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

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