New Year’s Resolution – learn Irish

10th January 2001

A couple of weeks back I got a promotional copy of Foinse the Irish weekly paper, included in a daily, and as I flicked through the paper it was obvious that it is an interesting read. Obvious from looking at the pictures, that is, because it might as well have been in Russian for all that I could read of it.

This is an untenable situation. I can’t expect the kids to go to a Gaelscoil and then return home to a cretin who can’t speak a word of the language.

Therefore I’m resolved, before the whole world, to learn to speak Irish fluently. And I’m going to do it this year.

So there!

Being unable to speak Irish gives me a unique opportunity to advocate the language. After all, no-one can accuse me of being one of the dreaded Gaelgoiri.

And having been through the education system and come out the other end functionally monoglot is something a great many people can identify with.

Why should we bother with Irish? What good will it do us?

Firstly, because there are some 60,000 people on this island who speak Irish as a mother tongue and they reside in areas which the rest of us visit in huge numbers. These people and this way of life represent a priceless cultural asset in themselves and the rest of the country should have a working knowledge of Irish if only to avoid being part of the linguistic wrecking ball that is modern English.

Secondly, outside the Gaeltacht there a hundreds of thousands of people who speak Irish on a daily basis and would speak more of it if they got the opportunity. People like me deny them that opportunity.

Thirdly, the geography and history of Ireland is riddled with the influence of Gaelic. The place-names of Ireland can’t be understood without it and as for the history…well it would take a few books to cover that angle.

Fourthly, it makes us interesting. In this modern world you wouldn’t get a credit card between lifestyles from San Francisco to Berlin. We drive the same cars, watch the same TV programmes, do the same jobs, listen to the same music. Language is one of the few genuine facets of diversity left.

Fifthly, the knowledge of two languages makes learning other languages considerably easier. So I’m told by those who know.

And finally, it’s handy to be able to speak Irish abroad when you don’t want the Yanks, the Aussies or the Brits to know what you are saying.

(Also, apparently, our troops abroad find Irish very useful in making things difficult for eavesdroppers during peacekeeping operations).

You will notice that none of these arguments amounts to a return to being primarily an Irish speaking nation. I think that’s unrealistic and undesirable.

So the revival movement shouldn’t get first priority. That should be reserved for the Gaeltacht.

Like the rest of Ireland they are now in a unique position. For the first time in generations we have a net demand for people. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of the Government to reverse the flow out of the Gaeltacht and to ensure that the economic success is used to prop up and expand the Gaeltacht.

New urban Irish speaking communities are required in all the Gaeltachts if the future of the language is to be secured.

As for the rest of the country, I believe that the time has come for us to make a radical move towards promotiong Irish. The Government should make a decision in principle to change the entire education system over to Irish.

This is the only way to equip future generations with the ability and the environment to speak Irish. Any school that wished could opt out but the vast majority would be pleased to participate.

As for me, it’s 50 weeks and counting.

As well as that…

The ‘European’ language argument

SOME people believe that the teaching of Irish is actually damaging language learning. Some of the business organisations want ‘European’ languages given more space in the curriculum. The unspoken sentiment (so far) is that Irish should give way to make that space starting at national school.

That would be a big mistake.

A very small number of those starting school this year will work in an environment or live in a country where they will need to speak a continental language.

Even if we want to teach them that language, how do we know where a particular five-year-old will end up living? Do we teach German, Spanish, French or Italian? Indeed, for all of these places the language of business or leisure is English. And we already speak that.

So an enormous amount of time will be wasted. Unless, of course, the purpose is cultural and educational. In which case none of those languages has the same claim on our children’s time as Irish.

Incidentally, the reason that Europeans have such a good grasp of English is because they are listening to it every day. The English language dominates music and other forms of culture all across Europe.

It’s not all down to schooling, you know.