Native Irish speakers: invisible minority or elitist clique?

TV Review: Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh explores the loneliness of the long-suffering Gaeilgeóir

'Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh’s sense of marginalisation seems overstated.'

'Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh’s sense of marginalisation seems overstated.'

 

Are native Irish speakers an invisible minority, marginalised and misunderstood by a hostile and self-hating English-speaking culture? Or are they, as they’re more often characterised, an elitist clique with a misplaced victim complex, intent on keeping their schools to themselves?

TV presenter Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh set out to make the case for the former in Lig Liom (RTE One, Thursday, 7pm) ,which means “let me be me”, an emotional appeal for – well, it’s never quite clear what. More empathy for Irish language speakers? More rights? A more concerted approach to the preservation of the language?

A possible insight into its real purpose comes when Ní Chofaigh, who grew up speaking Irish in the Meath Gaeltacht of Rath Cairn, an experience that gave her a strong sense of otherness, is having a frank discussion with her family, trying to get to the bottom of why they don’t share her all-consuming passion for their native language.

“This is like therapy, “ she says.

The documentary is not so much a plea for anything in particular as an “intensely personal” exploration of the loneliness she has felt as an Irish speaker in a world full of people who are not.

It seem cathartic for her and, for the rest of us, it offers a fresh perspective on the conversation about what our native language means to us, beyond the usual academic, cultural and economic arguments.

Her father always told her we should marry “our own”, and Ní Chofaigh admits she thinks it might have been easier to have married a Gaeilgeóir.

Her husband, Ciaran Byrne, seems understandably baffled. “Easier for the language. But I mean, that’s one small part of life, isn’t it?”

He’ll never understand because he’s “the majority”, she says.

Not in this family, he counters, and you can’t help feeling a touch of sympathy.

The documentary skirts around some of the more frequently rehearsed aspects of the Irish language debate.

Siún Ní Dhiunn, in a vox-pop, expresses her exasperation with people who send their children to a Gaelscoil, but don’t speak Irish at home. It’s a lack of respect, she says.

This is an argument that has led in some schools to the introduction of controversial language tests for four-year-olds. But it seems to overlook an obvious problem – if the language is to survive, then it will surely need to embrace the children of non-speakers too.

Ní Chofaigh’s sense of marginalisation at being forced to live through a language not her own is undoubtedly real. But at times here it seems overstated.

When she meets Ola Majekodunmi, the child of Nigerian immigrants and a fluent Irish speaker, Ní Chofaigh says she would prefer to be “visible” as an Irish speaker “so that others could see immediately, just walking down the street, that I was different”.

It’s not the most sensitive thing to say to someone whose skin colour means they have no choice about whether to reveal their difference.

“If you knew the difficulties I face as a visible minority, you wouldn’t want to be like that,” Majekodunmi retorts, though not unkindly.

Despite the passion she brings to the debate, Ní Chofaigh never quite proves her case that our attitude towards Irish speakers is characterised by anything more than embarrassment at our inability to string more than a few words together.

Ultimately, she seems blind to the fact that it’s not hostility that defines the relationship of the rest of us with our native language. It’s ineptitude.