Strong language – John Horgan on an Irish language controversy

An Irishman’s Diary

The current controversy about the status of the Irish language in the European Union is a reminder of the very mixed, and fluctuating, fortunes of the language in this, its own country. Part of the problem in the early years was that the campaign for revival was driven politically rather than educationally or linguistically.

One of the pioneers of an approach that was more scientific than solely political was the Franciscan scholar and expert in bilingualism studies generally, An tAthair Colmán Ó hUallacháin, who was a beacon of hope for many enthusiasts in the 1960s, a period which saw the rise of the LFM, the “Language Freedom Movement”, dedicated to removing the requirement to pass Irish in order to be awarded the Leaving Certificate.

Ó hUallacháin himself was a linguistic scholar who was more than aware of the inadequacies of a purely political approach.

He once organised a significant academic conference on bilingualism in Dublin, the first of its kind, but experienced some discomfort when Mr de Valera, who as taoiseach had perforce been invited to open the conference, used his speech to lecture the assembled audience of international scholars about Fianna Fáil's successes in the language revival movement.


Ó hUallacháin confided to me later that he had some difficulty in concealing his embarrassment.

The LFM was at this stage on a roll, and decided to capitalise on the publicity it was attracting by organising a protest meeting in the Mansion House, which I reported for this paper. Although I was personally dubious about the LFM and its evidently middle-class origins, I faithfully reported the proceedings, as well as the protests by language enthusiasts, led by Tomás Ó Fiaich, then professor of Irish at Maynooth and a future cardinal, and including, if memory serves, a future chairman of the RTÉ Authority.

A stand-off between organisers and protesters eventually ended with an agreement that each LFM speaker would be followed by one from the opposition.

What I did not learn until much later that this protest had in fact been a milder version of what had originally been planned by some of the enthusiasts, deeply antagonistic to this challenge to the national policy. Their desire to disrupt the meeting to the point at which it would have to be abandoned was eventually shelved in favour of the tactic mentioned.

There was a fair amount of protest by LFM supporters afterwards, who were generally unaware of the stronger tactics that had been advocated but shelved. It is at least arguable that the protest, and the controversy to which it gave rise, may have actually played into the hands of the LFM rather than weakening its appeal.

The most original approach I ever encountered on the topic of reviving the Irish language, however, was one suggested by Mr Justice Richard Johnson, father of the late High Court judge of the same name, who had been appointed by the Free State government as a district justice in Co Kerry.

Johnson became famous not only for his witticisms from the bench, but for an amazing play called The Evidence I Shall Give.

Although partly bowdlerised by Ernest Blythe, then in control of the Abbey, this drama remained a powerful indictment of official and social attitudes to the problems of single parents. It was first produced by the old Abbey Theatre in its then temporary home in Pearse Street, and repeated at least once more recently.

Johnson was widely regarded as a fair, if eccentric, judge, and all new gardaí posted to Tralee had to be reminded not to prosecute him for his frequently repeated breaches of the road traffic acts (he used to leave his vehicle, an unremarkable Ford 5 cwt van, parked wherever the humour took him).

In private, his approach to the issue of the revival of Irish was as equally heedless of precedent, but based on a profound acquaintance with the Irish predilection for activities prohibited by law.

He suggested once, in my hearing, that the cause of the revival would be greatly enhanced if the law was changed to ensure that anybody heard speaking would be brought to court and fined.