Wednesday 23 October 2019

Catherine O'Mahony: 'Seachtain na Gaeilge: A chance to examine our complicated relationship with our native language'

As Seachtain na Gaeilge - the annual celebration of the Irish language in the run-up to St Patrick's Day - kicks off for another year, our national and enduring love-hate relationship with Gaeilge appears alive and well.
As Seachtain na Gaeilge - the annual celebration of the Irish language in the run-up to St Patrick's Day - kicks off for another year, our national and enduring love-hate relationship with Gaeilge appears alive and well.
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

I spent a year at a German university many years ago and one episode stands out in my mind. I was looking on the noticeboard for student housing ads when I spotted - of all things - handwritten advertisements for Irish language classes and Irish dance classes. What? In Stuttgart?

Sure enough, the university hosted regular Irish language classes attended by a committed bunch of German students, many of whom also signed up for Irish dancing. Having got to know the teacher - a young man from Cork - I even sat in on one of the classes.

It was some sight as the large group, including about a dozen six-foot-plus German men, tripped over their feet as they gamely attempted basic jigs and reels. What they may have lacked in grace, they more than made up for in zeal.

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The whole thing was confusing to me back then. How could it be that Germans of my age were somehow more committed to Irishness than I was, or more or less anyone else I knew? What was behind such unabashed enthusiasm?

For sure, they had never been forced to rote-learn chunks of 'Peig' at school (this being the standard excuse for those who say they "hate" Irish), but that could not be the full explanation.

What was it about Gaeilge that had them so enraptured? Why could I not feel it too? And was it normal for the whole thing to strike me as faintly bizarre? I myself was well able - in theory - to speak Irish, but I simply never did.

I considered the matter as I proceeded undeterred with my own chosen classes: German-English translation and Italian. At one point I tried to learn Welsh. Anything but Irish, was my feeling at the time (and for full disclosure, there had been some particular unpleasantness in my own history when I attempted to study Irish at university, but was made to feel deeply unwelcome by those more authentically enmeshed in Gaeilgeoir culture than suburban me).

And yet, now, as Seachtain na Gaeilge - the annual celebration of the Irish language in the run-up to St Patrick's Day - kicks off for another year (Bain Triail Aisti, we will be told, over and over for the next fortnight), our national and enduring love-hate relationship with Gaeilge appears alive and well.

What can be achieved by an initiative like Seachtain na Gaeilge? Why does it feel to many of us as though it's something for other people, never for us?

Are some of us simply condemned to feel like outsiders to what should be a core part of our identity? We cannot only blame the imposition of 'Peig' on generations of students (and I hazard a controversial opinion here: I quite liked 'Peig'). There must be more afoot.

No such hang-ups, complexes and qualms seem to deter non-Irish nationals with a yen for Gaeilge. Just the other week we had news of the appointment of new Oifigeach Pleanála Teanga (language planning officer) by Údarás na Gaeltachta as part of the State's 20-year strategy for the Irish language. This might not seem like a major development except that the successful candidate was one Dr Victor Bayda, who is from Russia and has moved to Ballinskelligs in the tiny Kerry Gaeltacht for the post.

Reportedly, he speaks fluent Irish with a Connemara 'blas', as well as Dutch, Welsh, Gallic, French, German, Swedish and Icelandic.

Before anyone suggests that I have this wrong and that we do indeed embrace our language, let us consider the evidence. The 2016 Census revealed that 1.7 million people said they were able to speak Irish. That's a large number, to be fair. Rather more telling, however, was the far smaller number of people who said they speak Irish regularly.

One in four of those who said they could speak Irish never did so at all. The number speaking Irish daily stood at 73,803, representing a rather minuscule 1.7pc of the population. And even this was a decline of 3,382 (4.4pc) on 2011. The number of daily Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht - the burning heart of the language - dropped by a terrifying 11.2pc from 23,175 speakers in 2011 to just 20,586 in 2016.

So, yes, there are Irish people who speak Irish. Yes, there are thriving Gaelscoileanna. Yes, there are Pop-Up Gaeltachts and there are the most charming youthful ambassadors for Seachtain na Gaeilge.

And yet here's the thing. The most spoken language in this country after English isn't even Irish, it's Polish (the 2016 Census confirmed that there were 135,895 Polish speakers here and it's probably safe to assume the vast majority of these are daily speakers).

It's possible things will change.

Brexit may have done us a favour in this regard. If we can blame Britain for our loss of Irish as the language of daily life in the first place, perhaps the upcoming schism between Britain and the EU will trigger a fresh interest in defining ourselves through the languages we speak.

Changing the way we teach Irish would help as well. For me, nothing would help Irish more than dropping its compulsory inclusion at senior cycle level in our secondary schools.

Such a move would mean enthusiasts and natural linguists could make an active choice for our very beautiful language and take pleasure in mastering it, while those less keen could simply move on to focus on topics that bring them joy. To date there's been no appetite for such a change, but one can live in hope.

So, céad míle fáilte to Seachtain na Gaeilge. I wish I could relate to it and yet am happy that it exists, because some half-buried part of my psyche appreciates how amazing it is to have a distinctive national identity and a distinctive national tongue.

Irish is surely the ultimate barrier between us, the Kardashians, and K-Pop.

I continue to encourage my offspring to give Irish a chance, to appreciate its beauty, to work towards fluency.

But will I be dusting off my own cupla focal in the next two weeks?

Sadly not. Because it's complicated.

Irish Independent

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