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Thursday, February 16, 2006

What's 'national' about out anthem?

A row started on the Ray D'arcy show on Today FM this morning about the fact that hardly anyone in this country knows the lyrics to our national anthem, 'Amhrán na Fiann'. Texts and emails flooded into the show that seemed equally divided between outrage and apathy: you should make the effort to learn it yourself versus what difference does it make?

So why can't most of the country sing along to this supposed expression of national pride and identity? It's a fascinating question with an answer that most people won't agree with or even entertain. Our national anthem is foreign to us. This national tune is expressed in a language that was imposed on this country after Independence by elite subscribers to over-zealous language revival movement, an imposition that aimed purely to define our culture from that of the coloniser. Adopting an Irish language national anthem totally ignores Ireland's centuries-long experience as a part of the British Empire and what that means linguistically.

We are an English speaking country. We were an English speaking country at the time of our Independence in 1922. At that point, we had been predominantly English speaking for over 70 years, as it was the only realistic option that people had to survive and prosper in the new political and cultural environment. It is a tragedy that we lost our language - but we did. You can argue all you want to the contrary but the fact of the matter remains that the status that the Irish language holds today is similar to that of an artefact in a museum. A language is a living, breathing thing and the language that has that status in Ireland is the English language.

No wonder we have such a confused sense of national identity. Is it any wonder that we don't know what we are or what we stand for as a nation? It is inconceivable for a country to have a national anthem that few understand and even fewer can join in with at moments of national pride. You must be ashamed that you don't know it in Irish but you must be more ashamed if you express a desire for it to be articulated in the language that you and your culture use in almost every aspect of your everyday life. We are a bizarre country in many ways.

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