News Gerard O'Regan

Wednesday 27 August 2014

It's pointless keeping Irish on this sentimental life support

Gerard O'Regan

Published 15/06/2013 | 05:00

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Peig Sayers
Peig Sayers

ANDREA finished her honours Irish Leaving Cert paper in central Dublin this week – and last night the latest offering in an endless library on what life was like on the Blasket Islands was launched in the depths of Dunquin, Co Kerry.

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The common thread linking both events is, of course, the Irish language.

But for Andrea, that linkage is now over and done with forever. Once she put her final full stop on the Irish paper, it marked the end of any kind of active involvement she will have with the language for the rest of her life.

Not that this is something to which she has ever given much thought. Her more immediate and primary concern is to bag enough CAO points to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin.

Given that her teachers had long branded her 'linguistic', she figured it was a no-brainer to include Irish as one of her Leaving Cert heavy-hitters.

As it transpired, she did exceptionally well in both the oral and written examinations and, at the end of it all, could achieve a much-needed A1 result.

But despite having spent more than 12 years studying the subject to such a high level, Andrea would be the first to admit she still cannot speak it with any great degree of ease or fluency. Her Irish conversations are far too stilted and exam-based.

In that sense, she is reflective of a teaching strategy, which for almost 100 years, has been a singular failure by way of ensuring the language is more widely spoken. And she is among the academic elite.

What about all the time, effort, and vast amounts of money spent teaching Irish to hordes of other school leavers of lesser ability who will leave it behind forever come the end of this exam season?

Yet the charade continues. And in the Census returns a few years hence, many of these same school leavers will still insist – for a multiplicity of reasons, including sentiment and emotion – that they have some fluency in a language they never speak.

Maybe it is all part of the self-delusion that has been the backdrop to our attitude to the Irish language since 1922.

Then there was a sort of vague dream shared by so many of the State's founding fathers that running our own affairs would help make us a bilingual country.

We have battled mightily to preserve as much as possible of the Gaeltacht areas. But even here, anecdotal evidence suggests Irish as a spoken language is in relentless retreat among the Facebook generation – much more so than official Ireland will admit.

However, all is not completely bleak. TG4 produces countless television programmes with flair, imagination and quality.

And the ingenuity of subtitles means the great unwashed, whose knowledge of the language is lost in the distant memory of schooldays, can relate to them just as if they were fluent.

There are also the Gaelscoileanna, with their driving academic focus, now outperforming many of the country's elite schools in the Leaving Cert examinations.

It is unfortunate that some parents and children – who attend these bastions of the language – radiate a kind of self-righteous cultural superiority, which can be off-putting to say the least for somebody not of their tribe.

In any case, perhaps none of these musings matter very much. Can we not trundle along and continue churning out Leaving Cert Irish As, Bs and Cs year after year? So what if it all seems like an increasingly circular and meaningless merry-go-round, by way of having any relevance to spoken Irish?

We can even have our tokenism, such as the endearing and slightly quaint practice of GAA managers, who may be incapable of stringing together even the standard 'cupla focal', having 'Bainisteoir' tagged on their tracksuits.

But in any case, in Dunquin last night, 'The Great Blasket – A Photographic Portrait' was launched by one of the few remaining islanders alive. It follows on from the recently issued paperback translation of 'The Islandman' by Tomas O'Crohan.

One is loath to sing the praises of this book, given that another Blasket Islander – Peig Sayers – provided a whinefest for generations of Leaving Cert students with her stories of unremitting rustic gloom.

However, O'Crohan was a very perceptive man and he could see that a way of life on that isolated and mystical island was in its death throes when he gave us his thoughts back in 1923: "I have written minutely of much that we did, for it was my wish that somewhere there should be a memorial of it all.

"And I have done my best to set down the character of the people about me, so that some record of us might live after us.

"For the likes of us will never be again.

"No bheidh a leitheid aris ann.''

So, perhaps, none of it matters. Let the annual ritual of garnering CAO points – using Irish as a prop wherever necessary – continue unabated.

And so what if O'Crohan wanted to chronicle the beginning of the end for the Gaelic-speaking world? Would modern-day realists not argue that there are only three world languages – methods of communication, if you like – that really matter? And we Irish are fortunate to be reasonably adept at them all.

They are, of course, English, soccer and Google.

Irish Independent

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