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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 1, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    ‘The drive to revive the language in effect failed’

    Pól Ó Muirí

    There is a very interesting review in this week’s The Irish Catholic by that paper’s book editor, Peter Costello, of The Irish Franciscans 1534-1990 (Four Courts Press, ed by Edel Bhreathnach, Joseph MacMahon OFM and John McCaffrey). Commenting on one of the essays in the collection, Costello notes: “The involvement of the Franciscans with the Irish language is one critical area but Dr Daly leaves unresolved the mystery of just why, passionate as it was, the drive to revive the language in effect failed. She notes that Sean Lemass had little interest in the language. We are now living, not in the Ireland that de Valera imagined and the Franciscans supported, but in the Ireland that Lemass created.”

    I am tempted, frivolously, to suggest that the Franciscan involvement with the language was due to some Medieval reports that suggested the language of heaven was, in fact, Irish. (Though, if memory serves me correctly, some Welsh clerics also made that claim for their own language.)

    On a more serious note, did the ‘revival’ fail and was the State Lemass created, culturally, better than the one de Valera hoped for? Irish is not in the greatest health in many Gaeltacht areas but there is a Gaeltacht in seven counties of Ireland’s 32, representing an unbroken linguistic link of immense importance and heritage; the language is doing well in many urban areas and there is a professional and educated class of Irish speakers, writers, dramatists, lecturers and thinkers whose company would surely have gladdened the heart of that most famous Franciscan, Aodh Mac Aingil, in his Louvain posting.

    In fact, could one argue that there is more Irish in Ireland now than was ever the case even in Mac Aingil’s time – and that that would not be the case without the State’s help?

    • Liam says:

      My opinion is that the whole language project is very iliberal, bloody expensive if you add up the cost over the decades, and has alienated alot of people in the process.
      Parents must be given a choice regardless of the consequenses either way. Any money spent should be on the Gael schools which there seems to be a demand for.

    • Tony K says:

      One thing I have always rejected is the association between the Irish language and the gombeen, anti-British, anti-Protestant, anti-free-thinking mindset for which de Valera was effectively the poster boy. His Gaelic “revival” was the Irish version of North Korea: a closed world with a paranoid mindset against the outside world and a fantasy about the supposed blessings of the country itself e.g., “cailíns dancing at the crossroads”. What better way to enforce that vision than to “revive” a language whose texts spoke nothing of the modern world and everything of peasant life and peasant religious mentality? Having grown up in Ireland in the 60′s and 70′s, having been forced to study utter garbage like “Peig”, I now joyfully reject it all, everything that they stood for.

    • Cruiscinlan says:

      In reference to the comments above, the frustration they feel about their own upbringing and circumstances seem to have found a target that does not justify the odium they feel.

      Surely their anger should be directed at the hypocrisy of ‘middle Ireland’ during the depressed years between 1930 & 1970? If that is an appropriate response. Blaming a language for a various actions belonging to people who used or misused the language in question is like blaming mathematics for the banking collapse.

      It is childish and worse, completely misdirected to create hatred for the Irish language in place of hatred for the poor teaching of it.

      Regarding Tony K above: have you rejected everything ‘They’ stood for? Have you, or would you support a liberal education for your children? Would you support a homosexual revealing their identity to society, would you allow teenagers or adults to engage in consensual sexual activity with contraceptives? Do you support Double Daylight Savings Time?
      And more importantly have you voted the same clique into office again and again and again for the past forty years like the most part of Irish adults?

      Logically you cannot have rejected them
      until you’ve done that.

    • Liam says:

      Cruiscinlan , to be honest in my own case I really dont care too much about the history of it or my own experiences, although on a cost benefit analysis it is open to severe criticism.

      However as a parent the fact that my children will HAVE to learn it is an annoyance. My kids are already going to a bi-lingual school that teaches a continental language from pre school age and I’d prefer if I had the choice to opt out of Irish. Unless I am mistaken Irish gets more time then mathamatics so although we can compensate for this at home it creates an additional burden on us given that we/they could possibly be not living here in the future (not that that matters)

      The world has simply moved on and as well educated parents I resent being dictated to by civil servants who simply see our kids as numbers or a means to an end.
      No doubt subconsciously I will probably steer my kids away from other elements of Irish culture or at least will make a point of highlighting the idiocy of the State’s approach to education and culture here.

    • Liam, many of the Irish speakers I know also speak a third/fourth continental language fluently – French, Spanish, Italian and, believe it or not, Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Breton! If we follow your argument to its logical conclusion, is there any need to teach your child anything other than English? After all, every one speaks English and how are you going to steer him away from “other elements of Irish culture” with a name as Irish as yours?!

    • Liam says:

      Pól, it comes down to choice. For some people their time maybe better spent focusing on the 3R’s. For others given our multicultural slant people may want their kids to speak French, Spanish etc. as a stong second language.

      In my own case our kids were bilingual before even attending school and we are able to support them at home. As my wife doesnt speak Irish and I have forgotten most of mine helping them with Irish will be a chore. As I’m of the personal opioion that 3 languages are enough for any kid, Irish will displace a second continental language at least at primary age, which means that the State is taking an educational choice away from me.

      I guess I dont believe in doing anything half hearted and its more enjoyable to do things well which are the values I’m passing on to my kids. Which is why for instance I’d be in favour of more Irish schools, but we need choice as well.

    • Cruiscinlan says:


      Your logic is a bit circular here, your personal experiences don’t matter and neither does the history. However personally as a parent you hate that your children will have to learn it.

      On a cost-benefit basis you could strip out half the curriculum such as religion, science (as taught at primary school), English as the children are already native speakers, sex education (though very few teach it anyway), etc.

      I don’t know where the notion that Mathematics get less time than Irish comes from.

      You are not dictated to by civil servants, or ‘the State’, the politicians you have elected have put this system in place.

      I do agree with you that all the processes of the State can be subjected to severe criticism e.g. the LUAS, Irish Rail, the Ansbacher Inquiry, the payment of Child Benefit on a non means-tested basis, the Port Tunnel, Garda corruption, Farmleigh house, Dublin Bus, tax-exempt status for the super-rich, the M50, the 4th bridge over the Corrib, the Rossport gas refinery, the Heavy Gang, the Sallins Train Robbery and aftermath ad nauseam……

      You are of course entirely free to steer your children away from Irish culture, however I would question what is this Irish culture that you feel such an emotional and visceral dislike for? It’s certainly not what I or very many other people here and all over the world love and admire, and I would suggest that maybe in time you should take another look at it.
      I didn’t like being punished and pushed around in school/college in Irish or in English or the myriad of injustices perpetuated on me through French including a compulsory course in ‘French Feminist Critical Theory’ which almost sunk my degree.

      After all the world is large and wonderful and if I and others can like hip-hop, sean-nos and punk rock maybe we can all just get along?

    • Tony K says:

      Cruiscinlan, thanks for your comments. Let me be clear on one point: I have absolutely nothing against the Irish language itself. I am entirely neutral on the language, the same way I feel about Icelandic, for example. I don’t have any occasion to ever speak it or read it today. What I protest against was the association between gombeenism as I experienced it growing up in Ireland in those decades, and the language. Truth be told, the language was hijacked by fanatics, it became a cornerstone of their cult of insularism and backwardness. For many of us, the Irish language as we experienced it as children came with the massively oppressive cultural baggage that I’ve described. Since the purpose of the blog was to comment on the failure to revive the language, I’m offering my opinion that the language was central to a totalitarianism that was forced upon us and to which I’m sure I’m not the only one who said “NO!”.

    • Liam, as a parent myself, I am sympathetic. Choice would be nice. my own children are schooled entirely through English in the North. No other choice. Feel that they are missing out and I am the only one able to pass on a few words of Irish. Tony K, a kara, understand what you mean about “the cult of insularism and backwardness”. They haven’t gone away in the North. However, in the Republic, I have always been struck by the very strong intellectual current in Irish-language circles, very outward-looking and inquisitive, not just about Irish, but continental and world languages. Anyway, all your comments are most welcome and v. informative. Hope that’s not too much béal bán.

    • Liam says:

      @ Cruiscinlan, I’m neutral wrt Irish culture tbh, I didn’t say I hated it, I hate that I do not have a choice in the matter. We have particular circumstances that would make us more interested in continental languages over Irish, classical music over Irish music and as I went to a rugby school myself and never played GAA, if team sports come up my inclination would be rugby first if at all. My main criteria is along the lines of how can I express my values and knowledge with my kids.
      You have probably overplayed your view of what choice actually means, if your particular French course tortured you with unnecessary baggage that’s tough I guess, but its not the same issue as a parent trying to make educational choices for their kids. Surely its ok to criticise the State wrt to choice/standards etc. especially since our education system is not the best in the world and I’m sure its slipping if one adds in softer skills like critical thinking etc. As you mentioned Science I have read that Ireland does very poorly but that’s a discussion for another day. However the important thing is choice. I would probably argue that it would be better to have a third of the kids (or pick a %) living the language in an active way compared to the “cookie-cutter” approach that we have at the moment.

      @Pól , I sympathise , choice should be available everywhere. If enough people come together in a NI town you should be able to get an Irish language school/teachers funded after all you are paying taxes.

    • cruiscinlan says:

      @ Tony K

      Like yourself I have been on the receiving end of gombeenism all my life in Ireland. However I reserve my dislike towards those who’ve done it to me. Although I’m much younger than the commenters here and childless, I have always hated those in positions of power for using and abusing Irish and lets not forget all the other misappropriated culture: Political parties e.g. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael using Irish as a ceremonial language the same way lawyers and judges use Latin or obscure English to intimidate and confuse people or at the very least deliberately exclude them. Ideas like republic mean entirely different things than the dictionary definition in Ireland.

      Even after these decades of totalitarianism at all levels and in many insidious ways the cronyism and hypocrisy that so infuriated you is as strong as ever. I think that that should be a more pressing concern to us all.

      @ Liam

      I agree with you that it is not the same to compare my own experiences to those of a parent trying to choose the right education for their children. It is worse in fact as an adult to be denied choice, after becoming used to an element of free will (this was a compulsory part of a course).

      I think that there is an unnecessary element of opposition in the stance of classical vs. traditional, rugby vs. gaa, continental languages vs. Irish. Why not both in each case? Don’t get me wrong I am not overplaying my definiton of choice or saying that you’re wrong to criticise the State’s education system, in fact I’d agree with you on many points not least the gaelscoileanna. In fact the country is so cookie-cutter and poorly run that I’ve had to leave. My experience and that indeed of many others is that learning a subject well, no matter how ‘useful’ it is as a theoretical economic value, aids one in the comprehension of the world around you and in learning other subjects at later points in life.

      @ Pol O Muiri,
      I’m sorry to have persisted at this issue but its an argument I’ve been having my whole life and I’ve come across it in all walks of Irish life; and I can’t seem to let it be. I just want to make the point that you can for example

      1.Be non-religious
      2.Culturally broadminded
      3.Hate Irish government and large parts of the operation of Irish society

      And still speak or study Irish all at the same time. Agus fagaimid siud mar ata siad…

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