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Do we care enough about Irish to keep it alive?

I have next to no Irish and I’m embarrassed by that… yet I don’t think I’ll ever learn.

Donal O'Keeffe

AS A MEMBER of Generation Peig, I have next to no Irish and I’m very embarrassed by that. But then, when I stop and think about it, I find myself feeling somewhat ambivalent towards Irish, wondering whether it is our national language or our national affectation.

Many’s the time, in an undistinguished academic career, I found myself being talked down to as Gaeilge by an angry and sarcastic múinteoir, despite said teacher knowing full well that I might understand better if they actually did the decent thing and spoke in Klingon altogether.

I was reminded of those classroom humiliations recently when the Wexford TD Mick Wallace asked the Taoiseach if, while visiting the White House for St Patrick’s Day, he intended to shake hands with President Obama – “a man who personally orders the pointless execution of scores of innocent children”.

So far, so predictable. A child in Sixth Class could script this. A TD on the left will ask a question about US drone strikes and the Taoiseach will patronise and deflect. If we’re lucky, there might be a cutting remark from Enda’s arsenal of standard non-answers to the Opposition – Fianna Fáil wrecked the country, Sinn Féin should remember Jean McConville, the far left would have us all eating grass within six months – and the pantomime of pointlessness will go on about its business as usual.

The Taoiseach went full múinteoir on Wallace

What happened next was a departure, though. I should declare that I’m not the biggest fan of Deputy Wallace, though I do recognise he has a great streak of personal decency running through him. What happened next was horrible. Because it was Seachtain na Gaeilge, the Taoiseach insisted on replying as Gaeilge. When it became obvious that Wallace couldn’t understand what Kenny was saying, the Taoiseach told him “Cuir ort na cluasáin ateangaireachta. Tá siad os comhair an Teachta ansin.” A mortified Wallace replied that he did not have a working translation device and said “I apologise I cannot speak Irish.”

The Taoiseach – a teacher by profession – proceeded to go the full múinteoir on Wallace, lecturing him as Gaeilge, breaking into English to snap “Put on your translation system. This is our national language.” It was a moment which showed the Taoiseach in a deeply unattractive light and a moment – I would suggest – of workplace bullying in our national parliament. It also encapsulated for me everything that is wrong with the way Irish is taught in our schools and upheld in our institutions.

Is the problem the way we teach Irish?

I’ve joked before that, having spent a dozen years learning Irish and now not being able to understand even the Nuacht headlines, I am deeply grateful I had fluent English before I entered our education system. There’s a truth at the back of that joke, though, and I wonder still whether I was so thick or whether it was the way we teach Irish which was at fault. (Perhaps it was both.)

I should say, though, not all of my experiences with Irish have been negative. Some years ago, I worked for a while in the Waterford Gaeltacht of An Rinn. If you’ve never been there, I recommend a visit. It’s a beautiful place, even by Ireland’s high standards. On a spring day in Ring, with the sunlight glinting off the sea, you’ll find the weight of the world a little lighter. The people there are lovely and they use Irish freely in daily conversation.

I wish I had Irish (or do I?)

My own Irish extends not even as far as that beer ad, although (obviously) ba mhaith liom Sharon Ní Bheoláin. Talking with native Irish speakers in An Rinn, though, I always felt very guilty at not being able to have a chat in my national language.

While I was in Ring, I met Liam Clancy, a man Bob Dylan called his hero. I was star-struck. Clancy told great stories of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Clancy referred to “Little Bobby Dylan and his Instant F*cking Copyrighting Machine” and Dylan stealing “Brennan on the Moor” to serve as the air for “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie”.

Liam accepted my lack of Irish and never made a big deal about it, any more than anyone else in An Rinn did. Nobody talked down to me or made me feel like a second-class citizen. (In essence, nobody acted what I would call The Enda.)

I really wish I had Irish, though.

Although, do I? Do I really? There are Irish classes available, after all. So why have I never taken them? Is it because I feel, in my heart of hearts, that Irish is not so much our national language as our national affectation?

Middle-class elitism?

Does a language, however ancient and beautiful – Europe’s oldest spoken, literary language – even deserve to live when its own people no longer use it in any meaningful way? Are we codding ourselves Iricising English words and telling people in Dingle that they’re not in Dingle anymore? Are the Gaelscoileanna the last hope for Irish as a living language or are they a breeding ground for middle-class elitism?

I’ve often wondered about that last one. During the Celtic Tiger, I heard parents openly boast that their little darlings wouldn’t be held back by “non-nationals” in their school because you don’t get that class of people in the Gaelscoil. I’ve heard the board of management of one Gaelscoil referred to as “the Provisional wing of Fianna Fáil”.

But then I hear – anecdotally – that kids in most primary schools are still learning Irish the same way I did, learning words by rote, sentences without the context of conversation and in such a way that the butterfly of language is pinned, dead, to the page.

One teacher I know of does make an effort to make Irish fun by telling kids that the key to understanding Irish is to imagine that Yoda was Irish and put the verbs in the wrong place. “Go to the shop I did, apples to buy. Delighted my friends will be, when to them the gift of delicious apples I make!” (Go on, do the voice!)

Irish should be a living language 

Writing in the Dublin Review of Books recently, the academic and linguist Joe Mac Donnacha suggested that, given that even the children of Gaeltacht areas are now less competent in Irish than they are in English, the only question remaining for Irish is whether it can even survive as a second language in a few niche Gaelthacht areas. Perhaps my fears are right. Perhaps the best hope the Irish language has is that it survives – for a while longer – as our national affectation.

Then again, perhaps the Gaelscoileanna are right. Perhaps it is only through immersion in a language that it becomes real. If that is so, then, is there a case to be made that the only hope for Irish to survive in any meaningful way is for all primary schools to become Gaelscoileanna? Would such a radical measure drag the teaching of Irish up to the standard of the teaching of other subjects? Or would members of Generation Peig fear that it might have the opposite effect and drag other subjects down to where Irish is now?

Surely we can all agree that if the Irish language is to really be an essential part of us it should be more than a sort of Masonic handshake, a secret code or a shibboleth for the privileged. Surely Irish should be a living language.

The question is do we care enough to keep it alive, though?

Níl a fhios agam.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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