Michael Longley: Unionists 'should embrace' Irish language

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Michael LongleyImage source, PA
Image caption,
Poet Michael Longley pictured at Belfast's World War One centenary commemoration last month

Unionists "should embrace" the Irish language because celebrating it would be the sign of a "healthy society", the poet Michael Longley has said.

The award-winning writer said he wished he had learned Irish and was "envious" of fellow poets who are bi-lingual.

He added that he "loathed the unionist mocking" of Irish, citing the example of DUP MP Gregory Campbell who parodied the language in the Assembly in 2014.

Longley was interviewed as part of BBC Talkback's Christmas Special series.


He discussed themes of culture and identity on the programme, saying that Northern Ireland's 1998 peace agreement allowed him to feel "both British and Irish" for the first time.

The Belfast native is the son of an English soldier who fought in World War One - both of his parents were Londoners who moved to Northern Ireland before his birth.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Michael Longley photographed in his Belfast home in March 2000

Longley and his twin brother were born in Lower Crescent, just off University Road in Belfast, on 27 July 1939, weeks before the start of World War Two.

"I feel Irish," Longley told BBC Talkback.

"Ireland has given me most of the data out of which I make sense of life but at the same time I am loyal to the Britannic side of my background.

"I'm very proud of my father and what he stood for and when the Belfast Agreement was signed it was a kind of relief for me because it allowed me to be both British and Irish.

"It obliged me to think: 'What's the point of having only one cultural allegiance?'"

'Showing off'

Longley was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution - known as Inst - and later studied classics at Trinity College in Dublin, and both institutions influenced his career.

His writing career began in his early teens when he "fell in love very deeply" with a girl from a nearby school, Methodist College.

"I tried to write poems to impress her but she wasn't terribly impressed because she gave me the heave-ho," he laughed.

Image caption,
Michael Longley spoke to William Crawley for a BBC Talkback Christmas special

The critics were kinder in his later life, however, and Longley has become one of the most successful poets Northern Ireland has ever produced.

His trophy cabinet includes the Whitbread Poetry Award, the TS Eliot Prize and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

He was Professor of Poetry for Ireland from 2007 to 2010 and was awarded the freedom of his native Belfast in 2015 for his contribution to literature and cultural life.

Image caption,
Longley was among the artists introduced to the Queen and Irish president in 2012 when the monarch shook hands with Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness for the first time

During his Talkback interview, Longley addressed recent controversies over the Irish language - an issue that has stalled attempts to restore Northern Ireland's devolved government.

"We're very lucky on this island to have two languages," he said.

"It should be something that unionists should embrace and indeed they did - the United Irishmen, the northern Presbyterians in the 1790s were among the most vigorous promoters of the language.

"I think a lot of anti-Irish language unionists don't know what they're missing."

'Curry my yoghurt'

Longley does not speak Irish himself, telling the programme: "I've been promising myself for the last 60 years to learn it but I haven't."

The poet singled out the DUP's Mr Campbell for criticism, saying that he loathed "his mocking of this beautiful language, which I don't speak".

In 2014, Mr Campbell parodied the Irish language as he addressed the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly with the phrase: "Curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer".

Media caption,

Gregory Campbell, when invited to speak, said "curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer"

The Irish sentence "go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle" translates as "thank you, Speaker" and is used by nationalist MLAs.

Longley told Talkback: "A healthy society, a healthy political scene would celebrate Ulster Scots and especially the Irish language.

"It is such a huge loss if humanity loses a language."

'The muse'

The poet met his wife, literary critic Edna Broderick, while they were students at Trinity but said it took him two years to "pluck up the courage" to ask her out.

They now have three children and seven grandchildren and Longley credits his wife for helping him through a decade of writer's block in the 1980s.

"In the period when I wasn't writing, she had faith that the muse would return," said Longley.

"When my first book was sent off, it came back [rejected] from about seven or eight publishers and she used to intercept the post to break the bad news to me."

Now 79, the poet claimed that life was getting "better and better" but said he still had a lot to prove to himself.

"It kind of worries me that just when you're getting the hang of things it's time to die," Longley joked.

"I'll be 80 next birthday - I feel as though I'm only getting the hang of things."

BBC Talkback's Christmas Special interview with Michael Longley will be broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster at 12:00 GMT on Thursday 27 December.