I’m in Limerick, Ireland for a conference and have just been watching Irish TV (RTE 1) which was broadcasting live a session from the Irish parliament, the Oireachtas, meeting in Dublin. The Members were giving condolence speeches following the death of 5 Irish students and one Irish-American in Berkeley, California, when a balcony in an apartment collapsed during a party celebrating a 21st birthday party. A couple of things struck me. One was the fact that a number of the members spoke in both English and Irish. Irish is the national and first official language of Ireland but it is spoken natively by only 5 to 10% of the population here. In certain areas within Ireland, there is a much higher percentage of speakers. But the members speaking in Irish were not all from those areas, and certainly not all, judging from their accents and hesitancy in speaking Irish, were native speakers of the language. In fact, Irish has been on the rise in recent years here, with a number of elite schools in Dublin offering immersive instruction in Irish. Traditional music sung in Irish is a booming industry. Similarly, in Wales, and Scotland, the Celtic languages there, namely Welsh and Gaelic, are thriving, which has long been the case in Wales. Unfortunately, the last native speaker of Manx, the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, died in 1974. But there have been substantial, and largely successful revival efforts. So, why were the Members of the Irish Parliament speaking Irish? I assume it’s because Irish has such a strong symbolic and national significance in Ireland, as an important aspect of Irish identity. Given that, it’s no surprise that politicians here would find it important, especially at a time of national tragedy, to speak Irish as a gesture of solidarity.
Another thing that surprised me in the TV coverage of the tragedy in Berkeley was the mention of “J1” visas, the work-exchange visas the Irish students were on. This came up incidentally by Members and others interviewed without any explanation of what a J1 visa is. Apparently, it is so common for Irish college students to go to the US to work or study in the summer (especially in the Bay area of California) that no explanation for Irish viewers was needed. In fact, the Irish Ambassador, talking about the tragedy, mentioned how sad it was that this had happened “at the beginning of the season”, namely the season of Irish students going over to the US. Of course, there is a long tradition of the Irish coming to the US, including the mass migration during the potato famine of the 19th century. During the session of the Parliament, there was mention of the “Minister for the Diaspora”. That there is such a minister in the Irish government is a telling statement of how many Irish and their descendants live outside the island.
The brings me around to another language note, namely the use of the term “Plastic Paddy”, to refer pejoratively to those outside Ireland claiming (unjustly or not) to be Irish, but not having any real knowledge of or experience with actual Irish culture. Paddy is a diminutive form of Padraic (“Patrick”). According to Wikipedia, “This is a reaction to and defiance of the diaspora-based celebration and increasing commercialisation and sponsorship of St. Patrick’s Day as being demeaning to the Irish. It can also be used in a derogative term for Irish people who support English football teams; while Irish journalists have used the term to characterise Irish bars in Sydney as inauthentic and with the ‘minimum of plastic paddy trimmings’.” This identification with a group to which one has only a tenuous relationship is sometimes called “symbolic ethnicity”. It brings to mind something else in the news recently, namely the controversy around the white woman, Rachel Dolezal, who headed up a local branch of the NAACP, and who identified herself as African-American. I’ll save that for a later post.