I need write nothing else other than that title for some people to bristle with contempt and déistín and fuath at the mere memory of having to spend 13 years of ill-guided tuition in a language which, in their eyes, had neither a practical use nor a phonemic character pleasurable to the ear. I am of course talking about the Irish language, or Gaeilge to give her (and yes it’s a feminine noun) her proper title (although Donegal people would call her Gaeilig and Munster people would call her Gaeluinn.)
I’ve had an unusual interaction with the language, in that I came back to it as an adult as many people seem to, with an interest to learn how to speak it fluently. I had studied in school to not much avail apart from being able to write to my fictional pen pal, Seán de Búrca, who lived at Teach na Sí, Bóthar na Trá, Iascaigh, Co. Shligigh. Actually, it strikes me that this is one of the few salient elements of my formal Irish education which I can remember clearly. Oh the chats that Seán and myself would have! There was this one time when the family home had mice and they had to evacuate the house and live in a caravan for the week (bit extreme on reflection). Another when he went on holidays approximately 9 miles up the road to Enniscrone (they were a family of small means and smaller imagination). These things I remember as they were vivid and bright and loud in my consciousness.
However, when it came to speaking the language, well that was an entirely different ceist. I could perhaps, at a push, introduce myself and order a burgar agus sceallóga. I probably wouldn’t have starved, but anything beyond that I’d be struggling. Fast-forward to me at about the age of 21 and I regained an interest in the language, mostly owing to a conversation with a Hungarian guy I was working with who said ‘you don’t speak it?? But this is crazy? How can you spend 13 years learning a language and not be able to speak it??’ Bear in mind that he was having this reasonably complex conversation with me in a language which he himself had only begun to grasp about three months previous. Three months to have a conversation about socio-linguistics and teaching methods vs thirteen years to be able to order a bag of chips.
Now, it’s important that I stress at this point that I lay no blame at my teacher for my lack of proficiency in the language after that amount of schooling. Teaching is a tough f%&king job and you try corralling hormone-laden teenagers into some sort of structured language learning. It’s like trying to play fetch with a cat. Sure you can throw the stick but it’s going to be a one-sided activity for the most part. The fact remains however, that most of my current grasp of the language (people confuse me for a native speaker a lot of the time) comes from having spoken with native speakers and having had conversations, not about how many people are in my family and the last time I went to Mosney, ACTUAL conversations regular people have about the shite weather and the price of petrol, in a Gaeltacht area called Ceathrú Thaidhg in Erris in northernmost County Mayo.
This tiny village is a good reflection for the language itself in many ways. It’s somewhat isolated owing to the lack of decent roads and transport in the area, but it is wild and beautiful and friendly and romantic and all of those other things with which we traditionally associate Gaeldom. In a recent study, however, it was found that the number of speakers here, the last strong Gaeltacht in Mayo, has declined starkly, as well as in Spidéal in County Galway, a place name strongly associated with the language in many people’s minds. It was also found that the language may no longer be the primary means of communication in those Gaeltacht areas in ten years’ time. This is hardly surprising when considering the toll that emigration and unemployment have taken on the western seaboard.
Yet, it sits juxtaposed to people I know who live in the language. I know a Brazillian girl who sings sean nós songs with a strong Kerry accent. I know a French Bon Vivant who is pretty much a local in Tuar Mhic Éadaigh. Not to mention there’s a Finnish author who has written erotic fiction in Donegal Irish (and I really hope it gets turned into a movie, cast with the presenters of An Aimsear Láithreach)
So while the leaving cert students are investigating their paper 1 and having to negotiate the intricacies of the poetry of Pádraig Ó Conaire and ‘she who shall not be named’ (Peig), it’s probably appropriate to consider what place does Irish have amongst the entire population. We have decided (thankfully) that we want to be a more tolerant and understanding place and that repressions of the past have no place in the New Ireland. These are great things, fantastic leaps of progress compared to the place we’ve come from but culturally, are we also dismissing other things which might have value? Is Irish to become a vestigial remnant of an older, extinct culture for much of the population, if it isn’t already? Will Irish and Irish culture now become something for tourists to enjoy? Will the Gaeltacht of the future be in Canada or Finland? Perhaps.