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Attitudes towards Irish: 'You can't speak that in the delivery room, I'm not racist I say it to Muslims too'

Irish speakers are sharing things that are said to them about the Irish language – but are replacing it with other languages, Peter Kavanagh explains.

Peter Kavanagh

“AFTER THE BREAK, is the Irish language dead? We’ll be talking to…”

I snapped off the radio. Bliain na Gaeilge is two weeks old and I’m already up to my eyes in debates about the Irish language’s utility, value and even existence. It gets disheartening to hear self-professed experts dismissing the language you use every day. It’s a million times worse when it’s just a contrarian, some hack dug up because a radio producer knows she or he will start a fight with the Gaeilgeoirí.

I don’t know what constitutes a dead language, but something tells me that if I speak Irish every day, if I meet thousands of people each year who speak Irish, if the number of Irish speakers in my village of Clondalkin can grow by 25% in five years, that Irish falls a little short of the criteria for “dead”. And yet, almost every time Irish is in the media it’s presented as a terminal patient with no agency; a once-loved great-grandaunt, riddled with incurable conditions, and the only question is whether or not she’s worth the electricity it takes to keep the life-support machine ticking over.

So when writer, poet and educator Ciara Ní É started a bit of a countermovement on Twitter with the hashtag #NílSéCGL (“Níl sé ceart go leor”, or “It’s not OK”), it flipped an internal switch in me and many others.

ciara Source: @MiseCiara

If we took the things people said to us about the language we use every single day and replaced the references to Irish with another language, any other language, how silly would it look?

Over a thousand tweets later, and #NílSéCGL was hopping. Irish speakers were sharing real-life experiences of being insulted, mocked, and derided. It was done with humour, exposing that farcical way we, as a nation, deal with our own history, culture and language. But everyone who contributed had been through the ringer before. Birth certs spelled incorrectly, encounters with impatient and aggressive public servants, Christmas cards and presents addressed in Irish arriving a week late, cheques being made out with basic spelling errors, and on and on.

Sure, Irish speakers are not being beaten in the streets. Very few of us are being arrested for speaking Irish, although it has happened – most recently in 2013 in Mayo and 2014 in Derry. In a country with 8,000 homeless people, it can be difficult to imagine that a milder form of prejudice could actually upset people, but it can and does.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s story of being warned off speaking in Irish at the birth of her own child was a case in point.

Imagine how silly, how outrageous, how offensive that sounds if it were said to anyone else about any other language. And now remember that it was said to woman speaking her native language in her own country.

The concept of nationality is far more recent a social construct than the Irish language, but given there’s an explicit legal right in Irish legislation that entitles people to speak either official language of the State, is it really too much to ask not to have to justify why we speak Irish? Is it an outrageous demand to want to speak Irish without a reductive debate about the education system, public spending or the same trite, tired stereotypes?

 

‘Peig Sayers isn’t the reason 72% of Irish people can’t speak a European language’

Let’s talk about education, sure. But all education, not just how you don’t think Irish is taught well. We have the one of the worst rates of foreign languages in the entire EU. We are bordering on useless at STEM subjects. People are apparently graduating from secondary school unable to boil an egg. We have an increasingly utilitarian approach to education that is focused on the production of highly-skilled, low paid workers for Foreign Direct Investment, rather than any kind of citizen-centred education that will produce thought leaders and changemakers. Don’t insult Irish speakers by pretending Peig Sayers is the reason 72% of Irish people can’t speak a European language. She’s dead, and her book hasn’t been on the syllabus for generations.

Let’s talk about how the State spends money, sure. But let’s talk about how it spends all of its money, not just what goes to support Gaeltachtaí. All of our rural communities need support, and Gaeltachtaí should be the exemplar, not the exception. Gaeltachtaí being in decline isn’t a reason to stop funding the development of the Irish language; it’s a reason to invest in all rural communities.

If you don’t like Irish, fine. If you didn’t enjoy it in school, fair enough. If you think it’s a waste of time, grand. But if you wouldn’t say what you’re thinking to anyone else, about any other language, maybe you should reconsider your position.

It’s a language. It’s not a school subject; it’s not a neoliberal political football; it’s not a plaything of the middle class; it’s not a membership card for a proscribed organisation.
It’s Bliain na Gaeilge – a year where we can reimagine our relationship with Irish. But the same tired old arguments about Irish?

Níl sé sin ceart go leor.

Peadar Ó Caomhánaigh is a broadcaster with Raidió na Life and a co-founder of Pop Up Gaeltacht, a monthly night out where Irish speakers…well, drink. He can be found on Twitter @thekavofficial. Whatever you do, don’t call him middle class.

Read: ‘Idealistic images of motherhood on social media causes mums to feel insecure and isolated’>

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