The Future Of The Irish Language

It’s been a while since Ciara Ní É’s Tweet on the Irish language went viral and caught the attention of Gaeilgeoirs and English speakers alike. Her Tweet prompted a social media revolution whereby Irish language speakers posted common phrases that have been directed towards them. However, instead of using the word “Irish/Gaeilge”, different languages were substituted to prove just how flawed and unwarranted these arguments are. With hundreds of Tweets posted within a few hours, the hashtag dominated my Twitter timeline, and quickly became a trending topic in the country for some time;

Ciara’s efforts are not unexplored in today’s society, especially during Bliain na Gaeilge, as many other Irish Language campaigns across the country have caught the public eye in the last few months. With #AchtAnois and #DeargLeFearg marches for a Language Rights Act in the North, to petitions online to have Irish rap-group “Kneecap” and their song “C.E.A.R.T.A” unbanned from Irish airways, or even the most recent example of Irish Language tweets from the world’s biggest drag superstar, RuPaul Charles; this is not a fresh concept. And yet, any talk of Gaeilge outside the realm of its supposed “niche community” seems to break the Irish internet faster than Kim K’s arse!

But why is this even the case in our country? Why is it that speakers of Irish have to take to the streets to demand equal rights for their mother tongue? Why is it that it takes a celebrity to raise awareness about a language he’s probably never spoken aloud? Why is it that this very article will leave people turning their noses up at “another crazy Gaeilge-head” demanding to be taken serious? Having been through four years of Irish at third level, both at an Undergrad and a Master’s level; I blame our education system.

It is by no means a new argument, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed once again in the hopes that somehow, it will inspire the change that is so desperately needed in this country. It is one thing for someone with no interest in the language to condemn its use and – through association – importance, but coming from someone who lives and breathes Gaeilge, I am saying that change is needed in our school system.

The different between second and third level Irish is monumental. There are such drastic contrasts between the way it is taught, the way it is received, and the opportunities there are to get involved with it. I attended a school where my Irish classes weren’t even taught through Irish, which in hindsight, is something that baffles me. I had no idea that nouns had genders, I didn’t have basic vocabulary and I hadn’t even heard of the Tuiseal Ginideach! A large part of me hopes I am alone in this experience, but I very much doubt that. My classes were focused primarily on learning off each ‘Sraith Pictiúr’ by heart – the same summary everyone in the class received – and transcribing sample answers on prose, poetry and drama to a point where muscle-memory could get me through. This is a far cry from university level teaching, where most if not all emphasis is put on grammar and fluency.

Of course, there will always be those who do not like Irish, just like there are those who do not – and will never – like maths or physics. But personal interests and ability are not part of this argument. I never enjoyed maths, I was never good at maths and it has not been applicable in my life since – as someone pursuing a career in a completely unrelated field. I can however, appreciate its use and furthermore, its importance to those pursuing a career in that field. Should it be mandatory for everyone when most of what we learn isn’t applicable? That’s a rant for a different day.

Languages are different, I believe – especially our national tongue. It is more than just a school subject; it is a part of our culture, our freedom, and our identity as Irish people. As vital as it is to promote the Gaelic language however, our pitiful school system is driving the work of past revivalist movements across the globe into the ground head first (dramatic I know, but painfully true). The language deserves more respect than this, and should not be deemed ‘useless’, ‘dead’ or ‘dying’ simply because it is being butchered by the Junior and Leaving Certificate syllabus. The decades of work of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) should not be ignored simply because the Irish government won’t pay attention to those who speak the language on a daily basis. There should be a certain degree of pride in learning our language, and that will not be attained through memorising sample answers for two years.

It is important to stress that I am not criticising the teachers I myself have had, they were simply making do with what they had. What I am saying is maybe this is why there are miserable teachers out there; because they are sick of reciting “Géibheann” over and over again until their classes can do the same. This will never spur a love for the language because the poem itself cannot be appreciated fully when the words are force-fed. “An Triail” cannot be celebrated as a marvellous fuck you to the oppressive, Catholic Ireland of the past, because all that matters is learning off quotes that will tie in to a question predicted to come up.

This system never has and never will work. Rote learning is a disgrace and change is needed. Surely a system that deters people with both a love for teaching and a love for the Irish language from becoming an Irish teacher is all the evidence needed for reform. This system is so clearly flawed, it irks my being that it has stayed the same for so long despite clear protest from the Irish populace. The Irish language is more than just your “cúpla focal” while abroad to call some Spanish man an idiot without him understanding you, or asking to go to the bathroom randomly. It is our identity, one that so many Irish men and women lost their lives to achieve.

While researching Douglas Hyde’s part in the Gaelic revival as part of my Masters, I found a passage of writing that really stood out. As Ireland’s first President, the first Modern Irish lecturer in UCD and the first President of Conradh na Gaeilge, Hyde reiterates a common argument that truly makes you think. If one was to see a classroom in France, or Germany, or Spain (apart from them being clearly better looking than we are, on average), what would set them aside from the Irish isn’t the layout of the classroom, the mountains to be seen from the window or the clothes that they wear. All these factors are constants. It is the language they speak that differentiates them from one another. But taking the same scenario, with a classroom in Sligo and a classroom in Chester, what differentiates these? They may have a different accent, but they speak the same tongue.

I consider myself an optimistic realist, and I believe that the future is bright for Irish as a language, but Irish as a school subject needs to be drastically improved for the sake of the Gaeilgeoirs of the future. I am in no way disreguarding the work ar son na Gaeilge since the days of de hÍde and Conradh na Gaeilge, but there are still a frightening number of people who actively disregard the importance of our national tongue. I’m not saying a reform of the school system will fix anything overnight, but it’s a massive, necessary start. Change is needed. Acht Anois.

Still here? Check this out: The Truth About Being An Intern