Tag Archives: Irish

How Seamus Heaney Dug into Language

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin,  2009 (Photo: Sean O'Connor)

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin, 2009 (Photo: Sean O’Connor)

Irish poet Seamus Heaney passed away Friday. He was 74-years-old. The poet won numerous writing awards, including the Nobel Prize.

“I met him when I was a teenager,” says another Irish poet Paul Muldoon, about his friend. “I was about 16 at the time and he was 28 and already a very famous poet.”

Muldoon talks about how violence during The Troubles in Northern Ireland affected Heaney’s work. Indeed the Troubles seeped into many of the poems that Heaney wrote throughout his life.

But Muldoon says Heaney, “Refused, despite a certain amount of pressure, to come out on one side or the other. There were moments where he was more decisively asserting his more nationalist background when he describes how, ‘No glass has ever been raised to toast the queen of England.'”

Muldoon says it’s very difficult to for people in the US to understand what an extraordinary role Seamus Heaney as a poet had in Irish life.

Listen below to Paul Muldoon reading Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, “Digging.”



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A Call for English Only at the European Union

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

Here’s a guest post from Brussels-based reporter Don Duncan…

The Treaty of Rome in 1957, which was the founding event of what is now the European Union, was supposed to be the beginning of the end of nationalism in Europe. But over a half-century later, walking through any of the EU buildings in Brussels, it feels like nationalism never went away.

Officially, deputies and delegates will only speak in their national languages, as a matter of principle. Attending them is a small army of translators and interpreters who assure their message is translated into the languages of the rest of the union – at a current cost of $1.4bn per year. The big irony, though, is that once they are away from the podium or the microphone, and they are hanging out with other European bureaucrats by the water cooler, they comfortably switch into English, the de facto lingua franca of the union.

You might wonder then, when most if not all EU bureaucrats master English, what’s the point in maintaining 23 official languages, especially at such expense? Why not just use a single language and, what’s more, why not use the language all EU bureaucrats master – English?

“It’s tempting of course, with English you get through everywhere in the whole world,” says Andrea Dahman, head of communications for the Translation Unit of the European Commission. “On the other hand, I’m always saying, if you want to do business you’ve got to speak the language of the client.”

Interpretors of various languages work interpreting a presentation at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. (Photo: European Commission)

In the EU, in order to speak the “language of the client” – that is the languages of the 27 member states – a long, costly and time-consuming chain of tasks needs to happen.

Once a delegate or bureaucrat delivers a speech in his or her native language, it is then taken up by dozens of interpreters, who simultaneously translate into their respective languages, or tune into the English interpretation and work from that.

Meanwhile, an official release of the speech is produced and this is sent to the translation unit and – again – either directly, or via English, a separate group of text-based translators gets to work.

Within the EU institutions, ideology trumps pragmatism, and the founding ideology of the Union is “Unity in Diversity.” Back in 1957, when there were only six member states and four languages, it was an easy credo to follow. But fast-forward to today and things are not so easy: 27 member states and 23 official languages. It’s costing the EU a lot of money, it’s having a negative impact on its global competitiveness and it will only get more complex as the union continues to enlarge. In July, Croatia will become the 28th member state of the EU, and Croatian the 24th official language.

As the EU gets larger, critics of the multilingual system are becoming more vocal. For Shada Islam director of policy at Brussels think thank Friends of Europe, the process is costly, unproductive, and most of all, unnecessary.

“We’re spending too much time and energy on this language issue,” she says. “The world is moving fast, the world is moving ahead and we need to be looking at other ways of fostering diversity and inclusiveness. You do really need to have a common understanding and I think that’s where English came in as the natural language that everyone spoke.

While more and more respected public policy organizations are calling for establishing English as the language of the EU, the idea remains politically toxic. English is the language of the most eurosceptic country – the UK. What’s more, France and Germany are very touchy when it comes to having their languages eclipsed by English. Regardless of sentiment, EU officials argue that using any single language wouldn’t be democratic, or in the shared spirit of the union.

“Europeans believe or at least they think they should believe very much in diversity and in inclusion and that everyone is equal,” says Shada Islam of Friends of Europe. “It’s an artificial mental set up, if you like. Everyone is not equal. There are big powers, there’s Germany, there’s France… so we’re not all equal.”

But despite the growing cost and complexity, and the growing skepticism from outside the EU institutions, the Union is holding course and shows no sign of shifting. When Croatian becomes the official language in July, the cost of the union’s commitment to multilingualism will nudge up to an estimated $1.5bn a year.


Patrick Cox adds: Here’s a link to John Crace’s excellent Digested Read podcast that I mentioned in the pod.

Other podcasts on this subject:



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Northern Ireland’s Past Through a Father’s Lens and Son’s Songs


Belfast (Photo: Bobbie Hanvey)

Belfast (Photo: Bobbie Hanvey)

Guest post from my Big Show colleague April Peavey

Northern Ireland had more than its share of sectarian violence in the time known as The Troubles.

The story’s been told more that a few times.

But now it’s being told through one family’s songs and photographs.

The pictures were taken in the 1970s and 80s by award-winning photojournalist Bobbie Hanvey.

Steafán Hanvey (Photo: Steafán Hanvey's website)

Steafán Hanvey (Photo: Steafán Hanvey’s website)

And his son, Steafán Hanvey wrote the songs, inspired by his dad’s photos.

As Steafán told me it’s “the sound of somebody trying to make sense of a chaotic environment.”

Steafán is out on the road promoting his new album, Nuclear Family, and his dad’s photos.

The project is called “Look Behind You! A Father and Son’s Impressions of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.”

Steafán Hanvey remembers growing up with his dad’s photos all around.



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A New Protestant Beginning for the Irish Language in Belfast

[Guest post from Aaron Schrank]

The Irish language used to be a symbol of Catholic nationalism. But it’s gradually becoming de-politicized, morphing into just another minority language in need of saving.

Lower Newtownards Road in East Belfast is solid Protestant territory. It was a hot spot for sectarian violence at the height of the troubles. Today, British flags flutter from fences. Murals of masked gunmen adorn the sides of buildings. It’s pretty much the last place you’d expect to find people learning Irish. But inside a community center, about a dozen people from the neighborhood are doing just that.

An Irish class in session in a Protestant section of Belfast (Photo: Sarah Parvini)

You wouldn’t have seen this a few decades ago. Just ask Sandra Irvine.

“When I was at school, I was brought up in East Belfast, yes, in a very Protestant area and for me to learn Irish would have been considered very strange,” Irvine said.

But she had always been curious about the language.

“I did actually attempt to learn Irish, but couldn’t find anywhere that I could go to, so it was in my mind for a very long time, but it wasn’t an option.”

Now, Irish is an option for people like Irvine. East Belfast Mission hosts classes five times a week.

This push for Protestant Irish learners is largely the work of one woman: Linda Ervine, the center’s Irish language development officer. It’s her job to convince people who, at best, see the language as irrelevant and, at worst, as an enemy tongue to care about it. She tells them to look a century into history, to when plenty of Protestants here spoke Irish.

“What the language does is, it allows people to explore the idea of Irishness in a non-threatening way,” said Ervine. “We are Irish. I feel I’m Irish.”

This means a lot coming from Linda Ervine. Her brother-in-law, David Ervine, was a well-known member of the Ulster Volunteer Force—a protestant paramilitary group. He did six years in prison before leading Northern Ireland’s Progressive Unionist Party.

“It was almost like we give people permission from the protestant community,” said Ervine. “Like, if we could do it, it was alright, sort of took the sting out of it or something.”

Linda Ervine’s efforts coincide with a push across Northern Ireland, backed by the government, for Irish language learning called Liofa, meaning “fluent.”

The culture minister whose pet project this is, Carál Ní Chuilín, is a Catholic and a former Provisional IRA militant.

But the campaign does have some cross-community support.

Basil McCrea is one the leading protestant politicians backing Liofa. He says that for Protestants to embrace Irish, it needs to be freed from its divisive past. And he has a little dig at some Catholic politicians – he says they still use the language as a political prop, especially during heated debates in parliament.

“You know when they’re annoyed because they respond in a huge amount of Irish,” said McCrea. “It’s like flying a flag. Fair enough. But it’s got nothing to do about language and everything to do about politics.”

Irish Teacher Cuthbert Arutura (Photo: Sarah Parvini)

There’s a well-known saying in Belfast, attributed to a Catholic Sinn Fein politician: “Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom.” It shows just how political the recent history of this language has been.

But not everyone here remembers that history. At an integrated Catholic and Protestant school south of Belfast, Cuthbert Arutura, or “Tura” for short, is speaking Irish with a room full of 10 and 11-year olds. These kids were born after the 1998 peace agreement.

Tura’s here to show them the language doesn’t have to be about politics. He’s a Zimbabwean immigrant, who moved to East Belfast 20 years ago.

“I’m a protestant. So I don’t buy the stories that politicians use to justify pursuing certain narratives,” Tura said. “The language isn’t owned by a political entity. It’s something that is living.”

For Tura, Irish has been a way to connect with his new home. Before moving here, he didn’t know how little it was spoken. Now, he works to save it.

“Tír gan teanga tír gan anam,” Tura said. “A country with no language is a country without a soul.” These words form the lyrics of a song he sings to the students.

Tura is among a wave of immigrants coming to Northern Ireland who don’t view Irish with decades of discord in mind. They see it as just another minority language, one that might be on its way out. Whether or not they’re learning Irish, and few are, they are at least helping normalize attitudes to language. Maybe that will mean even a few more locals, on either side of the Protestant-Catholic divide, will consider picking it up.


Patrick Cox adds:

Below is the podcast that includes the interview with my dad. He grew up learning Irish in newly independent Ireland. And after more than a decade of studying it at school, he promptly forgot nearly all of it.



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Swearing in Irish, storytelling in Scots, and rapping in Khmer

There may be many reasons why attempts at reviving the Irish language have not fared as well as those for Welsh, or even Scottish Gaelic.  You might think that Ireland, as a new-ish nation, would have embraced its ancient language — a language suppressed by the British colonialists. And certainly, Ireland ‘s first few governments tried that in the 1920s and 30s. Irish was mandatory in schools, and mastery of it was required to enter the civil service. Despite that,  it never really took off. Perhaps the British had done too good a job in near-wiping it out. (And did less well in Wales, where people persisted in speaking Welsh, even before its current government-sponsored revival). Or perhaps, people aren’t comfortable learning a language as a political act, as part of a nationalist agenda.

We hear from two speakers of the language: first, my Dad, who remembers hardly any Irish these days but studied it at school for many years. Today, many decades later, he wishes he’d paid more attention.  Then, a conversation with Manchán Magan, who made a documentary series for Irish TV about his attempt to travel around Ireland speaking only Irish. (That’s him in the picture, praying that he’ll meet someone who speaks Irish.) He was verbally abused in Dublin — a reaction Magan thinks has to do with the past, and feelings of guilt and shame. In Killarney, he asked people, in Irish, to help him rob a bank. In Galway, he sang filthy songs in public and was applauded by uncomprehending old ladies.  He also tried — and failed — to buy food and clothes, and to hire a mechanic. Middle-aged Irish people like him, Magan says, never really were interested in keeping up their Irish skills. But the young are different: for them, learning Irish doesn’t have an agenda attached to it. So there may be hope yet for this language.
Then, it’s Alexander McCall Smith. His latest offering in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a children’s book in the Scots language. McSmith and other participants in a BBC round-table program (also featured  in the podcast) discuss books in translation. English is now so dominant and so widely understood, that many books written in English simply aren’t translated into the likes of Dutch, Danish or Swedish, let alone Scots. So, publication of this book in its translation a full year before it is published in the original English is a quite a statement from McCall Smith.

Finally, we profile hip-hop artist Boomer Da Sharpshooter. Boomer, who is ethnic Cambodian, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in California. He grew up speaking English but now raps in Cambodia’s main language, Khmer. It’s not out of choice: in his late teens he was gang-banger, and was sent to prison on weapons offenses. On his release, the US deported him to Cambodia. That was seven years ago. Today, he’s a reformed character, and his  Khmer raps are considerably softer in tone and content than his English ones used to be.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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