From An Claidheamh Soluis, August 19, 1905.
The Belgian Revolution of 1830 is one other instance of a political upheaval of the first magnitude which has owed its origin to a language question. The causa causans of the Revolution was the attempt of the Dutch Government to outlaw the speech of the Walloon. This attempt the Walloon passionately resented; so passionately, indeed, that when his own day of power came he was in no humour to deal considerately with the vernacular of the Fleming, practically identical as the latter was with the hated Nederduitsch. And thereby hangs a tale which shall be recurred to anon.
A preliminary question presents itself. How came it that the Flemings, who were own brothers to the Dutch, so spiritedly threw in their lot with the Walloons in 1830, and thus made the Revolution a possibility? The chief reason that weighed with them was doubtless the sentimental one (sentiment, when all is said, has been the great shaping force in history), that they and the Walloons had been companions in weal and woe ever since they had faced together the legions of Rome. Their union had been hallowed by twenty centuries of common history. There was between them this further tie that both peoples were Catholic, whereas the Dutch oppressor was vigorously Protestant. The Reformation had been preached in Flanders early in the sixteenth century, and for a moment it had seemed as if the Belgic as well as the Dutch Netherlands were to be lost to the Universal Church. But the movement passed away, leaving the bulk of the Flemings as Catholic as ever. They remain Catholic to this hour. And their Catholicism is not a thing of forms and ceremonies, but an abiding faith which illumines their daily lives.
Only the Irish-speaking peasant of Connacht and Munster is more essentially Catholic in spirit than the Flemish-speaking peasant of Flanders and Brabant. So untrue is the dictum that Catholicism is “the Celtic form of Christianity” that it is amongst non-Celtic peoples, – Slavs in Poland and Bohemia, and Teutons in Germany, Austria, and Flanders – that one finds the most intensely Catholic populations in the Continent. But this is by the way.
The memories of a common past and the enthusiasms of a common creed bound, then, the Fleming to the Walloon. This double tie of sentiment was strengthened by the fact that the Fleming, almost equally with the Walloon, had suffered from the Dutch plan of thrusting Dutchmen into places of enrolment in Belgium. There were further minor points in which Flemish and Walloon interests agreed in running counter to Dutch interests, but a discussion of these is not necessary to the understanding of the story.
Suffice it to say that the three-fold fact that they had passed together through the furnace of persecution; that they were both Catholic with the thoroughness with which men were Catholic in the Middle Ages; and that they both chafed under a galling ascendancy, formed a sufficiently firm basis for a union of hearts between Fleming and Walloon. Their union, as the union of the elements in any subject nation must inevitably be, was followed by the downfall of the foreign tyranny. No intelligent people which is at one with itself can be indefinitely governed against its will.
The Revolution of 1830 settled a language question, but settled it in such a wise that a new language question promptly arose. It is this second language question which chiefly concerns us in these articles. As we have seen, the Revolutionary movement was in its inspiration, and conduct essentially a Walloon movement. It was the revolt of the Romance-speaking Celt against the intellectual and political domination of the (in this instance) Dutch-speaking Teuton. Nothing more natural, therefore, than the whole movement should be militantly Walloon in tone. French was the language of the Revolutionary leaders; French became the official language of free Belgium. Flemish, tainted by its close relationship with Dutch, was not recognised.
Here, then, were the seeds of a new language war, which was not long in breaking out. The Fleming, disregarding ties of blood and speech, had united with the Walloon and helped him to oust the Dutchman; the Walloon showed his gratitude by endeavouring to impose his intellectual yoke on the Fleming. The Fleming, who was a fighter from of old, resisted. His struggle to assert himself is the theme of the inspiring story which remains to be told.
(NOTE – In last week’s article, “protagonist,” in the fifth paragraph, should, of course, have been “antagonist.”)