The centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin has been marked on both sides of the Irish Sea earlier this week, and the celebrations / commemorations have been an opportunity to examine critically what an independent Irish state, free from British political and cultural imperialism, has come to mean.
Visitors to the official Ireland 1916/2016 website might be forgiven for thinking that the Irish-language motto of the commemorations is An téacs i nGaeilge le teacht, given its frequent appearance across the website. Every few clicks, the site throws up this slogan, one which in its subordinate position to the English-language text literally underpins every headline, event report, and strapline across the site. Of course, the text in Irish means ‘Irish text to follow’ – or, in other words, this site is under construction and a fully bilingual version will appear in the fullness of time. Is this a laboured metaphor for the vitality and use of Irish in Ireland in 2016? Is it unkind to blame those responsible for a single website for this relegation of Irish to a secondary position both in a visual hierarchy of languages and a communicative pecking order? More accurately, perhaps, this arrangement of languages accurately reflects the practices of the majority in twenty-first century Ireland.
The next question is does this matter? There has been much spoken and written about Ireland’s self-confidence, recent economic upheavals notwithstanding. The thorny question of language use in Ireland, itself a topic for debate as part of the Ireland 1916/2016 commemorations, is articulated through Ireland’s explicit commitment to the Irish language. Ireland’s constitution identifies Irish as the national language and the first official language; the value, reach, and significance of language articles in national constitutions is much discussed by specialists of language policy. On the one hand, the legal weight of the constitution buttresses a language that is accorded status in such a landmark text; on the other hand, the promise of such an article does not automatically translate into language practices. Irish is the first official language of Ireland, but in the country’s official website for the centennial celebrations, the language is emplaced beneath English, and often the expression An téacs i nGaeilge le teacht is cut-and-pasted to make a mark and say to the reader that Irish is recognised as official, but we just don’t have anyone to hand who can translate this page.
The Irish language was largely absent from festivities and ceremonies of the centennial weekend. The dramatic reading of the Proclamation of the Republic outside the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin on Easter Day 2016, opened with the title in Irish, but the language fades from view as quickly as it is uttered – the authors of the proclamation placed little emphasis on the Irish language beyond its symbolic value. For communication, in 1916 as in 2016, to speak to most audiences in Ireland, recourse to English is needed. This might go some way to explain the use of other semiotic resources to underscore the Irishness of the commemorations. Of particular note during the past week has been the significance of the colour green, and most specifically in the (re)painting of pillar boxes. The Irish postal service, An Post, has repainted ten letterboxes red, returning them to their colour during British imperial rule, as part as a multimodal re-enactment of the Easter Rising; short video clips which recount one perspective of the insurrection as witnessed from the location of that pillar box can be downloaded to a smartphone using a freetext link. Not everyone liked the reminder of British rule, and this approach was quickly subverted in nationalist west Belfast, with red pillar boxes repainted green – but not part of an official commemoration. The interest piqued by the changing of the colour of pillar boxes is another example of the significance of non-linguistic matter to convey meaning.