The Irish Language

Although I have read several chapters of Ulysses before, this was the first time I’d ever read “Telemachus.” There was not as much that confused me as I thought there would be, although I’m sure there was much that slipped by without my noticing. There were also many things I found interesting. In particular, I was interested in the scene with the milkwoman, the “personification of Ireland” (Gilbert, 101).

What I found specifically interesting in this section was her interaction with Haines, the Englishman, and their discussion on the Irish language. The Englishman speaks to the milkwoman in Irish and she does not understand him; in fact she asks him if he is speaking French. Buck Mulligan comments, “He’s English… and he thinks we ought to speak Irish in Ireland” (Joyce, 12). The woman, answers, “Sure, we ought to… and I’m ashamed I don’t speak the language myself” (13). As a representation of Ireland itself, the woman is ashamed that she doesn’t speak the native language. This suggested to me that Joyce was commenting on how the majority of the population in Ireland, except for those in the west, knew very little Irish. Ireland is ashamed of that fact, but that doesn’t seem to make much difference. The other Irish characters in the scene do not seem to give much thought to the language, and Mulligan seems to be mocking Haines for thinking the Irish should speak the Irish language.

Over the summer I read “The Dead” from Dubliners and there is a scene that discusses the Irish language. I was reminded of it as I was reading this section.  In “The Dead” Gabriel claims he wants to learn and keep in touch with other languages, and Miss Ivors says that he should be keeping in touch with his own language, Irish. He responds by saying, “Irish is not my language.” Not only is Gabriel putting other languages above Irish, he is also refusing to claim it as his own. There is no pride for custom or tradition, and I think this is something that comes out in the scene from Ulysses.



2 thoughts on “The Irish Language

  1. jsdrouin

    I think you’re right that the young Irishmen in the scene, who were no doubt pressured to learn their “native” language by proponents of the Irish Revival, do not put too much stock in the Irish Gaelic. It points to the irony that Haines the Englishman does. This is a artifact of Haines’ interest in ethnography, which is related to British imperialism. He is a consumer of “authentic Irish” culture and as such is more interested in Irish as a dead/dying or foreign language than the Irish are. What do you think this passage says about modern Ireland or, for that matter, nationhood? Let’s pick this up in class tomorrow.

  2. jww92

    It’s an important point because of the irony that Joyce is one of the century’s two or three most celebrated prose stylists in a language which, from the point of view of Irish nationalism, was not his own. And because language itself is such a central theme in Joyce’s work. In “A Portrait,” Stephen says bitterly “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.” It’s a beautiful few lines, and it suggests that the search for an original voice, the development from baby talk to smothering hellfire rhetoric to soaring, highly stylized prose throughout “Portrait” is also an irreducible struggle with the limitations of language. So that perhaps the emergence of Stephen’s voice is not as complete or uncomplicated a victory as it seems. I suppose this restlessness within the English language is why Joyce ultimately calls on so many others (I wonder how many languages he actually spoke?). And, of course, why he ultimately devoted himself, in “Finnegans Wake,” to the synthesis of countless languages and traditions into another tongue.


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