God or tongue?

By Razib Khan | November 29, 2006 10:05 am

Over at Michael Brendan Dougherty’s place a debate broke out over the relative importance of language vs. religion in the Irish identity. This could perhaps be abstracted and extrapolated to many peoples and nations. In the comments Daniel Larison offered:

But then I also think that Catholicism in Ireland predates the 19th century and has more to do with Irish culture than a nearly dead Celtic language that was mostly revived by modern nationalists.

Larison is no idiot, a Ph.D. candidate in Byzantine Studies he certainly has the sense and knowledge to take the long view, but this seemed a rather peculiar and flip comment to me (I’m being Christian here).
1) I was to understand Gaelic was the dominant language in Ireland until the 1840s.
2) I was to understand that the relationship of Roman Catholicism and Irish identity as we understand it today was a product of reforms and nationalisms which only crystallized in the 19th century. The seeds of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Irish identity of course lay in the Reformation, when the rest of the British Isles went Protestant but Ireland did not, but from what I recall the most powerful locus of anti-Protestant feeling lay not amongst the Gaelic speaking Irish, but the descendents of the “Old English”/Anglo-Norman settlers. Larison is the Ph.D. candidate in history here, he must know this? Or am I wrong?
My own interest in the topic is derived in part from my own background as a Bengali, an ethnic group united by language, but divided by religion. Though traditionally the Bengali cultural elite was Hindu, based out of Calcutta, today Muslim Bangladesh is the nation where the Bengali language reigns supreme. By some estimates around 40% of Calcutta’s population is now non-Bengali speaking, as immigrants from other parts of India come looking for work. The Bengalis of eastern Bengal, Muslim by faith, but also affiliated with a great many Hindus via their language and its literature, have shifted back and forth in regards to where they place an emphasis in regards to their identity. During the period before 1947, when India and Pakistan were created, the Muslim Bengali populace was a major vote bank for the Muslim League, which forced the partition of the subcontinent. Between 1947 and 1971, when West Pakistani non-Bengali elites dominated East Pakistan, what was East Bengal, there was an emphasis on the Bengali language (i.e., The Language Movement). Since 1971 the dominant Muslim Bengalis of Bangladesh have shifted back and forth in regards to stars which shape their identity, with different individuals come down in different directions. These issues are complex. They deserve more than flip dismissals, the language which brought forth the legends of Cúchulainn must count for something?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • http://www.idiocentrism.com John Emerson

    It’s fairly common for the most nationalist to be the most Westernized. (Gandhi is an easy example, there are more — I recently read that for quite awhile Czech nationalist manifestos were written mostly in German). Nationalism is a western kind of idea, and often nationalists have a real contempt for the actual traditional nationals. (Geertz’s “Islam Observed” is essential if you haven’t read it, only about 100 pages).
    Irish-speakers have tended to be the most backward, poor, and powerless Irish, and by the time Ireland was free, Irish Gaelic was already dwindling. Most of the famous Irish writers did not know Gaelic. (Flann O’Brien did, and he’s highly recommended, but he was hardly a nationalist, and he viciously satirized the neo-Gaelic movement in “The Poor Mouth”.)
    There’s a thing in James Joyce where he finds out that a rare Irish dialect word he knows (“tundish”) is actually an old Anglo-Saxon word lost from Standard English which survived in Irish English.
    It helps that Irish has a major and fairly old English-language literature, so English isn’t purely an oppressor language.
    The actual Catholicness of Ireland wasn’t necessarily a political anti-English thing, it was a body of religious practices and devotions. It was more widespread and usable than Gaelic as a nationalist body of symbolism, but there were problems because a lot of the early nationalists were secular, or Protestant in origin. But the Catholics won, and they dominated for half a century.
    All this subject to correction by the Irish-persons posting here.

  • manju

    It’s fairly common for the most nationalist to be the most Westernized. (Gandhi is an easy example,
    What is Westernization? As far as I know, Gandhi wanted to be an English gentleman in his outlook and failed. Then in his manners and thoughts he developed a personality that was very close to stereotypical Indian prevalent at that time. But there was another person who was completely at home with stereotypical Western manners. And he was Jinna.

  • eoin

    ” but from what I recall the most powerful locus of anti-Protestant feeling lay not amongst the Gaelic speaking Irish, but the descendants of the “Old English”/Anglo-Norman settlers. Larison is the Ph.D. candidate in history here, he must know this? Or am I wrong?”
    The most powerful feeling of anti-Catholicism from Protestant reformers was to a certain extent anti-Norman ( the name Norman was sometimes used interchangeably with Papists in early radical texts) and the Old English in Ireland were, more or less, Norman. (Norman names in Ireland are far more prevalent than Anglo-Saxon names, and we can tell when translated back into Irish).
    I think this may have something to do with it ( otherwise why wouldn’t the Old English just convert, like the English did?).
    I think, however, that protestantism in England, and Catholicism in Ireland were manifestations of nationalism ( or tribalism, if you prefer). The conversion of a King would probably not have been enough to convert England were it not for the fear of Spain as a Catholic power. Ireland’s identity was maintained via the refusal to reform to Protestantism, even through the penal laws. The Old English had different reasons, as I suggest, than the native Irish.
    ( Also Catholicism in Ireland was not really all the Roman, and replete with local syncretisms – but this may have increased it’s value as an In-Group marker).
    “but there were problems because a lot of the early nationalists were secular, or Protestant in origin. But the Catholics won, and they dominated for half a century.”
    Well, a lot of Republicans ( in the French revolutionary sense) were protestant – i.e. wolfe tone. These republicans were generally Presbyterians and other non-Anglican protestants*, but were allied against the Established church as they too were discriminated against by the Penal laws, thus common cause with Catholicism. Devoid of that, as we see, today and there is not much love lost between the two groups.
    * Lot of these northern dissenters are the progenitors of the scots-irish in America.Quite different breed from Anglicans ( Episcopalian) here, or there.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    The conversion of a King would probably not have been enough to convert England were it not for the fear of Spain as a Catholic power.
    i doubt that. elites mattered. the potentate above all else. the largest effect from any independent variable was probably the affiliation of the potentate.

  • eoin

    “i doubt that. elites mattered. the potentate above all else. the largest effect from any independent variable was probably the affiliation of the potentate.”
    Maybe, but Henry was also King Of Ireland at the time ( the first English King so designated, I think). And the Irish did not convert. Nor, the Old English in Ireland ( generally a group that considered themselves culturally English – and English speaking too, unlike the majority native Irish). Other factors were at work.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp chet snicker

    Maybe, but Henry was also King Of Ireland at the time ( the first English King so designated, I think). And the Irish did not convert. Nor, the Old English in Ireland ( generally a group that considered themselves culturally English – and English speaking too, unlike the majority native Irish). Other factors were at work.C
    my primary contention was simply that i think you were wrong to not privilege the conversion of the king of england. obviously there are complexities involved here, and the british isles is a special case (e.g., the monarchy in scotland was catholic in the form of mary queen of scots even when the populace was pushing toward protestantism). but in places like scandinavia the king basically forced protestantism on an unhappy populace. there is some of this in england as well, especially northern england. in austria the hapsburgs wore away the rather vigorous protestant discourse amongst their nobilities through the fiat of the potentate.

  • pconroy

    Eoin,
    I would strongly disagree with your characterization of the Anglo-Normans – actually mostly Cambro-Normans – as being culturally English and speaking English – they weren’t and didn’t!!
    Remember the old saying in Ireland that the Normans were, “More Irish than the Irish themselves” and so they were. They were few in number among a sea of Irish and almost all – starting with Strongbow – married into Irish nobility and had Irish (aka Gaelic) speaking wives. In later times, ordinances were passed by the English court forbidding Norman lords to dress in Irish attire or Irish style – especially as most had adopted the Irish custom of going bare legged and shoeless?! Even today, if one looks at a map of Ireland and also superimposes on it the areas where the most Irish of sports – Hurling – is played, you will see an almost 1-1 correspondence – this is because the Normans fostered Irish customs and pastimes among their subjects.
    Among the Old English, I would include the colonists – aka planters – who made up the Laois-Offaly colony (then Queen’s County and King’s county) under Queen Mary and King Philip, who were Catholic, but English in custom and language, and also colonists in the Cork area and some in the Pale – but as you suggest they would be a small minority of the non-native Irish – the bulk of which would be Cambro-Normans.

  • pconroy

    Razib said:
    the most powerful locus of anti-Protestant feeling lay not amongst the Gaelic speaking Irish, but the descendants of the “Old English”/Anglo-Norman settlers
    I would say that the Cambro-Normans had become Irish in every way, and were resentful of their power and elite status being usurped by English newcomers. Remember they had settled there on or about 1167, whereas the colonization of Laois-Offaly occured in 1557, almost 400 years of isolation from England and total Irish assimilation.
    The FitzGerald family of County Kildare were de facto Kings of non-Pale Ireland at one point after all.

  • http://www.austintanney.com/blog Austin

    It is rare for me to comment on a blog, but this post has encouraged me to comment on not one, but two of them!
    I posted over at Michael Dougherty’s blog and will repeat it here to save you from looking for it. Daniel Larison’s comments are spurious and unfounded. I would go so far as to describe them as offensively ignorant.

  • pconroy

    Austin,
    I would agree totally with you – he strikes me as someone who finds it inconvenient – for whatever political axe he is trying to grind – that the Irish of today are not more like the Irish of yesteryear!

  • pconroy

    nearly dead Celtic language that was mostly revived by modern nationalists.
    This is not true either for Ireland as a whole – it would only be true of the Catholic and Nationalistic enclave of West Belfast in Northern Ireland, and only then from the 1960′s onwards.
    The revival of the Irish language was started at the end of the 1800′s by Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, John Millington Synge and company – all Church of Ireland (aka Anglicans, Episcopalians), all Anglo-Irish culturally and non-Nationalist – in the sense of the IRA – all striving to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of native Irish culture among their fellow elites.

  • pconroy

    I should add that when English linguist Robin Flower – among other things, he is known as the translator of the the 8th Century Irish poem Pangur Bán – made his monumental contribution to the Irish (aka Gaelic) language by sojourning in the Blasket Islands of the South West coast of Ireland and learning the language from the natives there and documenting its grammar and structure, as well as the cultural landscape of the islanders, he did so in the same spirit as Margaret Mead would later do among the natives of Samoa – trying to commit to paper something of the exoticness and majesty of a dying culture.
    So overall, I would cast my ballot with those that see language as the sine qua non of cultural continuity rather than religion.

  • eoin

    Flowers translation of Pangur Bán , though far from word to word exact, is fantastic. Dude has got the rhythm
    I love the phrase “turnng darkness into light”

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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