Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Self expression

February has been a good month for self-expression.  Achieving, asserting and annunciating.

One reason is the publication of a book setting out the best age for achieving particular things in life.  
Another is the more significant and historical occasion of the centenary of women’s struggle to achieve the democratic right to vote,[i] coinciding as it does with an era of women asserting themselves via #MeToo and in other ways.   

New research which draws from a wide range of sources will appeal to retired and also to younger people.  A summary of the book’s research was glowingly presented in a national newspaper this month.[ii]  Among the enticing findings,  it suggests that there’s a best age to do all manner of things from running marathons to being happy, learning to drive, giving up work, resolving conflicts and so on.

For instance, based on a London School of Economics study, 69 is posited as the age for people to feel at the peak of well-being.    
And data produced by Match.com have found that at 66 women have their best sex, and that for men this occurs at the age of 64 (this despite Paul McCartney’s description in hiscute song as old age).   
The best age to take a driving test is 17, a statement justified on the grounds that 17-year-olds are used to learning and are open to new skills.  
The best age for learning a second language is 8.

That last one reminded me of a prominent bilingual sign I have seen in the foyer of Inverness airport.[iii]  It articulates the strong educational advantages of bilingualism, saying that children (presumably like those in the Scottish Highlands) who learn more than one language outperform others academically.  
The images below, in Scots Gaelic, ask people to take the opportunity to come and teach me.

Earlier this month I attended one of the best public talks I have heard in recent years.  Linda Ervine spoke with eloquent passion and with much authority on “The Hidden History of the Irish Language in Ulster.[iv] 
She reminded her attentive audience that we are surrounded with thousands of examples in our beautiful place-names and surnames, that the banners insignia and buildings of organisations including the Orange Order include Gaelic inscriptions, and that the 1911 Census of Population shows that Irish (as well as English) was the spoken language of working class households in East Belfast.

She included countless examples of Ulstermen who spoke Irish fluently and who supported its revival.  Many of the settlers who were brought over from Scotland during the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century were Gaelic speakers; she presented information about senior figures in the Orange Order and about prominent Presbyterians like the 18th century industrialist Robert Shipboy MacAdam who saw no contradiction between the encouragement of the Irish language and loyalty to the Crown.  “He founded the Ulster Gaelic society - the first of its kind in Ireland - collected many Irish manuscripts, and publishing a Gaelic dictionary.[v]


Mrs Ervine produced examples of this continuing support for the language in the 20th century.   Anglicans founded  Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise, the Irish Guild of the Church in 1914 to preserve within the Church of Ireland the spirit of the ancient Celtic Church; to promote the Church’s use of the Irish language; to collect from Irish sources suitable hymns and other devotional literature; and to encourage the use of Irish art and music in the Church.

A booklet to commemorate the centenary of CGE was published almost four years ago. CGE keeps a list of its clergy who speak Irish fluently.  In modern Belfast, religious services are conducted on occasions in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and St Georges Church of Ireland.


Given that the venue for Linda Ervine’s talk was a Methodist Church and aware of the current focus on women in the international media, the talk might have referred to women whose campaigning cultural and educational roles with language are notable. One is Alice Milligan who died in 1954.

She was born in Omagh to a middle class Methodist and Unionist family.   “She promoted the language as a member of the Gaelic League (the number of Irish language speakers in Belfast rose from 900 to almost 4000 within 10 years); she co-edited journals (the Northern Patriot and Shan Van Vocht); along with Anna Johnston and Maud Gonne, she helped organise the centenary commemorations of the 1798 rebellion; and when Maud formed the radical women’s organisation Inghinidhe na hEireann Alice wrote plays to support its cultural activities.[vi]

These Daughters of Ireland aimed “to discourage the reading and circulation of low English literature, the singing of English songs and to combat English influence which is doing so much injury to the artistic taste and refinement of the Irish people.”   Quoting these objectives, the eminent Cambridge University historian Professor Roy Foster observes: - “The last phrase should be noted.  For all their militant anti-Englishness, this and other movements on the broad Gaelicist front were cultural, not political.[vii]


Myra Zepf from Holywood County Down is a contemporary example.  Last year she was appointed by Queen’s University Belfast as Northern Ireland’s inaugural Children’s Writing Fellow.  The daughter of the late Dr Roger Blaney who was the author of “Presbyterians and the Irish language,” she is also an internationally published writer and Irish language children’s author.[viii]   She was reared in a family where Irish was the main language, a trend which she continues with her own children.

She admits to being “pained at the way Irish has been politicised at Stormont.”  Speaking about her parents, she explains how they “instilled a great love of Irish in me - and indeed all books and stories – and the language has always been a very enriching and beautiful part of my life.”  She says that she “would stand very strongly in favour of legislation for Irish.”


An article this month in The New Statesman magazine argues that there is nothing to fear from the beauty of the language.   “Nobody is going to be forced to speak Irish.  Street signs in Irish are unlikely to go up where they are vigorously opposed.”   The correspondent [ix] quotes Linda Ervine - 

“I have lost nothing of myself through learning Irish but have gained so much.”

©Michael McSorley 2018

[i] 1918 Representation of the People Act, voting rights for women over 30
[ii] The Times 10 Feb 2018 Weekend “Marathons, Botox and sex. There’s a perfect age to do everything. Rachel Carlyle, based on Richard Layard’s new book “The Origins of Happiness.”
[iii]Scotland’s Bòrd na Gàidhlig website:-  www.teagasg.com
[iv] https://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/turas--irish-language-project-13656815
[v] The Ulster History Circle website.
[vi] Celebrating Belfast Women: a city guide through women’s eyes,” p 38 Women’s Resource & Development Agency
[vii] Modern Ireland 1600-1972 R F Foster  pp 449-450(Penguin Press 1988)
[viii]Belfast Telegraph 6 May 2017 Ivan Little  https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/life/books/myra-zepf-went-from-working-with-honey-monster-to-carrying-out-seamus-heaneys-wish-to-inspire-kids-to-pick-up-books-35685510.html
[ix] New Statesman 16 Feb 2018 Adam McGibbon “There is nothing to fear from the beauty of the Irish language.” https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/northern-ireland/2018/02/there-nothing-fear-beauty-irish-language

No comments:

Post a Comment