Sometimes when me and the little church I work for go and visit our friends in Northern Ireland, we sing Be Thou My Vision in its original tongue, Irish. It always causes a little frisson of excitement. A few Sundays ago we welcomed our friends from New Row Presbyterian Church in Coleraine. These very Ulster very Protestant visitors were our brothers and sisters in Christ and genuinely, whatever cultural or political gulfs divided us, they dissolved in the act of joint worship. Still, I noticed that on the wall above them in the school assembly hall where we met was a poster made by a teenaged student reading:
Tír gan teanga
Tír gan anam
Or in English words, a nation without a language is a nation without an identity. Identity politics still surrounds the use of Irish on these islands. This is all the more obvious in the last weeks when Irish people rapturously received two heads of state, Éilish II of Britain and O’Bama of the USA, in part because they used stock introductory phrases of Irish in their speech. The British queen called us her friends, the American president said “Yes we can” and the language was revealed as a little toy, a bauble that points to our difference, a commodity to be traded in.
I write as a man who has lost whatever fluency he had and is intent on regaining it, once he is done with the two further languages he must study for college (German and Latin). I write as someone preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which has a long and rich heritage in the Irish language. But most basically I write as a Christian, driven to acknowledge that the one thing we are definitely entitled to collect are languages.
The preservation, even more, the resuscitation of Irish as a language can be understood as a Christian ministry, an act of worship, a deed of service for the Kingdom of God.
How can I claim this?
At Pentecost, the Spirit came and gave the apostles the ability to speak in their tongue and be understood by all, regardless of where they have come from. From that point onwards, Christianity, which is born of Hebrew, Aramaic and the Greek of the street, can never have a native tongue. Unlike Judaism or Islam, it is not to be identified with a particular linguistic tradition. It spreads and adapts because its message is translatable.
That it is translatable is to say that it is universal.
But from that day onwards Christians have been the chief protectors of languages the world over and it continues today through the work of people like the Wycliffe translators. There is something about the epistemological frame that a native language provides that God seems to cherish. At Pentecost he doesn’t make the audience understand Aramaic. Those speaking Aramaic are understood in the tongues of those they speak to. Their frame of reference is honoured.
In preserving and re-enlivening Irish, Christians preserve and re-imagine a language that has been shaped and contoured by the Christian narrative. It is delightfully formed to tell the Good News. And so Irish Christians, north and south, should not despise it but embrace it.
My claim here is not grounded in some theological idea of crypto-nationalism. In fact, to engage in this Christianly would mean putting off tribal and national identities. The Christian learning Irish and learning to love Irish actually subverts damaging narratives of national liberation.
I say this because the Christian who takes up Irish with this worshipful intention in mind learns to restore that which is of value that has been co-opted by the myth of national sovereignty. If Irish is going extinct, it is in no small part a poetic truth that it struggles for sustenance because it has been forced to live in the arid thought-world of 20th Century Irish nationalism.
There would be a Gospel punchline were Protestant Unionists to grab the Celtic language of this island back off those who use it as a political blunt object. There would be a Gospel testimony if Irish Christians, Catholic and Protestants, Unionists and Nationalists, took to singing praise in their ancestral language.
I write this as a guy who has practically lost all practical Irish. But I write as a man who has been expressedly forbidden from using Irish in pulpits north of the border by people who were so buffered on all sides by political pragmatism so as to be blind to the Christian vocation to love linguistics and the distinctive Protestant contribution to the history of the Irish language. Maybe we can add this insecurity to the growing list of things we don’t want to pass on to the next generation of the church?
Your Correspondent, Each week he just makes God madder and madder.