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Dublin: 18 °C Saturday 20 July, 2019

'I was made Minister for the Gaeltacht but I could hardly speak a word as Gaeilge'

‘Our language is not just a communication too, it’s a gateway to our past’, writes Joe McHugh.

Joe McHugh

JUST A LITTLE over four years ago, after promotion into the ministerial ranks, one of the first phone calls I made was to Liam Ó Cuinneagáin, founder of Oideas Gael.

I knew the lashing I was in for when given the opportunity to represent the Gaeltacht and Irish speaking communities.

His calming influence on the day my journey started has stuck with me: “Beidh tú alright.”

And last week I was back in one of Liam’s classrooms again, in Gleann Cholm Cille near the awesome and inspiring Slieve League on the Wild Atlantic Way in south-west Donegal.

It’s a year on since Liam asked me to teach some of the basics to a class of adults keen to revive their own stalled journeys with an Ghaeilge. It was a gateway class for locals who had lost some of their Irish but wanted to kick start their own revival.

As Liam instils in the minds of eager learners – De réir a chéile a thógtar na caisleáin, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

This year, four years into full immersion, I decided to go back to school, this time to concentrate on ‘an ghramadach’.

I wanted to learn more about why I was putting ‘n’ in front of Gleann Cholm Cille from time to time. And why I sometimes use ‘h’ and other times I don’t – mar shampla ‘Lá Fada’ agus ‘Oiche Fhada’.

These aspects of re-learning were coming to me naturally. But my curiosity encouraged me to find out why.

Classes were filled with references to an tuiseal ginideach, the declensions, urú agus séimhiú. All of us in the room were raised with English as a spoken language. But none of us had ever had a conversation or a class about any of this high-end grammar.

Instinctively we knew it in English. And I believe we have that innate instinct for our beautiful, poetic language.

Now, thinking back to my own school days, I realise that the spoken word has to come first. And then the grammar.

‘The spoken word’

There will always be a need and emphasis for the study of the grammatical aspects of Irish. Like any language. But language grows, evolves and changes.

I’m more convinced now than ever that if we want to grow the language it has to start in pre-schools and with younger learners. The spoken word.

We are focusing on that in the Gaeltacht, like a new policy for Gaeltacht recognition for primary and secondary schools.

But I’m also conscious that many parents want to be a part of growing the language outside the Gaeltacht and we need to focus on Irish language standards and skills at teacher training colleges.

During the week, with the support of Julian de Spáinn of Conradh na Gaeilge, I launched the Second Half of Bliain na Gaeilge at the Oideas Gael college. From céilithe to yoga to the Irish-speaking campsite at the Electric Picnic – all you need is here

But there was one immediate criticism. Why was there a mix of English and Irish at the launch?

What that ignores is that we had a message to get out. And more than one audience to target. What would they prefer? That we preach to the converted?

I disagree. We have to bring new people with us. Every one of us should have the opportunity. And every one of us can become the example.

‘Enjoying the journey’

The Five Year Action Plan for the Irish Language engages with that. There will be grants aids, up to 90%, for naoinraí in Gaeltacht planning areas and Gaeltacht service towns. The Bille Teangacha – Official Languages Bill due to be published later this year – will include a new focus on recruiting fluent Irish speakers into State bodies. This has already begun.

Currently the civil service is actively seeking Irish speakers to take up careers. We have a recruitment drive on to find 72 translators for the European Union in Brussels and Luxembourg. These are potentially life-changing opportunities.

Ar ais arís though. Our language has a beautiful capacity to tell a story.

And what a place to tell the story. Oideas Gael in Gleann Cholm Cille. Some 120 people attended the summer school last week – all ages, all backgrounds. From Milwaukee to Monaghan and California to Connemara. All levels of ability, with one common denominator – ag baint sult as. Enjoying the journey.

I see it as a life journey. A little over four years ago I’ll admit it didn’t look that clear to me.

And in this digital age there are no shortage of reminders about the opposition to my appointment and my perceived ability to do the job.

But I made a conscious decision and effort to show I was not going to be shaped by my past or my previous experiences.

Like many things in life we should not be defined by how we are perceived or by our background or lack of opportunities.

Our language is not just a communication tool. It is a gateway to our past. It can take us back more than 3,000 years.

An Ghaeilge is our first language in the Constitution. It is an officially recognised language of the European Union.

Tá an dualgas orainn uilig. The responsibility is on all of us to protect ár n-Oidhreacht – Our Heritage and our Legacy.

Joe McHugh is the government chief whip and Minister for the Irish language, Gaeltacht and the Islands.

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