Must every Irish language speaker be an 'enthusiast'?


OPINION:There is a coded way of referring to those who use the cúpla focal. But we are not all fanatics, writes SEAN TADHG O GAIRBHI

WHEN A prominent monoglot dies in Ireland, his obituary never refers to him as an “English language enthusiast”. The deceased’s enthusiasm for basket-weaving, rock-climbing or gardening may be noted in passing, but no significance is ever attached to the level of fervour with which he spoke English as he went about his daily business.

Yet when somebody of note who happened to be an Irish language speaker dies, he will invariably be referred to as an “Irish language enthusiast”.

Indeed, his enthusiasm for the Irish language will often be given equal footing to whatever achievements in life merited an obituary in the first place. So we might learn, say, of the demise of Mr X, “a musician, philanthropist and Irish language enthusiast”.

In special cases, when a Gaeilgeoir has shown a particular lack of restraint in speaking Irish in public, he may even qualify as a “well-known Irish language enthusiast” or Dia idir sinn agus gach olc, “a leading Irish language enthusiast”.

Likewise, in death, a native Irish speaker can become “a life-long Irish language enthusiast”.

The living Irish language speaker is also frequently defined as an enthusiast for his preferred form of communication. You can, for example, be a “journalist and Irish language enthusiast” or a “comedian and Irish language enthusiast”, as the comedian Des Bishop was described recently in this newspaper.

In the media, “Irish language enthusiasts” are often lumped together as a homogenous group “welcoming” or “criticising” a new piece of legislation or, more likely, being chided en masse for inflicting great suffering on those who don’t share their enthusiasm for what is inevitably called “the cúpla focal”.

Predictably and boringly, the ghost of Peig Sayers, a life-long Irish language enthusiast from Kerry, will be summoned as a cautionary lesson in how unchecked enthusiasm for the language can cause untold distress to the innocent.

Or worse still, Irish language enthusiasts will turn on the radio or open a newspaper and find themselves being castigated for the countless millions of euro being squandered in indulging their enthusiasm while hospital waiting lists grow longer.

The Irish language enthusiast made his most recent appearance in this newspaper this week in a Rite and Reason column by Patrick Semple, headlined “I am neither Gaeilgeoir nor Catholic – but I am still Irish”. Mr Semple wrote that although he didn’t speak Irish he was just as Irish as the “greatest enthusiast for the Irish language”, an argument with which the vast majority of Irish speakers I know would have no quarrel.

They might wonder, though, who this “greatest enthusiast for the Irish language” might be and how exactly levels of enthusiasm for a language are measured.

Given his consistently ebullient demeanour, broadcaster Hector Ó hEochagáin, for example, may seem a likely candidate for the title of our “Greatest Irish Language Enthusiast”, although to me he has always appeared equally enthusiastic in both official languages of the State.

Maybe there is another leading Irish language enthusiast out there who, one day, will be recognised as the greatest, the most enthusiastic of them all.

In the meantime, as someone who speaks Irish on a daily basis with wildly fluctuating levels of enthusiasm, I have never liked being described as an Irish language enthusiast. As with English, the enthusiasm with which I speak Irish is governed by my mood and will waver with the topic of conversation.

If I were to be observed morosely discussing the weather these days, you might draw the conclusion that I was decidedly lukewarm about the language. But if you had caught me shouting angrily in Irish at a guest on a current affairs show on television last night, you might have formed the mistaken opinion that I find speaking Irish a constant cause for frenzy and operatic swearing.

At best, the term “Irish language enthusiast” is a harmless description that views speaking Irish as an esoteric pursuit, like astrophotography or supporting the footballers of Kilkenny. Too often, however, the term is used as code for “Irish language fanatic”.

The great irony, of course, is that whatever fanaticism now exists in relation to Irish belongs mainly to a neurotic but vocal minority who would rather the language didn’t exist at all.

The Irish speaker, enthusiastic or otherwise, is not the one with the “issues” that need working through.

Sometimes, believe it or not, it is easier to be an English language enthusiast in Ireland, and anyone who has ever tried to conduct their business in Irish with a State agency will testify to the great reserves of enthusiasm required for the ordeal.

At times like this, I admit to occasionally reverting to English, but on occasion I have refused to apologise for demanding my linguistic rights, an attitude, I suppose, that in the eyes of some would make me an “unapologetic Irish language enthusiast”.

Seán Tadhg Ó Gairbhí is a freelance journalist

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