In a few weeks I’ll be moving to England from my native Northern Ireland. I’m an Irish speaker, and last week, in the library, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t have easy access to a well-stocked library of books written in Irish for very much longer, so I took a quick browse in that aisle to see if there was anything to catch my eye. On one of the shelves there was a thin black hardback with Dónall Mac Amhlaigh in gold lettering on the spine. Apparently, I had written a book.
In my first week of Irish classes at secondary school, the teacher had taken time to figure out an Irish equivalent of our names. That was mine. Dónall Mac Amhlaigh.
I’ve heard of this happening in other language classes – of pupils being given a name, a persona to use in class. I’m not sure how I feel about it. There’s something ideologically loaded in ‘translating’ a name to Irish – as if Dónall could and should legitimately claim ownership of Irish and Daniel couldn’t. Both of us liked Irish anyway, so that wasn’t much of a problem for me. I wonder if this still happens in increasingly ethnically diverse classrooms. I worry that schoolchildren whose names aren’t easily rendered in Irish could be made to feel disconnected from this language which they have as much claim to as any other learner in the class. There were a few names in my class that didn’t have established equivalents – those pupils got to keep their real names – and their real names didn’t have to deal with tricky Irish noun morphology.
Anyway, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s book was ominously called Dialann Deoraí – the diary of an exile. Apparently, it’s about his experiences in the English Midlands in the 1950s and 60s. I have no intention of reading it. I had more than my fill of Irish-language autobiographies at university – it’s a genre of misery and displacement and homesickness and hard work and no joy and nostalgia and more misery. Some of it’s good – it’s just not for me. I liked the parodies and the ones that didn’t fit the formula best (shout out to An Béal Bocht and Mo Bhealach Féin). I flicked through the foreword and noticed this:
“I don’t think Dónall Mac Amhlaigh spent any period of his life among a group of people that he didn’t come to have a fellow-feeling for – except for the countrymen of mid-England!”
It read like a prophecy to me.
I’ve lived abroad before quite a few times, and I know that kind of nostalgic homesickness (they call it cumha in the autobiographies) well. It’s horrible and it’s great and it passes. For me I think it shows itself in the changes in my attitude towards the languages I speak and towards my national identity.
When I lived in France I was held to be English – usually not at a time where it would be appropriate or fruitful or fun to get into a lesson on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the UK. I went super Irish in reaction: I organised a céilí in my school and taught a few greetings in Irish. I looked for Irish conversation groups. There is one in Paris. In England I’m often simply called Irish – it doesn’t really bother me, but it’s imprecise. English people ought to know a bit better I think. I think of Northern Irish people in Britain for whom Irishness is not a part of their identity, and of how alienating this casual outsider-identification must be. Sometimes I do make a point of being Northern Irish. When I lived in Nashville, I often explained that I was from Northern Ireland and that customs and cultures and accents differed significantly on either side of the border. If you’re expecting a Southern Irish accent and you hear my Scots-tinged Ballymenian English dialect instead, you’ll get the quare gunk. Besides, Tennessee has a history of Scots-Irish settlement, so the notion wasn’t completely unfamiliar there. I think there’s a thran streak in me that wants to confound outsiders’ expectations about what I am.
For me, both language and national identity are fluid (I’m a product of the Good Friday Agreement) and both react to the context they find themselves in. I am deeply connected to the place that I’m from – and when I’m there I can use localised language to appeal to a shared sense of belonging and place. If you look at where I’m from on a map of census responses to the language question in Northern Ireland, you’ll see that I’m from a meeting place of Irish speakers and Ulster-Scots speakers. My parents come from spots on the map with high concentrations of Irish speakers today, but neither they nor their parents spoke Irish. My connection to Irish is not one of family or heritage. It was something I learned at school and had an aptitude for and an interest in. I miss it when I think there’ll be no opportunity to use it. My linguistic connection to home and to family is in the local dialect I speak, and bits and pieces of my parents’ quite different local dialects.
When I move to Birmingham, I’ll lose the license to be in bad tid, bad twist, to be thran, and thick as champ, and like a pishmire. Maybe I’ll be mardy there instead. (I wonder does it say something about us that we’ve so many ways to say that). Here’s hoping I’ll be chipper, too, on occasion.
I think as a Northern Irish person, I might be particularly sensitive to, and cagey about, the social meanings that are connected to language, about what it means to use local dialect words and supposed ethnic shibboleths. I know I’m conscious of how I moderate my speech and make choices about what words I use in different contexts. Adapting our speech to the communicative needs of whatever situation we find ourselves in, to the audience we’re speaking to, comes naturally, but it involves a litany of unspoken assumptions on the parts of both sides of the interaction. That’s one of the things that my research on the MEITS project has concentrated on – how language practices, particularly in the case of multilingually influenced varieties and interactions between multilingual speakers, are perceived from both sides of the interaction, and on what we might be able to do to break arbitrary links between features of language and stereotypes. I’m aware that my own various ways of speaking, be they varieties and registers of English or other languages, can be connected to stereotypes too, and I think there’s a lot of value in understanding, documenting and analysing lots of different individual accounts of identity and its connection to language use. It’s important to remember that speakers are very often aware of the stereotypes they’re evoking for people they’re speaking to, and that they have the ability to switch between styles and languages in a way that can provide useful context for what’s being said.
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