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All the same we're different

Minister of state Aodhán Ó Ríordáin seemed to take aim – in a relatively gentle sort of way admittedly – at Ireland’s Polish community in an interview in advance of Polish-Irish week and the soccer international game at the Aviva. As The Irish Times reported his words:

“There is a kind of matrix of Polish schools around the country that the children of Polish people attend at weekends to keep their language alive, their culture alive, to be themselves.”
In another way, this can be a “barrier to integration. If they are determined to stay here and be a part of Irish society, they are not getting involved in the average pursuits of the soccer club, the GAA club”, says Ó Ríordáin.

This is a delicate business. Trying to keep one’s culture alive, one’s language alive, is surely something that an Irish public figure –particularly perhaps one who spells his name in Irish – might understand. And perhaps he does. But the only time available to Polish children (outside the context of family and home) to reconnect with the old country, its history and culture, is at the weekend. Ó Ríordáin seems to fear that if these children do not embrace soccer or GAA in local clubs they will become isolated and will not integrate into the community.

An exaggerated fear perhaps. Integration is something that occurs (or doesn’t) across a wide spectrum, from the child who disappears into the host community and never gives a thought to family or ethnic origins to the child, and the often female family members accompanying the “head of the household”, who seldom leave the ethnic community and often fail to learn the language of their hosts. Extreme examples of the latter case have been known to lead to cultural isolation, oppression of women and girls within the family, educational underachievement and poverty.

Is this going to happen in Ireland’s Polish community? I don’t think so. And which would be better – if we had, in 2023, young Irish people whose surnames some found difficult to pronounce but who were otherwise indistinguishable from the Byrnes and Doyles and Nolans or if we had young Irish people whose surnames etc and who were fluent in (at least) two languages and knew a little about a culture other than the one in which they live?

Bilingualism, or multilingualism, is something educationalists and politicians pay lip service to, but in English-speaking countries in particular it is slipping away as a practical proposition. Of course “the confusion of tongues” was originally seen as a punishment from God and a cultural disaster: “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Before the hubristic project of the Tower of Babel (Babylon), Genesis taught, we all spoke the same language, though there came to be conflicting ideas as to what it was.

According to Hildegard of Bingen, Adam and Eve certainly spoke German. Aodh Mac Cruitín, writing in 1707 in A Brief Discourse in Vindication of the Antiquity of Ireland, traced Irish back to the time of Genesis and argued that “[a]ll our chieftest Irish authors agree in this account of Language ... and the Scythian language, and consequently the Irish language [from which he believed it derived] to be one of the Antientest, without the least contradiction, as to sense or matters of fact.” A thirteenth century French author wrote:

                            la langue de France
Est telle que celui qui en premier l’apprend
Ne pourra plus jamais autrement
Parler ni autre langue apprendre.

                           the French language
Is such that whoever learns it first
Will be unable afterwards to speak
In any other way or learn another language.

A delightful notion and one for which, indeed, there is some empirical evidence.

As the medieval world gradually emerged from the chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman empire, its response to the confusion of tongues and the difficulty of making oneself understood to strangers was to promote Latin as a universal language. But by the late medieval and early modern period, vernacular languages were gaining in prestige, which led to clashes over which of them would be dominant, or, as it was sometimes put, which was a clear, pure and adaptable means of communication and which a mere dialect or patois. Jakob Swinka, the archbishop of Gniezno, at the end of the thirteenth century, complained to Rome about the activities of German Franciscans and their preaching in the German language. All teaching, he ordered, must henceforth be carried out in Polish, ad conservacionem et promocionem lingue Polonice.

Some forward-looking spirits who saw no great difficulty in the variety of languages, cultures and practices looked back for justification to the words of St Augustine (354-430): “African, Syrian, Greek, Hebrew and all the other diverse languages make up the variety of the attire of that queen which is Christian doctrine. But in the same way as the variety of the costume does not make it any the less a single costume so also all the languages come together in a single faith. Let there be variety in the costume but no ripping apart.”

Around 1030, King Stephen of Hungary wrote that the migrants who come from various countries “bring with them languages, customs and new devices and weapons, and all that diversity is an adornment for the kingdom, an array of jewels for the court and for enemies outside an object of fear. For a kingdom which has only one language and one custom is feeble and fragile.”

Source: Jacques Le Goff: La civilisation de l’Occident médiéval.