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Column: 'The time has come. We demand the opportunity to live our lives through Irish'

The hour has come for a generation to bring the language to life while also calling time on the government bluff, writes Michael McCaughan.

Michael McCaughan Writer

DETRACTORS SAY THE Irish language is on its last legs, held together by government grants, a handful of fanatics and a cúpla focal served up each year on St Patrick’s Day.

This judgment has become a mantra for Irish people who have bad memories of learning the language at school.

Demands are made for an end to compulsory Irish, the process by which pupils spend twelve years learning the language but cannot manage a simple conversation in it.

Census figures

Census figures published a fortnight ago seem to back up this opinion, revealing a decline in the number of Irish speakers even inside Gaeltacht areas, the tobar or well which nourishes and replenishes the language.

Raidió na Gaeltachta, (RnaG) the Irish language radio station, spent several days bemoaning the statistics while Sean Kyne, junior minister for the Gaeltacht, donned his body armour and dutifully took the flak, wriggling out of every argument with a Beckettian flourish.

An entirely new approach is needed.

Learning Irish again

Over the past year I travelled the length and breadth of Ireland, gathering opinions and experiences from people who have and haven’t learned the language, who love or loathe an Ghaeilge.

I began to learn Irish again, one focal at a time, curious to see how far I could go with it. The outcome is Coming Home: One man’s return to the Irish language, a journey which begins with the death notices on RnaG.

I discovered that just a few generations ago, Irish was the language of everyday life, of love-making, of putting your kids to bed, the language of farming and fighting and poetry. The language declined and almost disappeared, beaten out of schoolchildren, associated with poverty and hardship. In its place came English, the language of possibility.

The Easter Rising in 1916 and the Irish Republic which followed, gave prominence to the Irish language but responsibility for its resurrection was offloaded onto the schools. The rest, as they say, is history, painfully imprinted on the bodies and minds of schoolchildren.

Planet Gaelach

It came as some surprise then to discover “Planet Gaelach”, a world of enthusiasm and excitement for the Irish language, hiding in plain sight, just under the radar of the English speaking majority.

The weekly meetups in cafes in every town and city, the pop-up Gaeltachts, where people conjure up a Gaeltacht wherever they are, gardening sessions and Gaelic football, as Irish comes alive in dynamic and informal settings. A peaceful language revolution is underway.

I combined RnaG with a slow reading of contemporary fiction, the likes of Alex Hijmans, a Dutch-born Irish speaker who lives in Brazil and writes fiction in Irish. I found a Múinteoir-Mentor as I call it, someone willing to “adopt” me and put up with my scratchy pidgin language until I developed smoother notes. No money ever changed hands between us.

You are never far from an Irish speaker, but you need a “Gaeldar”, to find them, as they don’t usually have a fáinne tattooed on their foreheads.

Irish is on the move

Irish is on the move as thousands of children attend Gaelscoileanna, Irish language primary schools, learning the easy way, by immersion. Their parents, many of them from the “lost” generation, have discovered a grá for a language that never stood a chance first time round.

Perhaps the most startling discovery on this journey has been the realisation that successive Irish governments, led by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, have been obstacles to the progress of the language.

In the north of Ireland, the situation is dramatically different. In the Newtownards road, the heart of loyalist Belfast, more people signed up for Irish classes last autumn than on the Fall’s Rd, the home of Republicanism. The first Gaelscoil in Belfast opened with nine pupils in 1971, followed by Coláiste Feirste, the nearby secondary school, which now has 650 pupils.

Bring the language to life

Last week a handful of brave souls, belonging to “Misneach”, an Irish language activist group, briefly occupied the offices of the Department for Gaeltacht affairs in Dublin. Their demand is simple, “Saol trí Ghaeilge atá uainn”, we demand the opportunity to live our lives through Irish.

The hour has come for a generation of instigators and creatives to get to work, bringing the language to life while also calling time on the government bluff.

Some combination of naíonraí, (pre-school education), easy going non-judgmental public displays of affection (ciorcal comhrá, pop-up Gaeltacht etc) along with a guerrilla campaign of action which would, for once and for all, force the government to facilitate citizens wishing to conduct daily life in either of the two official first languages of Ireland.

At that point the census figures will tell another story.

Michael McCaughan is an Irish writer and journalist best known for his work in Latin America. He has written for the Irish Times, the Guardian, Hot Press, Village Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sunday Telegraph. His latest book is Coming Home: One man’s return to the Irish language, (Gill, March 2017). His website is cominghometoirish.com.

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Michael McCaughan  / Writer

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