BY Eimear Walshe in Opinion | 03 APR 24
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Issue 242

Eimear Walshe on Decolonial Irish Folk Songs

The artist representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale discusses songs that subverts the country’s history of linguistic oppression

BY Eimear Walshe in Opinion | 03 APR 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 242, ‘Mother Tongues

My father called me his gassún (young lad) because cailín (girl) didn’t make sense. He spoke very little Gaeilge (Irish), but he approached the language – and gender itself, for that matter – with the crude and transgressive attitude of the country-and-Irish novelty musician Richie Kavanagh, whose hit song ‘Aon Focal Eile’ (1996) charted number one for eight weeks in Ireland when it was released. The first syllable of the Irish word focal is pronounced like the English ‘fuck’, leading the song to be banned by the BBC. Our neighbours across the water didn’t understand that focal just means ‘word’.

According to Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, the late singer of traditional songs in Irish and English, the mechanics of bilingual conceal-and-reveal is how macaronic composition came about. ‘You were afraid you’d be seen and heard speaking in Irish,’ he recounted in an interview with Lucy Simpson in 1980, ‘and then you had to turn to the English.’ Certain narrative elements of macaronic songs are hidden to monolinguists, as in ‘One Morning in June’ (traditional, recorded by Ó hÉanaí in 1963): ‘She was so handsome, gur thit mé i ngrá léi (that I fell in love with her) […] There’s an alehouse nearby, agus beidh muid go maidin ann (and we’ll be there ’til morning)’.

Eimear Walshe
Eimear Walshe, ROMANTIC IRELAND, 2024. Courtesy: Eimear Walshe; photograph: Faolán Carey

In the music video for ‘Aon Focal Eile’, Kavanagh sits in a classroom, an adult man among a group of uniformed school children. He wears a rainbow flat cap, a turquoise satin shirt, red and blue polka-dot dungarees and white cotton gloves. His hair is cut to a wispy, shoulder-length bob. The children stare wide-eyed at their strange class visitor, sometimes mouthing the words and clapping along: ‘The teacher toult [told] us everything, everything we know / She had a great big lump of a stick, that was bent into a bow’.

The song echoes the voice of a child in the 1960s, unable to acquire his national tongue.  

In the 19th century, under British rule, systematic efforts were made to beat the Irish language out of children. A policy of whipping or caning based on a child’s use of Irish – measured with the bata scóir (tally stick) – left a generation forced into speaking their second language, their parents sometimes barely able to understand them but also fearful of passing Irish onto them. It removed the possibility of expressing bonds, affinities, emotions, entire concepts and philosophies inherent in the language. Strategically, too, this policy denied the use of the language as a cryptolect among the native population. During an Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger, 1845–52), mortality and emigration disproportionately affected Irish speakers, with emigration also creating economic pressure to learn English.

Eimear Walshe
Eimear Walshe, ROMANTIC IRELAND, 2024. Courtesy: Eimear Walshe; photograph: Faolán Carey

After the revolution, the new Free State government, in a panic to fabricate political legitimacy and cultural coherence on an island divided in colonial partition, taught the Irish language through yet another regime of corporal punishment. The words that were beaten out of children in the previous century were now being beaten back into them. 

The Irish in the chorus of ‘Aon Focal Eile’ becomes garbled and ungrammatical in places. The song echoes the voice of a child in the 1960s, unable to acquire his national tongue, saying anything that sounded half-right to avoid the cane, trying somehow to be upbeat about it. The lyrics are ‘Irish sounding’: profane to a non-speaker, perhaps; familiar yet confusing to a beginner; and legibly nonsense, in parts, to a fluent speaker. The song’s macaronic effect is complex, campily flaunting coarse innuendo to those who don’t understand and clandestinely conveying a centuries-in-the-making tragedy to those who do.

Eimear Walshe
Eimear Walshe, ROMANTIC IRELAND, 2024. Courtesy: Eimear Walshe; photograph: Faolán Carey

Released around the start of Ireland’s late-1990s economic boom, known as the Celtic Tiger, the song landed in an era where the majority of broken-Irish speakers sublimated their language loss into disavowal and shame, creating another wave of language suppression, internalized this time. With repeat listening, Kavanagh’s song reveals itself as an ambivalent memento of unfinished decolonization and a damning indictment of an educational system that left children frightened of their own mother tongue. It also offers an insight into the historical roots of us non-fluent speakers’ fear of using Irish, and it makes a case for the pleasure and rewards of risking perceived profanity, stupidity or deviancy where a colonial order demands graspable, ‘civil’ intelligibility. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 242 with the headline ‘Until Morning’

Main image: Eimear Walshe, ROMANTIC IRELAND, 2024. Courtesy: Eimear Walshe; photograph: Faolán Carey

Eimear Walshe is an artist and writer. They will represent Ireland at this year’s Venice Biennale.

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