Speech by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon

Speech by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

 Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon

Friday, 11th April, 2014

A SHARED LANGUAGE

It was Václav Havel who said:

“Words are a mysterious, ambiguous, ambivalent, and perfidious phenomenon. They are capable of being rays of light in a realm of darkness… They are equally capable of being lethal arrows. Worst of all, at times they can be the one and the other. And even both at once!”

The words exchanged between Ireland and England have often been part of a long and sometimes tortured exchange. We cannot pretend that it was always a happy and friendly affair, to do so would be a disservice to truth and history. Here in this place, sacred to the English language and its many glories, it would be inauthentic and foolish to gloss over truth, since at the heart of language there is and there must be a passion for truth.

Today I want to acknowledge a great truth: the English language that we share, if it was once the enforced language of conquest, it is today the very language in which we have now come to delight in one another, to share our different and complementary understandings of what it means to be human together in this world, transacting in the currency of words.

To share a language is to privilege the existence of the other, to accept the joy and the responsibility of hospitality. To search for the expression of hope, grief, and justice in a common language is a deepening and widening of understanding. It is to expand the horizons of solidarity, and solidarity is the search always and everywhere for a future in a world not yet fashioned or even born, where our children and their children can share in compassionate mutual understanding.

A valued friend said to me, when I told him I was coming here – “remind them that Shakespeare was christened in Latin and buried in English.” It could equally be said of his contemporary, Cervantes, that he was christened in Latin and buried in Castellano. It is, in other words, a longstanding feature of the European mind that at any given time it has a lingua franca as well as, in any given place, a local language in which to express itself, its mentalité, its sense of being in the world.

That English, to whose Anglo Saxon foundations he added so much, was the site of Shakespeare’s expression of his genius.  A language open and inclusive, today it has become the lingua franca of much of our contemporary world. We Irish, never mind the complex ways in which it happened, were early adapters. Indeed, outside of the island of Britain, and long before the Americans, we were the first outsiders to enter into dialogue with the English language, inside the frame of that language itself and its origins.

That word ‘dialogue’ is so important since from the very earliest times the English language as used in Ireland, as used by Irish men and women, has pursued its own path, animated and shaped by not just a difference in how we and you experience the world but by a crucial, structural distinction.

Shakespeare’s English was a construct that had by his time melded into itself Anglo Saxon, Old High German, Norse, Italian, Norman, French, Latin and Greek. By the Elizabethan age, that language had arrived, more or less, at its full powers of expression.

To be sure, the vagaries of fashion and an expanding vocabulary have ensured that English as spoken and written in Britain has continued to evolve, but structurally and syntactically it has changed only imperceptibly from the days of Shakespeare.

In Ireland, by contrast, the English language underwent a different evolution, and this is because the manner in which we deploy the language is shadowed and deeply inflected by the enduring Irish language.

This is not just a question of vocabulary, still less is it a reflection of an imperfect grasp of the language – it could not be seriously argued that Shaw and Wilde, Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith or Brian Friel had an imperfect grasp of English.

No, what I am pointing to here is the way in which the fluidity, the conceptual grace and above all the relationship with time and tense that is characteristic of the Irish language has inflected and shaped the English we write and speak.

English English, if I might permit myself the term, has a positive love of all that is definite, short and exact. It possesses, for instance, the shortest, most explosive and emphatic of negatives in the word ‘no’. There is no single word in Irish for ‘no’. To convey a negative in Irish it is necessary to go a little further. If I frame the question, in English, ‘was the audience composed of intelligent, good-looking people’, the answer in English might be ‘no’ – not, of course, in this present instance. If I were to ask in Irish, ‘an raibh an lucht éisteachta ciallmhar dathúil?’ the curmudgeonly answer might well be ‘ní raibh siad’, which you might translate as ‘they were not’ or ‘they were neither’ perhaps with an implied ‘alas’.

Again, I hope you will not think I am referring to present company, since it is evident that you are all intelligent and, if you will permit me, also good-looking.

I offer this minor example of difference in order to point to something that should excite us to celebrate difference.

It may well be that Latin, as a lingua franca, was superseded by English, between his christening and his funeral in the life of Shakespeare, precisely because English was not, once we Irish began to adventure in the language, ever in danger of becoming a dead language.

I might even argue, tentatively of course, that English would never have become a world language, as it is today in new circumstances of a technological revolution sourced in telegraphy, were it not for, first the Irish, then the Americans, anglophone Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, South Africans and certain peoples of the Caribbean.

The magnificent poetry of Derek Walcott has made a dynamic English of his negotiation between the patois of St. Lucia and the sonnets of Shakespeare.

The advent of the American demotic into poetry and prose has irradiated and profoundly enlivened English, from Mistress Bradstreet to Adrienne Rich, from Hawthorne to Don de Lillo. And what is gained from the magnificent Australian sprawl of Les Murray’s poetry, or the novels of Doris Lessing, born in what was once Rhodesia, and the Canadian Margaret Attwood? What gifts have we been given, through the English language, in the novels of Nadine Gordimer or J.M. Coetzee?

George Bernard Shaw once observed that the English and the Americans are two people separated by a common language. It was a witty remark and, in terms of psycho-linguistics, an astute observation. More to our point here, his perception can be very usefully reframed to cast light on the present happy phase of relations between our two peoples, as we pass slowly but surely into a new kind of relationship between Ireland and Britain. If I invoke here the spirits of Joyce and Beckett, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats and Seamus Heaney, it is to point towards the amplified sense of our common humanity these great writers have won through to, exercising their imaginations in our doubled English.

And the evidence is there in the work we have seen and heard from the Bard himself.

In Henry IV, Act i., Scene 4, Pistol responds to a greeting in French with what to the groundlings, and no doubt their betters, would have sounded like gibberish. He employs the phrase ‘Caleno o custure me’.

This apparent nonsense phrase is a phonetic rendition of the Irish ‘Cailín ó cois Siúire mé’, ‘I am a girl from the banks of the Suir.’

The tune to this Irish folksong appears in the The Virginal of Queen Elizabeth the First, most likely conveyed to her by Edmund Spenser. Alfred Perceval Graves, son of the Bishop of Limerick wrote new words for the tune, and I propose to conclude with a brief poem by Alfred’s son, Robert Graves, author of inter alia “The White Goddess” with its beautiful tribute to Amergin whom we share.

Robert, evoking Ezekiel, reminds us that the dictionary is a valley of dry bones. If a dictionary was a tool of empire in the 16th century, in the 21st an approach to the language of the other can be a tool of discovery of the means of ethical cooperation in facing common challenges.

DANCE OF WORDS

“To make them move, you should start from lightning

And not forecast the rhythm: rely on chance,

Or so-called chance for its bright emergence

Once lightning interpenetrates the dance.

Grant them their own traditional steps and postures

But see they dance it out again and again

Until only lightning is left to puzzle over —

The choreography plain, and the theme plain.”

It is the business of living souls to breathe life into words, and I have no doubt but that our long conversation in a shared language will continue into the far future to breathe new life and the lightning of our different imaginations into a common human purpose.

Thank you, go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.