Brexit, Nationalism, and Celtic Languages

I am writing from the rugged coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland, having spent the past week on a family holiday in Dublin and Donegal. Both of the latter areas are in the Republic of Ireland, but no signs, let alone passport inspections, mark the international border. Brexit negotiations have shoved the complicated, tetchy problems of Irish division into the international spotlight, but the only way a person on the ground can tell that there is any border at all is language.

Of course, everyone in Ireland, on both sides, speaks English. In the Republic, however, signage is bilingual, typically with an Irish translation of the English in italics above it. A hundred years ago, this would have looked bizarre to the vast majority of Irish people. English has been the official language everywhere in the British Isles since the Middle Ages. English authorities imposed their language on the Welsh and Irish. Their counterparts in Scotland did so with equal zeal in their own country. A 1616 act of the Scottish privy council required every parish to establish an English-language school, so that, “the Irish language [i.e., Scottish Gaelic], which is one of the chief and principal causes of barbaritie and incivilitie among the inhabitants of the Isles and the Highlands, may be abolished and removed.”

In 1616, King James VI signed a law stipulating that a Highland chieftain’s son would have to demonstrate fluency and literacy in English to succeed him. More recent heirs have had little luck trying to pull their ancestral language back from oblivion.

By the 19th Century, virtually everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland spoke English as a native language. It seemed like a settled issue, until Irish nationalists started stirring the pot by trying to bring their country’s old tongue back from the dead. It seemed like a Quixotic effort. No less a national hero than James Joyce poked fun in Dubliners at bourgeois British subjects expressing a fashionable pride in a language none of them spoke.

But with Irish independence, the new state energetically threw its support behind linguistic revival. Children were required to learn “Irish” (as what had traditionally been considered the Irish dialect of Gaelic was now called), and virtually all official writing was bilingual. Universities even offer bonus points to applicants who sit their entrance exams in Irish.

Official backing can only do so much against the tide of globalisation. Use of Irish in daily life, already in the 1920s confined to a few areas on the west coast, continued to decline. For decades, the government has lavished money and resources on the Gaeltacht, communities where Irish still has everyday currency. But out of Ireland’s population of just under five million, 17,000 live in communities where Irish actually predominates. I had an Erasmus classmate who told me that in his town in Galway, for two days per year everyone switches out their store signs and loudly chats in Irish to impress the government inspectors.

Today, somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 Irish people “speak Irish.” Even that may be an overestimate- a lot of Britons “speak French” but good luck getting a cogent sentence out of them. The only way many people could tell that they are in Dublin rather than an English city is the slightly higher abundance of Irish pubs. Still, it seems the Irish are happy to spend some time in confusing school classes and send a few euro to eccentric villages to promote their unique national identity. A bit of Irish has even entered popular (English) lexicon. “What’s the craic?” (pronounced “crack,” basically meaning a good time) is a popular informal greeting. Fáilte (welcome) signs are ubiquitous in Ireland, and I have heard sláinte used as a toast as far afield as Massachusetts.

The political and linguistic development of Wales bears some similarities to that of Ireland, but the baseline status of Welsh circa 1900 was considerably stronger. Wales was integrated with England in 1283, and as late as the 19th Century Welsh schoolchildren were infamously beaten for speaking their native tongue. But Welsh never collapsed in the way Gaelic did. On the eve of World War I, there were many Welshmen who spoke only Welsh. To this day, 16.3% report speaking it daily, which is especially robust given over a quarter of the population of Wales was not born there.

Since Wales gained its own devolved assembly in 1998, it has aggressively promoted Welsh. In addition to ubiquitous signage, Welsh-language public services are widely available, and children are offered incentives to go to all-Welsh schools. The Welsh government is targeting one million Welsh speakers by 2050.

Pity the English train conductor who makes a stop here

Unlike in many other parts of Europe and the world, linguistic nationalism in Britain and Ireland has, for the past few decades, been peaceable and positive. People in Ireland and Wales are keen to get in touch with their roots; Scottish Gaelic is more of a local interest, but governments have offered it recognition and support. Even Cornish, whose last native speaker died in 1777, has enjoyed a local revival. Everyone still speaks English, so even those with no interest in language cannot object to others breathing life into their national heritage. Unfortunately, things have been changing since 2016: as in other countries from Belgium to China, language has fallen prey to politics.

As ever, divisions are sharpest in Northern Ireland. The Troubles ended in 1998 because the Irish border was papered over by the EU. Now that the UK is out, old animosities are being rekindled. Unionists viscerally object to the use of Irish. Some are interested in bilingualism, but they want recognition for Ulster Scots, which to nationalists is an abhorrent colonialist tongue. For nationalists, on the other hand, Irish language road signs are a symbol of rebellion. I went for a run the other day from loyalist Londonderry to IRA-controlled “Free Derry” (unionist and nationalist areas of the same UK city), and it was like crossing from the US to Quebec.

Local councils in Northern Ireland that put up bilingual signage often have to set aside a budget to repair them.

A thin majority of Welshmen voted Leave, but it is easy to imagine that Prince William’s accession as Prince of Wales will stoke the same nationalist resentments that accompanied his father’s succession. Language is a minor issue in Scotland, but opportunistic independentistas have still adduced the fact that the EU recognises Scottish Gaelic and the UK does not as more evidence that the Union does not represent Scotland.

In a happy union of countries where everyone speaks the same language, promoting others is at worst a waste of time, and at best a potent celebration of culture. I am sure that if I were Irish or Welsh or even Cornish, I would be very interested in learning my ancestral tongue.

But one wonders whether the success of language activists is objectively a good thing. Schoolchildren seldom learn a language well unless they use it in daily life, and one could argue that fluency in mathematics is more important in modern Ireland than reciting the days of the week in a practically dead language. If, on the other hand, we really manage to turn the clock back a few centuries and restore Irish or Welsh as true national languages, is there any sharper knife than a language barrier to prevent people from getting along? It does not even require an actual intelligibility barrier to cause serious problems: Croats and Serbs, for example, could easily make themselves understood to one another if they wanted to.

For now, any serious language crises in the British Isles are in the unlikely future. Language is just a somewhat eccentric adjunct to political issues. Britons and Irishmen of all stripes would do well to remember that for centuries people saw no conflict between Celtic heritage and loyalty to king and country, and conversely that of all the great writers, poets, and playwrights who stand high in the pantheon of Irish national heroes wrote in English. Linguistic diversity can be bitterly, bloodily divisive, but it does not have to be.

Skip to 0:59 in for some craic lost in translation

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets