I was interested by the varying attitudes of Irish language speakers to our world-famous movie star, Paul Mescal, when he wowed the nation by speaking Gaeilge the other week. I was with the majority who were delighted that he gave our “first national language” a major boost and I’m also too old to join the begrudgers on this one.
That great west Kerryman, Dáithí Ó Sé, wrote in his Irish language column in our supplement Seachtain that he believed Mescal had done more for Irish than he had managed to do himself over 20 years. I must say, there is a deal of exaggeration there – but I do go with his drift.
People generally, and young people in particular, need role models – and Mescal “ag labhairt Gaeilge” will do nicely. Thus, as that 17-day “week of the Irish language”, or Seachtain na Gaeilge, draws to a close on Friday, here’s a few other thoughts from someone among the tiny minority who speak Gaeilge every single day, all year round.
Call it news from a place where “Seachtain na Gaeilge” happens every day.
More than 20 years ago, I returned to the Irish language for various reasons. I am now among the 75,000 people or so, unconnected to the education system, who speak Irish every day.
You may, or may not, have noticed the few extra phrases creeping in on radio and television – that sort of “Agus anois an aimsir” stuff – between the news and the weather forecast. It can be easily dismissed as tokenism, but the reality is that I miss it when it is gone.
It seems ironic that Seachtain na Gaeilge finishes on St Patrick’s Day. It was also on a St Patrick’s Day, way back in 1922, when the new State proclaimed the Irish language a core subject in all schools with Irish competence necessary to pass state exams.
My own return to the language was based on personal cultural choice and I avoid the endless, often tiresome and insulting, debates that surround the politics of the language.
Still, I can’t be accused of playing politics in saying that 101 years after the foundation of the State in 1922, the national aim of reviving Irish as a majority-spoken language has failed. Yes, Irish people say they are favourable to Gaeilge, and this appears to be true in my day-to-day experience. But few people speak it, and really, the majority prefer to use English.
It’s been a largely fruitless century of language revival efforts, which were often condescending, half-hearted and contradictory, along with other elements of policy.
Less than a decade later after that 1922 declaration of intent for Gaeilge, most primary schools and about one-third of secondary schools had Irish as a strong element of their day-to-day working. The story of Irish in education was, and is, patchy to this very day – with stop-start initiatives punctuating interminable periods of public consultation.
The requirement to pass Irish to obtain the Leaving Certificate was abolished in the early 1970s, but the language remains a core subject in all schools. We have heard more recently the welcome news that modern European languages will be shoe-horned into already-crowded primary school curricula.
I have a pain in my face listening to anti-Gaeilge bigots arguing that Irish teaching should be supplanted by French, Spanish, Italian or whatever. Polite inquiry in most cases reveals that said bigot could not order chicken and chips in anything other than English.
It’s time to face the fact that the Irish are, for the most part, a monolingual people who know they can travel much of the world and communicate via English which is a major global force. I love the English language and in a way, my competence in it has helped me pay the bills for a long time. But I don’t want to be monolingual and my interest in Gaeilge is also driven by interest in other tongues.
Realpolitik also tells us that the central role of Irish in education, for all its controversy and flaws, has helped maintain at least a passive knowledge of the language and it probably is also linked to popular goodwill towards Irish.
The reality is that most Irish people understand, and even speak, far more Irish than they realise. I often tell friends that “even failed Irish in the Inter, or more recently Junior Cert”, is still a heck of a lot. The shining light is the growing Gaelscoil movement. But this remains small, accounting for about 8pc of pupils.
But it is too easy to be negative about Gaeilge today. As I say slán to Seachtain na Gaeilge, I want to be positive.
People like Paul Mescal have shown us that being able to speak Irish is “cool”. That is marvellous. But here’s another reality. There are great jobs available to people with competence in Irish and that number will grow for a variety of reasons. Learn Irish – get a well-paid job.
Mar fhocal scoir – my parting shot – Peig has not been on school curricula for 28 years. So, lose that argument, all ye bigots.
Beannachtaí na Féile dhaoibh go léir!