Jenny Carla Moran recently completed her MA in Postcolonial Studies at SOAS. She is the co-founder and a previous co-head editor of Trinity College Dublin’s feminist journal, nemesis. Her current research interests include post-structuralism, gender theory, and embodiment in the digital age. Her perpetual interests include circles of femme friendships and cats.


Jenny Carla Moran
, SOAS University of London

“Ach Ba Gá Dom Labhairt Leat:” An Foclóir Aiteach and the Presence of Queer Culture as Gaeilge.

With special thanks to Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha of USI for consulting with me on visions and aims of An Foclóir Aiteach.

On the 21st of March 2018, An Foclóir Aiteach (English translation: “The Queer Dictionary”) was launched. Comprised in collaboration between the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), BeLonG To Youth Services, and the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), the project entails the provision of suitable terminology with which to refer to the LGBTQ+ community in the Irish language. The dictionary features over 100 translations of phrases and vocabulary useful for the Irish-speaking LGBTQ+ community. One could suggest that this dictionary has been produced to meet the demands of an increasingly “progressive” Irish society. I propose, however, that the creation of this dictionary is an epistemologically-radical, anti-imperial act, which may redefine global perceptions of Ireland, as well Irish people’s own interpretations of “Irish culture,” whatever that term might mean.

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A picture of An Foclóir Aiteach (via USI).

To make this claim it may be necessary to provide the reader with a quick crash-course in Irish queer history, about which there is comparatively little known before the 19th century.[1] I want to propose here that the reason we know so little about Irish queer history may be to do with Irish culture being made subject to British colonialism. Though Britain officially colonised Ireland in the 16th century, gentler Anglo-Norman invasion attempts began as early as the 1100s. It is important that these initial attempts to claim Irish land and influence pre-colonial Irish culture were heavily dependent upon heteronormativity (assumptions of heterosexuality) and repronormative ideals (a focus on heterosexual couples having children), as the Anglo-Normans made use of intermarriage in order to convert powerful Pagan families to Catholicism under King Henry II of England.[2] The perceived need to convert and “civilise” the Irish in this period is marked by Giraldus Cambrensis’ 1188 Topographia Hibernicus:

It is indeed a most filthy race, a race sunk in vice . . . The women, also, as well as the men, ride astride, with their legs stuck out on each side of the horse (quoted in Cohen, 1996, pp.10-11).[3]

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The Marriage of Strongbow (Norman military adventurer) and Aoife (daughter of Dermot McMurrough King of Leinster), which was a central event in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. Painting by Daniel Maclise (via Wikimedia Commons).

Through moments such as this in Cambrensis’ text, which influenced the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, it is evident that gender anxiety played a role in the perception of “civilising” this “race,” particularly through the conversion of Celtic pagans to Catholicism. The fact that Irish women did not sit femininely with their legs together on one side of the horse – perhaps because the social and biological falsehood of “proving” their virginity on their wedding nights was not something that was expected of them – certainly suggests that pre-colonial Ireland had differing perceptions of how gender roles should be performed. The masculinity which could be performed by pre-colonial Irish women is also evidenced by mythology surrounding female warriors such as Queen Medb.[4] Furthermore, it is documented that early Irish Brehon Law was “non-judgemental about homosexuality” (Cregan, 2011, p.187). There has even been recent debate over the sexuality of Cú Chulainn, one of Ireland’s greatest mythological heroes, who some suggest had an openly sexual relationship with his foster-brother Ferdiad. This is not intended to suggest that pre-colonial Ireland was ever some kind of queer utopia, but I do wish to raise the question of the influence of these early histories on a nation which was to become known as quintessentially homophobic in more contemporary contexts: Ireland became the nation that criminalised homosexuality until 1993, and it could be argued that anti-gay sentiment even became bound to perceptions of “authentic” Irishness (read: Catholicism). It only became legal for same-gender couples to marry in Ireland in 2015, following the tireless works of grassroots campaigners to remove the thirty-fourth amendment from the Irish constitution, and even in 2019 Ireland is still on a trajectory of continuing to undo this legacy of anti-queer oppression, e.g. only this week a bill was passed to allow WLW (“women who love women”) couples to state both their names on their children’s birth certificates. I want to suggest that this kind of erasure and oppression may have been influenced by histories of colonial violence in Ireland, which I have briefly detailed herein.

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Depiction of the Irish warrior Queen Medb by Joseph Christian Leyendecker (via Wikimedia Commons).

As opposed to just considering the creation of queer vocabulary in Irish to cater for a more “modern” world, then, I consider An Foclóir Aiteach to be a reparative project, which links contemporary Irish LGBTQ+ communities to these skeins of queer and gender-nonconforming Irish culture and heritage which may have been erased through heteronormative and repronormative invasion and British rule. Most relevant to An Foclóir Aiteach’s intervention in terms of this erasure is the fact that British colonial rule also had the effect of largely weakening the Irish language, particularly following the enactment of the 1695 Penal Laws, which destroyed Irish cultural institutions and eliminated an Irish-speaking ruling class. For this reason, contemporary Gaelgeoirí (“Irish-speakers”) as well as temporary residents of Gaeltachtaí (“Irish-speaking regions”) must negotiate Gaeilge (“Gaelic/Irish”) in order to find translations for English words which would not have been commonly used when the majority of the Irish nation fluently spoke Gaeilge. The word fón, for example, has been invented as a translation for the English word “phone.” It has the same pronunciation but spelling that complies with Gaeilge. Fón poca (literally “pocket phone”) has subsequently developed to signify “mobile.” In relation to queer vocabulary, this double-edged erasure of identity and language becomes especially pertinent, particularly due to the binding of nationalistic sentiments with the reactionary perception of “true Irishness” as bound to Catholicism (and, therefore, an anti-queer church).[5] For a long time, as a result, there essentially has been no way to refer to one’s sexual and/or gender identity without deferring to an English term or unofficially hybridising English and Gaeilge.[6]

This new ability to name identities in our own language is, therefore, hopeful. It suggests that there is space within Irish culture for various forms of identification without being asked to sacrifice an aspect of yourself (your Irishness or your queerness). I am reminded of Adrienne Rich’s poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”  (1971), in which the speaker regrets dependencies upon hierarchical modes of expression. She writes “This is the oppressor’s language yet I needed it to talk to you,” which I have paraphrased in a translation as Gaeilge (“in Irish”) for the title of this post. Before now, queer Irish people similarly had to rely on English, the language of their historic oppressors, in order to express themselves to one another. The fact that there is now vocabulary available for us to talk to one another, about one another, and about ourselves in our native language, therefore, suggests something liberatory. It may offer the possibility to redefine expressions of Irish identity in literature as Gaeilge, it may contribute to the construction of Irish queer theory, and it may even prelude the inclusion of more contemporary literature in/translated from Gaeilge on the World Literature stage. All in all, it’s more than a simple reference book.With all this being said, it is also always important to problematise Ireland as a postcolonial nation when engaging in discussions of this kind. I have provided proposals in relation to British imperialism and violent influences on Irish culture during colonisation, however contemporary Ireland cannot be quite so simply understood as a nation recovering from imperial violence, since the Irish state also enacts this violence today. An uncritical view which does not take this reality into account risks creating false equations between Ireland and more of Britain’s colonies. As a “postcolonial” nation, the Irish state has assimilated to white supremacy: taken part in assisting western imperial warfare (see the uses of Shannon Airport by US military), institutionalised international protection applicants in the Direct Provision system, and supported neo-colonial exploits through “charity” work in the Global South, particularly in African countries, through lenses of white saviourism.[7] This is mentioned not to discount the realities of colonialism in Irish history, but for the purpose of contextualising Ireland’s current status in relation to imperial power relations, which I believe more analyses of Irish colonial historiographies would do well to consider.[8]


Attendants of Pride 2015 in Ireland wearing the Irish flag and the LGBTQ+ flag side by side (via Wikimedia Commons).

Notes:

[1] Popularised Irish queer historiography from the 19th century onwards focuses primarily on cisgender gay men.

[2] See Allen, Theodore W. The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1. London: Verso, 1994.

[3] From O’Meara’s translation. See Giraldus Cambrensis, Topographia Hibernae (The History and Topography of Ireland). John J. O’Meara, trans. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1982.

[4] See Lehmann, Edyta. “‘And thus I will it’: Queen Medb and the Will to Power.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, vol. 28, 2008, pp. 142-151.

[5] This is not true of all Irish nationalists nor Gaelgeoirí, however Catholicism has historically been associated with Irish nationalism while Protestantism has been associated with Englishness/Anglo-Irishness. Nor is it true that all Catholics harbour anti-queer sentiments, rather that the Catholic Church as an institution has historically oppressed the LGBTQ+ community.

[6] As an example of what I mean by this kind of hybridising: in my time in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region), other students and I didn’t have terms to refer to queer identities, and to voice this we would either use an English term (quietly so as not to get detention), or a hybridisation such as “homo-gnéasach” (taking the Latin homō, and the Irish word gnéasach, meaning “sexual” to mirror the English-language etymology of “homosexual”). An Foclóir Aiteach instead translates the term “gay” or “homosexual” in English to “aerach in Irish. The direct translation of “aerach” in English would be “airy,” but it was a word used to signify light-heartedness akin to the English word “gay.” This word therefore has a lineage in Irish writings and communications, as does “aiteach,” which is taken to mean “queer” and has the more direct translation of “odd” in English in terms of its historical uses.

[7] For more on the impact of neo-colonial exploits through “aid” or “charity” work, see Kwame Nkrumah’s Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965). For a quick read, Mark Langan’s summary of this concept and Nkrumah’s work can alternatively be found here.

[8] An example of a helpful analysis which engages with contemporary Irish power structures in this regard can be found in a recent article by Luke Butterly. Butterly analyses the discussion around Brexit and the border of Northern Ireland, arguing that the much-debated “hard border” has actually existed for years for those who don’t meet stereotypical expectations of “Irishness” or “Britishness.”


Bibliography:

Allen, Theodore W. The Invention of the White Race Volume 1. London: Verso, 1994.

An Foclóir Aiteach. USI, 21 Mar. 2018, http://usi.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/AN-FOCL%C3%93IR-AITEACH.pdf. Accessed 27 Mar. 2018.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 3-25.

Cregan, David. “Remembering to Forget Queer Memory and the New Ireland.” Memory Ireland: History and Modernity, Volume 1. Oona Frawley, ed. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Giraldus Cambrensis, Topographia Hibernae (The History and Topography of Ireland). John J. O’Meara, trans. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1982.

Lehmann, Edyta. “‘And thus I will it’: Queen Medb and the Will to Power.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, vol. 28, 2008, pp. 142-151.

Nkrumah, Kwame. Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd, 1965.

O’Donnell, Tom. “‘The Gay Bulge’ or Can we Study Medieval Sexuality Through Puns?” Notches, 21 Apr. 2015, http://notchesblog.com/2015/04/21/the-gay-bulge-or-can-we-study-medieval-sexuality-through-puns/. Accessed 27 Mar. 2018.Rich, Adrienne. “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.” The Will to Change. New York: Norton, 1971.