I learned Irish at college while doing my degree. First I attended evening classes for a year, and then I did a two year diploma in written and spoken Irish. I love the language and learning it was a deeply rewarding experience. All this makes it painful for me to have reached the following conclusion: Irish is now but a minuscule part of the Irish identity and is doomed as a living language.
An Ghaeilge remains important to the identity of certain Gaeltacht communities, notably those in parts of Conemara. But for the general population it is almost irrelevant. It seems to me that the only time people think about Irish is when they fill the census form. Then they suffer a little rush of nostalgia and set down their wish instead of their competence.
Now and then my friends mention a program they've seen on TG4 - but invariably they were reading subtitles or watching an English language program. I know very few people who speak Irish regularly or read any Irish language literature. In bookshops, the section marked “Gaeilge” has been shrinking for years, and in some cases has disappeared entirely. This I’m sure is a reflection of demand.
I welcome the fact that Irish speakers can now increasingly demand state services and publications in Irish. But given limited resources available for Irish text books and learning aides, provision should be on a practical not universal level. Ceadúnais tiomána or bileoaga eolais are fine, but will European treaties or obscure directives really be read by a public who will not, or cannot, read Caisleáin Óir?
Another deficiency undermines claims that Irish is central to our identity: it does not support a voice with a difference, an alternative “world view”. Irish language media has too narrow a reach and too few notable commentators to really enable a distinct brand of debate to take place. Regardless of the subject, from globalisation to bin charges, invariably, the main players seen on TG4 or in Foinse are drawn from the pool of English language pundits or they are simply offering a translation of a line taken already in English. All too often the subject matter is the language itself. TG4's slogan "Súil Eile" breaks under the weight of the facts.
In The Wind that Shakes the Barley, the Irish language is given a token role. Amhrán na bhFiann is sung going into battle or for the occasional exchange between insurgents, but none of the characters use it for everyday communication. The depiction rings true. Certainly the fathers of rebellious Irish Nationalism had a genuine competence in and desire to revive the language, but outside a narrow group, interest was low. Put simply, the idea never caught on.
Since so few people can speak the language, and so few are aware of its literary cannon, how can it be considered important to our identity? If it has no otherness about it, and people don’t engage with it, how is it central to who we are? If tomorrow the last Irish speaker were to die, no shock would be observed in Irish people's conception of themselves. The phrase, "In
The second part of my conclusion is perhaps more depressing. There is now, I believe, almost no hope of maintaining Irish as a community language, even at the limited scale that exists today. The Gaelscoil phenomenon presents little evidence that it sprouts sustainable bi-lingual families, much less communities. As far as I can see, no substantial Irish speaking community exists outside the Gaeltacht, which is undeniably in decline.
The Irish language competence of the younger generation in Gaeltacht areas is worryingly low. A recent study (undertaken on behalf of the Department of Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs and leaked to Foinse) showed that only 24% of Gaeltacht secondary school students used Irish when they spoke to peers. Furthermore, a staggering 46% of students in these schools have either no Irish or little ability to converse in the language. Apparently up to 40% of all leaving cert classes in the Gaeltacht are given through English. We can only guess why Minister O'Cuiv has refused to publish the full findings of the study.
In the past some linguists underplayed the significance of this by arguing that very often young people who abandon the language in adolescence, return to it when they mature. There's a grain of truth in this, but I am convinced that proficiency in Irish among today's 30 somethings in the Gaeltacht lags significantly behind that of the previous generation. I know far too many people whose parents were native speakers but whose own Irish is only passable. The drop in language ability in childhood feeds through to adulthood.
In my minds eye, I imagine a stone bridge joining the banks of a river. The death of each native Irish speaker is like removing another stone from the arch of the bridge. It is a slow process, but one day the removal of a single stone will cause the masonry to collapse and the bridge will become impassable. We will be forever stranded on this bank, the side where no Irish is spoken. To me at least, the bridge will be allowed to crumble because the desire to visit the other side simply disappeared.