Irish: A language for all speakers
Opinion: Gaeilge belongs as much to the Irish-Nigerian kid as to the Bean an Tí in Gaoth Dobhair
President Michael D Higgins hosted a reception for Seán Ó Cuirreáin to mark his contribution as an coimisinéir teanga. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Irish-speaking community needs to pull itself out of the Gaeltacht, and it is doing so at the moment. Everyone says “the Irish don’t protest” as if it’s a truism. We don’t really riot, but we do protest. Students protest, elderly people protest, people protest about rights for those with disabilities, the LGBT community protests, there have been austerity and Occupy protests, water charge and property tax protests. Nurses protest and junior doctors protest. And Irish speakers protest in large numbers. Last month, 10,000 people marched on the Dáil expressing their concerns about the perceived failure of Government to protect their linguistic rights. Unfortunately, Fine Gael has belittled the Irish language by having spokespeople for Gaeltacht affairs who weren’t even fluent, with Dinny McGinley (whose ministerial responsibilities for Irish are now junior ones, not senior) operating almost as an interpreter.
The problem that the leaders of the Irish-speaking demographic also face is an inability to articulate their concerns in a clear manner. The resignation of coimisinéir teanga Seán Ó Cuirreáin, and the perceived weakening of the Official Language Act, as well as Fine Gael’s occasional kite-flying about ending Irish as an obligatory Leaving Certificate subject, all illustrate an apathy at Government level towards the importance of our native language. The 20-year strategy to increase the number of Irish speakers from 83,000 to 250,000 is both rudderless and toothless.
Irish speakers talk about second-class status, but there are also tiered statuses among speakers themselves. In my experience, there has never been a grá shared between the Gaeltacht and the Irish-speaking environs of Dublin, even though Dublin has the potential to hold the key to the language’s future. Given the massive population of young people attending all-Irish speaking schools in the greater Dublin area, there’s an argument for Dublin eventually even being the largest Gaeltacht in the State.
That said, the Gaeltacht areas aren’t just about the language, but neither is the language just about Gaeltacht areas. Yet if you want to “keep up” your Irish in the capital, you’re pretty much on your own. As someone who only became fluent at 12 upon entering secondary school, “keeping up” my Irish is something I have done in isolation, although such dedication has led to becoming a presenter on TG4, an entity that has done an incredible amount to modernise, celebrate and make visible the diversity of Irish-speaking voices in the country.
But I remember as a teenager visiting my cousins in Spiddal and being shocked at the students pouring out of their school speaking English. In my Irish-speaking environment in Coláiste Íosagáin, between Stillorgan and Booterstown in Dublin, if you were caught speaking English in uniform anywhere in the city you’d be reprimanded by senior pupils, or by the hypothetical Stasi that was conjured up by the teaching staff, resulting in the dreaded bileog buí, or “yellow sheet”, signifying a meeting about your discrepancy, and a stint in detention scraping chewing gum off the tables. Everyone spoke Irish. It became an every-day language, a language you dreamt in. It became the subject and product of bród, pride. We were outsiders embracing it. Whereas the insiders – the children in Spiddal – appeared to reject it. To me that seemed to indicate a complacency in the Gaeltacht, the paradox of the new speakers in Dublin being more active about the language than the establishment.
My Irish isn’t the best, but I try. Still, that isn’t good enough. I’ve had snide comments about “46A Irish”, and have been in group situations where Irish speakers switched from speaking Irish to those they were conversing with, to speaking English to me. It’s hurtful and exclusionary. And guess what? It makes you not want to speak it.
Snobbery towards Irish is real, and so is snobbery within it. The language is not a museum exhibit in a glass case that needs to be polished to perfection. It is a working, living, breathing thing. And in terms of levels of fluency, the intent to speak it – even if that means grasping for words or “Béarlachas” – is as valid as the poetic prose that flows from a native speaker.
Not ‘good enough’
The idea that one’s Irish isn’t “good enough” unless it’s fluent, is unfair. Instead of celebrating the “cúpla focal” people might have, fluent Irish speakers have a tendency to make people feel inadequate if that’s all they have. There is no sense of social acceptance if you have broken Irish, and therefore little impetus to use what Irish you have. And if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Preserving the Irish language is not just about the boundaries of Gaeltacht areas being drawn on linguistic criteria. Our language is the foundation on which all of our historical, cultural and traditional output has been based. It’s our language. It belongs as much to the first generation Irish-Nigerian kid as it does to the bean an tí in Gaoth Dobhair.