Thursday 16 August 2007

The Death of the Irish Language


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 Ireland we have our own language too" could be used only in the past tense, but nothing else would change.

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.

14 comments:

RG said...

An important topic of discussion without a doubt but I think your take on things is overly negative.

The future of Irish does not lie in the Gaeltacht regions but outside them, especially in the urban areas of the east coast.

Thousands of people, whose parents did not speak any Gaelic, are now fluent daily speakers and take an active part in Irish language life.

And the spirit of the language is growing stronger. Organisations such as Na Gaeil Óga and Na Ceithearna Coille are recognising the need for direct action to encourage fellow speakers.

A new group, Baile, has been established to investigate the possibilites of new Irish-speaking settlements and communities outside the Gaeltacht. By all accounts their feedback has been promising.

Mar sin tá go leor ann mar ábhar dóchais - bíodh misneach againn!

Tomaltach said...

RG - I'm not convinced. From what I can gather the number of people who can speak Irish in say Dublin surely numbers many thousands. But there is no linking up or critical mass. I've seen (a mere handful of) Irish language coffee shops sprout enthusiastically in Dublin, only to die away after a couple of years. Or visit the couple of Irish language clubs. Attendances remain tiny. We are talking here about a metropolitan area of over 1m people. And if you attend any of these dedicated Irish-speaking zones (I stress again, a handful in number) you find many people speaking English, for example at club Sult up near Christ Church. No, in my experience there are many passionate enthusiasts who from time to time get together and form groups, but the effect is usually tiny and dies away.

Furthermore, if the Gaeltacht does in fact disappear, how will that affect the language. I know for me, if there had been no Gaeltacht I never would have learned the language. My visits there brought me into a mostly Irish speaking world. It was tangible proof that Irish was still a spoken community language. Not just a defunct language in the stewardship of a few thousand enthusiasts. The Gaeltacht was the spiritual home of the language - and the best reserve of saibhreas (richness).

If the Gaeltacht dies, I will consider the language to be dead.

Adam said...

I agree with RG - There's still hope but it lies in a new direction.

I think it's safe to say that to date the Gaeltacht project has been a failure but any plan that treats one tiny part of a country differently from another is always going to have problems - it also flies in the face of what a national language is supposed to be.

My girlfriend's little brother is going to a Gaelscoil in Cabra and after around 2 or so years in it he's pretty much fluent. His use of Irish has reignited the language in his household and while it's not bilingual, it's getting there.

His ability has even reminded me of just how bad my Irish is and has got me thinking about what I've missed out on - I'm now on the path to learning it again.

Give the Gaelscoileanna time - their massive popularity is relatively new and it will take years for their labours to bear fruit.

What is obvious is that the Government has been gifted with a grassroots passion for the language from many people and it must not squander it.

The Irish curriculum needs to be completely re-designed, the Government needs to stop talking about a bilingual society in aspirational terms and start coming up with real ideas and they need to lead by example too.

Then again, they've failed the language so many times before so why expect them to change now?

Maybe the only hope left for Irish is amongst normal people and thankfully an increasing number of them are looking for ways to make the language relevant to their daily lives. That's not something any Government policy can achieve.

vince said...

I do like this blog of yours.

But I think that there are two things at work. The Language, and the physical area. Years ago, a friend of mine, who worked in GB on the buildings, spoke of the Conemara men, who worked together and conversed in Irish, and who happily took my friend under their wing. A lad with only school Irish.
While, I have entered that place on Dominic St and met a group of people who would be described as, in any Language, A-holes.
There are few enough people who understand that the areas of Irish Established was a response to the method used by the large and not so large estates. A reply, in effect to a Tory gerrymander. Where people could survive because they used Irish.
But, this did not allow for extention, mostly because other than in Waterford where in Gods name would it go. But go it does, but not to D5/D4. But to anywhere the Irish are overseas.
You like na Gealtacth, because like the French, they are delighted with all who attempt to speak. But imagine the nightmare of a developer putting in place a community of Irish speakers in Dublin. In Bray, where there is a community in the language. Make the spatters from DU/NUI that one can meet through that acid green door on Dominic St. seem kind.
This Language of ours, will die a death when we loose our ability to say or think, 'will you ever fuck off', to any who try to make it the lingo of an exclusive society.

Conn said...

A Tomhaltaigh, a chara,

I too think you are a little pessimistic, but I welcome your analysis - and I think your "bridge" analogy is perfect!

I'm open to correction on this, but I don't believe that Minister O Cuiv has refused to publish the report. Elements of it may have been leaked prematurely - but that doesn't mean that the full report is ready for publication and or that it won't be published in due course.

Personally I'm not well informed on the wider issues of language policy and I'm not qualified to dispute your facts or your analysis. For what it's worth, I offer my view based on personal experience. I am a lot more confident about the future of the language now than I was as a teenager, 25 years ago, in a Gaeltacht secondary school. (I was a boarder, not a Gaeltacht native.)

Le gach dea-ghuí, ortsa, agus ar do bhlag taitneamhach,

Conn

Proinsias said...

A Chara,

"I learned Irish at college while doing my degree."

Cinnte! B'fhéidir go raibh sé ródhéanach duit cheana, a mhic...

Muna bhfaigheann an duine blaiseadh na teangan roimh aois a deich, ar a laghad, ní bheidh an "meas go smior" atá de dhíth chun an Ghaeilge a tharraingt slán. Is trua sin duit... Tá an cumas agat, ach níl an chloch bhua agat. Beidh an cumas, agus an meas, ag daltaí na Gaelscoileanna.

"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."

Mar a dúirt Mark Twain... 'Tá tuairiscí mo bháis iomarcach go mór.' Im' óige ní raibh Raidio na Gaeltachta, Telefís na Gaeilge, nó, fiú, LÁ NUA ann. Ní chloisfea focal Gaeilge lasmuigh den rang scoile. Anois, a bhuí an idirlíon, tá Gaeilgeóirí nua á bhualadh in áiteanna ar domhan nár leag Éireannach cos ariamh. Sea! sea! Baill de sheirbhísí rúnda a dtíortha féin, a bhformhór acu, b'fhéidir, ach nílimídne róroghnach idir Gaeilgeoirí. ;{) Tá Gaeltacht nuabhunaithe i gCeanada le déanaí.

"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."

Ní aontaím leat! Is toradh é seo do chumhacht an idirlín. Is furasta i bhfad leabhair a cheannach tríd an mheán sin, ná dul go dtí siopa leabhair. Tá na nuachtáin, fiú, ag fáil bháis faoi thionchar an idirlín ceanna. Tá níos mó leabhar Gaeilge, de gach cineál, feicthe agam ar líne ná faca mé riamh i siopaí leabhar.

"...but will European treaties or obscure directives really be read by a public who will not, or cannot, read Caisleáin Óir?

Agus, an dóigh leat go léigheann aon duine nádúrtha na cáipéisí sin... as teanga ar bith? Ní dóigh liom! Ach, cuirtear amach iad sa Fhrainncís, agus sa Ghearmáinis, agus ... Ba chóír iad a scríobh as Esperanto amháin. Ní dhéanadh sé difríocht dá laghad i saol an nghnáth dhuine.

"All too often the subject matter is the language itself."

Ní nach ionadh!

"Another deficiency undermines claims that Irish is central to our identity: it does not support a voice with a difference, an alternative “world view”."

Bhí sí lárnach dár féinaithne uair amháin... Níl sí chomh mór sin inniu... Beidh sí amárach... Athraíonn an saol... Ní dóigh liom gur 'ualach' teangain é 'dearcadh domhanda' a chumadh. Tá cumhacht níos tábhachtaí, san réimse sin, ná líofacht i dteanga ar leith. Ba cheart gach dearcadh a bheith ar fáil do Ghaeilgeoirí agus atá ar fáil do chainteoirí aon teanga eile. Tá dearcadh domhanda i bhfad níos fearr ag Éireannaigh inniu ná mar a bhí acu tamall bhig ó shin, nuair a tugadh 'Fear tinn na hEorpa' ar an tír. Buíochas le Dia!

"In The Wind that Shakes the Barley, the Irish language is given a token role."

Is scannán é... atá le chur os comhair Béarlóirí, den chuid is mó. Bheadh leagan Gaeilge, fiú trí fhuaimrian, úsáideach, agus é a thaispeáint do dhaltaí na Gaelscoileanna, b'fhéidir.

...and so few are aware of its literary cannon,...

Cé orthu atá an locht, mar sin? An Rialtas? Na scoileanna? An coras oideachais? Is féidir an fhadhb sin a leigheas, agus is gá!

"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."

Is dóigh liom go bhfuil
"malairteacht" ag baint leis an Ghaeilge, maith go leor, ach ní maith leis an daonra an 'malairt' sin. 'Sé sin go bhfuil íomhá na talmhaíochta uirthi fós, agus ní thaitníon an íomhá sin don daonra, ná don aos óg, ach go háirithe, inniu. Caithfidh go bhfuil sé in am an íomhá sin a bhriseadh, agus ceann nua, neamh-Ghaeltachta, nua-aoiseach, a chumadh.

Is saothar fada trom é bheith i mbun athbheochana na teangain, agus ní obair é do dhaoine lagmhisniúla. In ainneoin statisticí, is rud é an teanga Gaeilge a bhfuil grá agus meas ag a lán daoine uirthi. Tá deiseanna ann inniu, nach raibh ann tamall bhig ó shin, chun na teanga a chur os comhair na ndaoine, agus a háilleacht agus a bhfiúntas a thaispeáint daoibh. Caithfidh bród a chur ins na bpáistí don
seod iontach seo a tugadh dúinn ó ár sinsir. Muna bhfuil tábhacht ar bith eile inti, is é an nasc seo lenár sinsir atá i measc na rudaí nár chóir dúinn a ligint ar lár. An bhfuilimidne fós sliocht na ghlúnta a d'imigh romhainn, no nach bhfuil?

Tá sé thar a bheith in am an droichead nua a thógáil, le cloiche nuaghearrtha, de ábhar an saol atá inniu ann, idir na glúnta atá imithe agus na cinn atá le teacht fós. 'Ní neart go chur le chéile.'

Proinsias

dialoguentai said...

A Phroinsis,
cé go n'aontaím le d'ainilis den chuid is mó, sílim go bhfuil sé seafóideach amach is amach a rá mura bhfuil na daoine sáite sa teanga roimh deich mbliana d'aois go bhfuil an bua caillte (agus déanann tú uasal le híseal le go leor daoine fosta, ach b'fhéidir sé seo an sprioc atá agatsa?). Bhuail mé le go leor daoine agus an teanga foghlamtha acu mar dhaoine fásta agus an Ghaeilge go smior iontu anois. Is cosúil go raibh rud inteacht iontu cheana féin, is gur chuir an teanga an rud seo in iúl dóibh. San am chéanna, bhuail mé le daoine a bhí sáite sa teanga mar phaistí agus anois tá siad de nós cuma liom fá dtaobh di. Ní bhaineann na rialacha dochta cosúil leis an ceann atá curtha in iúl agatsa ach amháin leis an choimpléasc uaisleachta atá ag cainteorí áirithe agus an dúil atá acu iad féin a chur chun tosaigh. Braitheann sé ar an duine agus ní chuidíonn an cineál raiméise seo le cas an tenga i dtreo ar bith.

Lisa said...

scriobhann tu ''the death of the irish language'".ni aontaim leat go hiomlain.ta a fhios agam nach bhfuil moran suim ag daoine eagsula i ngaeilge ach,deireadh leis an teanga??ta a lan cursai ar fud na tire-ag an deireadh seachtaine,i rith an lae agus i rith na hoiche agus bionn speis ag a lan daoine.Bhuel,ta tu ag caint faoi Ghaeilge ach scriobhann tu as bearla.cen fath??ni thuigim.ma ta tu ag caint faoi Ghaeilge,bron orm ag becieadh amach..as gaeilge le do thoill!!

Tomaltach said...

A Lisa,

I mo thuairim-se tá an teanga ag meath go fóill. Mar a dúirt mé, is gearr go mbeidh deireadh leí sa Ghaeltacht mar theanga phobail agus níl aon fhianaise ann go bhfásann clanna nó pobail le Gaeilge as síol na Gaelscoilíochta. Tá súil agam go bhfuil dul amú orm. Is breá liom í mar theanga.

Béarla is mó scríobhaim faoi láthair - mar go bhfuil mé (dar liom) níos oilte i mBéaral, níos líofa. Agus tuigim freisin go bhfuil dá chineál leitheoir ann - daoine a thuigeann Gaeilge agus Béarla; is daoine nach dtuigeann ach Béarla. Is maith liom an dá thrá a fhreastal! Tá sé ar intinn agam níos mó Gaeilge a scríobh amach anseo.

Colm said...

"If the Gaeltacht dies, I will consider the language to be dead."

The language won't be dead but the 'blas' will be gone surely. It would be a national tragedy to lose the Gaeltacht. Without the Gaeltacht the language retreats to status as a 'hobby language' spoken in artificial coffee meetings in universities or used online in Irish language groups. I love going to the Gaeltacht and speaking the language where it has hung on. It's sad that during college I didn't get a chance to use the language outside of Clubanna na Gaeilge.

"Give the Gaelscoileanna time - their massive popularity is relatively new and it will take years for their labours to bear fruit"

I agree that the Gaelscoil movement is the key to spreading Irish outisde of the Gaeltacht.

I aliken use of Irish to the telephone. The more people that have a telephone the more is the use that is made of it. We have to reach a critical mass with Irish. More and more people need to re-learn it and use it. The more it is used the more speakers it will attract and hopefully the situation will all snow-ball in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Is breá liom an Ghaeilge a fheiceáil.

Beannachtaí!

Ní Mhurchadha said...

A Chairde,
Le déanaí d'iarraidh orm díospóireacht a dhéanamh trí Bhéarla- "This house would remove all state support for the Irish language outside of the classroom." ( i am opposing this motion) Táim fíor bhuíoch as an méíd ata pléite agaibh. Tá sé soiléir ón meid atá scríobhta go bhfuil suim agus grá láidir agaibh don dteanga agus is deas sin a fheiscint. Bheidhsa fíor buíoch díobh go léir. mara deireann an sean fhocal- Tir gan teanga,tír gan anam.

Le Meas. . .

Ní Mhurchadha said...

A Chairde,
Le déanaí d'iarraidh orm díospóireacht a dhéanamh trí Bhéarla- "This house would remove all state support for the Irish language outside of the classroom." ( i am opposing this motion) Táim fíor bhuíoch as an méíd ata pléite agaibh. Tá sé soiléir ón meid atá scríobhta go bhfuil suim agus grá láidir agaibh don dteanga agus is deas sin a fheiscint. Bheidhsa fíor buíoch díobh go léir dá gcuireadh sibh smaointí in úil dom, chabhróidh se go mór liom. Mara deireann an sean fhocal- Tir gan teanga,tír gan anam.

Le Meas. . .

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tomaltach. I'm just back from Corca Dhuibhne agus tá an Ghaelainn ansin lag go leor. With the possible exception of Baile an Fheirtearaigh, English is the main language of communication by all.