Dave Duggan writes: In 1990, Routledge published The Death of the Irish Language by Reg Hindley. I was writing radio drama in English and in Irish at the time, but my day-job was in a bookshop. Dealing with publishers’ representatives, “reps”, was one of my roles, including for books in and concerning Irish. The rep from Routledge asked if I would organise an event to mark the publication of Hindley’s book, which bore the subsidiary title “a qualified obituary”. Hindley dedicated it to those who work to keep Irish a living language.
I suggested we organise a debate with another person, who would oppose the thesis in the book’s title. The rep agreed and Routledge met some costs. I booked a room in the Central Library in Derry, made other arrangements and publicised the event. I asked Alan Titley, academic, commentator and novelist, to respond to Reg Hindley’s book. I had met him when he was head of the Irish department at St Patrick’s College in Dublin.
Alan Titley’s written output in Irish is deep, extensive and wide-ranging. Writing about his efforts to translate the key modern Irish prose text Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain into English, Titley noted:
More problematic for me was trying to match Irish with English. There has long been a tradition when translating from Irish to English to revert to some kind of sub-monkey Synge-speak. It turns good people into peasants, wisdom into smartassedness, and ordinary natural talk into exotic jabber. The people in this novel were ordinary people, with their own wisdom and their talk was fully natural. But they did speak with verve and with venom and with love and with lusciousness.
Over one hundred people attended the debate. Reg Hindley spoke well, if dryly, in English, citing his erudite study of population movement and language usage. He was cogent and mildly apologetic. He was well-received. People understood that he was doing his best to be on the side of Irish speakers. He spoke about what he called the “patterned evasion” of Irish in Ireland.
When he responded to Reg Hindley’s talk, Alan Titley brought his own verve and silken venom to his remarks. He began speaking in Spanish, with greetings and thanks. The audience became restive, some of them smiling, possibly Spanish speakers. Titley paused, then apologised in Irish and in English. He continued in both languages, developing his response to Hindley. He noted that if the Armada in 1588 had led to a Spanish conquest of Ireland, modern Ireland and Britain could have been Spanish-speaking, like Argentina and Chile.
He seamlessly wove one language with the other, advancing his argument that in the twenty-first century, in a wealthy, Western European country with a deep legacy of Gaelic language literature, oral and written, and associated cultural manifestations in sport, art, crafts, dance and music, there existed a tantalising possibility of enrichment by harnessing that legacy to a form of modernity far outstripping narrow transactionalism and commercialism. There was a possibility of expansive and inclusive multiplicity, rather than base utilitarianism and exclusive singularity. There was an opportunity to infuse language use with the particular wonders of Irish, alongside the powers and beauties of English and other languages.
Considerations of such matters were beyond the scope of the evening’s debate on Reg Hindley’s book. Nonetheless, the discussion that followed ranged widely across public affairs and social matters common to all languages. As with many such debates, outcomes were inconclusive, with no clear winner or loser. No vote was taken at the end. It would have been inappropriate. The search for a win-win outcome continues, simply by speaking the languages, by negotiating via public representatives and by advocating across divides in the hope of securing satisfactory changes. It is the well-known human problem of double-minorities. A minority of people want rid of Irish. A minority of people want to make it the primary language in Ireland. The majority of people want something else, a form of bilingualism by consent, but arriving at that form, with that consent, remains elusive.
Some of Reg Hindley’s analysis remains valid, though the statistics on which it is based are long out of date. The book’s “Thirty years a’ dying” echoes Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s 1933 memoir of life on Great Blasket Island, Fiche Bliain ag Fás, translated and published in English as Twenty Years A-Growing. There will be no return to the use of Irish in Ireland as detailed in Ó Súilleabháin’s great book, but equally Hindley’s guarded obituary remains premature, inapplicable even. Since Hindley’s book, TVand radio stations, websites, schools, businesses and government legislation have all emerged as the use of Irish, and the role it plays in Ireland, changes.
Changes take us to ideas of power, not unlike those invoked by Angela Carter. Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.
I no longer work in a bookshop. Writing has been my day-job for some time. I am a spailpín in two languages. Living yet.
Reg Hindley’s book is still available from Routledge, at £120 in hardback. Dave Duggan is a novelist and dramatist. His latest novels are Makaronik (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2018) and Oak and Stone (Merdog Books, 2019).