Dead Tongues Tell No Tales

IrishReadsToday is St. Patrick’s Day. For many around the world, especially here in America, that means shamrock Mardi Gras beads, pub crawling, and a drunken bacchanalia in the name of one’s Irish heritage. This is largely due to the fact that the Irish, whether because of famine, occupation, or genocide, are a diasporic people with descendants scattered worldwide. However, it is a pet peeve of many how little people claiming Irish heritage know about Ireland, its history, its politics, or its impact on the world. For example, while getting feedback on a story set in Ireland, hardly anyone in my college level writing workshop group knew the difference between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Many myths about the Irish abound, so I’ve listed a few recommendations of background reading and viewing that may clear some of these up and give the average person a better understanding of Ireland and the many issues it has faced throughout the centuries. Also, I just think everyone should see The Secret of Roan Inish because it is a fabulous movie and anyone of any age can enjoy it (the other movies may not be so family oriented, what with their death and terrorism and civil war).

Why is this relevant to this blog?

While under British occupation, the Irish language, known as Gaeilge, was outlawed. As such, the number of native Irish speakers drastically declined. There have been efforts to revive and preserve the language, but they have not been as successful as similar efforts, such as that in Wales. This is due to a number of factors, including the association some young people have with Irish speakers being country bumpkins, an inability to standardize Irish due to its varying dialects, and a lack of Irish speaking parents using the language at home.

This situation is not unique to Ireland. The number of languages spoken in the world halved in the 20th century, whether due to occupation, increasing interaction with a global community, or the standardization and decline of folk traditions and regional customs that began in the 19th century. Many are concerned about this loss of world languages, not solely for the languages themselves but all the history, literature, and culture lost along with them.

There are many groups attempting to document indigenous languages and oral traditions before they disappear, but a database or recording cannot convey the same depth of understanding that a vibrant, existing culture and language can. There is a fascinating effort to have people trained in oral memorization techniques in India go to places where oral traditions are dying out and memorize these peoples’ epics, poems, and stories before they’re gone. There are also more people who speak Old Irish in Japan than in Ireland, due to Japanese efforts to preserve world culture. For an interesting glimpse into both dying oral traditions and how a native language can have a psychological effect on national and cultural identity, I highly recommend the National Geographic documentary Beyond The Movie: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, especially the sections on the last Runesinger and the creation of a Finnish national epic.IrishReads2

The death of a language means the death of a wealth of information, whether historical, cultural, linguistic, etymological, or mythological. Thus, the intentional effort to destroy a language is on par with the destruction of monuments, historical sites, or libraries. It is nothing short of an assault on knowledge and everything that knowledge impacts. To outlaw a language is to ban a thousand books, erase a thousand stories, silence a thousand tongues, and rob a people of their past. So, as a blog about intellectual freedom, this is my little attempt, feeble as it may be, to bring attention to the issues involved with the disappearance of indigenous languages. No matter what the language, whether intentionally eradicated or fallen out of use, the loss of a language is a loss of knowledge for the entire global community. Just imagine how much more we would know about the Indus Valley Civilization if we could read their writing or how much we’ve learned about Ancient Egypt since discovering the Rosetta Stone. A language is not just a set of words but a piece of human history.

So enjoy your pub crawl, make out with a feisty redhead, eat a green cupcake. Far be it from the Irish to deny anyone a good time. But maybe take a part of your day, whether a few minutes or a few hours, to learn about the culture behind the holiday.

For a good background of Irish history:

In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English, Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton

Over Nine Waves, Marie Heaney

For more on Irish culture:

The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint, Seán Ó Duinn, OSB

The Tain, from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, translated by Thomas Kinsella

The Book of Irish Verse: Irish poetry from the sixth century to the present, edited by John Montague

Good films on more recent Irish history/politics:

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

Bloody Sunday (2002)

Michael Collins (1996)

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)


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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

4 responses to “Dead Tongues Tell No Tales”

  1. lydiahadfield says :

    Good post, Shannon. The movie “Hunger” (2008) dir. Steve McQueen, set inside the 1981 prison hunger strike, is also a great movie to watch about Irish history/politics.

  2. frejafolkvangar says :

    Reblogged this on salt and iron and commented:
    This post originally appeared on Bound and Gagged, the banned books blog I run. However, since Irish History Month is upon us, I thought I’d share it here.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. No Gaeilge? | Bound and Gagged - March 17, 2014

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