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The Irish For: Guns and Gaelic - the history of the right to bear arms

The Irish constitution drew inspiration from others, but did not include the right to bear arms.

Ireland's constitution has been amended by several referenda.
Ireland's constitution has been amended by several referenda.
Image: Sam Boal

This is the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

BEFORE THIS WEEK you may have been forgiven for thinking that a prorogue was a professional trickster.

The term was new to many this week, leading to a mild spike in Google and online dictionary searches.

While prorogue is variously listed as scoirim or díscor, the state of parliament being in suspension is referred to as ar fionraí.

Bunreacht na hÉireann has never been the best-loved book from this island of writers, but after the week that’s been, most of us are grateful that we have a written constitution.

And though the citizens of the Republic have seen fit to amend the original text many times, many of us silently thank the writers for not including a constitutional right to gun ownership, such as is the case in the United States.

The US Second Amendment was not as controversial as it is now when Bunreacht na hÉireann was being drafted, and while the US Constitution was an obvious influence on and reference point for the Irish one, this (along with Prohibition, which was still in place when the drafting process began) was not imitated.

US lawyers and historians have argued about the original intentions of the Second Amendment for decades, and have further argued whether these unwritten intentions should outweigh the wording of the written law.

The Scottish Connection

While a new country can be vague and aspirational about what it is, it tends to be very specific about what it isn’t.

The American Bill of Rights was partly inspired by the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which allowed Protestants to bear firearms.

These English rights need to be put in the context of an earlier document called the Statutes of Iona from 1608, which applied to Scotland.

This specifically prohibited Highland clan members from bearing arms – “prohibiting all subjects of his Majesty from carrying hagbuts or pistols out of their own houses, or shooting with such firearms at deer, hares, or fowls”, as well as prescribing measures contrary to freedom of religion, free speech and the right of assembly. Furthermore, the statutes included three specifically anti-Gaelic measures.

Firstly, with regard to the Scots Gaelic language it said that any man on the Islands who has more than 60 cattle and children, must send at least one child to a school in the Lowlands to speak, read and write English. 

Secondly, regarding bardic culture, it said that “the chiefs not entertain wandering bards, or other vagabonds. They are to be apprehended, put in the stocks, and expelled from the islands”.

Thirdly, “the suppression … of the inveterate Celtic practice of marriages for a term of years”.

These restrictions on Scottish culture were contemporaneous to the Ulster Plantation, which would have its own impact on Gaelic culture in Ireland.

With nine of the original 13 governors of the United States coming from Scottish heritage, as well as key founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton, the will to enshrine freedoms from the kinds of laws imposed upon Scotland was strong.

However, hundreds of years later the risks and priorities have changed.

388 years after the Statutes of Iona, Scotland was dragged into the gun control debate again after the massacre at Dunblane.

This led to the swift introduction of legislation in the public interest with cross party support – a sentence which evokes a time that feels as buried in history as that of the Statutes of Iona themselves.


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