Last week a local Green Party councilor in County Clare aired his objections to the money that the Clare County Council has to spend translating official Council documents into Irish. Brian Meaney says that in these economically difficult times the County Council cannot “afford the luxury of translating official documents into Irish.”
To Councilor Meaney Irish is a burden, something that must be borne and he’s not alone in that view.
For many (most, probably) the view that Irish is a burden, a source of resentment even, begins in school. Irish in school has been mandatory since the 1930s and if the intent of the project was to create a vast majority of people who start off life with a hatred that gradually fades to an angry indifference to the nation’s first language then it’s been a tremendous success. However, clearly, that’s not what was hoped for by the language’s supporters at the time the state was created.
Many of those who helped found the new state were committed to the revival of the ancient mother tongue. Breathing new life into the Irish language was part of the great project to create a new Irish Ireland, one where ancient Ireland's traditions were esteemed.
Yet, fully three generations of Irish people have been schooled in Irish and still Irish as an everyday language has continued to decline. Virtually nobody speaks the language outside a few pockets in remote areas where it never fully died out in the first place. This has to rank among independent Ireland's greatest failures.
From all that I've heard in the time I've lived here, the language was – and still is – taught all wrong.
Many older people associate Irish with cracks over the knuckles for getting some element of the complicated grammar wrong. People my age invariably associate Irish with the dreary, depressing life-story of an old woman whose early 20th century life was of zero interest to those who were interested in punk music and American movies.
Today, many students complain about the imposition of having to learn a language “nobody speaks” or grumble angrily about those who get extra points in the all or nothing Leaving Cert because they went to an all-Irish secondary school.
The distaste for Irish starts well before secondary school, however. One of the great difficulties with the language is the early emphasis on spelling. I know from watching my own children that when they’re learning how to spell steep, sweep, weep and sheep in English they're supposed to master dalta, cathaoir, póstaer and múinteoir. The Irish words never fit any pattern, the fadas (accent marks) are essential and the words are long. From the age of seven or eight children associate Irish with something difficult, requiring lots of extra effort compared with English.
It may be that the Irish language will never again be the primary language of the Irish people. It may be that nothing the new state tried would have undone the damage of colonization. That doesn’t mean the language should be abandoned, but it has to be taken away from the zealots and mandarins in the civil service.
Irish people should love the Irish language. The first step to making that happen is to stop it being an object of resentment. Then you have to make speaking Irish seem attractive.
There are people out there in the media world who have made strides in that direction. The Irish language network, TG4, has produced a number of simple, appealing programs that demonstrate that Irish language programming does not have to be about the hard lives of Irish farmers and fishermen in the past. My favorite was a variation on the Dating Game, only the mother makes the choice.
Then there are the immigrants. Teenagers seem to enjoy the simple short film about Yu Ming, a young man living a drab life in China. Yu decides he’s going to leave China for Ireland, but first he teaches himself Irish with books and tapes. The all-too-true scenario where nobody in Dublin understands his near perfect Irish is a reflection of the failure of decades of teaching Irish to millions of Irish people.
Perhaps the best advocate for Irish is fellow Queens, NY native Des Bishop. Bishop moved to Ireland when he was in his mid-teens and, thus, was exempt from having to learn Irish while in school here. That exemption probably explains Bishop's recently found love of Irish better than anything else: he wasn't turned off the language by the school and exam process.
Bishop is a well known stand-up comedian, which gives him a platform to reach out to those teenagers and 20-somethings, so many of whom detest the thought of Irish. Bishop’s first foray into the mother tongue was an Irish version of the rap single “Jump Around” by House of Pain. This was a big hit with audiences all over the country.
However Bishop took it a lot further last year with his ‘reality’ television series that tracked his efforts to learn Irish in a year and finish up with a whole night of comedy in the language. “In the Name of the Fada” is great television and with it Bishop has made Irish ‘cool’, to an extent anyway. There’s a lot for the language to overcome, but if somehow someone can convince the staid folks in charge of setting education policy – and Bishop is working on this – then maybe the language can be saved. And loved.