Thursday 13 December 2018

Motherfoclóir: can millennials rescue Irish?

Despite vigorous efforts to promote it in schools and media, usage of the Irish language is in decline across the ­country. Could Gaeilge's brood of new, young, ­urban fans make a significant difference, wonders our reporter

Maith an fear: Darach Ó Séaghdha's Twitter account @theirishfor has developed into the book, Motherfoclóir. Photo: Justin Farrelly.
Maith an fear: Darach Ó Séaghdha's Twitter account @theirishfor has developed into the book, Motherfoclóir. Photo: Justin Farrelly.
Signs in the Kerry Gaeltacht. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

As a teenager, I was not a fan of Irish. It was easy to moan about and if I had to do a language couldn't I do Italian - it seemed sexier and more useful. Fast forward to 2017, and whether it is age or absence, my feelings towards Irish have mellowed. I like the different perspective a rural Kerry upbringing has given me, and wish I was able to say a bit more 'as Gaeilge'.

Since the 1990s, the visibility of Irish seems to have rocketed with TG4, Irish language columns in newspapers and even Abair Leat! - the first ever Irish language social network. There has also been a raft of language acts and our understanding of the benefits of bilingualism has prompted a sea-change in the educational arguments.

In 2006, the Government announced a 20-year strategy to help Ireland become a fully bilingual country. Launched in December 2010, it involves a 13-point plan encouraging the use of language in all aspects of life. But what difference has all this made to Irish-speaking communities around Ireland?

If you look at the recently published census results for 2016, not much. The number of people who speak Irish has fallen since 2011. Only 73,803 of us speak the language daily outside of the school system, that's 3,382 fewer than 2011. There was an 11pc drop in daily speakers outside the education system in Gaeltacht areas in the past five years.

Signs in the Kerry Gaeltacht. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Signs in the Kerry Gaeltacht. Photo: Don MacMonagle

While Dublin City had the lowest percentage of Irish speakers overall, it had the largest number of daily speakers - 14,903 people in Dublin speak Irish every day, up from 14,229 in 2011. This represents 20.2pc of all daily speakers. Census trends suggest that these speakers represent the future of the language.

Until very recently, it seemed impossible for Irish to modernise, let alone become cool. We were focused on Peig, diddly-aye music and a few seanfhocail. Things seem to be changing with the new generation of urban millennials who are showing that you can enjoy our mother tongue while adding their own spin.

They are less traditional flag-wavers: young, confident Irish speakers wanting to promote the language warmly and welcomingly, while speaking English regularly too. Darach Ó Séaghdha is the man behind the Twitter account @theirishfor, that looks at old and new words in the Irish language and translates them into English. It's thought-provoking, irreverent and often laugh-out-loud hilarious.

"The Twitter account began as a way of connecting with my dad - he was multilingual, but Irish was his favourite. After he passed away, finding new Irish words was a way of keeping his spirit alive." The account grew into a podcast and later the book, Motherfoclóir.

Beauty of words

"What I do with the book, the Twitter account and the podcast is try to reach people who might not think Irish is for them and connect it with something else they might be interested in. I think most people, regardless of fluency, can appreciate the beauty of the words themselves."

"I think it all happened at the right moment. There's a group of people who use Irish every day and have very strong feelings, there's another group who think it's worthless, but the largest group by far are people who think Irish is beautiful but wish theirs was better. They found me," he says.

Co-founder of Pop Up Gaeltacht, a project that gets Irish speakers together for a few drinks, Peadar Ó Caomhánaigh wanted to create a space in the city where Irish was the vernacular.

Ó Caomhánaigh's parents decided to send him to an Irish playschool, and after that he followed his friends to Gaelcholáiste in Clondalkin. He studied Irish at college and while he was there was introduced to the political side of the language.

"I discovered its troubles as a minority language and the pockets of speakers outside the Gaeltachtaí, and the absolute systematic devastation being wrought on Gaeltacht areas. I hadn't really felt any solidarity with other Irish speakers to that point. Why would you? In my little bubble in Dublin it was just the way we communicated with each other."

"It was when I realised that people in other parts of the country who use Irish daily are really marginalised, I started to feel that the language does actually play a huge part in my identity."

With his friend Osgur he launched Pop Up Gaeltacht. From the beginning they were keen to reach out to Irish speakers who had no Irish speaking friends or opportunities in Dublin, explains Ó Caomhánaigh. Since the first Pop Up Gaeltacht a year ago, over 100 different events have taken place around the world.

"Pop Up Gaeltacht started life as a response to a fairly incorrect, but prevalent opinion that Irish was dead, useless, a waste of money, and whatever you're having yourself. The most galling accusation was that no one outside of the education system was speaking Irish. That however few of us claim to speak Irish every day are lying. That felt like a punch to the gut. So we decided to answer back in the best way we know - with pints."

"We've proven not only that people who speak Irish are like 'regular' people, but also that Irish has a concrete, commercial value that makes it attractive and vibrant in the eyes of businesses and international audiences."

Regular attendee Ola Majekodunmi is a Gaeilgeoir from South Dublin. She's of Nigerian descent and went to an all-Irish primary and secondary school. "I did very much fall in love with the language during the process. Especially in the final years of secondary school. I was so determined to do well in Irish in the Leaving Cert and get an A, to prove my level of fluency in the language."

Pop Up Gaeltachts

When people ask her why she's interested in the Irish language, she says "why not?"

"It is the first official language of this country and that shouldn't be forgotten. The Irish language does have a place in Irish society and it is very much alive and kicking. The pop-up Gaeltachts are a great example of this. I have a great respect for indigenous languages and I think it's sad that colonial languages like English have overpowered them."

"I feel as though over the years the Irish language has become a lot more popular among young people and it's great. I think the Facebook page 'memes na Gaeilge' set up by Ciara Ní É, for example, has shown that Irish is cool and can be really fun. Organisations such as Raidió na Life have also helped promote the Irish language among teenagers. Seo Linn are also a great band setting an example by translating pop songs into Irish, something Coláiste Lurgan (the Irish-language summer college) is famous for, too."

There have been various proposals to abolish compulsory Irish for the Leaving Certificate and ESRI research last year found that Irish is one of the least liked subjects in secondary schools. Why is it that, after 13 years of schooling, most people cannot speak the language confidently?

Path to billingualism

"It's a question I'm often asked, and my usual response is 'What subject is taught well in Irish schools?'" says Ó Caomhánaigh.

"We're the third-worst country in Europe for modern languages, the uptake of STEM subjects in our schools is embarrassing, and our entire educational system is nakedly geared towards producing employees for the next big company to grace us with their tax avoidance. Irish not being taught well isn't an outlier."

"I'd like the Irish language to be more than one subject in the Leaving Cert, so students could pick the module (or modules) that suited them best - the same way a student might between business studies, economics and accountancy," says Daragh Ó Séaghdha. "For example, one person might really like an Irish course that was all literature, another might respond better to a course that was focused on dealing with the state as Gaeilge."

Ó Caomhánaigh says that the Government alone will not save the Irish language. "We can either continue to rail against a system that promises respect and equality but is geared towards denying those key things or we can change it."

"We can change the way we think about Irish, the Gaeltacht and everything else. Because it's our path to bilingualism and all that entails, because it's an identifier, a tapestry. Because it's alive. Because it's attractive. Because it's valuable."

@lorrainecath

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