By Fr Des (for the Andersonstown News)
If ever you visit Barcelona, please don’t say you are “holidaying in Spain” - that is the plea of those who want self-government for the region in which Barcelona lies.
The message is harsh and says, written hugely on a wall where the visitor can read it in great letters, “This is not Spain”.
To be confronted by this in an area which we think is Spain needs explaining. People living in the region around Barcelona want their independence. Just as the Basque people want theirs. And the Kurds. But in every case they are refused this in the name of “strong central government”. Again and again in history governments which have become militarily strong come to believe that everyone around them should be made to belong to them. That they should look the same, belong to the same political regime, sound the same.
The French Revolution of 1789 was hailed as a great liberator of people, but the new rulers tried to make people the same to such a degree that they became oppressive in their turn. Everyone was to speak the same language in the same way in a new state centred in Paris. Local customs and local speech were to be mashed into a sameness which was looked upon as a mark of civilisation.
Such enforced centralisations do not last, of course. People re-awaken to the fact that they are different, they do not any longer look on their dignified cultural differences as something shameful, but as something to cherish, a culture being the more valuable because it has stood the test of time and has even improved with age.
We need not go back to the post-French Revolution centralising fever to find examples of the suppression of local culture by government. Money was spent, schooling was distorted and blood was spilled to bring Irish people into a highly centralised and strictly controlled regime governed from London, to make all people think the same, worship the same, sound the same, even look the same. This in the name of civilisation.
The struggle to assert the dignity of a people’s culture in face of a centralised sameness is going on in other places near home. In recent weeks the BBC received angry complaints that it had allowed one of the minority languages in London’s jurisdiction to be insulted. In Cornwall there is a culture and a language which many people are determined to keep alive, no matter how determined the centralising authorities are to suppress it. The insult against the Cornish language quoted on the BBC was one which Irish people would recognise only too well: “Cornish,” it was said, “only makes the Cornish people sound thicker than they are.” Irish people will recall many insults to match that one. It seems that while the Irish who love their own language are slowly escaping from abuse of that kind, Cornish people are still suffering it.
Wish them well
As we come nearer and nearer to making our own independent economic and cultural decisions, here is one of the questions we will face: whether we will desperately centralise or generously acknowledge the cultures we are fortunate to see surviving all around us. For many Irish people the question is already answered by the fact that we have treated the incoming - and often invading - English language with such courtesy and creativity.
We will go on doing that. And that the Irish language has not only survived but is being happily reclaimed by so many people. And that people from so many countries have been welcomed as adding to the richness of what we are ourselves. The Cornish people are not likely to write in huge letters on their walls “This is not England” because their political choice is different from that of Catalonians and most Irish people. We wish them well in their free choice, but we can wish their government well only if it recognises and fosters the many beauties of their own people.
If they cherish their own languages and cultures they will more likely help us cherish ours.