A cure has been found for Irish-language phobia
Irish is far from dead in the lives of these four young people, who lay out their vision to bring the language back into the mainstream
From left, Cormac Breathnach, a dictionary compiler; Stiofán Ó Fearail of the band Seo Linn; Bláthnaid Treacy of RTÉ 2FM; and actor Clíona Ní Chíosaín. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
‘Bain trial aisti! Surprise yourself,” reads the Seachtain na Gaeilge tagline for 2016. Although most of us learned Irish from when we started school, relatively few of us make use of even the cúpla focail we managed to retain. Bláthnaid Treacy (27), presenter of Two Tube on RTÉ 2FM and a DJ on a bilingual chart show, echoes the advice of the slogan to give Irish a go.
“Even if all you can say is ‘An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?’, well then so what? That’s great . . .There are people who think if your grammar isn’t perfect you’re ruining the language but in actual fact you’re not ruining the language. You’re just speaking it and you’re speaking it to the best of your ability. You just have to go for it. People will understand you, so just do it,” she says.
In some quarters Irish is seen as an almost dead language, so Seachtain na Gaeilge perhaps faces an uphill battle. Cormac Breathnach (25) from Carlow, who is currently working with Foras na Gaeilge on a new Irish-English dictionary, feels it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It’s an easy cliche that people throw out unopposed and without thinking about it, and because it’s thrown out so much, people accept it even if it couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m living in a house with three friends and we never speak English to each other. It’s not a big crusade; we’re just the same as any four young people living in Dublin together – we just happen to speak Irish to each other,” he says.
The language’s association with school and exams discourages many young people from embracing it, Breathnach feels.
Clíona Ní Chíosáin, who played Aifric in the TG4 show of that title for three years from when she was 15, agrees. She grew up speaking Irish as her first language and attended a Gaelscoil until the end of junior cycle in school. After Aifric, she starred in An Triail and Réiltín, before deciding to begin training as a primary-school teacher.
“Languages or any subject really can be taught really, really badly in school, and then those people are left with that notion of Irish being a boring, difficult thing that they didn’t understand,” says Ní Chíosáin.
Treacy agrees: “I think people have a slight phobia with the language, and sometimes I do as well.
“I can get kind of nervous if I’ve to speak Irish with someone who is actually from the Gaeltacht. My Irish isn’t the best in the entire world, but I just try to use as much of it as I can. People have a phobia of speaking Irish because they think they’re going to make a mistake, and in school if you made a mistake you’d get in trouble, so people just immediately have that negative association with it, which is such a pity.”
Stiofán Ó Fearail (25) from Roscommon, is a vocalist and guitarist for bilingual band Seo Linn. He didn’t enjoy studying Irish at his English-speaking school but developed a love for the language when he attended the Gaeltacht year after year, eventually becoming fluent.
“One of my earliest memories of a real connection to the Irish language was sitting on the bus in Coláiste Lurgan. The bus driver’s little son was sitting beside me, he was maybe five, and I got on to the bus and he said, ‘An bhfuil tú go maith?’ in really fast Irish. He had more Irish than English.
“It showed me it was a living language and everything I was doing in Lurgan, playing football and kayaking and swimming and shouting as Gaeilge, saying ‘pass the ball’ as Gaeilge, all those things just made it more real and more lifelike.”
Seo Linn are headlining Ravelóid, a major Irish-language music festival, at Ardgillan Castle in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, in June. “Ravelóid is probably one of the most important festivals to happen in the Irish language in a long time,” says Ó Fearail. People come from all over Ireland to festivals like Electric Picnic, Knockanstockan and Body and Soul, because they love it. Ravelóid will be similar because it’s the same idea, the same layout, the same budget, the same quality of bands. When things like this come up, they make it so everyone can see the Irish language is alive and around the place,” he says.
Breathnach agrees that the use of Irish in more casual settings is necessary for the language to become an ordinary part of more people’s lives.
“For anyone learning a language, it’s important they have some sort of social context, social opportunities in which to use the language, because otherwise you’re just going to lose it. It’s use it or lose it. You hear of so many people who say they were so good at Irish when they did their Leaving, but 10 years later they’ve lost all their Irish because they don’t speak it.
“While a conversation group is great, it’s a little bit more contrived, because you go to it because of Irish rather than going to, say, a dance class and it just happens to be in Irish, or your football or whatever. The things that usually happen through English, that now happen through Irish as well, are the real winners for Irish.
“Say if you like knitting: go and found a knitting club but just do it through Irish. Or if you like hockey: go and play hockey in Irish. They’re social opportunities that can grow. It provides a great opportunity for people to use Irish outside the education system and outside work,” he says.
Irish-speaking GAA club
Na Gaeil Óga, a Dublin-based Irish-speaking GAA club founded in 2010, along with events such as Ravelóid, can help with the normalisation of Irish-speaking, says Ní Chíosáin.
“There’s nothing weird about having Irish. It’s seen as nearly having a gift, but I didn’t feel like that when I was a teenager, I just wanted to be a normal English speaker,” she says.
“It’s always got to do with normalisation, and it’s important for people who have voices to use them. If you’re not, you’re not doing your part for your language and you’re letting yourself down, because you’re not taking care of your heritage the way it’s taking care of you. It’s important for it to become so it’s not a segregated language so you have Gaeilge-only stations or whatever. I think it should be mixed in with mainstream media as well. Normalisation is the key."