We Irish have a love-hate relationship with our language. We can’t decide if it’s a large part of our identity or a useless waste of time. One thing everyone agrees on is that it is dying. Only 2% speak Irish day-to-day and that number is continually shrinking. It is not spoken outside of remote pockets on the West coast. Young people show little interest in learning it and it seems to doomed to slowly die out.
Irish only seems to be spoken when Americans are around (for some reason they always refer to it as Gaelic, whereas we always call it Irish). Tourism is the main thing keeping the remote Irish speaking areas (called Gaeltacht) alive. The only time I have spoken Irish since school has been around tourists, who are incredibly impressed by something we take for granted. It is also useful to have a language only your friends can understand as it allows you to speak about strangers in their presence without them noticing. I always end up feeling very patriotic after meeting a tourist, especially as they are always far more interested in the language than any local. There are undoubtedly more Americans interested in speaking Irish than Irish people. We never speak Irish among ourselves. An American hears a beautiful ancient language whereas we hear rain lashing on a bog (we have serious issues with our identity and culture).
It was the English that destroyed the language (England, the cause of all of Irelands problems, blaming them allows us to avoid taking responsibility ourselves). Under English rule Irish was discouraged, though not banned or suppressed like other nations languages. All important business and commerce was done through English, so it was only the remote, rural and backward areas that spoke Irish. This is why Gaeltacht regions are located in poor, mountainous and boggy land, far from main areas. Speaking Irish was a sign of poverty. The real damage was done by the rise of public education. Only English was taught which meant that it was the uneducated who spoke Irish. Speaking Irish therefore became associated with ignorance and backwardness.
The Famine and emigration delivered a lethal blow and put the language into serious decline. It was the Gaeltacht regions that suffered the greatest loss of life. But also it began a culture of emigration as people realised they couldn’t make a living in Ireland. Children were raised for export mainly to England and America. Therefore Irish would be useless to them but English would be vital. So people switched to English which they would need.
When Ireland became independent it was hoped we would become a Gaelic nation. There was a lot of government support for it, in the form of grants and it became compulsory in schools until the age of 17/8. For many state jobs, Irish was mandatory even if the job didn’t involve actually speaking Irish. An Irish radio station, Radio na Gaeltacht was set up and so was an Irish television station, Telifis na Gaelige (TG4), in a hope to promote and encourage learning and speaking of the language. However this dream never became real and Irish continued to decline. The reason was that people simply didn’t have any use for it. It was not used in day-to-day life despite the encouragement and grants given to promote it. Languages depend on critical mass, either everyone speaks them or no one will. Irish was associated with poverty and the past whereas English was modern and the future. Irish was seen the language of the old and the dead.
Everyone always blames the schools for not teaching Irish well. Whenever there is a debate on the language, people always say it shouldn’t be forced it down student’s throats, rather they should be encouraged to enjoy it. There should be less focus on grammar and more on speaking the language. The problem is people have been saying this for decades and things haven’t changed. It’s true that all Irish people spend about 14 years learning Irish in school and leave unable to speak it and no desire to either. It’s hard to love something that has been hammered into you and you were forced to learn. My sister attends a Gaelscoil (school where everything is done through Irish) and is fluent in Irish. However she never speaks it outside school and finds it a nuisance. This is the fundamental problem. No matter what reforms are done to how Irish is taught, it is pointless if people never speak it outside the classroom. There is a link between ability and enthusiasm; generally the people who are most eager to speak Irish are the people who haven’t a word, while the few who are able to hold a conversation never speak.
Let me use an example to explain the state of the language. There is one phrase that every Irish person can say. It is “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dti an leithras?” It means “Can I go to the toilet?”. The reason everyone can say it is that all primary schools had a rule that if you wanted to go to the toilet you had to ask permission in Irish. As a result it is the one phrase everyone can say. So Irish can be learned if it meets two conditions. If it has a use and serves a purpose (allows you to go to the toilet) and is is used frequently (every day in this example). The reason people can’t speak more Irish is that they have no use for it and don’t have any opportunities outside school to use it.
Could we save the language? Perhaps if we converted all schools to Gaelscoils, forced all TV and radio stations to only broadcast in Irish and had a massive campaign and movement involving all sectors of society, then maybe it could be saved. Perhaps if jobs were provided in Gaeltacht regions so that native speakers didn’t have to emigrate, but instead lived in a thriving local community. One interesting proposal was to require potential immigrants to speak (or be willing to learn) Irish, which could add a real boost of energy and diversity to the language.
Should we save the language? Let’s leave aside the fact that the above proposals are completely unrealistic and rely upon coercion and would cause huge disruption to the country. Even if Ireland was magically transformed overnight into a Gaelic nation, is that what we want? Patrick Pearse’s famous quote “A people without a language, is a people without a soul” is used a lot, but speaking English has brought a lot of advantages. It greatly helps our trade with America and England and connects our countries. We can watch American TV, listen to English music and be up to date on the latest happenings in America. It makes travel abroad far easier and opens all sorts of doors that Irish never could. English is on its way to becoming the global language. It is spoken almost everywhere and increasingly the major decisions in the world are made in English. English dominates the world and as early learners we had a head start. Perhaps the English did us a favour.
English is the language of the future, of modernity, progress and prosperity. It is also a foreign language, which by speaking we lose what separates us from the rest of the world. Irish is our language, our identity, part of who we are. It is also the voice of the past, of nostalgia, of times long past. It’s a voice from an Ireland that no longer exists. It’s the voice of history, but is that a reason to keep it or to drop it? We should not romanticise the past which was a time of poverty, stagnation and hardship. But do we want to become West Britain or the 51st State? I think it’s an Irish trait to hold to hold two contradictionary thoughts at the same time, which why I both love and hate the Irish language. I hear a sean-nos (song in Irish without music) and I’m in love, then go the next 6 months without speaking a word until I meet another American. Either way, it is clear that Irish is in terminal decline. Who knows where it will end up. It would be a tragedy to lose and a burden to keep.
Ta Gaelige ag fhail bas.