Let's not lose our native tongue in outer space


OPINION:A celestial tweet as Gaeilge was loved. We should treat Irish far better on Earth

On Monday night, Chris Hadfield became the nation’s favourite Canadian astronaut when he tweeted a picture of Ireland from space accompanied by a message in Irish – “Tá Éire fíorálainn!”

In charming us with a few judiciously chosen words of our native tongue, the commander was following the recent example of two more illustrious foreigners.

In May 2011, the Queen of England left our then president Mary McAleese open-mouthed in disbelief with a majestically delivered “Go raibh maith agat” and, just a few days later, Barack Obama had a crowded College Green in raptures with that riff on his can-do battle cry for the ages, “Is féidir linn”.

On both occasions, the decision to respectfully acknowledge the existence of the Irish language was greeted with widespread approval.

It appears that the sound of a stranger speaking Irish gives us a fuzzy feeling of self-worth, a feeling not to be had from, say, speaking Irish ourselves.

Hadfield’s tweet from the great beyond brought a similar jolt of affirmation, and the Irish language became – for one night on Twitter at least – a little reminder that, as the poet Michael Hartnett once wrote, “We are human, and therefore not a herd.” On Monday, the tweet machine was positively glowing with gratitude, much of it for the commander’s use of a few words in Irish.

“Wow, I can feel the warmth of the Irish all the way up here. . .” Hadfield later tweeted, adding a “go raibh maith agaibh!” that ensured there was more Irish used in the International Space Station this week than most Irish people would use in a year.

Lip service

It is easy to be cynical about these fleeting public expressions of warmth towards Irish, a language that has all but had the life sucked out of it by years of lip service.

Still, there was something genuine about the affection for the language evident in the response to Hadfield. Maybe this was because the commander’s tweet, for all its otherworldliness, was more authentic than either Obama’s or the banríon’s cúpla focal.

While Obama’s mantra has entered the mainstream like no other phrase in Irish since “an bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?”, there was a hint of the rock star’s “Good evening, wherever we are! We love you!” about his “Is féidir linn.” For her part, Queen Elizabeth’s “go raibh maith agat” was burdened with such historical significance that McAleese’s silent “Wow!” felt like an overreaction almost immediately.

Oldest living vernacular

In the end, the charming Canadian commander outdid them both. Here was a language that clings stubbornly, if a little forlornly, to its status as the oldest living vernacular in Europe, fully alive again for a brief moment in the cosmos.

And with those three words – “Tá Éire fíorálainn!” – Hadfield brought a little light from afar to our evening.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy not so far away called the Gaeltacht, Irish is dying as the language of the home and community. It is dying because that is what usually happens to languages like Irish, but it is also dying because of official neglect and a failure to take the measures needed to save it.

The most recent study in this area suggested that unless radical action was taken, Irish had only 15 to 20 years left as the primary community language in even the strongest Gaeltacht areas.

That was in 2007.

In response, three years later, in 2010, the last government published a 20-year strategy for the language. Three years on and the present Government has been slow in implementing that strategy. Instead, it has diluted what was already an overly aspirational plan by making several decisions that undermine it.

For example, it has withdrawn the support given to trainee teachers to study in the Gaeltacht, whereas the strategy is committed to allowing students to spend a greater length of time in Irish-speaking communities.

It is difficult to ascertain how many people really care about the preservation of Irish as no government has been willing to take a political gamble that the type of affection provoked by Hadfield’s tweet might be sincere.

This is despite the existence of plenty of earthly evidence that proves a considerable majority of us have a favourable attitude to Irish.

Would the public support a radical, well-resourced plan to save the Irish language? Would such a plan work? We might never know. Because it seems that, to adapt the tagline from the movie Alien, in the Gaeltacht, nobody can hear you scream.

Seán Tadhg Ó Gairbhí is a freelance journalist

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