Earlier today, I read some of Homage to Catalonia before discussing Christmas celebrations in Korea with my mother. As it happens these activities proved more related than I would have thought.
The discussion of religion in Korea led to a discussion of Ireland’s high level of religious observance compared to other developed nations, with both my mother and I agreeing that in decades to come it would fall to the low levels seen in other European countries. When she complained about the hold that the Catholic Church once had over Irish peoples lives, I made the point that this was the voluntary choice of majority of Irish people themselves- after all, Ireland has been a parliamentary democracy since independence and while literary censorship was once fierce in the country, people were free to organize politically and campaign against the repressive tendencies of the state. Diverse political parties deeply opposed to the Catholic ruling elite ran in several elections- there is no reason Irish people could not have voted for socially liberal candidates. The reason that they did not and that socially repressive policies were enacted in their names, was that they voluntarily chose to support deeply reactionary policies for much of the twentieth century. I do not accept arguments that they were ‘brainwashed’- many of the most conservative elderly people I know spent years living abroad in more liberal societies such as Britain or the US and so they were certainly not ignorant of the possibility of a less repressive social order. Nor do I accept arguments that Ireland was not a democracy during this time- for all its faults, Ireland remained a democracy throughout the twentieth century. How the politically unstable, priest-ridden, economically stagnant Ireland of the 1930’s did not go the way of most of the better nations of Europe and fall to fascism may never be adequately explained, but somehow the democratic system managed to remain more or less intact. That Ireland was in fact a democracy (Although one suffering from a tyranny of the majority) rather than a theocracy, is evidenced by how quickly church domination has collapsed over the past two decades or so, solely through people voluntarily choosing to ignore the dictates of clergy.
Thinking about the democratically enacted Catholic domination of Ireland, made me think about the contrasting example of Spain, where Catholicism was the religion permitted throughout most of the countries history. The Spanish Inquistion was only abolished in 1834 and between 1851 and 1931 priest’s salaries were paid by the state. Similar practices resumed under Franco but during the brief rule of the Second Spanish Republic between 1931 and 1939 we saw what many Spaniards thought of the religion which had been imposed on them. The church was rapidly disestablished and Catholic schools ceased to receive state support. During the resulting Civil War, in which the church supported a Fascist coup, 7’000 priests and nuns were killed by Republican forces. The peasantry of some regions, particularly Catalonia and Aragon, appear to have been supportive of the secularization of Spain- Orwell remarks that
To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple.
Examples of anti-clerical sentiment in republican revolutions can also be seen in France, Portugal and various Latin American nation but never in Ireland. Why is this? Because the Catholic Church had a history of official persecution in Ireland and therefore many Irish Republicans saw practicing the Catholic faith as being an integral part of rebellion against Britain. Although the Catholic hierarchy never supported armed rebellion against Britain (And in previous centuries had often support British invasions, from Pope Adrian IV’s Laudabiliter bull to Pope Alexander VIII’s support for William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne) the Catholic faith became an integral part of the Irish national identity. And so, the Irish church found it unnecessary to impose its will upon anyone. While in countries such as Spain the supporters of Catholic repression found it necessary to violently coerce their countrymen, those in Ireland who wished for Catholic repression merely had to go to the polls and vote for it.
The recent controversy surrounding the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar has in my opinion, provided a very revealing insight into the attitudes of many people on the far-left of Irish politics towards religion. I have observed many photos of the demonstrations demanding legislation in accordance with the X-case (A cause which I myself support) as well as having read many articles on the issue written by members of far-left groups. Throughout, I find a continual hostility towards the Catholic Church as can be witnessed in the following picture from the ‘Galway Pro-Choice’ Facebook page:
Similar sentiments can be seen in many other photo’s with placards reading ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries’ and ‘Politicians and priests make crappy doctors’. If one examines the websites of far left political organisations it is not difficult to find more examples of the Catholic church being blamed for Ireland’s outdated legislation on abortion such as on the websites of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party. I personally agree that the Catholic Church has long been a malign influence in Irish society, having tried to prevent every positive advance in Irish society for decades. Indeed, I’ve long been a harsh critic of the intertwining of Catholicism with Irish national identity and the church control of many state bodies, so this post is not a defense of Catholicism. When Salvita was allegedly told she could not receive an abortion because Ireland is a ‘Catholic country’ then it is entirely justified that people will feel anger towards the church. I do feel it is slightly hypocritical however, that so many of the people currently decrying Catholicism are the most stringent defenders of Islam.
The intertwining of left-wing causes with radical Islamism is a problem which has become increasingly prevalent over the past decade or so. Because of the racism which is often directed towards those of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in Western society and the conflicts between radical Islamist groups and the occupying armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become common for those on the left to immediately any criticisms of Islam as being ‘Islamophobic’ which they use as a synonym for racism. An example of such logic can be seen here, with it being claimed that criticisms of Islam by atheists are used to reinforce the racism of right-wing groups. The Socialist Workers Party in Britain (Of which the Irish party is merely an offshoot) has long defended Islam against any criticism, with this article providing a good example of their outlook. The British SWP even went so far as to form part of the Respect Party alongside George Galloway, a man who has yet to find a religious fundamentalist he doesn’t like. Meanwhile Richard Boyd Barrett of the Irish SWP has been so supportive of Islamic fundamentalists such as Hamas and Hezbollah that he has been approvingly quoted by Al Qaeda.
Not only is such defense of Islam misguided, its also inconsistent with the treatment of Christianity by many of the same groups and individuals. Too often have I seen people on the far left criticize Ireland as being backward due to the lack of separation between church and state while at the same time expressing support for radical Islamic organisations such as Hamas, a group who support the subjugation of women and the strict censorship of all forms of artistic expression. While any mocking of Islam is viewed as being an act of racism, the mocking or insulting of Christianity is entirely acceptable. Here is an example from the Workers Solidarity Movement facebook page:
This comment has been on the page since the 16th of November and has met with no criticism. Imagine a comment referring to Muslim opposition to abortion (Which is a widespread viewpoint) as ‘terrorist’ (In fairness to the WSM however, they did publish this article in 2003, which criticizes the illogical alliance between socialists and the very worse Islamic fundamentalists).
Of course, I’m not advocating hatred towards Muslims. Nor am I mounting a defense of Christianity. What I am advocating, is a consistent and common sense approach towards religion by people on the left. Any religion which acts as a barrier to freedom and social progress deserves to be criticized and Islam is in many ways currently acting as a restriction on individual freedom in many areas of the world. The rights of women and LGBT people are infringed upon in the name of Islam and it is only fair that such repression receives the condemnation it deserves, together with the intolerant practices of many Christians throughout the world. People must be able to speak freely about the damage caused by an ideology without instantly being accused of racism. It is not racist to criticize the damage caused by an ideology. If socialists are to remain consistent to their supposed belief in equality and freedom they must cease this defense of religious fanaticism.
I’ve written before on ‘a common trap for Irish journalists and academics- the belief that bringing about peace in Ireland require berating the past violence of any Irish nationalists while justifying or even sanctifying that committed by the British government or its pawns in the unionist community.’ This trend does not merely occur among the Irish intelligentsia however, nor is it restricted to the apportioning of blame for the violence of recent decades. It also occurs in the form of many untruths about British rule in Ireland and how it came to an end which, despite being complete lies, are often repeated. The people who spread such myths, often in the sincere belief that they are true, are usually Irish people who believe that they are objectively embracing the truth and leaving behind the divisions of the past. In fact, they are ignoring the plight of the colonized and adopting the lies of the colonizer.
A prominent example of this relates to the Boundary Commission which was established by the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. I have often heard it claimed that the recommendations made by this body were ignored by the Irish government because the transfer of territory would actually have resulted in a net loss of both land and people for the Free State. This is completely untrue. The findings of the commission, which are discussed here, recommended a net gain for the Free State. The reason that the Irish government rejected the commission’s findings (Which if adopted, were to be a permanent settlement) was that the area to be transferred from Northern Ireland to the Free State did not come anywhere close to their expectations:
While some areas such as South Armagh were to be transferred as expected, the Commission did not transfer large nationalist-majority tracts of counties Tyrone and Fermanagh and seemed reluctant to transfer any urban centres- Newry and Derry City were both to remain in the northern statelet. There were various reasons for this, among them being a concern that a massive alteration of the border would lead to instability. A more sinister reason may be found in the composition of the commission- Eoin McNeill was the sole Irish member and felt that he the two members appointed by the British government had actively worked against his nationalistic aims. Whatever the reasons and whether or not you feel these actions were correct the fact remains that at no point did the commission propose to take more land from the Free State than it was to gain.
There are many other examples of such lies and misrepresentations, many of which I plan to write about in future. Of course, nationalists (In particular, Catholic nationalists who attempt to link Catholicism with Irish identity) have long been guilty of peddling myths about the history of this country, and I do not condone any efforts to distort the truth about the past. The key difference however is that the Irish media often criticizes the white-washing of history by nationalists but it is seldom pointed out that unionists and their fellow-travellers are also capable of being disingenuous.
The sheer variety of regional accents and colloquialisms within Ireland is astounding. When you compare the sing-song accents of Cork or Kerry to the low dour voices of Ulster, or the slang heard on the streets of Dublin to that in the small towns of Connacht it is difficult to believe that they all originate from an island with a population that is less than that of the city of London. Any outsider who hears a Waterford native refer to a ‘summer drink’ (An ice pop) or a Galwegian threaten to ‘creel’ (beat or otherwise injure) somebody will realize the massive extent to which Ireland is separated by a common language. Of course, examples of this occur in every nation and I’ll never claim that other English-Speaking countries such as Britain, America or Australia don’t have a wide variety of regional expressions. What is particularly noticeable however, is the lack of a common slang amongst Irish teenagers or young adults for common things or practices. When an American says they were ‘making out’ with somebody, the meaning is understood by virtually everyone. In Ireland however, there are several phrases referring to the same thing. ‘shifting‘, ‘meeting’ and ‘getting with’ all refer to exactly the same thing but most people would exclusively use one of them, which one of them usually being determined by geographical location. Even as a younger child I was often confused to hear pupils of other schools refer to games such ‘Red Rover’ and ‘World Cup’, only to find that they were the games I knew as ‘Blue Peter’ and ‘ Copies’. Despite being only a few miles apart, we were using an entirely different language on the playground.
I have an entirely speculative and untested hypothesis as to why we have such a great variety of slang on this island. I believe that is related to the dominance of our popular culture by foreign media particularly from America, Britain and to a lesser extent Australia. It is a controversial idea to suggest that the mass media aids the survival of regional culture but it is only in nations such as Ireland that this is taking place. Within America the popular culture is almost entirely dominated by domestic productions. Hollywood films and network television have aided in the formation of a common slang used by young people across the nation. A teenager in Wyoming, although being vastly separated from the centres of the US media in New York and Los Angeles, still recognizes the characters in his favourite films and shows as being his countrymen. To use the same general slang with such elementary terms as ‘making out’ seems natural. For a person anywhere in Ireland however, using such terms appears false and artificial. British terms fare little better. To the best of my knowledge the only region of the country in which the term ‘mate’ is commonplace is in County Laois- in my mid-Connacht homeland any Irishman using the phrase would be met with puzzled glances. This is despite British television, music and print media being widely consumed in Ireland and substantial cross-migration between our two islands. So if we do not pick up foreign slang from our consumption of foreign media, why have we not formed common set of terms of our own? For the simple reason that there is no universally consumed mass media for such terms to spread by. There are remarkably few domestically produced fictional television programmes or films which are widely viewed by the young people of Ireland. Every town or county develops its own phrases and they do not often spread. Some terms do manage to travel out of their home area- an example being the escape of the term ‘legend’ from South Dublin- but their progress is slow. The playground games I mentioned earlier are a good example of this- we only ever heard of them in person, never through any television programmes or films. The games which we shared in common with the characters of American cartoons, we called by the same name- ‘tag’ for example. It is because of our heavy consumption of foreign media that people in towns fifty miles apart find each other mutually incomprehensible during certain conversations, while it is due to America’s cultural dominance that Americans thousands of miles apart have a much closer set of slang terms.
There is however a change occurring in the slang used by young Irish people. Formerly regional phrases are spreading outside of their native territory and becoming commonplace across the country. In my opinion two factors are responsible for this. One is the increased number of people in third-level education since the introduction of free fees in 1995. Naturally this leads to increased contact between young people from all over the country- During my own time in NUI Galway I became friends with people from Louth, Wexford, Kildare and Limerick all the while unknowingly adopting aspects of their dialect while they adopted many aspects of my own. A second and more surprising element in the increasing uniformity of Irish slang is the internet, specifically social networking such as Facebook. Although it does little to convey pronunciations Facebook can spread slang terms to people who have rarely left their hometown. An example is the term ‘naggin’ meaning a two hundred millilitre bottle of whiskey or more commonly vodka. Naggins have become an ubiquitous part of Irish youth culture, representing a cheap way to get drunk quickly and a easy method of smuggling drink into pubs or clubs. The term itself however, has only recently become universal- previously there were other names used such as ‘quarter-bottle’ in Donegal (Despite the fact a naggin does not contain a quarter of any other common size of spirits bottle). The internet, primarily through humorous Facebook pages, has managed to spread the term and make it a massive part of youth culture, a feat which would already have been achieved by cinema or television in most other countries. So with increased interaction between the youth of all parts of the country and increased spread of so many slang terms across county lines, will we eventually see the demise of our many accents and dialects? To quote every Kildare person I have known, ‘that’s debatable’.