Sunday 24 March 2019

Concubhar O Liathain: Irish is spreading like a sexually transmitted disease

There has been a revolution in public opinion towards the language in the last 10 years, writes Concubhar O Liathain

IT'S Seachtain na Gaeilge, the annual two-week long festival to spread the good news about the Irish language, but why do I feel like Scrooge before his visitations on Christmas Eve. Bah Humbug.

I'm a native Irish speaker, which is to say someone who was raised with Irish in the Gaeltacht, and some say I should be registered with the UN as an endangered species. This is my festival, is it not?

Sea agus ni h-ea! Of course it's my festival in as much as every word of Irish should be toasted with champagne but, on the other hand, it's not, because Seachtain na Gaeilge is really aimed at getting those of you who don't speak Irish every day, as I do, to use a 'cupla focal'.

What Seachtain na Gaeilge acknowledges is the insecurity of the Irish language and its leading advocates. We want people to 'like' the Irish language -- and not just on Facebook -- and we want people to like us. It's an insecurity which is a symptom of the siege mentality endemic among Irish language organisations.

That's why articles by various commentators attacking Irish and, for instance, the vast amounts of money reportedly spent in our education system on teaching the language to little apparent effect are met with ferocious defensiveness. How dare you not like us or our language! It's part of what we are -- it's part of what you are.

But I am beginning to see more clearly the other point of view, best expressed by Declan Lynch in his preview of Brod Club in last weekend's edition. He wonders, after all the expenditure on umpteen efforts to get him to speak Irish, why he isn't a fluent Gaeilgeoir by now.

Fair question. There are numerous factors, but the most penetrating answer was provided by Kevin Myers in his contribution to the Brod Club in Monday's edition where he asserted that Irish was simply not relevant in modern Irish life and to pretend otherwise was folly.

There is a grain of truth in that answer which, for all my love of Irish, I can't dispute. But I do believe that this is what we should expect from fossilised thinking.

Further evidence of the same old thinking comes in skiploads of plans and documents which have been drafted throughout the decades since the emergence of the State with the aim of re-establishing Irish as the first national language. Well intentioned they were and worthy too. But mostly they were wordy and are now gathering dust in some Government annex.

The latest document, the Government's 20-Year Strategy on Irish, has arrived at a time when the resources necessary to implement it are no longer available. For that we can blame Eamon O Cuiv whose dilly dallying while Gaeltacht minister resulted in the delay of the long sought strategy until a time when the Celtic Tiger had just left the building.

During O Cuiv's tenure as minister we also got the Official Languages Act, possibly the most lethal attack on the language by the State since the penal laws. At a time when the Irish language needed more resources targeted at encouraging young people to use more Irish, through websites, podcasts and the like, the then government decided what was needed was Irish versions of official reports which weren't read in English and would be as equally unread in Irish.

Now we seem to be copping on. Seachtain na Gaeilge is in full swing and Bernard Dunne has caught something with his Brod Club. The Irish language, through necessity, is finding different channels to reach the ears of the young.

And they're speaking it now as it was never spoken before. As Eoghan Mac Diarmuda, the London-based XFM presenter and Seachtain na Gaeilge ambassador put it in a tweet: "Na biodh naire oraibh riamh bhur gcupla focal a usaid, even if your grammar is s**t like mine!"

There are some of my generation and older who listen to Irish as it is spoken by the coming generation and they feel pain; it is so unlike the rich poetic language they spoke themselves. But this is Irish for a new age and a new generation. It's a modern language of communication, and preservation as if it were in a museum isn't compatible with that and is not an option.

There's been a revolution in public opinion towards the Irish language in the past 10 years. Thank Gaelscoileanna, thank TG4 and it's 'cailini aimsire', thank Raidio Ri Ra, thank Foinse, thank Gaelsceal, thank Facebook and Twitter. Thank Ronan Mac Aodha Bhui, the RnaG presenter and his 'reabhloid teanga', thank centres such as Oideas Gael in Gleanncolmcille in south-west Donegal which has put language tourism on the map. Thank the Northern revival of Irish which happened as a result of people power rather than State intervention. Thank Hector. Thank Seachtain na Gaeilge. Thank Bernard Dunne's Brod Club.

There are many more to thank, too numerous to mention here, who are teaching Irish to enthusiastic learners at venues all over the world or promoting the language in some other way.

We can't rely on the schools to teach Irish to the next generation. That's not to say it shouldn't be taught in schools. Indeed it should be taught earlier and better because all research shows it's easier to learn another language if you're bilingual from a young age.

Times have changed. And the methods of passing on Irish are also evolving. The transmission of Irish is now spreading more effectively and exponentially, like a sexually transmitted disease, as a result of casual encounters, a cupla focal here, a 'conas ta tu?' there. This is a global epidemic.

So here I am, forty something, looking on as the Irish language 'reabhloid' happens in front of my eyes, my revolutionary days behind me, it seems.

It's no wonder I'm a little resentful, like Scrooge was as he watched his neighbours enjoying festivities to which he had hardened his heart. But I'm also relieved. I believe Irish will continue to be spoken by the generations to come.

Sunday Independent

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