IT IS OFTEN said that the GAA, the largest sporting organisation in Ireland, is a mirror of Irish society as a whole. It has historically acted as a driving force of social change in Irish society, as a recent study has shown. At the core of this change the GAA has been hugely successful in the formation and in the cementing of friends, families and communities in parishes throughout the country. The importance of establishing local identities cannot be underestimated in the maintenance and sustenance of community structures in both rural and urban areas.
The GAA has perhaps come to be the biggest active marker of Irish identity. It is a source of confidence and enjoyment and acts as a self expression of modern Irish identity and is therefore a cause of celebration. This identity is what separates Irish cultural habits from others around the world. In a similar fashion, the use of the Irish language exhibits similar qualities.
In the 2011 Census 1.77 million people reported that they could speak Irish. Yet in reality the number capable of becoming productive speakers is possibly far less. A more reliable figure is approximately 90,000 daily speakers outside educational institutions, both north and south. There is only one conclusion to be taken from these opposing figures of language capacity and language use. That is that roughly one in 20 people are capable Irish speakers, but they have no social situations or social networks which require them to converse in Irish.
The biggest challenge arising from the educational system in Ireland, whether in the Gaelscoil or subject-only approach, is the establishing and cementing of structured non-formal Irish language networks and social situations, where Irish speakers can be attracted to and thus blossom and multiply. Places where Irish speakers are free to have the full authentic experience of life through the medium of Irish. Existential well-being is considered to be a balance between the physical, the social, the psychological and the spiritual dimension of human existence.
The establishment of Na Gaeil Óga GAA Club - an Irish-language GAA club - two years ago by young Irish speakers was as much a product of self expression as an eagerness to contribute towards positive social changes regarding Irish language use and cultural identity.
In doing so, powerful steps have been taken not only towards the development of the social use of the Irish language, but also towards the existential wellbeing of Irish speakers. Na Gaeil Óga is primarily a language planning initiative, which employs the Gaelic Games as its current modus operandi and actively pursues the very same principles that have served the GAA well. Principles that are cementing Irish speakers into friends, families and ultimately into a vibrant physical community.
Just like the GAA as a whole, Na Gaeil Óga has become a source of enjoyment, empowerment and confidence for its members. It is a cause for celebration as it has given the language a dynamic new lease of life in the capital. Na Gaeil Óga already boasts two men’s football teams, a newly established hurling team and a growing ladies’ football team. The men’s first team has just won the league and cup convincingly and are set for a leap up the league tables. The ladies’ team reached the semi final of the cup and and the final of Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta.
On a personal level my own decision to move to Na Gaeil Óga – from playing midfield in the Dublin Senior Football Championship 2011 to full forward in the Junior D championship 2012 – didn’t come without some inner and outer conflict. Nevertheless it is a decision I don’t regret. In Na Gaeil Óga I have been met with an ever-expanding genuine club atmosphere incorporating a collective identity and goal that is missing in many GAA clubs in the capital.
I am often surprised at games how many players, managers and referees speak Irish with us, however much they have. In that sense we have an added role as ambassadors of the language, whose role extends to re-enforcing, or in some cases, creating a positive branding of the language.
Mocking the language
On the field we are usually met with respect mixed with curiosity and confusion. On occasions players of an opposing team wound mock the language – but that usually ended after we’d go ten points up. In reality, it would only inspire us to bring more of an intensity to our game. On other occasions a player might express a negative school experience and come out with something brilliantly insightful like ‘Irish is a stupid language’.
Fun and games aside, Na Gaeil Óga is actively engaging in social change with the core values of cultural identity and community development. It has the potential to become the greatest force of social change for Irish language use in the capital since the glory days of Conradh na Gaeilge – who were of course pivotal to the foundation of An Coiste Camógaíochta in 1905 and its revival in 1923, coincidentally using the same GAA pitches in the Phoenix Park as Na Gaeil Óga currently use.
Although Na Gaeil Óga GAA is perhaps only slightly bridging the gap of opposing census figures of language capacity and language use, its vision goes beyond a fully functioning GAA club, to the creation of social situations in Irish for the other thousand and one hobbies out there in a sustainable organic way.
Ciarán Mac Fhearghusa graduated from Acadamh na hOllscollaíocht Gaeilge in 2010 having completed an MA in Language Planning. He has played senior football in Dublin and Galway as well as playing for the Dublin Junior and South Dublin teams. Anyone interested in participating in Na Gaeil Óga’s vision can make contact through Facebook or by emailing: email@example.com.