There was a lot of talk recently about who should speak Irish and, being an Irish speaker it set me thinking. I asked myself, as I regularly do: ‘what does it say in the Bible?’ Now, there’s nothing specifically on Irish in the Bible but two passages about language and diversity really caught my attention.
First: The book of Genesis gives us a story about why there are so many languages in the world. Basically it says that human beings were getting too big for their boots building a tower – at Babel – reaching all the way up to heaven. Moreover those same human beings were very arrogant about the fact that they spoke only one language. So God said; let us go down and confuse their language and scatter them.
So, having one big language can lead to arrogance and speaking different languages can be experienced as a curse. Not being able to understand each other can and does lead to big trouble.
But, the other bible text I was drawn to was the account of what happened on the day of Pentecost. The disciples were announcing the Resurrection to people of every tribe and tongue. The listeners were astounded and they said: “Are these men not all Galileans? How is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” They were all one despite their different languages. When Pentecost comes Babel gets reversed, turned on its head. Different languages are no problem. People are united with all their differences.
Babel and Pentecost have a lot to say about where we are at more generally in Northern Ireland right now. Many people are screaming in frustration that they are not being heard; it’s like as if they were speaking a foreign language. Our public space is toxic. The majority of us who want to live in peace with our neighbours with parity of esteem want to hear our representatives speaking a language of accommodation and respect.
We’re stuck in Babel where incomprehension, refusal to listen to other voices and a tendency towards elite isolation are the order of the day. Babel is a sad place to be particularly if Pentecost is possible. It may be that we have all got used to Babel. Pentecost would involve every one of us being enabled to speak with new tongues and listen with new ears. That would mean a change for every single one of us.
So, even though the bible didn’t tell me anything specific about Irish it moves me to wish you: “Peace! Pax! Shalom! Síocháin!”
(Adapted from Radio Ulster Thought for today 14 Feb 2014).
Alan McGuckian is a Jesuit priest and was director for many years of the Jesuit Communication Centre in Dublin. He has wide experience in media and publishing in both English and Irish.