‘Can you speak Irish?” was question 14 on the census form recently. For the first time ever, I ticked No. In the past I have ticked Yes because, like so many others, I learned Irish for some 12 years of my school education. I felt that I should represent those years somehow, even though, the fact is, I can’t speak Irish. I can’t read it either. And I definitely can’t write Irish.
This is a disgrace, considering all those hours over all those years I spent on the subject, throughout primary school and then secondary school: I finished my school career with only the most shamefully tenuous grasp of a language I had studied for years. That’s why I finally ticked No on the census.
But it’s not my disgrace that I can’t speak Irish. I managed to get on perfectly fine in all my other subjects and I tried at least as hard in Irish classes, if not harder. There was not a screed of pleasure for me in struggling with a language in which I had no interest, and which I could not give up in favour of a subject I was actually interested in.
I went to the Gaeltacht one summer. It didn’t help. I also had many grinds. They didn’t help either. I know I put in the time and the effort, and yet I remained a woefully poor student of the subject.
The disgrace, as I see it, is being forced by the State to study a compulsory language for which I had no aptitude, absolutely no interest in, and no choice about throughout my entire school career. Where is the pedagogic sense in that?
Irish, the State would have us believe, is much more than just a language, which is part of the complex reason why so much emphasis is placed on Irish, both in school and in society.
It apparently also stands for our national identity, for a collective pride, for a sense of who we are and our long history. Some people genuinely believe this. I do not.
It’s confusing to load a school subject with so many things that have nothing to do with education, and everything to do with a wider and highly emotive national question of identity. Because that’s where the message about the particular importance of the Irish language starts: in school.
No use in the wider world
Then there is the practical element of all that time invested in a language I cannot speak, and that, even if I could, would be of exactly zero use to me in the wider world. I have spent many months travelling in Central and South America. I often found myself wishing the time I had spent trying to grapple with the compulsory text of Peig had been spent voluntarily in Spanish classes instead - something useful.
Not even the most passionate Gaeilgeoirí could describe Irish as a useful language to have outside Ireland. It might be fun to chat to another Irish-speaking person abroad – if there are two of you, and you are both fluent, and for some reason do not want other people to understand what you are saying – but nobody could describe it as a useful way of communicating with local people.
Nor could anyone say that Irish is a necessary language to have in order to navigate your way through a day’s work or leisure in Ireland itself.
It is also a deeply wasteful government practice to spend so much money and resources on making so many official documents bilingual. What is the point being made by doing this? What practical purpose does it serve? Doesn’t everyone in Ireland who speaks Irish also speak English, even though the reverse is not true at all?
Bunreacht na . . . The Constitution
It is written into our Constitution that Irish is our national language and the first official language. English is recognised as a second official language. That does not make sense. English, the language I speak, write in for my work and use every day, is my first and only language, because it’s the only language I am fluent in. I did not like having a language I had no interest in being forced on me as a child and teenager; as an adult, I like even less having my national identity pinned to a language I never use and cannot speak.
Ah, but of course the Constitution tells us English is not our national language. So here’s the thing: am I any less an Irish citizen if I choose to dissociate myself from our ordained “national language” and state that the English language is actually the one in which I feel at home expressing myself, and always have? I don’t believe so.
I wonder how many others out there sat down in their homes on census night and decided they were going to stop the ritual five-year charade of pretending they spoke a language they do not, and never have done? From now on, I’ll always be ticking No to that particular census question.