HAVEN’T WE COME a long way, lads? A long way. When my grandmother was a little girl she wasn’t allowed speak Irish in school. She’d get a belt of a stick if she did.
Oh God no, she daren’t speak it. They were taught everything through English.
And that was hard for her because English was a foreign language. They spoke Irish, only Irish – at home and in their community. It was their native language, their mother tongue. We now call that place An Ghaeltacht.
They kept it alive amongst themselves because it was unnatural to do otherwise. And she, in turn, passed it on to her children because it was the natural thing to do and her children passed it to theirs.
Culture and identity
And that’s what they call culture. Identity. In its purest, natural sense.
I was once told by a prominent Irish radio host that I was “lucky enough to have grown up with a different experience of Irish than the vast majority of people who were force fed poetry and Peig in a language no one thought they should actually be learning”.
Of course, that’s the difference, I didn’t have to “learn” the language – it was passed onto me by my mother, and her family, and her community – the Gaeltacht community into which I was born, in the late 1970s. But, luck had nothing to do with it either.
My mother made a choice to speak to us in her mother tongue. Of course, to do otherwise would have been unnatural for her, but there were outside pressures to follow a different path.
On returning home for good from London, a local elderly woman advised her not to speak Irish to her child as, she said “he would need English when he grows up”.
It’s a lot harder for parents in Gaeltacht areas now to raise children through Irish. According to linguists, minority languages throughout the world are under greater threat due to the globalisation of the English language and the prevalence of the internet.
Communication between parents or grandparents and children has been disrupted by digital devices, so much so that children are simply not acquiring verbal or linguistic skills like they used to, according to the experts.
The language of the internet is predominantly English. The impact all this is having on the acquisition of a minority language in a once ‘protected’ community has been detrimental, with one report stating that Irish will no longer be the primary language in any Gaeltacht community in ten years time.
Community groups like Tuismitheoirí na Gaeltachta, however, are rising to the challenge but support is needed and this week’s announcement from the government that they are to invest €33 million to support the Gaeltacht Language Planning Process is welcome, and hopefully not too little, too late.
The best news story as regards the language, though, is the emergence of what I see as a new movement. They are the generation who’ve come through na Gaelscoileanna in Dublin and Belfast and elsewhere.
They’ve thrown off the baggage and reclaimed the language. They are active on social media, on the pitches, on the music scene and in the pubs of Dublin. They are inclusive and welcoming. They are innovative, intelligent and provocative. They are self-assured and confident.
They are An Pop Up Gaeltacht; they are Na Gaeil Óga; they are KneeCap. They have emerged as bastions of a new Ireland and in an era of globalisation they are claiming their identity and their place in the world with the language as their connecting force.
This Saturday we will see thousands on our capital’s streets – students, young families, young people – celebrating this moment in time, celebrating this movement, celebrating our language. Beo, Bródúil agus Gaelach. We’ve come a long way, sin cinnte.
Róisín O’Hara is a freelance broadcast journalist and social media consultant. Gaelach agus Bródúil, the biggest Irish language street festival of Bliain na Gaeilge 2018 will be held this Saturday, 14 April in Dublin city centre to celebrate our pride in the Irish language. More information available at Gaeilge2018.ie.