I am always amazed at how bad most of the population are at speaking Irish. The easiest assumption to make is that successive Governments have put a lot of effort into killing the language, while pretending to preserve it.
I have never had any time for Gaeilgeoir mafia types, or for people who see Irish as a total waste of time that prevents us speaking several modern European languages. The average Dutch person usually has a good grasp of about four languages. And while I think my French isn't too bad, a French person will regularly switch to English that is far better.
My first school was a two-teacher national school in Kilkenny and both were very good teachers. Each switched from English to Irish and back repeatedly throughout the classes of the day, and we all grew comfortable with Irish.
I could never understand when my Dublin cousins thought Irish difficult. For me, it was just normal. By the time I was 11, I was well able to communicate in our supposed first language. I knew nothing about grammar, or literature, but I could hold a normal conversation and that is the name of the game.
After age 11, the education system took over and began its mission to teach me that Irish was difficult, to bamboozle me with grammar, to make me read literature that was of no interest to any normal teenager, and to introduce me to the idea that it was a waste of time paying any attention to this dead language.
During the six years in a Dublin secondary school, I moved from top of the class steadily downwards and by 17 knew a lot less than I did at 11. Any confidence I had to put a few sentences together and know by the sound that it was right was destroyed by fears of irregular verbs and the tuiseal ginideach.
For close on a decade, my "first language" lay dormant and then, as a TCD lecturer, I became interested in psycholinguistics and went to a summer school in New Mexico, where I was asked every day: "How would that be said in Irish?" To my shame, usually I did not know the answer.
I resolved to do something about this and, on my return home, I went on a four-nights-a-week immersion course. Each Thursday night, after 16 hours of mental stretching, our group used to repair to an Irish club and have a few pints "ag labhairt Gaeilge".
We were usually in high spirits, but that all came to an end when our table was approached one night by a custodian of The Language, who asked us how we could be laughing when people in the north were dying on hunger strike for Ireland. That was the end of that social outlet.
Over the years, I heard stories of how the Irish Army abroad dealt with saying things that they did not want those in their host country to hear. They used what Irish they had and probably defused many difficult situations by using their cupla focal. They had hit on the key to the revival of the language as an important part of daily communication, without an ugly text book in sight.
I now use most of my Irish when out of the country. There are few pleasanter ways to idle away an afternoon than commenting on the other people on the beach. English is not secure when someone puts towels on your recliner at the pool, but you can openly discuss the culprit as Gaeilge. Or when the 20-stone diner orders a 1,000-calorie dessert. A week on the Continent will do more for your Irish than any week in the Gaeltacht.
Though I live in fear of saying something dreadful and hearing back something along the lines of: "Dia dhuit. Cad is ainm duit." With a knowing smirk.
Sunday Indo Living