In a crisis such as the present epidemic, communities need to hold tight together. If they don’t, survival itself can be threatened. And sometimes the odds and obstacles are simply too much. Great civilizations have disappeared off the face of the earth. And at certain points in history that might have been the fate of both the Acadian and Irish cultures.
The recent rumblings and political noises in New Brunswick around the Official Languages Act remind us that, even now, some people are still not convinced we need language equality in New Brunswick. Language is at the heart of culture; we forget this at our peril. Having two distinct languages, with surrounding cultures, alongside Indigenous languages and cultures, adds an invaluable richness to New Brunswick.
The Acadians and the Irish have a shared and sometimes bitter history of hardship. At times the very survival of the people and of the culture was at stake. One such time was the middle of the 18th century. For the Acadians it was ‘Le Grand Dérangement’, for the Irish, the Penal Laws.
In 1755, the first roundups and deportations of the Le Grand Dérangement began. Thousands of Acadians-men, women and children-were rounded up and herded onto ships to be scattered to the four winds. No care was taken to keep families together. Children were separated from parents they never saw again. Ships overladen with hundreds of Acadians sunk in the Bay of Fundy with the loss of all lives on board.
The mudflats which over generations of loving care and toil had been transformed by the Acadians into fertile land were now in the hands of the conquering English–and that is how they saw themselves, with right of conquest. The particular farming genius of the Acadians, the system of dykes, canals and ‘aboiteaux’, the long rectangular valved sluice boxes which changed salt water to fresh, mud to grass, was now in other hands.
At this very time in Ireland, the Penal Laws against the overwhelmingly Catholic population were in full force. Ireland had already suffered several centuries of attempted colonization. By 1700 almost all of the land of Ireland was in the hands of the colonizers. The Irish were now a paupered people. On top of this, the colonizers enacted a series of Penal Laws to ensure that the Irish people could never rise again. The laws, ostensibly against Catholics, were essentially anti-Irish.
The best way to describe these laws is to call them cultural genocide. The Irish were to become hewers of wood and drawers of water for the colonial masters. No Catholic Irish person could own or inherit land, or study for a profession or occupy a position in public service. Or operate or attend a school or have a church. Priests and bishops were hunted down and executed, sometimes brutally as in the case of the Archbishop of Armagh who was hung, drawn and quartered. And much else.
Both the Acadians and the Irish were thus driven to an all-time low by colonial forces from which it must have appeared at the time that they would never rise again. And yet, despite future further reverses, they did.
Both refused to accept defeat. With an indomitable spirit and sense of belonging, both survived and eventually thrived. Both declared: We are who we are. We respect all others. But we will live as we wish to live. We will not die as a people.
When we speak about the power of the colonizers, we are not talking just about ancient history. The rise of the anti-francophone Confederation of the Regions party in the 1990s was testament to that. And now we are hearing similar rumblings.
We are familiar with the phrase ‘thin edge of the wedge’. Well hidden behind a smooth facade of talk about ‘rights’ for anglophones is the deeper agenda for some of ongoing anglicization.
Nor is this an exclusively New Brunswick phenomenon. Minority languages and cultures are being wiped off the face of the earth at a frightening rate. L’Acadie is not immune to this. Therefore, the rallying cry for Acadians and francophones must be ‘What we have, we hold’. And any attempt to diminish or dilute those rights must be resolutely opposed before the thin edge of the wedge gets thicker and thicker. Bilingualism and government policy on language is at the heart of this.
The Irish immigrants and the Acadians have lived peaceably together in L’Acadie with much in common and a shared past of hardship. In Ireland, even after hundreds of years the colonial problem has not been fully resolved. But that determination to be as we are and not as others would want us to be is still there.
The land and wealth of Ireland is broadly speaking in the hands of Irish people. Unlike the unceded Wabanaki territory in New Brunswick which is still in the hands of the colonizers.
In Ireland, the language – just about- clings on to some kind of peripheral existence. War is over but the political fight goes on. As it must do for Acadian, francophone, and Indigenous rights in New Brunswick. The indomitable spirit is still there, in Ireland and in L’Acadie.
Gerry McAlister writes for the NB Media Co-op and has a Masters degree in Modern Irish History from Dublin City University.