Let’s face it, the battle to save the language is lost

With the author’s permission we reprint Robin Bury’s op ed from the Irish Times a week or two back, which argues that compulsion to learn the language in the Republic is having the opposite from the desired effect of saving it. Instead, he argues it merely makes the language ‘uncool’ and subject to ridicule. It goes hand in hand with Ireland’s monoglot English status, which he claims puts us on a par with Portugal for single language speakers. By Robin Bury

Despite the plans and incentives, Irish is all but dead. Isn’t it time to make it optional? writes Robin Bury

Brian Fleming tells us that thousands of students are opting out of learning Irish (Education Today, January 17th, 2006). An ESRI study concludes that Irish is “the least popular subjects among school students”. What has gone wrong? Why after 80 years of force-feeding is Irish so unpopular and spoken by practically no one?

Let me explain why the language is all but dead, especially in the quiet, once isolated country places where it was the thriving first language, the small Gaeltacht areas. The truth is that today fewer than 20,000 people speak Irish as their native language.

Reg Hindley, a former lecturer at Bradford University, has specialised in studying both Irish and Welsh. He took a sabbatical year from Bradford to study the status of the Irish and
wrote a book called The Death of the Irish Language, published in 1990. His main conclusion is clear and uncompromising. He states: “There is no doubt that the Irish language is now dying”. In effect, we are now vying with Portugal as the most monolingual country in Europe – but at least in Portugal the official language is Portuguese.

Hindley believes the current generation of children who are first language native speakers may well be the last. And remember, all these children speak fluent English. They know, as do their parents, that their job prospects are zero if they do not speak English. Their parents also know that this country would never have attracted massive inward investment if we spoke Irish, not English.

Unlike Dublin 4 parents, we know that the children in Gaeltacht areas think Irish is really quite boring and certainly not cool. But the State has been blinded to these realities. “The failure to reconcile romantic nationalism and nationalist myth with the realities of Gaeltacht life has been a conspicuous element in the failure to save the language”, according to Hindley.

The reasons Irish is dying are obvious. The language once thrived in the isolated small communities which spoke it. With the coming of the motorcar, the advent of mass tourism and emigration all this ended. Dingle, for instance, now depends on tourism for its main source of income, and these tourists speak English.

But what happens if Irish dies in the Gaeltacht areas, as now seems inevitable? “A country which cannot adequately support at home the people who speak its dying national language will have grave difficulties in sustaining it into the future,” writes Hindley.

Do the parents believe this? Doubtful. They will be happy to have their children speaking classroom Irish, a dumbed-down, easier-to-learn version of Irish that native Irish speakers find almost incomprehensible. And can Irish be sustained only by enthusiastic intellectuals who associate language with nation?

Understandable as it was that the new Free State had as a top priority to revive Irish, it was probably too late by 1922 to succeed. In that year only a handful of people were native, monoglot speakers. That decline began as far back as the late 17th century when parents increasingly encouraged their children to speak English, especially as the Penal Laws were relaxed.

By the late 18th century Irish was “an interest for scholars and occasional Protestant activists as a medium for conversions”, according to Hindley. Put simply, Irish people had decided over some 200 years to speak English for sensible pragmatic reasons.

Let us face facts: despite all sorts of ingenious plans and incentives, the battle has been lost. And students know it. Irish is not a “sexy” language. Even in Gaeltacht areas teenagers have rejected it as a language of romance. One said: “But if you went to a disco in Galway and asked someone to dance in Irish, you’d be absolutely shunned. It’s just so uncool, man.” For sheer compression, as an obituary for a language, that would be very hard to beat.

It was once believed that the failure to embrace the language was to disavow your very Irishness. This spirit is alive today among many adults, but our youth have learned that the way to gain access to knowledge and power is through the language of the Anglophone world.

Is it not time to make Irish optional?

Robin Bury is chairman of Reform, a non-profit, multidenom-inational organisation that aims to foster a pluralist Ireland. www.Reform.org

  • J McConnell


    So, correct me if I am wrong, if I was to summarize your arguments for compulsory Irish it is simply that if it was not compulsory the percentage choosing to study it at school would rapidly decline to irrelevance.

    If you did not force them to learn it, they would not choose to learn it.

    This would indicate that you really dont believe that there is any real support for the study of the Irish language among the general population. Vague sentiments of support, yes, but if given a real choice they would direct their children very quickly away from Irish and towards subject that are actually relevant and useful.

    So compulsory Irish does not represent the will of the majority, but rather the will of a minority pressure group and the acquiescence of the passive majority.

    You believe that Irish should be compulsory as a matter of public policy, but as the language has almost no place in the adult lives in the vast majority of students who pass through the system it ceases to be a matter of social or cultural policy and a matter of purely political policy.

    The Irish language has no role in the daily lives of the vast majority of the general population, the Irish language is a core part of Irish identity politics, therefor compulsory Irish language *is* a purely political policy matter. An opinion of a minority pressure group rather than a reflection of the beliefs and sentiments of the majority.

    It is ultimately all politics, whether you recognize it as such or not.

    Other points. Breton was never compulsory in French schools. Quite the opposite. Breton had been actively suppressed in education since the time of the 3’rd Republic Even school-children of my parents generation were actively punished at school for speaking Breton at any time during the school day or anywhere on the school premises. Breton classes are now available as part of the standard curriculum. The take up of the starter classes is fairly strong among younger students but the drop out rate is fairly high so that by middle school its down to around 10%. No surprises here. Breton, like Irish, is just another peasant language with little relevance or interest to the vast majority of students. And Breton, just like Irish, has tended to become the hobby language of strident nationalists and their children. A fairly unappealing cultural ghetto for most ordinary students.

    Last point. To answer your question, which I answered before, my 5 years of IC and LC French proved to be a foundation, no matter how badly taught, for my knowledge of a language which I have heard and used on almost a daily basis for most of the last decade and a half.

    My 12 years of compulsory Irish has been used exactly twice, on both occasions to understand archetypical Gaelgoirs speaking Irish *at* me. On both occasions I replied in English and after a few minutes they got it through their thick skulls that I was not going to go along their attempts at linguistic oneupmanship. They switched from badly spoken school-Irish, which was the native language of neither party, to speaking English, the native language of both parties.

    Not a very good return for 12 years of misery. Five minuets of deflecting asinine behavior by boorish people. Even my 3 years of I.C Latin has shown a better return than that over the years.

  • Denny Boy

    Hello again. Well, when Slugger bloggers actually urged their contributors to sabotage the very worthy Wikipedia (supported by donations, mind you, just like Slugger) I stopped posting.

    But I feel I do have to return temporarily, if only to say: I told you so.

    Why? I seem to recall taking part in a discussion last year re compulsory Irish, a little like this one really. My position was and remains that Irish is a criminal waste of a child’s school time. Not so, some said. Sure aren’t we so good at languages because we were taught the Irish.

    Well, I’m sorry to disillusion you, but today’s Irish Independent blows a great big hole in that argument, for it confirms what I believed all along. The Irish can barely speak and write English and are bottom of the European league where speaking a second language is concerned.

    But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s the article:


    Literacy on the wane as schools fail students

    A new report shows we are worst in Europe for languages

    Katherine Donnelly and Conor Sweeney

    DISTURBING new findings about the state of education in Ireland can be revealed today.

    Literacy levels have dropped, according to examiners of some of last year’s Junior Certificate papers.

    They also found entire classes of potential honours students were entered at the wrong level, thereby jeopardising their chances of taking honours in the Leaving Cert.

    And in a separate report, an EU survey showed that Irish people have the worst record for second languages in Europe – and aren’t bothered to improve their skills.

    The 2005 exam reports also found that Leaving Certificate Agricultural Science students downloaded material from the internet or the farm advisory body Teagasc and pasted it straight into their projects.

    The last time a report on Junior Cert history at Ordinary Level was published was in 2001.

    In a stinging indictment of broader education standards, the 2005 examiners say: “The most significant addition to the points made by the examiners in that year has been the observation that standards of literacy, in particular the ability to write in coherent, continuous prose, have declined.”

    Poor knowledge of basic vocabulary, such as the days of the week, among Junior Certificate French candidates was also identified in a series of chief examiners reports for 2005. These were published by the State Examinations Commission.

    Plagiarism is a growing phenomenon worldwide and examiners of the Leaving Certificate Agricultural Science paper warned that over-dependence on it is to the detriment of genuine investigative work.

    According to the EU language survey, not only do two-thirds of Irish people admit they can‘t speak any language except their mother tongue, but very few believe they should bother learning two more.

    The report also discovered that just 9pc of those surveyed in Ireland claim they could speak Irish sufficiently well to hold a conversation. The detailed comparison across Europe places Ireland in very last place for linguistic skills – even behind the UK, which is notorious for its poor grasp of languages.

    Ireland is the only EU country with no provision for teaching modern language in primary schools.


    I rather think that says it all, don’t you?


    Denny Boy

  • JMcC
    “So, correct me if I am wrong….”

    You are very wrong but i’m not going to waste my time correcting you. Re-read the posts if you wish.

    “To answer your question, which I answered before …”

    I asked a few questions actually.
    You were forced to learn French just as you were forced to learn Irish yet it’s only Irish you seem to hate. That combined with your “Breton, like Irish, is just another peasant language” says quite a lot about where you stand.

    I hope you’re not using the truely idiotic argument that Irish is blame for our language woes?
    And I can’t remember anyone ever claimning the Irish were good at languages.

    “I rather think that says it all, don’t you?”

    No, it says feck all actually.

  • J McConnell


    I have read your posts and they seem to suffer from the logical incoherency that seems to be so typical of the Irish language lobby. The language is very important to me, so a policy which has seen a 90% decline in the usage of the language, and shows no possibility of reversing this decline, has my full support.

    > You were forced to learn French just as you were forced to learn Irish yet it’s only Irish you seem to hate.

    But we have covered this particular subject several times before. What is the problem you have with telling the difference between compulsory and required? Or a living language spoken by several hundred millon people and a dead language spoken by 40,000?

    > “Breton, like Irish, is just another peasant language” says quite a lot about where you stand.

    Yes. Arguing on facts. Both languages were never the language of the urban elites or middle classes. They were the languages of the rural peasantry. You would have found as much Breton spoken in Nantes and Rennes over the last few hundred years as you would have found Irish spoken in Dublin or Cork. Not a lot apart from market days..

    And Breton, as it is taught in the western departments, has little relevance to modern students because of this very fact. Just like Irish.

    But that seems to be the main difference between our line of argumentation. I argue from observation and fact, you argue from – what? Muddle headed sentiment?

    Its probably because the majority of my immediate family is bilingual that I find the arguments of the pro-compulsory Irish lobby so fatuous and perverse. By bilingual I dont mean just fluent in a second language but bilingual as in having lived extended periods of time in environments where their primary daily language was not their mother-tongue. In fact two of my immediate family are so profoundly bilingual as to be de-facto native speakers of their second language.

    I do not consider myself either truly fluent or bilingual because, so far, I have never lived long enough in a non-anglophone environment to develop true fluency (mainly due to l’inspecteur des impôts) – but I have spent my whole adult life surrounded by bilingualism and living in a polyglot environment. In fact the only really mono-glot city I have ever lived in was pre-Celtic Tiger Dublin.

    So I do not come from the mono-glot, only speaking English with a smattering of Irish and maybe some French or German, that is the background of the vast majority of people in Ireland, and my guess, almost everyone who seems to disagree with me here.

    The fact that you personally are in Finland, the only country in Europe which has language politics that even begin to come close to the situation in Ireland just adds to the general oddness of your line of argument. Maybe you are as oblivious to the deep enmity the language policies cause in Finland as you seem to be about the extreme ghettoization of usage of Irish in Ireland. Or the fact the Ireland is now truly polyglot nation, that you will hear more Thai, South American Portuguese and West African French than Irish spoken on the street in Ireland today.

    Either way. My position will win out in the end. Irish will cease to be compulsory at some future date, just like Latin, and the language will continue its path of the last 70 years towards total extinction as the daily language of ordinary people. And then it will be left as the plaything of language hobbyist like yourself who can indulge their enthusiasm to their hearts content without people like me upsetting your cozy little world.

  • BeannaBinneUaine

    Bhuel, a chairde
    D’éirigh sé leadránach nuair a thosaigh mé an cac seo a léamh. Nach iontach é nach raibh focal ar bith scríofa anseo sa Ghaeilge? – Cén fáth? Níl suim dá laghad ar Ghaeilgeoirí bheith ag troid nó ag argóint le daoine nach bhfuil an tsuim céanna acu agus aithníonn siad nach fiú é ar chor ar bith- cosúil le gad a chur sa ghaineamh!
    Níl acu ach cuntas a dhéanamh ar an mhéid bunscoileanna atá ag fás faoi láthair ar fud na tíre, ar an mhéid daoine atá ag freastal ar ranganna, scoileanna samhraidh, imeachtaí cultúrtha srl….
    Ní raibh agam ach ‘póg mo thoin agus tiocfaidh ár lá’ nuair a shocraigh mé náire a chur uaim agus Gaeilge a fhoghlaim agus d’oscail domhain eile nach raibh a fhios agam a bhí ann. Is maith an rud a rinne mé é agus anois tá mé breá sásta mo pháirt a ghlacadh chun spéis agus suim i dteanga ár dTíre a mhúscailt agus a fhás, agus chuige sin, mholfainn dóibh siúd atá ag éisteacht liom an rud céanna a dhéanamh. Ádh mór oraibh!

  • JMcC
    “But we have covered this particular subject several times before. What is the problem you have with telling the difference between compulsory and required?”

    Unfortunatly it’s YOU who seem to have a problem getting this. Or more likely you get it but don’t have the honesty to admit it. You had to learn both languages but only dislike Irish. You can pretend the difference is who has set the requirement but we both know the truth don’t we.

    “Yes. Arguing on facts. Both languages were never the language of the urban elites or middle classes.”

    Facts? You might want to check those facts.
    And I don’t think there are any peasants around today …. or perhaps to you any Irish speaker is a peasant.

    “I argue from observation and fact”


  • Jill Robinson

    Maca opined: “And I don’t think there are any peasants around today”

    Er, a peasant is somebody who lives in the country. The French call them “paysans,” from “pays” meaning country. Showing off my bilingualism here 🙂

    And there are still a lot of them around:

    “In 1800, according to the United Nations, only two percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Now half of us are urban dwellers. In the developed world, three-quarters live in urban areas and in the next twenty-five years that will increase to 85 percent. Even though Africa is still predominantly rural, with only about a third of the population living in urban areas, it is urbanizing faster than any other part of the world. China, which is even less urbanized than Africa, is urbanizing at a rapid rate and will be more than half urban in a decade or so.”