You’d think, from media coverage, that unionist hostility to the Irish language was a recent phenomenon; as if that hostility could have been avoided if Irish speakers weren’t so unmannerly.
However, the hostility is centuries-old, and will not be influenced by anything that nationalists might do or say. In the 1500s, the anti-Irish poet, Edmund Spenser, noted that it “... ever been the use of the conqueror to despise the language of the conquered and to force him by all means to learn his”.
I read in a recent Irish News article of a meeting of Tyrone County Council on February 16, 1918, which called for bilingual (English and Irish) road signs. The motion was voted down by the unionist councillors. In the 1980s, I recall being delayed at checkpoints for refusing to give my name as “John”.
In 2018, the DUP still can’t stomach an Irish language act. Little has changed.
From a unionist perspective, the hostility is logical. The North’s defining Britishness is a time-warp version of the mother culture, one that admits no cultural impurities. It is defined by perpetual opposition to the South; it is devoutly right-wing, devoutly pro-empire, and devoutly WASP in a way that modern GB would barely recognise. In this context, anything, no matter how trivial, which gives parity to Irishness, is not a harmless cultural enrichment of a part of the UK, but a serious existential threat to the union. British-ness and Irishness are locked in opposition here. Irishness will never be more than barely tolerated here.
In our dreary, zero-sum game cultural war, there must always be winners and losers. If, God forbid, we are all winners, then the North, as we know, it would effectively cease to exist.
Seán mac Cann