Friday 30 September 2016

Working it out: Tongue-tied in our native language

John Masterson

Published 03/08/2015 | 02:30

Minister for the Gaeltacht Joe McHugh
Minister for the Gaeltacht Joe McHugh

Some years back, I wrote a piece about the Irish language. It was probably the most widely circulated few hundred words I even wrote. The gaelgoiri loved it and passed it around with pleasure.

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My theme had been simple. Over the years I have travelled to many parts of the world with a companion who has excellent Irish. Mine is passable, as a result of a primary school teacher who flipped from English to Irish, so that by age 11 we were at ease in each. We did not develop the "it is difficult" attitude that my Dublin cousins absorbed. Secondary school did its best to destroy what I had learned, but thankfully some remained. So my friend and I regularly conversed in her perfect, and my messy, Irish, when we wanted to comment on nearby people behind their backs, so to speak.

That article came to mind recently when I was eating with a group of typical Irish people. Three people, who between them had 40-plus years of typical Irish education, and, to my horror, not one of them could construct a proper sentence in Irish. Two of them spoke fairly passable French, learned in school and brushed up on holidays. They had never lived in France.

Unless you are standing at the gates of a gaelscoil you are unlikely to hear a word of Irish spoken in most of this country. You do come across the language in all sorts of irritating cosmetic intrusive ways. On the Luas, every station is announced in English and Irish, and I can never get rid of the feeling that half of the Irish names are 'makey uppy'. When you phone RTE you get a time-wasting blast of Irish. Is there anyone in the world who rings RTE who does not speak English? And then there is the Bank of Ireland where every ATM machine wastes time asking me if I want to conduct my business in Irish. I suspect they wouldn't be so keen to chat as Gaeilge to me if I fell behind on my mortgage. I rang their Press Office and asked how many people opted for the Irish version but the very helpful woman told me "they do not collect that information." I suspect if they took it off the screen there would be howls of protest at the attack on our heritage.

I tried to find out why my dinner companions had no Irish. We all agreed that if we had learnt Chinese for 14 years each we would be correcting each other's Mandarin grammar.

One offered that "It was badly taught. We were not stupid." Another pointed to an experience which seemed to verify that. "We were taught by a native speaker who refused to speak a word of English in class. So I learned nothing." I found it hard to believe but that person could not put together one good Irish sentence.

Maybe now that we have Joe McHugh as Minister we might get some fresh thinking. I doubt it. It is too late. But at least in having gone through the school system and having only basic Irish he is more typical than his predecessors.

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