?

I have said before in these blog pages that O’Toole is a superb analyst of literary works and drama but always loses the run of himself when commenting on anything to do with highbrow English culture – he morphs from erudite sage to unctuous slave.

The “peg” for O’Toole’s article is the announcement of the Man Booker prize short-list (see real historical context below), but it soon turns into a complete travesty of linguistic and historical analysis in which anyone not au fait with Irish affairs will almost certainly draw the conclusion that we gladly abandoned our native tongue in favour of glorious English – just because we found it expresses our conscious and semi-conscious states in a far more mellifluous and profound way. (The opposite is usually the case - there is no word for "yes" or "no" in Irish so we answer with a verb when speaking either Irish or English - I was, I did, I will etc. Like Spanish, Irish also differentiates between temporary and permanent states and that goes into our English - Are/were you a teacher? - I am. I was. I am hot - tá me te - I am hot (ie a hot guy) - Is fear teasaí mé!)

Understanding the above, released some kind of mental and artistic blockage in me.

Nor, of course, is there any mention of the Famine in O'Toole's article. The Famine is not only increasingly regarded as a deliberate act of genocide, it also put to death roughly a million Irish speakers almost overnight (historically speaking). O'Toole must have blinked at that point in his research for this Booker article. No mention, furthermore, of the myriad laws and enforcements which banned the use of Irish. The crucial point of these laws disproving O’Toole’s colonial thesis by showing that the trend for centuries was for English speakers to turn AWAY from beautiful glorious English and use Irish instead. The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366, for example, commanded that:

if any English, or Irish living among the English, use the Irish language amongst themselves, contrary to this ordinance, and thereof be attainted, his lands and tenements, if he have any, shall be seized into the hands of his immediate lord…”

Just to illustrate the racist natures of these statutes, English settlers in Ireland were ordered not mix their race with the savage Irish. This too was ignored until the Flight of the Earls and the demise of Brehon Law during the subsequent garrison plantations. Imagine if I were to posit a mirror image argument that speaking Irish was great because it stopped us race mixing with the Brits - precisely.

Fintan O’Toole cannot be unaware of all the above. So his glorification of the spread of the use of English in Ireland can only be (in common with more or less every Irish commentator) to soften and minimise the brutality and anti culture nature of English rule in Ireland. In Irish we say bánú for whitening - it is a whitening and airbrushing of what happened I feel.

O’Toole tells us that our traditional anxiety at using English has “all but gone”. Is he not aware that the high rates of schizophrenia amongst people from rural Ireland and Irish emigrants to Britain has been linked to, amongst other things, language anxiety? Moreover, are the large numbers of people in the Gaeltachtaí (Irish speaking areas) and those availing of Irish language education via the large network of Gaelscoileanna completely invisible to one of Ireland’s allegedly foremost intellectuals? Try bringing up your children with this kind of propaganda battering at your head and then consider anxiety.

O’Toole compounds this pro colonial myopia by praising WB Yeats and Seamus Heaney (Trocaire Dé ar a anam) because they chose English over Irish because it is: “too rich and too beautiful to be dispensed with”.

O’Toole is clearly writing from ignorance or sheer hostility here because Ireland has always had, and has, great poets writing in Irish and can there be a greater prose writer than Seosamh Mac Grianna? Even O’Toole’s point that Scottish poet Hugh Mac Diarmid ended up also writing in English blows up in his face. For he forgets, or chooses to forget, that Scotland’s greatest poet, Somhairle MacGill-Eain, wrote almost exclusively in Scottish Gaelic and one of his greatest admirers and champions was none other than Seamus Heaney. Indeed, Somhairle started off his life as a poet writing in English but SWITCHED to Gaelic.
This is how this linguistic decision is described in Wikipedia:

His early poetry was in English, but after writing his first Gaelic poem, An Corra-Ghridheach (“The Heron”), he decided that it was far better than his English work, and resolved to continue using his native language. By the mid-1930s he was well known as a writer in this tongue.

Somhairle MacGill-Eain - a giant of Gaelic literature - invisible to Fintan O'Toole

Of course, O’Toole is polemicizing for a London cultural elite of which he desperately needs to feel a part, and it is no accident perhaps that his comrade in pro colonial arms Colm Tóibín is listed in the Booker prize. Fintan O’Toole, Colm Tóibín, John Banville, Roddy Doyle – all sing from the same Anglophone hymn sheet.

At the same time they parody and undermine those who wish to keep our native culture alive. They also misrepresent us. None of us seek to disparage English as a language.

Tá abairt againn anseo i dTír Chonaill - We have a saying here in Tír Chonaill:
Is maith liom Bearla ach labhraim Gaeilge - I like English but I speak Irish

Some readers may baulk at the term - "Uncle Tom"to describe O'Toole but he has earned it with this Observer article - not just because of his obvious glee at the failed attempt by the fledgeling Free State government to revive the use of Irish in urban areas but, more importantly, because of the hidden ideology that lies behind O'Toole's reasons for writing this article in the first place. For what is not now commonly remembered is that the Booker Prize is a British Commonwealth prize handed to those citizens who live in the remnants of the British empire. O'Toole (who claims to be a radical) twists himself in knots to get round this simple fact, and it is for this reason he bangs on about the (undoubted) beauty of the English language and how it "lets everyone in".

In the backs of the minds of all these West Brit court jesters looms the Famine, pitch capping, hanging by rope, land clearances, evictions, transportations, language and culture suppression and (latterly) blatant security force collusion with pro British death squads . The whole gamut of colonial rule in Ireland. They are well aware that their promotion of English culture as a civilising influence is by no means the full story and joins them at the hip with the notorious Statutes of Kilkenny and iron fisted tyrants like Edmund Spenser and Oliver Cromwell.

In their heart of hearts, they are well aware that no self respecting Irish man or woman should ever accept the Booker Prize.

It is not us who are the obsessive fanatics constantly banging that monolingual drum.

@Paul Larkin
Gaoth Dobhair
Tír Chonaill
Meán Fómhair 2013
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Title:  Uncle Tom Fintan shouts three cheers for monoglot Anglophones
Date posted: 15 Sep '13 - 22:24
Filed under: General
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