Saturday 7 December 2019

'Living language? It is down here . . .'

Ar aghaidh leat: Gaeltacht children show their support for the Naomh Abán GAA team in Cork. Photo: Provision
Ar aghaidh leat: Gaeltacht children show their support for the Naomh Abán GAA team in Cork. Photo: Provision
Joe McHugh

Graham Clifford

Heads fall into hands, pained expressions spread like a wave across a section of the crowd and bilingual expletives briefly fill the air.

With two minutes remaining the side from Naomh Abán in the Múscraí Gaeltacht, Cork, have conceded a killer goal which threatens to end their Gaelic football championship campaign for the summer.

But moments after the green flag is raised, blue-jersey wearing children rediscover their voice and a group of women urge on their boys for one last push.

"Ar aghaidh leat" shouts a passionate fan, "arís, arís, arís" roars another.

The men in blue go up the field at pace and a sweet, sweet score goes between the posts. "Maith an fear Micheal" they shout as nerves are eased.

Throughout the match the Gaeltacht club's supporters flittered between Irish and English as they inject vocal support.

"When we're under pressure I think the Irish comes out particularly," says Betty Murphy. "You don't think about what language you're going to say something in, English or Irish, it just comes out as it comes out."

Betty, a former Bean an tí who lives in the village of Ballingeary, rejects claims that Gaeltacht areas are now more of a tool for tourism than the heartland of Irish language and cultural exploits, and tells me that she speaks the cupla focal every day with family and friends.

"People in our area are speaking in Irish daily. When we were younger Irish was more popular in Baile Mhuirne and the surrounding areas though - but back then you didn't have as many people coming in from outside as you do now, t'was just ourselves really.

"You have people from other countries living in the area now and people marrying non-Irish speakers, so that's bound to have an impact," she says.

An Irish-language speaking summer course, due to start in Baile Mhuirne this week, was cancelled due to a lack of demand and Joan O'Leary, whose sons Micheal and Seamus play for Naomh Abán, believes the growth of Gaelscoileanna is part of the reason for the decline in visiting student numbers.

She told the Irish Independent: "Maybe there isn't the same need for them to come to study. Where one time we'd have so many students, that's not the case anymore. Every second school that opens across the country now seems to be a Gaelscoil - so that has to have an impact."

Gael Linn, the body responsible for promoting the Irish language and organising these summer courses, told us that the economic downturn had an impact on the amount of children visiting Gaeltacht areas this summer.

Having regained her composure after the final whistle, Joan's daughter Niamh explains that younger people in Baile Mhuirne today rarely converse as Gaeilge.

"You might exchange the odd word alright but some people wouldn't be too comfortable speaking it I suppose. Even still we realise how important it is to maintain Gaeltacht areas and what they stand for because we really can't afford to lose them."

She felt angered by the Taoiseach's decision to appoint Joe McHugh to the job of Minister for the Gaeltacht.

"Sure, it's bizarre. Like it's such an important position and he's going to be dealing with people from the Gaeltacht so you'd think, at the very least, he'd be able to speak with Gaeltacht people in their first tongue," she argues.

Walking, with a bit of a limp, on the main street through Baile Mhuirne is 23-year-old Donncha O'Ceochain. Selected as captain of Naomh Abán this year he ruptured his cruciate ligament in May and is now sidelined for the season.

Despite his injury Donncha tells me of his joy in returning to the local area to work having spent a year teaching in Wexford.

"I work as an Irish and physical education teacher and in September will be starting a new position in Colaiste Cholim in Ballincollig. To be back in my home place means the world to me," he says, showing his genuine affection for this small village and all it represents.

"I've a fierce love for the place, most of the lads who come from here would be the same, we have a very strong connection to our ait duchas, our native place."

As a secondary school teacher, who was born and reared in these parts, Donncha is perfectly placed to gauge the importance of Gaeltacht areas and the language itself among Ireland's student population.

Is Irish a subject perfected so as to get extra points in the Leaving Certificate exam or a language visiting students feel passionate about long after they've finished school and third level?

"I think gradually the image of the Irish language is changing. More young people are trying to improve their Irish because they understand it's part of our cultural identity.

''In years gone by I can understand why people were turned off it, the way it was taught didn't appeal but now there's a much greater emphasis on speaking the language.

"The oral exam in Leaving Cert Irish now accounts for 40pc of your total mark," explains Donncha.

I ask if he fears for Gaeltacht areas if less people are actually using the language to converse.

"I always think Irish will be strong here, there's a grá for it. I mean people have been saying that Irish is dying for the last 30 years but it only seems to be getting stronger. Look at how much more relevant it's become in the media, at the growth of Gaelscoileanna and Gaelcolaiste across the country.

"Irish is in us, plain and simple."

Over at the Mills Inn, Don O'Leary explains that his business certainly benefits from being located at the heart of this Gaeltacht community.

"We get a lot of business because of the language and the traditional music. You'd also have a few festivals during the year which bring people to the area and creates a buzz. A lot will come in because of interest in the Sean O'Riada connection here of course, that goes without saying."

Don and his staff do what they can to encourage visitors to get involved and if someone is heard speaking Irish they'll receive a warm welcome.

"All the waitresses are told if you hear any smattering of Irish go over and engage with them through the language," explains Don.

Any allegations of Gaeltacht-snobbery (against those whose Irish is sub-standard) don't hold water here in this thriving village near the Kerry border.

"We'd have none of that in Baile Mhuirne. If you're talking to people and want to try a bit of Irish and revert back to English that's no bother. The locals here drift between the two languages themselves all the time as a matter of course so we're not precious like that," says Don.

"Everyone is welcome here and we don't want anyone to feel under any pressure to speak the language perfectly or not at all.

"Irish isn't for the select few - it's for everybody."

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