Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Padraic Pearse

Language Is a Virus from Outer Space

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 6 2011

What did William S Burroughs mean when he wrote that language is a virus from outer space? He  argued  that language is infectious and exerts limitations and controls over people’s minds and  that the ability to think and create is  limited by the conventions of grammar and usage. Language is public behaviour which can be criticised. It can label and identify and categorise an individual. Linguistic factors influence our judgement of a person with serious consequences for identity and social survival.

Language can be divisive. India has (according to the 1961 Census) 1,652 languages, so it is not surprising that there have been language riots. Belgium with only two languages has also had language riots.

Language can be used to unite. Language is often an important part of nationalist struggle. In Ireland, the founding fathers of the Republic believed that language was intrinsic to the identity of the nation. Padraic Pearse believed the Irish school system raised Ireland’s youth to be good Englishmen or obedient Irishmen. Incidentally, Pearse’s father was a Brit  from Birmingham. The English put him before a firing squad for his part in the Easter Rising. Sean Mac Stíofáin, leader of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s, spoke fluent Irish with a cockney accent – his real name was John Stephenson and he was born in Leytonstone.

Brian Friel’s brilliant play Translations  deals with a wide range of issues, stretching from language and communication, to Irish history and cultural imperialism. A party from the Royal Engineers is working on new ordinance survey maps which involves turning Irish place names into English. The play focuses mainly on (mis)communication and language to tell of the desperate situation between these two countries with an unsure and questionable outcome.

There is no doubt that English as spoken in Ireland has a distinctive character. As Robert McCrum wrote in The Story of English,  “In England , the Anglo Saxons and the Celts hardly mixed. In Ireland the strange, and sometimes tragic, fusion of their two languages has made a culture, spoken and written, that is one of the glories of the English language. Irish English is the language of Edmund Spenser, Jonathan Swift, RB Sheridan, William Congreve, Oscar Wilde, JM Synge, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett (I know he wrote in French but he still sounds Irish when translated into English!).

My impression is that, in Sri Lanka,  Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims do mix. I was surprised that someone sent to do some work for us could not speak Sinhala, only Tamil. This was surprising because he had always lived in a Sinhala-speaking area and relied for his livelihood on working for Sinhala or English speakers. I was even more surprised and mightily impressed that others of a similar background were fluently tri-lingual, even though their formal education was limited. My optimism about his usefulness was soon deflated when he spent most afternoons reading my English papers and throwing bidis all over the garden. I also found that his polyglotism allowed him to lie to me in three languages and the English dried up when he was posed with a direct verbal challenge.

It is a truism that language has been a divisive issue in Sri Lanka. Perceived discrimination against the Tamil tongue was a contributory factor to 30 years of war. In 1956, the Sinhala-Only Act enshrined Sinhala as the language of administration and placed the majority Sinhalese speakers in a dominant position. This was not merely a cultural matter but  had a serious economic impact because, in a polity where government jobs were highly prized,  it  reduced the opportunities for Tamils to succeed in the administrative services or academia.

Sinhala linguistic nationalism was directed as much against English as Tamil, but the Brits were not going to fight back. In the 1950s, the marginalised underprivileged classes saw the primacy of Sinhala as a blow against the privileges of the elite urban English-educated classes.

During the colonial period, Tamil as well as Sinhala politicians espoused the idea of swabasha (or ‘native languages’).  The pressure  for swabasha was not about inter-ethnic conflict but to a certain extent reflected class connotations and  was a protest against the privileges enjoyed by the English educated elite, but denied  to the masses educated in the local languages. According to Prof Sasanka Perera, politicians and senior civil servants in the 1940s discussed the establishment of local languages as Official Languages replacing English

Language had not become a divisive ethnic issue even at this stage. Even SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP stated  in its manifesto: “it is most essential that Sinhalese and Tamil be adopted as Official Languages immediately so that the people of this country may cease to be aliens in their own land….”.

The divisive nature of language has been countered by the invention of artificial (or auxiliary, as many enthusiasts prefer) languages (ALs as they are known in the linguistic trade). Several hundred ALs have been recorded (including Klingon). Esperanto is the best known and has been used by people as different as Pope John Paul and Michael Jackson. Although proponents  of invented languages see them as a key to a brave new world of mutual understanding, clear thinking and peaceful-co-existence, their fervent advocacy in iteslef can cause antagonism. Esperanto has been frequently persecuted. In the 1930s the organisation was suppressed and many members arrstrd and shot.

Why invent a new language when there are existing languages used globally? In David Crystals magisterial Encyclopaedia of Language (1987, revised 1997), in the top 40 languages, English came in at number two, behind Mandarin Chinese. Since then English has been overtaken by Hindi and Spanish. Tamil was at number 20 and has gone up to number 17, with 77 million speakers worldwide. Sinhala and Irish do not make it to the charts.

Back in the mists of history, Latin was the global language, first because it was the language of the Roman Empire, then because it was the language of the universal church. Today the English language dominates (whatever the numbers of speakers recorded in the charts). First because it was the language of the British Empire, then because it was the language of the American (and Hollywood Empire) and now because it is the language of the internet. Irish is moribund in the sense that, although it is kept alive by governments and cultural enthusiasts, the Gaeltacht areas are shrinking museums or holiday destinations. Irish, like Sinhalese, is not an international language. Unlike Sinhalese, Irish is not used as part of daily commerce or social intercourse.

Chelva Kanaganayakam writes in the Nethra Review, that in Sri Lanka: “The idea that the adoption of English would eventually erase ‘ethnic thinking’ is clearly simplistic”. One practical problem would be finding enough competent English teachers. Reggie Siriwardene wrote back in 1992: “Catholics and Protestants have been fighting each other in Ulster for a long time although they have no linguistic difficulty talking to each other”. Up to a point, Reggie. That very use of the word “Ulster” is a good example of linguistic problems in Ireland. Irish nationalists would froth at the mouth at the use of “Ulster” to designate the six counties that from the statelet of Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Ulster is an ancient province of the island of Ireland and includes counties that are today part of the Republic. Even the use of the term “Northern Ireland” is avoided by some because it implies recognition of British rule. Also the northernmost county in the island is Donegal which is in the Republic. A government official I did business with in Dublin studiously used the term “the north eastern counties”. I once had dinner in Belfast with Chris Patten when he was minister for Northern Ireland. Patten (a Catholic) told how he had irked the Reverend Ian Paisley by using the term “Derry” instead of “Londonderry”.

 

Can we dream? In SRWD Bandaranaike’s time, English seemed to be the problem – part of the oppressive British imperial machinery. These days could English be the solution? Could English contribute to unifying Sri Lanka and helping it to better establish itsef in the global marketplace?

 

 

 

Choosing Martyrdom?

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 252012

Two months before my father’s birth, Irish rebels fought the British Empire. My father encouraged my interest in Irish history and told me about “800 years of British oppression” and the genocide caused by Cromwell and later by the free trade dogma that allowed the 1845 famine to be so lethal.

In my callow youth I wondered whether, had I lived in Ireland in the 1920s, I would have been out there fighting the British. However, even reading, when I was a child, mainstream history and popular biographies about the Easter Rising, I realised that the Easter rebels had no popular support. The interpretation of this used to be that the general populace was feckless and needed waking up by the sacrifice of these brave men. Look at the shiftless Dublin jackeens in Sean O’Casey’s plays.

Pearse and his colleagues believed they were entitled, although they were but a small, unelected group of conspirators in a democratic country, to stage a revolution in 1916 in which innocent people were killed.

On St Patrick’s Day, I posted an article on Groundviews examining the idea of rebellion and martyrdom. I was prompted to write the article by disturbing comments on Colombo Telegraph by one ‘Thanga’ glorifying Prabhakaran: “Prabhakaran is the only leader whose birthday is celebrated right around the globe in a grand scale! Prabhakaran was a brave, selfless and dedicated leader who lived by example. A leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!” For some Tamils, Prabhakaran had the status of a demi-god. A Tamil Catholic priest, Fr S. J. Emmanuel, compared him to Jesus. As recently as May 2011, in Tamil Nadu, MDMK chief Vaiko was saying the war for Eelam was not over; Prabhakaran was not dead and would emerge from hiding at the right time. According to Victor Rajakulendran, the LTTE remains a shining example, a ‘good history,’ for all Sri Lankan Tamils to follow.

http://groundviews.org/2012/03/17/martyrology-martyrdom-rebellion-terrorism/

 
One commenter wrote, seemingly approvingly, about a ‘national consciousness’ in which the abuses of the past are not forgotten but remain vibrant and alive in the form of a collective memory. Another seemed to approve of the use of martyrdom as a reward offered “to the young recruit if they die during the battle against the oppressors because they do not have anything else to offer”. Another said: “The IRA and the LTTE had to make the best of whatever resources they had.” The best resources the Real IRA have are about 150 volunteers and bombs with which to kill tourists and pregnant women.

 
The leading figure in the 1916 rising was Padraic Pearse, a poet and playwright, founder of a number of Gaelic schools. Pearse welcomed martyrdom: “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”. “We might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people: but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”. He developed a sacrificial notion that his cause was comparable with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Pearse wrote about the beauty of boys dying bravely in their prime, before the shoddy compromises of adult life corrupted them.

 
The logistics of the Easter Rising were designed to maximise ‘bloody sacrifice’ of civilians. Buildings were chosen for occupation to maximise injury to persons and property.

By the time Pearse surrendered after six days, only 64 rebels had been killed (including 15 executed). In the World War, 25,000 Irishmen died fighting as members of the British Army. The majority of the killed and wounded were civilians. Both sides, British and rebel, shot civilians deliberately, on occasion, when they refused to obey orders such as to stop at checkpoints. All 16 police fatalities and 22 of the British soldiers killed were Irishmen. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded.

The rebels who were executed were regarded as martyrs and prayed to as well as for. A tradition of hunger striking meant there were Provisional IRA martyrs up to the 1980s.The death of Bobby Sands in 1981 resulted in a new surge of IRA recruitment and activity. His sister Bernadette and her husband Michael McKevitt founded the Real IRA, who refused to accept the Good Friday Agreement. Sands’s sister said: “Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state”.

On 15 August 1998, 29 people died and 220 were injured as a result of a Real IRA bomb at Omagh, County Tyrone. The victims included Protestants, Catholics, a Mormon, nine children, a woman pregnant with twins, Irish tourists and two Spanish tourists. Bobby may have made a conscious decision to “die for Ireland”. The victims of Omagh did not.

 
Former Provo, Danny Morrison, explained in a Pearse documentary Fanatic Heart, that Pearse’s rhetoric was useful to the Provos when they were making war, but is inconvenient when they are trying to make peace. Did the 1916 Rising set an unfortunate and tragic precedent? Omagh is a result keeping past abuses alive in the national consciousness. Omagh represents an example of using whatever resources are available in the fight against the oppressor.

How will the Real IRA be celebrating the 96th anniversary of the Easter Rising? As I write, car bombs are being found all over Ireland.

 

 

– See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/feature-issues/item/4309-choosing-martyrdom?.html#sthash.oK6Kmecu.dpuf

 

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