Wars of Words: the politics of language in Ireland 1537-2004

Ruaírí Ó Domhnaill reviews Wars of Words: the politics of language in Ireland 1537-2004 by Tony Crowley, Oxford University Press ISBN 9780199532766 £16.99 pbk

IN THIS prize-winning work the author contends that in history "simplified versions are misleading and therefore dangerous". Consequently, he rigourously confronts the complexities of his subject.

The greatest of the wars were the denigration of the Gaeil and their culture, and later, for the survival of Gaelic.

Giraldus Cambrensis (c.1188), chaplain to Henry II and emissary to the Pope, fired first. Foster (1997) adroitly captures the outcome: "From Giraldus to the late nineteenth century, the English attitude to the Irish was on one level of political and racial distaste, a popular species of cryptozoology." For example, Edmund Spenser asserted that the "Irish … turn into wolves once a year". Camden, servant of Elizabeth's chief minister, promoted the fantasies of Spenser and Giraldus.

For almost five hundred years the "Old English" in Ireland embraced Gaelic culture unequivocally - truly "níos Gaelaí ná na Gaeil féin". The Gaeil and their neighbours remained united by religion after the Henrician reformation. Elizabeth Tudor's reign was attended by nauseating sycophancy and by a major assault on Gaelic culture. Spenser, who led both, "can be placed at the root of the protestant literary tradition that was dedicated to nurturing the political imagination of God's chosen people…" (Ward, 2000).

Thereafter, Dr Crowley concentrates on the fortunes of Gaelic to the twenty-first century. Paradoxically, in 18th and 19th century the ascendancy researched and nurtured it. His description of the Gaelic League is particularly perceptive.

The author all but ignores the Provinces' dialects and in thirteen words, dismisses the insidious abandonment of Gaelic script. Likewise the treatment of personal names is notable. For example, two O'Donnells are indexed: "F." and "H". William Daniel, a proselytizing apostate, is alone granted the privileged appellation "Ó Domhnaill"; "O'Donnell H." is Aodh Rua.

In writing of contemporary Ireland, the author may have strayed into unfamiliar territory. Two passages seem most incongruous:

"… the influence of the Catholic Church and the Republic's constitutional arrangements had created a Catholic state for a Catholic people…." (pp.176-7)

This appears to be a misapplication of theme of James Craig's affirmations in the six-county legislature on 24th April and 21st November 1934. It is explained and ably refuted in a footnote to Wikipedia's entry on Douglas Hyde. On page 182 we have:

"And lest sectarianism be thought the preserve of the Unionists, it should be remembered that in 1942 the Minister of Education in the Free State introduced a Bill, which sought to impose compulsory Irish on Protestants by effectively blocking their right to educate their children in private schools or abroad. Supported by de Valera and passed by both houses of the Irish parliament, the Bill was referred to the Supreme Court by the Protestant Gaelic Leaguer, and lately president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde; the court threw it out as unconstitutional (Akenson, 1975)." (sic)

Both statements contradict Miller's (1978/2007) authoritative finding:

"The Dublin Government's eagerness to meet any reasonable need of its minority contrasts sharply with the fact that during fifty years the permanent Unionist majority accepted only one minor legislative proposal from the Nationalist benches, the Wild Bird Act 1931."

Akenson's expression "lately" can be read as "formerly," "recently", or "newly". Douglas Hyde was the first President under the 1937 Bunreacht (constitution). His term ran from 1938 until 1945.

The right, or duty, to withhold assent from an Oireachtas Bill, which appears to be unconstitutional, is granted to the President by Article 26 of An Bunreacht. He/She refers the matter to the Supreme Court, which decides.

President Hyde exercised this right twice. In the first instance, the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill, 1940, the Court disagreed and the Bill duly became law as many know to their cost. He also withheld assent to the School Attendance Bill 1942. The Court agreed that section 4.1 was not acceptable. (The judgment is reprinted in the Annual Report of the [Irish] Ombudsman 2007.)

In both cases an Bunreacht was vindicated.

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