Matthew's cupla focail is not enough to save gaeilge
The actor's desire to master Irish is touching, writes Donal Lynch, especially since we can't even learn it ourselves
Published 02/10/2016 | 02:30
It is sort of sweet that Matthew McConaughey wants to send his kids to the Gaeltacht, and to learn Irish himself. More power to him. No one will doubt how authentically Irish he is after that. He'd have his pick of TG4 weather girls. And he can probably have chats with Stephen Fry about life and the universe as Gaeilge. We should be rolling out the red carpet for him. We should be televising it. He should do his verbs before a live studio audience.
But even as you heard his first, faltering cupla focail, you would sort of have a twinge at his American innocence. Because the truth is that neither he nor his kids have much of a chance of learning Irish. It's a lost cause. "Top of the morning!" Sure go nuts. A corny, cod Irish accent? If you must. But not actual fluency. Not if he was Meryl Streep in the '80s. We can't teach it to ourselves, what chance does an American stand? The lies of the census aside, a generation of intelligent, middle-class people who succeeded in life look over their shoulder at compulsory Irish as their one piece of underachievement. And it feels so emblematic of the stupidity of the past: so many hours wasted, so many hours with nothing to show at the end.
In some of us this breeds an active dislike of the language. But for a majority it just sets the scene for lifelong apathy. It's a chore of childhood that we survived. We sort of tolerate the hypocrisy of the millions spent on official translation (which is needed for not one soul in the State). We don't mind mumbling most of the national anthem. The average, right-thinking person would agree that TG4 punches well above its weight in terms of documentary making. It's not that we have anything against the language itself.
The problem is just that nobody really speaks it. People say they do but our national delusion on this subject is staggering.
You hear celebrities on TG4 who are obviously so confident in their ability in the language that they're going on air with it, riffing, and what they're speaking is a storage, bastardised pidgin Irish where every fourth word is English.
Fewer than 80,000 people speak Irish on a daily basis in this country, according to the last census. The population of the Gaeltacht is nearly 100,000. Even within the Gaeltacht, Irish is dying.
Is it possible that Irish would be less popular without any of the supports it currently receives? Or, to put it another way, since the current supports for the language have failed so completely is it time to ask quite sincerely if they are part of the problem?
Perhaps we need to start with the idea of ending compulsory Irish. It sucks any joy of discovery out of the process of getting fluent. The majority will only learn the minimum to get them over the exam line. The civil service requirements are even worse. It makes something which should allegedly be a passion into a hassle.
Translating official language into Irish is even more bizarre. Walking through Dublin Airport, are we supposed to soak up a bit of national culture by hearing the security announcement repeated in Irish? Of perhaps the thinking was that we might hone the correct technical vocabulary for separation of liquids? It's difficult to tell the point. It doesn't exactly ruin the day, but it's a little, symbolic piece of background pointlessness, a reminder that powers other than logic still guide policy in this country. If a colonial power did this - blasted us with a language few of us speak - there would quite literally be war.
It is particularly amongst the young that Irish is beginning to fall away. Stations like Raidio Ri-Ra do go some way toward presenting pop music in the language but maybe more is needed.
Irish needs to have some association with exploration. French and German have a huge advantage here. It's so much easier to get stuck into a language when it's guaranteed that you can dress up debaucherous summers in Europe as 'learning experiences that will always stand to you.' The Ceili shift doesn't quite compare. Perhaps Irish could be made more appealing by presenting learning the language as a form of rebellion against their apathetic parents.
"Confuse them even further by doing your text speak as Gaeilge." But let it largely take its own course. A language must spread organically, anchored to hopes and dreams - not merely to a sense of heritage or duty.
The problem in dismantling all of this is that the mandarins of the language will defend these measures in terms of promoting the language. They sit atop little industries, quangos and branches of the civil service and no translation is too trivial.
There is a self-sustaining ecosystem of grants for Gaeltacht residents and state supports for business, that invests everyone involved in preserving the status quo.
Politicians are squeamish about talking seriously about something as symbolic of national pride as the language. There was much discussion this year of the Ireland that the signatories to the Proclamation envisaged.
Both Pearse and Casement spoke passionately about the importance of Irish. A hundred years after they died and it feels like "pretending everything is working" is the ongoing language policy of the State.
Maybe that would suit Matthew McConaughey just fine. It's not entirely clear that he understands that Irish is a separate language to English. He said he looks forward to hearing his kids saying "grand" and "'lunatic to the marvellous". Vocabulary that will come in handy when they're screen-testing for a Darby O'Gill remake, but otherwise not at all. We'll let on like it's really Irish though. We're easygoing like that.