Northern Ireland

PLATFORM: Dr Peter Doran – Translations: Language and Ireland’s Ecological Transformation

A ruined stone cottage overlooks the Renvyle Peninsula in Connemara
A ruined stone cottage overlooks the Renvyle Peninsula in Connemara

THE history of colonialism on the island of Ireland gave rise to more than one form of partition, writes Dr Peter Doran. In its strategic attack on the Irish language, he argues that the forces of dispossession also partitioned people and nature, communities and landscapes.


INDIGENOUS languages are disappearing from the world at the same rate as our biodiversity. This is no coincidence of course. Some of the drivers of the ongoing sixth mass extinction of biodiversity and wildlife, notably European colonial adventures, have also been behind the decimation of indigenous communities together with their vital knowledge systems, mytho-poetic traditions and languages.

This is a story all too familiar on our own island, which served as a laboratory or template for political and ecological colonialism. Brian Friel’s Translations explores a community’s traumatic experience of loss, or dispossession, that extends to both language and landscape. The story of imposed re-designation of local place names is an allegory for a larger process, a painful experience of 'exile' as a community’s landscape is withdrawn from them. As Sinéad Mercier has noted, through the distortion of language and place, the land was withdrawn from its inhabitants, as Irish place names infused with local memory, myth and knowledge, were replaced by meaningless English denominations.

The celebrated Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh, has described how over two centuries European colonists tore across the world, viewing nature and land as something inert to be conquered and consumed without limits and the indigenous people as savages whose knowledge of nature was worthless and who needed to be erased: “It was this settler colonial worldview – of just accumulate, accumulate, accumulate, consume, consume, consume – that has got us where we are now.” The mass conversion of nature into dead matter has deep roots in the European Enlightenment tradition, which is associated with the celebration of possessive individualism, calculation, control and the instrumentalisation of nature so that it can be placed at the service of human ends (economics). It is worth noting that the European Enlightenment associated with Descartes, Newton and Locke was, in fact, a counter-revolution against Renaissance civic humanists who were also known as "nature enthusiasts".

Questions of language, indigeneity, ecology and decolonisation are fast emerging as central in academic and activist environmental circles, and were part of the debate at the recent fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity in Canada. Closer to home, there is growing interest across the island in the linkage between our systemic failings when it comes to the protection of our biodiversity and the need to re-examine our history of colonisation.

In his thought provoking book, Irish and Ecology (2019), Michael Cronin poses the question: why does Ireland consistently come close to bottom of the class in terms of environmental protection? He ponders on the possibility that our systemic failings are born out of a disengagement from an environment whose human and natural history is secreted away in a language that receded from common reach in post-Famine Ireland. “Is the triumph of a culture of possession over a culture of dwelling – dramatically illustrated by the boom-bust cycles of Irish property markets – not an illustration of the divorce of land from sense, the having being everything and the understanding (of context, history, sustainability) counting for nought?” For Cronin, the Tudor experiment in language extinction and territorial extraction were part of the same project, making Ireland an ideal laboratory for a form of ecological dispossession that would be replayed endlessly in various parts of Empire.

There is a growing recognition of a role for our immersion in indigenous languages and mythic traditions in channelling that deepest of intuitions, that language and our ancient mytho-poetic traditions can be experienced not as the exclusive property of humankind but as something we humans share with the rest of the sensuous life-world. And that our immersion in indigenous sensibilities can be a fierce turning point in our resistance to the disenchantment and silencing of the natural world brought about by the dominant European Enlightenment tradition: monocultures of the land and mind.

Perhaps we are in need of a new Field Day project, one that extends reflection on coloniality, language and nationalisms to a meditation on a distinctive Irish ecological imaginary, where our communities of rivers, mountains, trees and lakes are brought into the conversation about the horizons of liberation and a foregrounding of ecological care and belonging. Irish nationalism is all too often presented as a variant on a property dispute rather than a truly transformative invitation to dwell differently on this island.

Across the island, resistance to neo-colonial extractivism has been accompanied by a growing insight that our island of stories is also an island of diverse living communities of multiple species and landscapes worthy of rights and intrinsic value. If language bestows destiny, it is time to include those living communities within our conversation on a shared island before we end up talking to ourselves alone.

:: Dr Peter Doran is a Queen's University law lecturer and founder member campaign group Environmental Justice Network Ireland.