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16 October 2014
A State Apart

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An Irishman's Diary by Pol O Muiri

Irish Times 6 October 1998

THE OPENING of the new Northern Ireland Assembly highlighted once more the fractious nature of cultural politics in the North. A few word in Irish from Sinn Fein were greeted with a fit of ill-mannered coughs from some unionists while supporters of Scots spoken in Ulster (`Ulster Scots') distributed the leaflets.

It is not surprising that things have developed in such a way. Sinn Fein has long been vocally round of its attempts to push the Irish language. Like all political parties, however, it has been less keen to admit its failings in this regard. The old policy of equating words of Irish with "bullets" in the fight for "national liberation" seems to have been quietly decommissioned as the party has sought to emphasize the cross-community importance of the language in recent times.

Partly, perhaps mainly, as a response to the republican cultural agenda, Ulster Scots has emerged as a counter-balance from unionist quarters. The argument put forward for it is, in many ways, a mirror image of the republican argument: "They have their language, we have our language" - and never the twain shall meet. Ulster-Scots was an anchor forged to stop Orange Ulster from drifting away in a sea of Gaelic green.

Cultural fabric

It would be a mistake, however, to let any political party or pressure group in the North set the cultural agenda. Writers and artists are the ones who should be doing that. It is through their work that the willfully constructed stereotypes of "our" culture and "their" culture are most effectively challenged.

Take, for example, the work of the Scottish poet Robbie Burns. His verses were part and parcel of the cultural fabric of the Donegal Gaeltacht since the beginning of this century. The novelist Seamus O'Grianna (or "Maire", to use his pen-name) spent his summers, as did many from that region, as an economic migrant in Scotland harvesting and navvying. (The Romanians of their time?) What drove him and his contemporaries was economic necessity, a necessity, it must be said, which did not die with the foundation of the Irish Free State.

In the first of his autobiography, Nuair a bhi me Og, O Grianna is introduced to the poetry and locale of Robbie Burns. It is an Odyssey of discovery and education for the young man and one which leaves an indelible mark on him. He litters on chapter of his autobiography with verses from Burns:

What's a' the jargon o' your schools,

Your Latin names for horns and stools?

If honest nature made you fools,

What sairs your grammars?

Ye'd better ta'en up spades and shools

Or knappin' hammers.

Costly investment

Without question, Burn's anti-authoritarian tone appealed to O Grianna. Tellingly, O Grianna is later asked: "Do you read often?" He replies: "Often enough.... But I have only one book, Burns. One book and that bought. An investment in literature that was undoubtedly costly for someone costly for someone forced to work like a mule for every penny he could collect."

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