Protestants and the Irish Language: Historical Heritage and Current Attitudes in Northern Ireland


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    The Irish language has long been regarded in the popular mind as a correlate of Irishnationalism. A model expounded by the sociolinguist, Joshua Fishman, is applied tothe evolution of Irish as a nationalist icon, and it is demonstrated that its divisivepotential developed only gradually. In fact, it was an object of affection and admirationfor many influential 19th century Protestants and unionists. In the 20th century,the language became increasingly polarised for political ends, and afterPartition was largely rejected in the education system as experienced by unionistchildren in Northern Ireland. It is argued that such an overwhelmingly anglocentricorientation, not just in language, but also in history and geography, has paradoxicallyserved to exacerbate the Troubles. It has alienated unionists from cultural capitalwhich rightfully and historically belongs to both traditions, and in so doing haspromoted a ‘frontier mentality’ among them. Somewhat in a spirit of definition byopposition, they are currently turning to Ulster-Scots; yet by adopting a more positiveattitude towards Irish, unionists would simultaneously reconnect with their historicalroots, and might deprive the language of its potential as a political weapon tobe used against them.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)62-82
    JournalJournal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2004


    • Protestants
    • Irish language
    • Northern Ireland


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