Critical and popular acclaim for An Cailín Ciúin, the Oscar-nominated film based on Claire Keegan’s story Foster, has generated extraordinary goodwill towards the Irish language. Coinciding with Seachtain na Gaeilge, which gives the language a higher profile for an all-too-brief period each spring, the awards-season buzz around Colm Bairéad’s film has shown how attitudes to the language are shifting in important ways.
After decades of official neglect and public indifference – or, in certain corners, hostility – the rise of a generation keen to celebrate, to learn and to speak Irish is a heartening trend. Freed from the post-colonial complexes of their parents and grandparents, they are driving a shift in attitudes – one that recognises Irish as the cultural treasure that it is. It has helped that bilingualism or even trilingualism is today a fact of daily life for so many people in Ireland.
Judged by the dominant frame of Irish education – one that tends to view learning as an instrument in the service of economic efficiency – Irish too often lost out. Even today, the Government is reducing the amount of time that children spend learning Irish, and it is far too difficult to establish a gaelscoil despite high demand for Irish-medium education.
The case for supporting the language is compelling. Irish, like any language, is a way of seeing, a way of being. Encoded within it are centuries of history and culture that non-speakers cannot access, echoes they cannot hear.
“If we regard self-understanding, mutual understanding, imaginative enhancement, cultural diversity and a tolerant political atmosphere as desirable attainments, we should remember that a knowledge of the Irish language is an essential element in their realisation,” Seamus Heaney wrote. Not to learn Irish was “to miss the opportunity of understanding what life in this country has meant and could mean in a better future.”
Goodwill towards the language is important, but it is not enough. The urgent task is to ensure that Irish remains a living language. That will involve much stronger support for those for whom it is an intrinsic part of daily life. In the Gaeltacht, the language is under intense pressure. Parents must be given the support they need to raise their children through Irish, and they must have access to housing in Gaeltacht areas. The 20-year strategy for the Irish language contains valuable ideas. The Programme for Government hits the right notes. The relevant minister, Catherine Martin, has shown commitment to the task.
But there is nonetheless an unmistakable lack of will, even incoherence, at the highest levels of Government and the civil service. Nothing but a concerted national effort, led by and driven by the Department of An Taoiseach, can have any chance of success.