Something special happened yesterday in Belfast. Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and a former leader of the Provisional IRA, met and shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II. I’m not here to go into the significance of the occasion – the Irish Times can help you with that – but I sat up when I saw that McGuinness chose to speak to the Queen in Irish during their meeting, wishing her ‘slán agus beannacht’ – goodbye and god bless you.
This had echoes of the Queen’s visit to Ireland in the summer of last year, where she opened her speech at the ceremonial banquet in Dublin Castle by addressing the attendees as ‘A Uachtaráin agus a chairde’ – President and friends. It was a small thing but one which had a lot of significance for Irish people, myself included.
Hearing Irish used on two historic occasions made me think of one fascinating source for the history of relations between the English monarchy and the Irish people, and between the English and Irish languages. In the library of Farmleigh House in Dublin (where I used to work as a tour guide), there is a document known as Queen Elizabeth I’s Irish Primer. Probably dating from the 1560s, the preface to the primer says it was written at the Queen’s command, and in the light of her desire to spread the Reformation to the Irish people, for most of whom Irish – not English – was a first language.
You can see the Farmleigh primer in glorious technicolour at the excellent Irish Script On Screen website, where it also comes with an academic introduction giving the full background and provenance of the text. The preface addresses Elizabeth I, and argues that it will be crucial for the English to learn Irish if they are to effect real change on the island:
Among the manyfold actions (moste gratious and Vertuous Soveraigne) that beare testymonie to the worlde of your majestyes greate affection, tending to the refformation of Ireland, ther is noe one (in my opinion) that more evydent showithe the same, then the desyer your Highnes hath to understande the language of your people theare. For as speache is the speciall mean whereby all Subjectes learne obedience, and their Prynces, or Governors understande their greves & harmes; so the same beinge delyvered by an Interpretor, cann never carye that grace, or proper intellygence, which the tonge it selfe being understode expressith. This defect founde out by your Majestye, bredd that gratious desyere formorly spoken of. which beinge an acte deservinge the praise of all men, So the same made knowen unto your subjectes, no doubt would greatlye increase their love & obedyence: And for as much as it pleasyde your majestie (which I take aspetiall favor) to comaunde me to delyver your Highnes the Iryshe Caracters with instructions for reading of the language, I thought it not inconvenyent to joyne therto the originall of the nation also; to the ende your majestye knowinge from whence they came, & theire tongue deryved, might the soner attaine to the perfection thereof.
The text itself offered an Irish alphabet, and a basic vocabulary in English, Latin, and Irish. ‘Father, Mother, Brother, God, Mary, Man or Woman’; ‘A man, Woman, Earthe, Tongue, Kinge, Quene’.
The final page – pictured at the top of the post – offers a few phrases that might be used in conversation. ‘How doe you, I am well, I thancke you, Cann you speake Iryshe, Speake Latten, God save the Queene off Englande’.
We don’t know much about how or whether the primer was used, by Elizabeth herself or anyone else. In 1593, she met with Grace O’Malley, the Irish ‘pirate queen’, who came to seek the release of her son and half-brother from their imprisonment by the English governor of Connacht. O’Malley spoke no English, and Elizabeth no Irish. Perhaps, over thirty years or so, any Irish the queen could have got from the primer had gone rusty. They spoke in Latin instead.
Something pleasing – which I’ve just come across – is the fact that during the royal visit last year, the then-President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, presented Elizabeth II with a copy of the 1560s primer. Though her cúpla focail – few words of Irish – were in all likelihood written into the speech months before the visit, it’s a nice thought that a relic of a distant and very different time might have acted as an inspiration. And, as McGuinness’s ‘slán agus beannacht’ shows, after four centuries, Irish has lost none of her political and symbolic power.
For anyone interested in language and Irish history, I’d highly recommend Tony Crowley’s Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-2004.