Luke Callinan

Luke Callinan

Luke Callinan is a Left Republican from south County Roscommon, Ireland. His main interests are Irish literature and history.

A History of Ireland in 100 Words
Tuesday, 09 June 2020 10:39

A History of Ireland in 100 Words

Published in Cultural Commentary

Luke Callinan reviews A History of Ireland in 100 Words by Sharon Arbuthnot, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Gregory Toner, Royal Irish Academy, 320 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 9781911479185.

“Ní hí an teanga do chuaidh ó chion
acht an dream dár dhual a dídion
(mon-uar) dár bhéigin a ndán
sa nduan do thréigin go tiomlán”

“It is not the language which has come into
disesteem but those who should protect it,
they who have been (alas!) obliged to
abandon their poems and verses completely.”

- 17th Century poem by Diarmuid Mac Muireadhaigh addressed to Górdún Ó Néill, a captain in the army of King James II.

Ogham inscriptions provide the earliest concrete evidence of the Irish language, dating as far back as the 4th century, while the majority of extant examples can be traced to the following 5th and 6thcenturies. This primitive form of written Irish evolved and developed in to what would become the most extensive surviving literature in early modern medieval Europe. While the depth and richness of this literature has been examined and understood by a section of Irish academia, its intertexuality as well as the wider cultural and social hegemony that fused it and gave it real meaning has been largely lost on those who currently inhabit the island(s) of Ireland.

This loss of collective social and cultural values, memories and ways of thinking is particularly regrettable. It didn’t take place overnight nor did it happen in a cultural or political vacuum: it is the logical outcome of a coherent, brutal and multifarious colonisation process that successfully replaced Irish with English as the primary medium of communication for the bulk of the country. This process has been examined thoroughly by well-known writer and publisher Tomás Mac Síomóin in his books The Broken Harp and The Gael Becomes Irish.

An encouraging trend has emerged in Irish language literature in which Irish language texts are being reproduced, reimagined and reconstructed by modern scholars. Examples of these productions include Tuatha Dé Danann by Diarmuid Johnson, An Tromdhámh by Feargal Ó Béarra and Darach Ó Scolaí’s Táin Bó Cuailnge. These, and others like them, present today’s reader with some of the most important figures, events and narratives from our literary tradition in the medium of modern Irish.

A History of Ireland in 100 Words is a valuable contribution to this work. While the authors clarify that the publication is not an attempt to comprehensively detail the course of Irish history, it serves to highlight the collated lexicon of Old and Middle Irish based on materials from the period c.700-1700. As the authors explain, its purpose is to provide “insights into moments of life that may be otherwise absent from the history books”; and in this it certainly succeeds.

We are presented with lively accounts of 100 words in the Irish language from this period, some of which have even survived in Hiberno-English language registers such as ‘Taoiseach’ (the term for Ireland’s ‘Prime Minister’), ‘Leipreachán’, ‘Bóithrín’ (literally a small cow-path but used to describe a narrow, frequently unpaved, road in rural parts of Ireland), ‘Bróg’ (meaning ‘shoe’ but used contemporarily to describe a person’s accent) and ‘Punt’ (the Irish currency until 2002).

We learn that the word for poet in Irish, ‘file’, is related to the verb ‘to see’, demonstrating a perceived prophetic capacity. This applies to great art up to this day as an alternative way of understanding the world to science and philosophy.

Language and colonisation

Discussion of the word ‘Gall’, understood by many today as ‘foreigner’ but with a much deeper and complex history, puts a spotlight on the 12th century King of Leinster, Diarmaid na nGall, who sought the military assistance of England’s King Henry II to regain his kingdom, sparking a chain of events that would result in the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169.

While the earliest documented form of political authority in Ireland was kingship, with a king (‘rí’) for each kingdom (‘tuath’), by the 8th century this power structure was being surpassed by the emergence of leaders controlling larger territories. The title given to these was ‘Taoiseach’, originally meaning ‘first’ but clearly having evolved at an early stage to indicate ‘leader’.  This survives today in the term for Ireland’s highest government office holder, ‘An Taoiseach’. It is worth mentioning evidence of women in the role of ‘Taoiseach’ as far back as the 8th century, unlike today’s office, which has never been held by a woman.

The 15th century curse ‘úir aineoil tarat’ (‘may foreign soil be over you’) implies negative connotations for foreign burials and vividly reinforces the deep connection people had to land and territory had in Gaelic Ireland. It reminded me of Big Bill Neidjie’s words, an elder of the Kakadu people in northern Australia: “I feel with my body, with my blood. Feeling all these trees, all this country. When this wind blow you can feel it. Same for country… you feel it, you can look, but feeling… that make you.”

In general, of course, the wisdom contained in Irish medieval literature reflects a symbiotic land-animal-human relationship that generated respect and fear in equal measure. Use of the term ‘mac tíre’ (‘son of the land’) for wolf was employed to avoid summoning the animal by speaking his actual name, ‘faol’, but has come to be the most common word for ‘wolf’ in modern Irish. Ireland’s wild wolves of course became extinct in the late 18th century.

Edmund Spenser, an English colonizer and poet of the late 16th century Tudor re-conquest period in Ireland, understood the central importance of language in the colonising process. He wrote that “words are the image of the mynde, the mynde must needs be affected with the words: So that the speech beinge Irishe, the harte must needs be Irishe, for out of aboundance of the harte the tongue speaketh.” If Irish people could be coerced in to adopting the English language, they would come to accept a world view framed by that language, one that would re-define how they see themselves and their place in the world.

Kenyan academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has described languages as natural hard-drives, positing that the loss of that hard drive invariably causes loss of the memories and knowledge, information, thoughts and thought-processes which have been carried by that language for generations.

Collective recovery of our Irish language hard-drive is an essential component in the de-colonisation of Ireland and A History of Ireland in 100 Words, as well as the invaluable work of all those involved with the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language project more broadly, certainly provides some of the tools to help do that successfully.

Black 47
Wednesday, 12 September 2018 17:21

Black 47

Published in Films

Luke Callinan reviews Black 47, a film which reminds us of the brutal and inhuman nature of colonisation.

Lance Daly’s Black 47, which was released in September 2018, is the first feature-length film dealing directly with the catastrophic events of 1845-1849 in Ireland that became known subsequently as “The Famine”. It is an adaption of the much lesser-known short movie An Ranger (2008) directed by P.J. Dillon in which a Connemara man named Myles returns home in 1854 after serving abroad in the British Army for 21 years. He arrives home to a community that has been ravaged by starvation, fever, executions, murder and emigration. Myles finds pigs grazing in his family home which has been vacated and has had its thatched roof removed. The dialogue of An Ranger is completely in Irish with English language subtitles, reflecting the linguistic reality of Connemara during the mid-19th century.

LC Black 47 2

In Black 47 we are presented with the dour and stern figure of Máirtín Ó Fiannaidhe (played by Australian actor James Frecheville) who has served for many years with an infantry regiment of the British Army known as the “Connacht Rangers”, and returns to his native Connemara with the intention of travelling on from there to America. We later learn that he had gone absent without leave from the British Army in Afghanistan and was branded a deserter. There is an historical inaccuracy here in that the Connacht Rangers were deployed in the West Indies, not Afghanistan, at this time. Ó Fiannaidhe arrives home in 1847 while Ireland remains in the throes of a famine to discover that his brother had been executed because he attacked an officer who had come to evict his family from their home, and that his mother had later perished of hunger.

Máirtín’s sister-in-law Ellie (Sarah Greene) had been raising her three children alone after the death of her husband. The soldier is deeply affected by the searing poverty and destitution that now blights his community, and appears physically moved by the circumstances in which his late brother’s family now live. Shortly after his arrival, he witnesses the authorities attempting to forcefully evict Ellie and her children from their home and intervenes in an effort to save them as they do not understand the orders being barked at them in English. He even offers to the attacking party that he will pay any outstanding debts the family owe.

Máirtín speaks both English and Irish so tries to explain the situation in Irish to Ellie who is distressed and confused by the events but he is immediately tackled to the ground and arrested. As the authorities begin to break in the roof of Ellie’s home, her young son bursts out of the front door and stabs one of the attacking police officers in the neck. He is promptly fired upon by several surrounding police officers and shot dead. Ellie, who is severely distraught by the violent death of her son, is turfed out on the road along with her two other children, while Máirtín is arrested and brought back to the barracks. In a daring and bloody encounter, Máirtín manages to escape from custody and returns to Ellie’s house, to find her lifeless body huddled together with her youngest child in the corner of the now roofless home, having perished in the freezing cold conditions without food or shelter.

It is at this point that Máirtín’s plans to emigrate are put on hold and he begins a one-man campaign to seek revenge for the deaths of his family.

One of the most striking aspects of Black 47 is the arguably unprecedented level of Irish language used by main actors in a popular feature-length film. All spoken dialogue between native Irish characters in the film is through the medium of Irish, and in one scene Máirtín and Ellie recite songs to the young children in Irish. There are even a handful of greetings, blessings and commonly-used idioms in Irish that are not subtitled such as when Ellie, addressing a neighbour, says “Bailigh leat!” (“Be off!). This usage of the Irish language in a major film, while logical in the setting of 1840s Connemara, is a remarkable departure for Irish cinematography. The dialect and linguistic fluency of Máirtín Jaimsie’s language as Ignatius in An Ranger helps the audience place the scene and adds to its authenticity. While this same fluency of speech is not matched by any main character in Black 47, the script and pronunciation of Irish is nonetheless impressive.

The most profound line is uttered by the film’s ‘hero’ Máirtín Ó Fiannaidhe when he confronts a judge who has just sentenced a man to penal servitude in Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania). During the trial the defendent, pleading his innocence in Irish, is reprimanded by the judge who states “Irish is not the language of this court” and proceeds to convict him on the basis that his refusal to engage with the court in English is evidence enough of his guilt. Ó Fiannaidhe is waiting for the judge in his office as he returns from the court sitting and when the judge orders him to leave, Ó Fiannaidhe snaps “Ní hé Béarla teanga na cúirte seo” (“English is not the language of this court”). When in court, the judge – who regularly sentences young men and women for execution, penal servitude and incarceration – possesses the arrogant demeanor typical of those who implement British colonial “justice”. Outside the protection of the courtroom, however, he is powerless and exposed when he meets face-to-face with a member of the community for which he ruthlessly dispenses “justice”, and is left pleading for mercy. This line by Ó Fiannaidhe embodies a universal expression of anti-colonial sentiment that could be employed by figures of resistance in colonised nations anywhere in the world. In his classic text The Wretched of the Earth, written at the height of the Algerian war, Frantz Fanon gives expression to this:

The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world, which has ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for the destruction of native social forms and broken up without reserve the systems of reference of the economy, the customs of dress and external life, that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters. To wreck the colonial world is henceforward a mental picture of action which is very clear, very east to understand and which may be assumed by each one of the individuals which constitute the colonized people.”


Liam O’Flaherty’s 1937 novel Famine set in the fictionally named Black Valley addresses the situation in plain terms:

To be afflicted with hunger was considered, in the world of the rich, a crime which placed sufferers outside the bounds of humanity. They were to be pursued by the servants of the rich, thrown in to jail, or bayoneted, or hanged.

In a particularly revealing scene, Lord Kilmichael, the land-owning representative of the British aristocracy makes clear his desire for the day when the sight of a Gael in Ireland would be as rare as a native American in Manhattan. The sentiment contained in this statement indicates the tacit support of Kilmichael and the landlord class generally for a policy of cultural genocide against native Irish people similar to that carried out against the native Americans.

Private Hobson is a young British Army soldier who accompanies Hannah (Hugo Weaving) – the man who had been sent to capture Ó Fiannaidhe but who also happens to be an old army comrade of his – and the pretentious officer Pope, on their trip west to track down Ó Fiannaidhe . He is a committed member of this party but becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the starving and fever-stricken tenants that appear at the house of Lord Kilmichael, their landlord, while Kilmichael hoards copious amounts of grain that is being prepared for transport to England. It is not insignificant that Hobson speaks with a North-West English accent, a region marked by deep levels of poverty relative to the rest of England as well as a concentration of Irish economic emigrants.

If there was to be a significant criticism of the film it would be the lack of collective resistance by the community. Ó Fiannaidhe at times comes across as a mythical figure with an inhuman ability to single-handedly take on several soldiers and/or policemen at any one time. We do not see any significant interaction or collaboration between Ó Fiannaidhe and the broader community, which is portrayed as broken and helpless, incapable of anything other than mocking and clownish behaviour. It contrasts sharply with the scene in O’Flaherty’s Famine where a gang of starving peasants carry out the premediated murder of land agent Jocelyn Chadwick who had collected the rent on behalf of absentee English landlord Mark Thompson.

LC Famine

Black 47 is a film that is well worth watching. It tackles one of the most traumatic periods of Irish history in the last 200 years without overly engaging in romantic notions of an Ireland that is servile in the face of oppression and that willingly submits to a policy described by O’Flaherty as “peace at any price” which inevitably creates “a disillusioned, disheartened, disorganised people” that are left at “the mercy of a tyrannical government”. It furthermore opens the door to new understandings and interpretations of our past while also serving as an important reminder of the brutal and inhuman nature of colonisation. To its credit, it succeeds in doing this in a profoundly universal manner.