The Irish Language and Marxist Materialism

“The night of the sword and bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle”

The above, written by renowned Kenyan thinker Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, sums up much that is at the heart of Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin’s persuasive book here under review. Language From Below: the Irish language, ideology and power in 20th century Ireland examines the relationship between material forces and the ideology surrounding the Irish language during the past century or more.

Little treatment has been given to this subject, especially in book length. Hence, the reasons for the varying attitudes that exist towards the Irish language – some of them positive, others hostile, many apathetic – are not well understood. Often, in the face of opposition, instead of turning to class or economics as explanatory factors, proponents of the language frame hostility to An Ghaeilge in simplistic “anti-Irish” terms.

Ó Croidheáin admits that Irish occupies a strange place in the national consciousness; “it is true that not many Irish people speak the Irish language, yet many Irish people still define their identity in terms of the Irish language”. He thus seeks not only to address common misinterpretations, but to offer solutions that may remedy the current decline the Irish language is facing in its western communal heartlands, and the pressures it faces in other spheres.

By getting to the economic “root” of language decline, as it were, he sets out his stall for a reversal of fortunes in explicit Connollyite terms.

The book consists of five chapters and Ó Croidheáin opens with a theoretical exploration of Marxism, ideology and language. As he explains, “in each historical period the ruling ideology is separated from the ruling class itself and given an independent existence”. At times, according to French philosopher Louis Althusser, this phenomenon could be relatively autonomous and act as a “social cement” even among non-élite sections of the populace.

For a period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Irish fulfilled this role. It became first a “political weapon” and marker of autonomy, and then, once the state was founded, an instrument of social cohesion – only to be replaced later in the Free State’s existence by Catholicism during the 1930s.

In writing about colonialism and language Ó Croidheáin turns frequently to Ngugi, the Irish educationalist and revolutionary Pádraig Pearse, and Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. He outlines the ideological power of the English education system in Ireland, Kenya and further afield in turning the colonized against their own cultures.

He also explores the debates among what might be termed decolonial literary figures around the use of the native tongue, the tongue of the colonizer, and translations, in their writings. For Frantz Fanon, in his essay “On National Culture”, in The Wretched of the Earth:

“The crystallisation of the national consciousness will both disrupt literary styles and themes, and also create a completely new public. While at the beginning the native intellectual used to produce his work to be read exclusively by the oppressor, whether with the intention of charming him or denouncing him through ethnical or subjectivist means, now the native writer progressively takes on the habit of addressing his own people”

The author is always aware, however, of how resistance to colonialism in the form of nationalism could be manipulated by the ruling class. Thus, the advent of a cultural nationalism and its attendant “class conciliatory ideology” in Ireland with the arrival of Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders, writing in The Nation during the 1840s, is viewed as the starting point for this opportunity for social control by later nationalist leaders.

Ó Croidheáin subsequently utilizes the work of early modern English and French philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rosseau, to explain “the conflation of nation and state”. For Rosseau, as a member of the rising bourgeoise, the state exists above all to defend individual rights of property in the face of tyrannical monarchy.

As the bourgeoisie came to rule France following the revolution of 1789, the French state consolidated to the detriment of the various nations within it, not least of which were the Bretons and the Basques. The languages of both, as with various French dialects, or patois, came under increasing pressure from a centralized Parisian French language.

This type of utilitarianism also manifested in Ireland regarding Irish. The thinking of English political economists such as John Stuart Mill were readily absorbed by Catholic nationalist leaders like Daniel O’Connell during the mid-nineteenth century who proclaimed of the language that he was “sufficiently utilitarian not to regret its gradual passing”.

A cultural revolution or a material one?

Others, however, such as Douglas Hyde, had different ideas and wrote of the necessity of “De-Anglicising” Ireland. A cultural revolution gained traction in the 1890s – the establishment of Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in 1893 a seminal moment.

The Conradh waged – in a modern, secular way – several rights-based battles in its early years, attaining an improved status for Irish within the British-run education and postal systems. At its Ard Fheis (annual meeting) in 1915, radicals staged a coup and moved the organization towards inserting itself at the heart of the tectonic shifts underway in Irish politics by taking a separatist stance. Hyde, who contended that the language issue should remain apolitical, resigned.

Yet, six of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation were members of the Conradh. Their involvement in the Easter Rising, and the series of events in subsequent years, not least the Black and Tan War, left an indelible mark on Irish society, culminating in quasi-independence and the foundation of the Twenty-Six County Irish state in 1922.

However, the Civil War of 1922-23, where British-backed Free State forces, allied with the Catholic Church, strong farmers, and big business, suppressed the radical republican forces, heralded a new dawn for the Irish language. As Ó Croidheáin explains, “the desire for genuine social change behind the revolutionary movement was diverted into cultural change in the form of Gaelicisation policies”. The language was essentially wielded as a tool of counter-revolution.

These policies, moreover, were largely confined to the education system, and there was a lack of fundamental change in the social structure that might allow the language to thrive once more. Thus, any gains made through schooling in the 1920s “were constantly being undermined by the reality of unemployment and education”.

In the 1930s, Éamon De Valera, Taoiseach (Prime Minister), and leader of the populist nationalist Fianna Fáil party, placed Catholicism centre-stage as a marker of Irish identity – particularly during the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.

During the inter-war years, nationalist ideology, incorporating both the Irish language and Catholicism, served as an instrument of state consolidation. Élites utilized this communal “glue” to bind ordinary people to the ideology of the state – particularly at points when the state felt itself under threat, as it did from the IRA during the 1930s and into the 1940s during the Second World War, when the Free State sought to preserve its neutrality above all else. But this unholy alliance between state and language was counterproductive in many ways too:

“The status of Irish in the education system and state institutions, burdened the language with an ideological slant that had implications for the working-class and the people of the Gaeltacht. Language policy was perceived as discriminatory among the poorly educated who saw Irish in terms of reward or sanction for social mobility”

Measures to restore the Irish language to national prominence as anything more than a symbolic marker of identity began to be reversed in the 1960s. Following the adoption of T.K Whittaker’s Programme for Economic Expansion by these same élites in 1958, appealing to external market forces, rather than economic nationalism, became the order of the day.

With the demise of economic nationalism, came a corollary demise in cultural nationalism, and the status of the Irish language in the civil service began to be eroded. This process, whereby the language no longer served the ruling-class, was only intensified with the joining of the European Economic Community in 1973. Now wealth was to be gained, and protected, through economic liberalism and English monolingualism.

The situation has remained largely unchanged since, as Ó Croidheáin is keen to point out; “today, neo-colonialism in the form of Anglo-American mass culture and multinational industry provides the engine for a new language colonialism as the English language gains dominance in global culture”


However, Ó Croidheáin is not despondent, and throughout the book, but particularly in the final chapter, he goes to great lengths to highlight the transformative nature of struggle. One example he provides is that of Norway during the late nineteenth century where the Landsmål movement, proponents for a peasant dialect, in opposition to speakers of the upper-class Bokmål dialect, managed to inspire “the peasantry to question and challenge the power relationships inherent in the centre/periphery of the society”.

In Ireland, he points to the transformative struggle taken up by the people of Ráth Chairn, a small Gaeltacht colony in the east of the country in Co. Meath. Led during the mid-1930s by the great literary figure and activist, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, the activism required to establish the settlement, achieve recognition as a Gaeltacht, and attain the necessary infrastructure over the course of years, empowered those involved, making them keenly aware of their rights as citizens. Likewise, during the late 1960s and early 70s in Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta (Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement), a similar empowerment was also discernable.

For Ó Cadhain, this struggle was not only about the preservation of the language as it was for some (what Ó Croidheáin calls the “culturalists”), nor was it simply for more “rights”, but it was far broader than that. During the fiftieth commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1966, Ó Cadhain argued that;

“henceforward the Irish language movement would have to play an active role in the struggle of the Irish people to fulfill the aims of the 1916 Manifesto. This is the Reconquest of Ireland, the revolution, the revolution of the mind and heart, the revolution in wealth distribution, property rights and living standards”.

Other positive developments such as the surge in all-Irish language schooling, the Gaelscoil movement, from the 1970s, in both the southern and northern states in Ireland, are identified by Ó Croidheáin. Taking the case study of Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch in working-class north Dublin, he demonstrates how the struggle for resources by parents in the face of opposition by church and state, led to the cultivation of “self-respect, self-sufficiency and fearlessness”.

Even here, however, he offers a salutary caution – and one that has proven prophetic, whereby the years 2017-2018 were the first where the state has arrested the growth of the Gaelscoil movement since its inception in 1973. Ó Croidheáin, writing in 2006, warned that “without developing a wider political critique of society such movements may lose their collective force and be assimilated back into the dominant ideology of the state”.

All told, the author makes a forceful case for Irish language activists, atá ag treabhadh an ghoirt, to move from a simple “culturalist” or rights-based discourse and activism to a philosophy which unambiguously advocates for a wholesale redistribution of power and wealth. As he affirms, “linguistic issues can only be resolved when class questions, such as the ownership and control of resources, becomes part of the overall objective of political movements”.

Or, as Ó Cadhain boldly stated, “sé dualgas lucht na Gaeilge bheith ina sóisialaigh” (it is the duty of Irish speakers to be socialists).

Finally, and perhaps without realizing it, Ó Croidheáin also demonstrates clearly the untapped potential for a progressive movement that combines the socialism of James Connolly with the cultural qualities and socialism of Ó Cadhain, the Gaelscoil movement and the struggle to maintain the Gaeltacht. Recent surveys, for example, have demonstrated how 25% of parents in the state would send their children to a Gaelscoil if the opportunity existed, but that around only 4% can avail of this, while another poll showed that 60% believed the language was very important and should be supported.

Yet, certain sections of the Irish left adhere to a minimalistic rights-oriented discourse when it comes to the Irish language. There is a refusal to seriously engage with this dormant potential for fear of being branded “nationalist” and “reactionary”.

The recent local and European elections – in which the radical and broad left took a hammering – have demonstrated once again that another layer of activism, above and beyond mere economism, is required to keep people engaged, especially in times of limited political mobilization.

It is not enough to complain that there was no fervently active social movement on housing to galvanize workers into turning out and voting, like there was around the issue of water in 2014. The same groupings, despite the fact they count many Irish speakers among their ranks and in prominent positions, have never run an Irish language class for the benefit of the public in the entirety of their existence.

Identity is important to people. Additionally, as Freire remarked, “without a sense of identity, there can be no real struggle”. Unlike transient moods surrounding politics and the economy, identity tends to remain fixed. Crucially, the Irish language, as a signifier of identity, transcends ethnic divisions and is no longer rigidly associated with “white ethnic Irish Catholicity” – if it ever really was.

The Irish language could be harnessed through a grassroots movement to build a new, secular and inclusive Republic, encompassing all colors and creeds. It is up to the left to muster the political will to do so.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
Language From Below: the Irish language, ideology and power in 20th century Ireland

Peter Lang, 345 pp., $72.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His latest journal article, featured in Irish Historical Studies, examines the links between agrarian violence and constitutional politics on the Ulster borderlands in the wake of the Great Famine. Twitter @DublinHistorian

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.