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Column: Why bother learning Irish?

There is enormous negativity about the Irish language, especially in official circles. But it’s part of who we are and we must fight for its survival, writes Rónán Ó Muirthile.

Rónán Ó Muirthile

WHEN BARACK OBAMA visited Ireland in 2012 and said ‘Is féidir linn’ the crowd were thrilled and cheered. Here was one of the world’s most remarkable people repeating his catch phrase in our native language. We were proud as punch. It was cheesy and sentimental but it touched a chord with many people – most of whom can’t speak the language themselves. It spoke to something deep within us.

What it said to me is that the language still has a chance of surviving. I am not typically optimistic but here was a clear example of the wider appeal and strength of the language. Taken with the deep impression the Queen made when she spoke her ‘cúpla focal’ it showed in clear terms that the majority of people still have a ‘grá’ for Irish. This is obvious but what is less clear is that if a President or a Queen or King visiting here in 30, 40 or 50 years says the same thing, will there be the same reaction?

Enormous negativity about the Irish language

I took great heart from the march last week in Dublin city centre that saw upwards of 5,000 people take to the streets looking to everyone, but especially the State, to take Irish seriously. Those of us who were there can only hope someone was listening.

There is enormous negativity about the Irish language, especially in official circles. The State taken as a whole – not the government specifically, but more importantly the apparatus of the State – is resistant when it comes to Irish. It is just not on their radar. Certainly, it is hard to argue in favour of anything cultural when the health service is under such pressure but Irish has always been a source of resentment for many. The reasons for which are too complex for this discussion here, suffice to say it is true, if remarkably short-sighted.

The recent resignation of the Irish language commissioner Seán O Cuireáin has highlighted this fact in stark terms. He pointed to a significant level of inertia and ill will towards the language at State level. He steps down from his role officially this month and his successor Rónán Ó Dómhnaill has an unenviable task.

Part of the problem has been amongst the Irish-speaking community, which has been poor at explaining itself to non-Irish speakers. The community, such as it is, is disparate, disconnected and insular in places. We are not really a grouping because the vast bulk of Irish speakers are just another anonymous cog in society recognised only by our difficult-to-pronounce names. But we are seen as ‘other’, problematic, bothersome and anachronistic. This is an unfortunate view – and one which we have a responsibility to challenge.

This isn’t about money

It should be mentioned here that I am not suggesting that we need more money for anything. What I, and others like me, are proposing is to make Irish a real priority in our society; for us all to realise that there is a value in preserving Irish, but that to do so requires thought and effort.

Why preserve Irish, you might ask? To answer that we first need to understand why the language was important to those people watching Obama. Why did people buy all those ‘Is féidir linn’ stickers?

It is because everything that it is to be Irish is built on the heritage of the Irish language. You can’t understand the GAA, our music (from traditional airs to U2), our way of speaking English, our theatre, indeed the entire literary tradition, the geography and history of everything that we see around us, our legal traditions, our religious beliefs, our obsession with drinking and talking and drinking some more – the list goes on and on – all this can not be appreciated fully without an understanding of the language.

Before someone gets offended, I am not saying that you need to be able to speak or indeed comprehend Irish – but to appreciate all these things you need to grasp the context, that all that stuff, everything that it means to be Irish, is built on very old foundations of which only remnants remain. This might seem like old hat or an outrageous boast but it is in fact true; all the parts of our society and psychological make-up as a community are built on the language. It’s not that long ago that the bulk of the population spoke only Irish. It infuses everything. All these things were for many years and to a point still are communicated, passed on and taught through Irish.

Thus, if Irish dies then so too does our ability to know ourselves as a people and in time what it means to be Irish today will disappear.

Irish is a national treasure

This is why we need to support the language. I do not speak of grants and funding for this; I am talking about saying at an official level that Irish is a national treasure that needs to be nurtured and kept alive.

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In this way we all, as a society, need for as many parents as possible to raise their children through Irish. We need to help them to make sure that their children will go on to have more children who will be raised through Irish.

It’s not just trendy, lefty ideas like ‘society’ that should persuade us. Take the economic value. We focus often on the fact that we are an English-speaking country and thus we attract foreign national investment on the back of that. What is equally important is our rich cultural mix, which makes us flexible and better able to adapt to change. These abilities make us attractive to industry and better placed to deal with the current economic crisis. As economist Finbarr Bradley has argued, culture is a multifaceted and complex national resource that drives the creation of economic value. Irish is an important key to understanding it. It is what gives extra value, for example, to our food products and the country as a tourist destination. It is somewhat intangible but very real and it will hurt us in our pockets if it is gone.

But we are doing our level best as a country to make it harder for families and individuals to function through Irish, and without that base we lose any hope of holding on to the language, the rock upon which our culture is based.

My parents went out of their way to learn Irish

Take my case, my father and mother raised me to speak Irish – I come from a mix of a rich tradition of that inheritance and parents who went out of their way to learn the language, not having grown up with it. Now I want to raise my son to speak Irish. But I inhabit a world dominated by English. My wife is learning. That heritage of Irish culture that I carry could easily be lost if I don’t pass it on to the next generation, which is my son.

To do that I need your help. I don’t necessarily want or need you to learn Irish, understand the Modh Coinníollach or read Peig. What I need is the help, the public support, to make sure that my son does speak Irish and carries that tradition as best he can so that that deeper heritage survives for all Irish people – and in generations to come we won’t be lying when we say ‘Is féidir linn’. You need people like me to continue the language, so we don’t as a society and economy lose touch with the past.

Rónán Ó Muirthile is a TV producer and presenter of Splanc on Newstalk Friday’s from 9pm. Follow Splanc on Twitter @splancnewstalk

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Rónán Ó Muirthile

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