Is there any hope for Irish?

18th February 2000

Increasingly Irish is being referred to as Gaelic. The term is creeping in here and there in newspaper articles and radio programmes. I wonder if this is not a further alienation of the general population to the language.

Perhaps this is where Irish will find its resting place – as a curiosity to be referred to with its proper scientific title, just a relic. But I think the future of Irish is not yet settled.

A few weeks ago I was in Belmullet in north west Mayo. The town is in the Gaeltacht but in the two days I spent there I didn’t hear a word of Irish. From reports I read this is also the situation in the Kerry, Cork, Waterford, Galway and Donegal Gaeltachts.

There have been calls to redraw the Gaeltacht boundaries but I’m not sure that this is going to solve the problem. Even in the English speaking areas there are many families who are Irish speaking. It is obvious that the decline of the language in the Gaeltachts is ongoing and some say there are only two generations left in it.

This is nothing short of a calamity for Ireland. It is our most spectacular failure since the foundation of the State. An enormous chunk of our culture and heritage is being allowed to ebb away. And once it is lost it is gone forever. Even the Irish we teach will never be mother tongue.

Here in Dublin the prospect for Irish hasn’t been so bright since the middle ages. The Gaelscoilenna has been the revolution that Irish needed.

For example, in Clondalkin over 1,400 children are attending Irish speaking national and secondary schools. There is a local Gaeltacht in Aras Chronain where adults and children can speak Irish in a relaxed atmosphere. There are even plans to turn the centre of Clondalkin into a bilingual town.

I understand that the ethos of the Gaelscoilenna is not hard-line. This might well break the cycle of love-hate we have had with the language since independence.

This cycle is roughly as follows. Our infants learn the Irish for apple and oranges. From then on they are forced to learn rules of grammar, recite poems they don’t understand and sweat over homework they despise.

By the time they get to Leaving Cert they well and truly hate the language and would happily see it abolished. A few years after leaving school it starts to dawn that Irish itself is not at fault and in a big world it is one of the few things which is really ours.

This is more or less the route that I and people of my generation travelled. I studied Irish from the age of four until I was seventeen. I can’t speak a single sentence of more than four words. And while I am a particularly bad example, the situation is similar for countless others.

Next year my son will start school. I would dearly love to send him to a Gaelscoil so that when he gets to the age of eighteen he will have the choice of whether to speak Irish or not.

And that, frankly, is the only hope for Irish. Allow our young people the choice. Teach them Irish for its own sake, not to pass an exam or get a grant for a house. Let them grow up in an atmosphere where they actually speak the language.

They will need a minimal infrastructure to enable them to make that choice. That’s why Raidio Na Life, Foinse and TG4 are so important. They will need goodwill but the surveys show that the Irish language has that in abundance.

Wouldn’t it be great if our children could switch from English to Irish as easily as changing the TV channel?