Broadus Lectures to examine the state of Ireland's native tongue

(Edmonton) While Irish is an endangered language it still produces a profound amount of literature, says Jerry White, University of Alberta English and film studies professor, who will present the three-day Broadus Lectures beginning Tuesday, March 21, examining the history of Gaelic, the current state of the language and the prospect of bilingualism in Ireland.

White says few people have access to Irish literature and thus it remains mostly hidden from the world. He says he wants to change that and reveal the tome of Irish literature. “The Irish language is an imperiled language, but it is not dead. People still speak it as a genuine native language in communities in Ireland. I want to encourage people to think of Gaelic as a modern language, one that people are still using to write interesting literature—a fact not widely known even within Irish studies,” he says.

To illustrate the currency of the language, in his lectures White will discuss two Irish writers, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, a poet, and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, a novelist. He says their works address present-day issues facing Ireland.

“They’re writing about the role of the city, the changing nature of rural life, the complexities of tradition and modernity and dealing with the difficulties of enunciating a national identity. They are not writing about folklore, the past or timeless landscapes. And so that’s a contribution to bringing the language into the modern era and to keeping it alive and contemporary,” says White.   

Dhomhnaill and Dhuibhne are continuing an Irish tradition, which is to make a significant contribution to English literature. “Irish has made important contributions to European modernism and not only in English but in Irish as well. The literature in Irish doesn’t get talked about much because it is hidden in Irish and because important Irish literature is not readily translated into English,” he said.

He cites a novel by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, whose Cré na Cille (The Churchyard clay), published in 1949, which he says is as rich a text as Joyce’s Ulysses. White says making Irish literature more accessible would profoundly change what we now know about Irish literature.

“Cré na Cille is the most interesting example of Ireland’s hidden literature,” White says. “It is hidden because it has never been translated into English. I would argue that the body of literature in Irish is as profound as those that are written in English and just as interesting and sophisticated, and as worthy of attention as the literature in English. Irish literature [in translation] has for too long has been taught as part of English literature. That needs to change.”

Such a shift will require changing the attitudes people have about Irish, a language still spoken by about one per cent of the people in Ireland, says White. He says the government in Ireland has been promoting bilingualism for the past 10 years but opinions about the language are polarized.

“Cultural attitudes towards bilingualism are complicated, one part resentment and one part aspiration. There’s a general sentimental sense in Ireland that the language is important and that it should not be allowed to die,” he said. “There is a widespread perception that it [the promotion of Irish] is heavily subsidized, that it costs a lot of money and that it’s kind of useless because many don’t speak Irish; that bilingualism is just being subsidized as a national symbol.”

White says bilingualism could help revive Irish but there are other considerations. “What will save the language now is decoupling it from cultural or ethnic nationalism. There is a lot of issue about immigration now in Ireland. The Irish language has been a tool for cultural nationalism for a long time as a way of helping people express their Irishness. While that may have been useful 100 years ago, I’m not at all convinced that it’s useful now.

“I reject the idea that language and ethnicity go hand in hand. It would help if people can be convinced that reviving the language is not about ethnicity,” he said.

The lecture series wraps up on Friday with a reception at Humanities Centre Lecture Theatre 1. White says he hopes the series gives people a new sense about Irish literature.

“I’d like people to understand from the lectures that Ireland has two literary languages, both of which are doing OK. I also want people to get a sense that literature written in Irish is quite accessible even to people who don’t read the language. A lot of the material has been translated and is interesting and worth paying attention to,” he said.