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Irish language activism in West Belfast : a resistance to British cultural hegemony Kachuk, Patricia M. C.


This contribution to the understanding of the dynamics of domination and resistance will focus on the nature and development of Irish language activism in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the subsequent response of the British State when faced with this challenge to its cultural hegemony. The research is theoretically framed using Raymond Williams’ model of cultural hegemony and James Scott's model of disguise and surveillance, and is based on fifteen months of in-depth fieldwork in Northern Ireland, which I undertook from February 13, 1990 to May 10, 1991. It has been argued that not all Irish language activism is revolutionary, but instead, to use Williams' terminology, has both alternative and oppositional ideologies as major components. While both alternative and oppositional Irish language activists have recovered the Irish language as "an effective element of the present," and are using it to challenge the legitimacy of British cultural hegemony in Northern Ireland, the difference lies in their ultimate goals. Alternative Irish language activists are seeking a permanent space for the Irish language in Northern Ireland, regardless of the political outcome of the present conflict. On the other hand, oppositional Irish language activists, have made the Irish language an integral part of their struggle for self-determination. Alternative Irish language activists have focused their efforts on demanding that the public status of the Irish language be raised, and on building an Irish-medium education system that would be the foundation of a permanent Irish language infrastructure in Northern Ireland. Central to oppositional Irish language activism is the struggle for the cultural and linguistic rights of republican prisoners. However, the State justifies the shunning of these demands by citing the security risk they may engender. Oppositional Irish language activists, in particular Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Republican Movement), have adopted a strategy of "encouraging" and “supporting" alternative Irish language groups, thus creating the a priori appearance of a common goal. Since Sinn Fein does not assume a direct leadership role within the Irish language movement, any refusal of the cultural demands of alternative Irish language activists by testate, can be labelled as discriminatory toward the legitimate cultural rights of an ethnic minority. Hence, efforts by the State to dismiss the challenge by alternative Irish language activists by branding it as revolutionary, have been ineffectual. British cultural hegemony in Northern Ireland, it is argued, is both powerful and vulnerable. The reaction of the British State to the challenge of Irish language activists has varied, at times with its interpretation of the challenge, and at other times seemingly at will. Prior to 1980, attempts were made to exclude the Irish language and culture from Northern Ireland, branding it as "foreign” and "subversive." Since 1989, the approach of the British State has been a re-interpretation of the Irish language and culture into the Northern Ireland context, recognizing it as one of the "two traditions" of the State. This move to neutralize Irish language resistance, while welcomed by many alternative Irish language activists, has seriously ruptured the unity of the majority in Northern Ireland. As a result, the British government finds itself at an impasse. Because of strong oppositional and alternative Irish language resistance, the State is prevented from "excluding" Irish language and culture in Northern Ireland, but similarly, differences within influential and dominant groups will not allow the conciliation of Irish language resistance by a “process of incorporation." The stage is thus set for an examination of the background, growth, and durability of the Irish language movement, juxtaposed with the hegemonic determination of a State bent on cultural subjugation, in the boisterous environment of Northern Ireland.

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