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Language from Below: The Irish Language, Ideology and Power in 20th Century Ireland 

'An audacious and insightful study of a controversial topic, this book brings to the debate about the fate and future of the Irish language a shrewd blend of realism and analytic rigour. It shows how the question of Irish has always been bound up with the conflict of social classes within the island. An intrepid and deeply thoughtful work.'

Prof Declan Kiberd



Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
(see also art website)


The main objective of this book is to
critically investigate the relationship between the Irish language and politics through a survey of individuals and movements associated with the language. It is proposed that the status of the Irish language is dependent on the political ends or needs of élites in Irish society. This approach takes into account competing socialist and nationalist perspectives on language and society to demonstrate the different motivations for and class interest in Irish. 

A critical analysis of the theories of Ideology, Nationalism and Ethnicity lays the basis for an in-depth examination of the changing relationship between the Irish language and politics since the formation of Conradh na Gaeilge in 1893. The book also proposes possible future directions for the positive development of the Irish language under the main headings of Community, Education, State and Politics. 

It proposes that the present decline of the Irish language is part of a global system of international capitalism that seeks to homogenise markets by reducing national and linguistic boundaries, thereby increasing power and profits at the expense of the well-being and autonomy of national populations. Therefore, the struggle against linguistic homogenisation must become an essential element of political opposition to the power of such élites. A key argument underlying the book is that the struggle for rights is transformational and the assertion of language rights by individuals and communities plays an important part in changing the general relations of power.


Book Review:

The Irish Language and Marxist Materialism
by Kerron Ó Luain (June 12, 2019)

“The night of the sword and bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle”

The above, written by renowned Kenyan thinker Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, sums up much that is at the heart of Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin’s persuasive book here under review. Language From Below: the Irish language, ideology and power in 20th century Ireland examines the relationship between material forces and the ideology surrounding the Irish language during the past century or more.

Little treatment has been given to this subject, especially in book length. Hence, the reasons for the varying attitudes that exist towards the Irish language – some of them positive, others hostile, many apathetic – are not well understood. Often, in the face of opposition, instead of turning to class or economics as explanatory factors, proponents of the language frame hostility to An Ghaeilge in simplistic “anti-Irish” terms.

Ó Croidheáin admits that Irish occupies a strange place in the national consciousness; “it is true that not many Irish people speak the Irish language, yet many Irish people still define their identity in terms of the Irish language”. He thus seeks not only to address common misinterpretations, but to offer solutions that may remedy the current decline the Irish language is facing in its western communal heartlands, and the pressures it faces in other spheres.

By getting to the economic “root” of language decline, as it were, he sets out his stall for a reversal of fortunes in explicit Connollyite terms.

The book consists of five chapters and Ó Croidheáin opens with a theoretical exploration of Marxism, ideology and language. As he explains, “in each historical period the ruling ideology is separated from the ruling class itself and given an independent existence”. At times, according to French philosopher Louis Althusser, this phenomenon could be relatively autonomous and act as a “social cement” even among non-élite sections of the populace.

For a period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Irish fulfilled this role. It became first a “political weapon” and marker of autonomy, and then, once the state was founded, an instrument of social cohesion – only to be replaced later in the Free State’s existence by Catholicism during the 1930s.

In writing about colonialism and language Ó Croidheáin turns frequently to Ngugi, the Irish educationalist and revolutionary Pádraig Pearse, and Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. He outlines the ideological power of the English education system in Ireland, Kenya and further afield in turning the colonized against their own cultures.

He also explores the debates among what might be termed decolonial literary figures around the use of the native tongue, the tongue of the colonizer, and translations, in their writings. For Frantz Fanon, in his essay “On National Culture”, in The Wretched of the Earth:

“The crystallisation of the national consciousness will both disrupt literary styles and themes, and also create a completely new public. While at the beginning the native intellectual used to produce his work to be read exclusively by the oppressor, whether with the intention of charming him or denouncing him through ethnical or subjectivist means, now the native writer progressively takes on the habit of addressing his own people”

The author is always aware, however, of how resistance to colonialism in the form of nationalism could be manipulated by the ruling class. Thus, the advent of a cultural nationalism and its attendant “class conciliatory ideology” in Ireland with the arrival of Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders, writing in The Nation during the 1840s, is viewed as the starting point for this opportunity for social control by later nationalist leaders.

Ó Croidheáin subsequently utilizes the work of early modern English and French philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rosseau, to explain “the conflation of nation and state”. For Rosseau, as a member of the rising bourgeoise, the state exists above all to defend individual rights of property in the face of tyrannical monarchy.

As the bourgeoisie came to rule France following the revolution of 1789, the French state consolidated to the detriment of the various nations within it, not least of which were the Bretons and the Basques. The languages of both, as with various French dialects, or patois, came under increasing pressure from a centralized Parisian French language.

This type of utilitarianism also manifested in Ireland regarding Irish. The thinking of English political economists such as John Stuart Mill were readily absorbed by Catholic nationalist leaders like Daniel O’Connell during the mid-nineteenth century who proclaimed of the language that he was “sufficiently utilitarian not to regret its gradual passing”.

A cultural revolution or a material one?

Others, however, such as Douglas Hyde, had different ideas and wrote of the necessity of “De-Anglicising” Ireland. A cultural revolution gained traction in the 1890s – the establishment of Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in 1893 a seminal moment.

The Conradh waged – in a modern, secular way – several rights-based battles in its early years, attaining an improved status for Irish within the British-run education and postal systems. At its Ard Fheis (annual meeting) in 1915, radicals staged a coup and moved the organization towards inserting itself at the heart of the tectonic shifts underway in Irish politics by taking a separatist stance. Hyde, who contended that the language issue should remain apolitical, resigned.

Yet, six of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation were members of the Conradh. Their involvement in the Easter Rising, and the series of events in subsequent years, not least the Black and Tan War, left an indelible mark on Irish society, culminating in quasi-independence and the foundation of the Twenty-Six County Irish state in 1922.

However, the Civil War of 1922-23, where British-backed Free State forces, allied with the Catholic Church, strong farmers, and big business, suppressed the radical republican forces, heralded a new dawn for the Irish language. As Ó Croidheáin explains, “the desire for genuine social change behind the revolutionary movement was diverted into cultural change in the form of Gaelicisation policies”. The language was essentially wielded as a tool of counter-revolution.

These policies, moreover, were largely confined to the education system, and there was a lack of fundamental change in the social structure that might allow the language to thrive once more. Thus, any gains made through schooling in the 1920s “were constantly being undermined by the reality of unemployment and education”.

In the 1930s, Éamon De Valera, Taoiseach (Prime Minister), and leader of the populist nationalist Fianna Fáil party, placed Catholicism centre-stage as a marker of Irish identity – particularly during the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.

During the inter-war years, nationalist ideology, incorporating both the Irish language and Catholicism, served as an instrument of state consolidation. Élites utilized this communal “glue” to bind ordinary people to the ideology of the state – particularly at points when the state felt itself under threat, as it did from the IRA during the 1930s and into the 1940s during the Second World War, when the Free State sought to preserve its neutrality above all else. But this unholy alliance between state and language was counterproductive in many ways too:

“The status of Irish in the education system and state institutions, burdened the language with an ideological slant that had implications for the working-class and the people of the Gaeltacht. Language policy was perceived as discriminatory among the poorly educated who saw Irish in terms of reward or sanction for social mobility”

Measures to restore the Irish language to national prominence as anything more than a symbolic marker of identity began to be reversed in the 1960s. Following the adoption of T.K Whittaker’s Programme for Economic Expansion by these same élites in 1958, appealing to external market forces, rather than economic nationalism, became the order of the day.

With the demise of economic nationalism, came a corollary demise in cultural nationalism, and the status of the Irish language in the civil service began to be eroded. This process, whereby the language no longer served the ruling-class, was only intensified with the joining of the European Economic Community in 1973. Now wealth was to be gained, and protected, through economic liberalism and English monolingualism.

The situation has remained largely unchanged since, as Ó Croidheáin is keen to point out; “today, neo-colonialism in the form of Anglo-American mass culture and multinational industry provides the engine for a new language colonialism as the English language gains dominance in global culture”


However, Ó Croidheáin is not despondent, and throughout the book, but particularly in the final chapter, he goes to great lengths to highlight the transformative nature of struggle. One example he provides is that of Norway during the late nineteenth century where the Landsmål movement, proponents for a peasant dialect, in opposition to speakers of the upper-class Bokmål dialect, managed to inspire “the peasantry to question and challenge the power relationships inherent in the centre/periphery of the society”.

In Ireland, he points to the transformative struggle taken up by the people of Ráth Chairn, a small Gaeltacht colony in the east of the country in Co. Meath. Led during the mid-1930s by the great literary figure and activist, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, the activism required to establish the settlement, achieve recognition as a Gaeltacht, and attain the necessary infrastructure over the course of years, empowered those involved, making them keenly aware of their rights as citizens. Likewise, during the late 1960s and early 70s in Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement), a similar empowerment was also discernable.

For Ó Cadhain, this struggle was not only about the preservation of the language as it was for some (what Ó Croidheáin calls the “culturalists”), nor was it simply for more “rights”, but it was far broader than that. During the fiftieth commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1966, Ó Cadhain argued that;

“henceforward the Irish language movement would have to play an active role in the struggle of the Irish people to fulfill the aims of the 1916 Manifesto. This is the Reconquest of Ireland, the revolution, the revolution of the mind and heart, the revolution in wealth distribution, property rights and living standards”.

Other positive developments such as the surge in all-Irish language schooling, the Gaelscoil movement, from the 1970s, in both the southern and northern states in Ireland, are identified by Ó Croidheáin. Taking the case study of Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch in working-class north Dublin, he demonstrates how the struggle for resources by parents in the face of opposition by church and state, led to the cultivation of “self-respect, self-sufficiency and fearlessness”.

Even here, however, he offers a salutary caution – and one that has proven prophetic, whereby the years 2017-2018 were the first where the state has arrested the growth of the Gaelscoil movement since its inception in 1973. Ó Croidheáin, writing in 2006, warned that “without developing a wider political critique of society such movements may lose their collective force and be assimilated back into the dominant ideology of the state”.

All told, the author makes a forceful case for Irish language activists, atá ag treabhadh an ghoirt, to move from a simple “culturalist” or rights-based discourse and activism to a philosophy which unambiguously advocates for a wholesale redistribution of power and wealth. As he affirms, “linguistic issues can only be resolved when class questions, such as the ownership and control of resources, becomes part of the overall objective of political movements”.

Or, as Ó Cadhain boldly stated, “sé dualgas lucht na Gaeilge bheith ina sóisialaigh” (it is the duty of Irish speakers to be socialists).

Finally, and perhaps without realizing it, Ó Croidheáin also demonstrates clearly the untapped potential for a progressive movement that combines the socialism of James Connolly with the cultural qualities and socialism of Ó Cadhain, the Gaelscoil movement and the struggle to maintain the Gaeltacht. Recent surveys, for example, have demonstrated how 25% of parents in the state would send their children to a Gaelscoil if the opportunity existed, but that around only 4% can avail of this, while another poll showed that 60% believed the language was very important and should be supported.

Yet, certain sections of the Irish left adhere to a minimalistic rights-oriented discourse when it comes to the Irish language. There is a refusal to seriously engage with this dormant potential for fear of being branded “nationalist” and “reactionary”.

The recent local and European elections – in which the radical and broad left took a hammering – have demonstrated once again that another layer of activism, above and beyond mere economism, is required to keep people engaged, especially in times of limited political mobilization.

It is not enough to complain that there was no fervently active social movement on housing to galvanize workers into turning out and voting, like there was around the issue of water in 2014. The same groupings, despite the fact they count many Irish speakers among their ranks and in prominent positions, have never run an Irish language class for the benefit of the public in the entirety of their existence.

Identity is important to people. Additionally, as Freire remarked, “without a sense of identity, there can be no real struggle”. Unlike transient moods surrounding politics and the economy, identity tends to remain fixed. Crucially, the Irish language, as a signifier of identity, transcends ethnic divisions and is no longer rigidly associated with “white ethnic Irish Catholicity” – if it ever really was.

The Irish language could be harnessed through a grassroots movement to build a new, secular and inclusive Republic, encompassing all colors and creeds. It is up to the left to muster the political will to do so.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His latest journal article, featured in Irish Historical Studies, examines the links between agrarian violence and constitutional politics on the Ulster borderlands in the wake of the Great Famine. Twitter @DublinHistorian

His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.


Book Review:

Mind your language
by Eamon Maher (13 December 2006)

Political weapon, tool of the elite, torture for schoolchildren. Caoimhghín Ó Croidheáin's thoughtful study is a welcome critique of the demotion of the Irish language. By Eamon Maher

Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane in Saipan. Everyone has an opinion on it, often one that is informed by a negative experience of the way Irish was taught, or the favours bestowed on those who were proficient in the language in the form of extra marks in state exams or secure jobs in the civil service. Then there are those who, like myself, believe that our national language is an integral part of our identity and that, in an era of mass globalisation, cultural specificity should be jealously guarded. In a thoughtful preface, Michael Cronin notes: “As the world faces into the prospect of linguacide on an unprecedented scale, the local lessons of Irish have global significance. As more and more languages are forced into extinction... by a small clutch of major languages, then how societies or governments or communities try to deal with these pressures is of importance to every inhabitant on the planet who sees language as an inalienable right rather than as an optional extra.”

Ó Croidheáin points out from the outset that while most people genuinely appreciate Irish “as an important symbol of cultural distinctiveness”, there are others who “have considered the language important as a means for fulfilling particular political objectives in the past and may do so again”. With any issue as emotive as one's national language, there is always scope for jumping on the bandwagon for ideological or political purposes. The fact that Ireland is a former colony of one of the great world powers, England, always made the language of the coloniser difficult to resist. But, as Ó Croidheáin points out, we could quite easily have decided to be a bilingual society, a path followed by some other EU states. In this book, the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o argues how in the colonising process the languages of the captive nations were “thrown on the rubbish heap and left there to perish.” Ngugi, in a move reminiscent of the Limerick poet Michael Hartnett, bid farewell to English in favour of his native tongue, Gikuyu. He refused to buy into the view that associated Kenyan languages with “negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment”.

Joyce was aware the particular form of Hiberno-English he used was different from that of the coloniser, but by adopting the ‘acquired speech' he developed a new and remarkable language. The ghost of Gaelic has never been completely eradicated from the distinctive and original way in which the Irish use English: undoubtedly one of the reasons for the flowering of our creative writers. In the 19th century, Matthew Arnold chose to see the Irish people as “feminine” Celts and the English as “masculine Teutons” in a dialectic that conveniently placed the Irish in a position of subservience. Part of the colonial project involves the control of a people's culture (of which language is a major component) and, according to Ngugi, determining the tools of self-definition in relation to others is one of the main methods of mastering the mental universe of the colonised. Douglas Hyde, in his 1892 speech on ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland', “heralded a qualitative change in the struggle to maintain and develop the popular basis of support for the Irish language”.

Hyde argued that the process of ‘de-anglicising' was not in any way a protest against what was best in English people, “but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English”. The work of Conradh na Gaeilge, so energetically promoted by Hyde and Eoin MacNeill, at times flirted with radical nationalism. One particularly acrimonious issue was whether there could be an Irish literature in the English language. In addition, some wondered whether it was possible to “create a separate Irish cultural identity which would, at the same time, include Irish men of different traditions”. The romantic image that developed among the new Catholic bourgeoisie of the life of the Gaeltacht inhabitants neglected the harsh realities with which they were faced. The Catholic church also saw potential in this simple lifestyle. Ó Croidheáin writes: “The ‘spirituality' of the Gaeltacht and the spirituality of Catholicism merged in the depiction of the people of the Gaeltacht as morally superior despite widespread poverty.” Irish was often used as a political weapon by elements within both church and state to further their own aims. Thus, after the 1916 Rising, language became the site for conflicting political ideologies.

On the thorny issue of language policy, Ó Croidheáin skilfully displays the lack of a coherent approach adopted by successive governments. Compulsory Irish, various white papers and reports – all these ultimately failed in their objective to optimise the use of the language in society. The main point made by Ó Croidheáin in this regard is that “the promotion of the language falls back on voluntary organisations in the absence of legislative powers to ensure its development as a living language”. Legislation that fosters a view of Irish merely having a utilitarian value for the better educated has not served the language well. This value has been eroded in recent years to such an extent that a recent IDA poster campaign fails to even allude to the language spoken in Ireland, so widespread is the perception that English is the official language in this country.

Ó Croidheáin argues that it is through politics that the status must be changed: “The Irish language will be best served by that politics which does not necessarily applaud it for its symbolic role as the main vehicle for Irish identity but rather creates the environment for it to grow and develop.” This book is a welcome critique of how Irish has been demoted to the status of a “language from below”. Ó Croidheáin's book could see a debate begin, free from the ideological and political restraints that have plagued the language's progress in the past.

Eamon Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in ITT Dublin (Tallaght) and the author of a number of books.



Language from Below
by Prof. Michael Cronin

In a lecture delivered before the Cork National society on the 13 May 1892, William O’Brien MP warned his audience against substituting piety for politics on the question of language:

It was emigration […] that drove the Irish language out of fashion. Once the eyes of the Irish peasants were directed to a career in the golden English-speaking continents beyond the setting sun, their own instincts of self-preservation, even more than the exhortation of those responsible for the future, pointed to the English language as no less essential than a ship to sail in and passage ticket to enable them to embark on it, as a passport from their miserable surroundings to lands of plenty and independence beyond the billows. [1]

Although O’Brien’s prose is replete with the rhetoric of his age and cannot quite escape the dragnet of Arnoldian sentiment, he is enough of a politician to know that those who vote with their feet are as eloquent in their own way as those who gesticulate with their hands. Language may be discussed in texts, but it survives or perishes in contexts. What those contexts might be and how we might describe them has generally been left to the linguist as if the proper business of politicians was to run the world and for the linguists to parse it. What O’Brien suggested to his Cork audience, however, is that to understand what happens to a language is to understand what is happening to a society and an economy and even more importantly, what is happening ‘beyond the billows’.

In that wider world which is the setting for Irish linguistic fortunes, there are not only ‘lands of plenty and independence’ but ‘miserable surroundings’ that have brought other language communities to their knees. That misery and plenty often share the same space is borne out by the catastrophic incidence of language death in such favoured Irish emigrant destinations as Australia and the United States of America. Yet despite the ample evidence that the Irish are not alone in their linguistic predicament, there has been a remarkable reluctance until very recently to see the situation of Irish as ominously routine in its mistreatment rather than tragically exceptional in its treatment. Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin in Language from Below performs a signal service by opening up debates on Irish to the news from elsewhere. In particular, he interrogates very fundamental questions relating to ideology, ethnicity and class and brings to bear the insights of a whole array of thinkers to tease out the issues involved. The theoretical excavation is all the more necessary in that many debates conducted around language in Ireland assume that history is more a matter of opinion than record and that social class is a marketeer’s statistical whim rather than a ruthlessly enforced aspect of social life. More specifically, Language from Below, repeatedly shows how language fortunes are bound up with the political choices and economic positioning of a society. In other words, language is not only words but is part of or not, as the case might be, the broader political project in which the society is engaged.

Language from Below is alive to the ironies of a language of the dispossessed which became the language of possessors while the dispossessed were encouraged in Seamus Deane’s phrase to stay quaint and stay put. The work details the manner in which the Free State government and its Fianna Fáil successors mobilised Irish to copper-fasten the privileges of the Statist middle class while scrupulously ignoring the more radical political implications of the restoration of Irish. The situation was not helped by the fact that many language activists themselves were complicit in this class agenda and were largely content between dinner dances to pass endless motions in the polite wars of bureaucratic attrition. As Máirtín Ó Cadhain once observed:

[…] resolutions, delegations and goodwill can no longer billhook their way through the rank undergrowth of Government subsidiaries, the impenetrable jungle of semi-Ministries, semi-demi-Ministries, shadow Ministries, state companies, boards, institutes. [2]

The failure to properly analyze the relation between language politics and power relations in the society meant that frustrated hectoring rather than direct, political engagement became the order of the day. It was difficult, in effect, to look for change if you did not know what needed to be changed. Only when groups like Misneach and Gluaiseacht Cearta Sibihialta na Gaeltachta emerged in the 1960s did Irish-language activism finally move from the bar to the barricade and make the crucial link to political struggles ‘beyond the billows’. What Language from Below demonstrates, and this is why it is such an important book in our present age, is the continuing importance of collective social action. There would be no Irish-language schools, no Irish-language radio stations, no Irish-language television, no Irish-language press, if the Irish State had been expected to deliver on any or all of these things. On the contrary, one of the first, major obstacles systematically encountered by language activists in all of their campaigns was the obdurate refusal of the State to take them seriously or to make concessions. It was the concerted, continuous actions of groups of politically aware activists that eventually ensured that change came about and that initiatives bore fruit. In this respect, their actions challenge the more general political torpor of late modernity with its general suspicion of the value of political solidarity for social change. It was people acting together taking legal and political risks (change almost invariably involved breaking the law which in itself says much about the nature of our laws) that made things happen not polite petitions to indifferent functionaries. Paradoxically, as Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin demonstrates, it was by moving away from traditional cultural nationalism that activists got the State to take part of its avowedly nationalist project seriously. Rather than simply invoking the house gods of Faith and Fatherland, the placing of Irish within a global rights dis-course shifted the ground of argument and wrong footed the doughty warriors of pluralism (which came to mean everything except Irish).

Commenting on the great upsurge in critical thinking in the 1960s and 1970s, Terry Eagleton claims that, ‘it seems fair to say that much of the new cultural theory was born out of an extraordinarily creative dialogue with Marxism.’ [3] The difficulty is the origins of the dialogue are more often than not forgotten and ‘culture’ itself, as Eagleton points out, becomes a substitute for and not a way to explain politics. Language from Below is therefore refreshingly new and innovative in its re-opening of that dialogue with Marxist critical writings on language and society. The critical conversation is all the more important in that the formidable conservatism of the academy in post-independence Ireland meant that even when the dialogue was taking place elsewhere, Ireland remained largely silent or contented itself with philological musings on the copiousness of the copula. A conservative distaste for theory (other than its own, of course) can be matched by a radical distrust of theory. Too often, in the Irish-language movement and elsewhere in Irish civil society, a kind of desperate sloganeering has seduced progressive elements as if shallow phrases (‘No Blood for Oil’/Ní Tír gan Teanga) could ever become a substitute for deep thought.

Language from Below is precisely the kind of engaged and engaging analysis which is necessary if Irish is to play a central role in transformative and socially advanced politics in Ireland. Unless there is sustained attention given to the basic concepts that inform political action in the area of language, then we are condemned to the inarticulacy of the rant or the tragedy of unwanted outcomes. One outcome, which is generally given rather than desired, is the post-colonial condition itself. However, as Máirín Nic Eoin has pointed out, post-colonial criticism has often been loath to address questions of language except in the most general of terms and in the case of Ireland with one or two honourable exceptions usually comes to bury Irish rather than to praise it. In describing the findings of her research, Nic Eoin states:

Féachfar ar an aitheantas an-teoranta a thugann léann idirnáisiúnta an iarchoilíneachais do thábhacht teangacha dúchais ar nós na Gaeilge agus scrúdófar easnamh nó ionad fíor-imeallach na Gaeilge i gcuid na hÉireann de léann an iarchoilíneachais.

[We will examine the very limited attention paid by international postcolonial studies to the importance of native languages like Irish and we will examine the absence or the very marginal position of Irish in the Irish branch of postcolonial studies (translation).][4]

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is particularly aware of the dangers of a body of thought which can end up marginalising the very object of its analysis. He draws parallels with the work of many other writers and thinkers from post-colonial societies in his bid to think through the implications of colonial influences on attitudes to language in Ireland and language is, of course, central to how he conceives of Irish culture, society and economy. There is no sense in which he sees himself as primarily an Undertaker with Attitude, content to do the decent thing as Irish is dispatched to the graveyard of the nineteenth century and Anglophone critics are allowed to enjoy the Gaelic Wake unhindered by anything as untoward as a living language.

When Herodotus of Halicarnassus told his readers (or rather his listeners) what was the purpose of his Histories, he said that it was so that, ‘human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why two peoples fought each other.’ [5] In writing the history of language restoration from a broadly sympathetic perspective, the tendency can be to dwell on ‘great and marvellous deeds’ and explain away all language conflict in terms of ‘why two peoples fought each other’ (Outing the Brits). Neither the obituary mode nor the pieties of propaganda do much to advance our understanding of how language battles have been fought in Ireland and more importantly how the internal class dynamic within Irish society itself in the twentieth century has affected attitudes towards language and policies designed to promote or further its use in society. To this end, the chapters devoted to the history of language policy are invaluable in offering the reader a theoretically informed and politically astute reading of the various forces which combined to effect changes in public policy. Not only do these chapters properly contextualise what has happened to date in language politics in Ireland but they also provide a highly useful framework for any future thinking about language planning and language in society on the island.

In opening up the language situation in Ireland to theoretical speculation from elsewhere, Language from Below shows how elsewhere has much to learn from the experience, for better and for ill, of the Irish. As the world faces into the prospect of linguacide on an unprecedented scale, the local lessons of Irish have global significance. As more and more languages are forced into extinction or are increasingly minoritized by a small clutch of major languages, then how societies or governments or communities try to deal with these pressures is of importance to every inhabitant on the planet who sees language as an inalienable right rather than as an optional extra. The fact that the major language Irish has to contend with is English further adds to the interest of the specific linguistic situation as English features prominently in fears about the future cultural and linguistic diversity of the globe. Analyses that marry detailed theoretical reflection with extended considerations of actual historical and current practice are, therefore, particularly helpful in exploring how we might best ensure that peoples everywhere are allowed to speak their difference.

Our century has started more in terror than in triumph. The ruins of the Berlin Wall were a cause for celebration, the ruins of the Twin Towers and Fallujah a reason for despair. The planet continues to go deeper and deeper into ecological debt. It is thus easy to become despondent in the context of the brutal authoritarianism of the market and the criminalisation of all dissent but Language from Below is above all to do with change and possibility. It is a book which demonstrates how solidarity still matters and how ultimately Babel’s failure is humanity’s greatest achievement.

Professor Michael Cronin
Director, Centre for Translation and Textual Studies,
Dublin City University


[1] William O’Brien, ‘The Influence of the Irish Language’, Irish Ideas (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1893), p. 65.

[2] Máirtín Ó Cadhain, ‘Irish Above Politics’, Gaelic Weekly, 7 March 1964, p. 2.

[3] Terry Eagleton, After Theory (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 35.

[4] Máirín Nic Eoin, Trén bhFearann Breac: An Díláithriú Cultúir agus Nualitríocht na Gaeilge (Baile Átha Cliath: Cois Life, 2005), p. 18.

Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (London: Penguin, 1996).