Irish in a pluralist society…

The MacGill Summer School continues to probe the most contentious political and cultural issues. Yesterday, they assembled a panel on the Irish language, ably chaired no doubt, by Foinse‘s erudite political analyst, Póilín Ní Chiaráin. We reproduce one of the paper’s presented yesterday by Robin Bury of the Reform group below.

By Robin Bury

LAST TIME I SPOKE ON THIS SUBJECT THE REFORM MOVEMENT WAS ATTACKED BY AN AUSTRALIAN IMMIGRANT LEARNING IRISH HERE AND SHE READ OUT A BLOGGER’S OPINION ON THE REFORM WEBSITE THAT SAID IRISH SHOULD BE POURED DOWN THE SINK AND THE PLUG PUT ON IT.

SO MAYBE I HAD FIRST SAY WHAT REFORM’S POLICY TOWARDS THE LANGUAGE IS.

IT IS TWOFOLD

1 WE QUESTION THE COMPULSORY NATURE OF IRISH FOR MANY REASONS AND I WILL EXPLAIN WHY

2 WE THINK IRISH AND ENGLISH SHOULD BE GIVEN PARITY OF ESTEEM IN THE CONSTITUTION AND BE EQUAL NATIONAL LANGUAGES AND ENGLISH BE GIVEN PRECEDENCE IN THE EVENT OF LEGAL CONFLICT TO REFLECT THE REALITY OF THE IRISH SITUATION.

AFTER ALL IRISH PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH AS THEIR TONGUE AND IT IS THE LANGUAGE OF THE IRISH DIASPORA.

LET ME START BY SAYING A LANGUAGE IS A THING OF BEAUTY AND SHOULD BE CHERISHED. LET US REMEMBER THAT NO 2 LANGUAGES PUT THE WORLD IN THE SAME ORDER.

BUT IS ANOTHER MATTER TO CRITICISE THE WAY THE LANGUAGE HAS BEEN HANDLED SINCE INDEPENDENCE.

MY POSITION IS I WAS TAUGHT IRISH FROM 8 YRS TO 17 YEARS, YET CAN ONLY SPEAK A FEW SENTENCES, LIKE MOST PEOPLE. LIKE MY THREE CHILDREN WHO LEARNT IRISH.

LET ME START WITH A FEW QUOTES

THE IRISH INDEPENDENT REPORTED ON 23 JUNE THAT

ITS OFFICIAL: STANDARD OF SPOKEN IRISH HAS GONE INTO FREEHALL. I WILL RETURN TO THAT.

IN THE IRISH TIMES 17TH JAN. BRIAN FLEMING TOLD US

“THOUSANDS OF STUDENTS ARE OPTING OUT OF LEARNING IRISH.”

A RECENT ESRI STUDY CONCLUDES THAT IRISH IS “ THE LEAST POPULAR SUBJECT AMONG SCHOOL STUDENTS”

AS FOR THE GAELTACHT AREAS, THE BEDROCK FOR IRISH LANGUAGE SPEAKERS, HERE IS WHAT REG HINDLEY WROTE IN HIS BOOK, “THE DEATH OF THE IRISH LANGUAGE”

A country which cannot adequately support at home the people who speak its dying language will have grave difficulties in sustaining it into the future”

I PROPOSE TO CONTRAST THE STATUS OF THE IRISH LANGUAGE BEFORE INDEPENDENCE IN 1893, WHEN THE GAELIC LEAGUE STARTED, WITH THE STATE IT IS IN TO-DAY.

I WILL BRIEFLY SPEAK ABOUT THIS BUT IN FACT, THE LANGUAGE HAD BEEN DYING FOR 2 ½ CENTURIES BEFORE THE GAELIC LEAGUE WAS FOUNDED. IT IS A MYTH TO STATE THAT IRISH WAS SPOKEN WIDELY BEFORE 1922.

AS LONG AGO AS 1700 IRISH WAS NO LONGER THE FIRST LANGUAGE OF IRISH ROMAN CATHOLIC IRELAND.

BY THE LATE 18TH CENTURY IRISH WAS AN INTEREST FOR SCHOLARS AND OCCASIONAL PROTESTANT ACTIVISTS AS A MEDIUM FOR CONVERSIONS.

WHY DID IT DIE OUT? BECAUSE AFTER THE PENAL LAWS WERE RELAXED, OPPORTUNITIES AROSE FOR THE CATHOLIC MIDDLE CLASSES AND ENGLISH WAS THE LANGUAGE OF EDUCATED PEOPLE.

IT WAS DAMIEN KIBERD WHO SAID THE IRISH ARE A PRAGMATIC PEOPLE WHO REJECTED IRISH TO GET ON IN LIFE.

The writer of the 1871 census wrote:

“There can be no error in the belief that within a relatively a few years Irish will have taken its place among the languages that have ceased to exist”

In 1905 the League paper, An Claidheamh Soluis, in despair, asked

IS THE IRISH LANGUAGE DYING?

Desmond FitzGerald, Garret’s father, saw the language before the Great War as a dying one. He believed it was losing its richness of expression and idiom.

HERE ARE SOME FACTS

BEFORE INDEPENDENCE, THE LANGUAGE HAD BEEN SUBSTANTIALLY ABANDONED BY THE MASS OF THE POPULATION AND ALL THE MAIN TOWNS.

BEFORE THE LEAGUE STARTED, ONLY 3.5% OF ALL CHILDREN UNDER 10 SPOKE IRISH.

IN 1911 16,870 SPOKE IRISH ONLY. TO-DAY NO MORE THAN 20,000 SPEAK IRISH AS THEIR NATIVE TONGUE BUT THEY ALL SPEAK ENGLISH. THERE ARE NO MONOLINGUAL IRISH SPEAKERS LEFT.

OUTSIDE THE GAELTACHT AREAS ONLY 12% SPOKE IRISH BY 1926.

I believe the motivation to revive Irish was very understandable at the time of independence, IN THE NAME OF ROMANTIC NATIONALISM, VERY STRONG IN EUROPE AT THAT TIME.

In the words of the historian FSL Lyons,

“It was accepted in principle even if practice lagged far behind, that Irish was an essential element in the establishment of a separate national identity”.

But all the evidence indicates that it was too late…we are after all situated between 2 huge English speaking blocks with which we have deep and lasting relationships.

And let us not forget the saying from a Gaeltacht area

IRISH CAN BUTTER NO BREAD

LET US NOW TURN TO THE STATE OF THE IRISH LANGUAGE OVER A CENTURY LATER.

After a hundred years of using all sorts of ingenious and even admirable schemes, including teaching through the medium, compulsion, bribery and discrimination, as I have said, no more than 20,000 speak Irish as their native tongue and all of these speak English. The BASIC AND UNDISPUTABLE FACT IS THAT THE native tongue of the Irish today is English and we are one of the most monolingual countries in Europe.

And Irish has all but disappeared in the Gaeltacht

Emigration, depopulation, tourism, the advent of the car, mass culture, esp TV, sports played their part in its decline. Also there tends to be a paucity of good Irish textbooks, esp in the more technical subjects. Where are the racy magazines and pop culture in Irish?

In Gaeltacht areas Gemma O’Doherty of the Irish Independent on 11th Jan 2003 wrote that teenagers have rejected Irish 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.

Besides, in some areas of the Gaeltacht today, like Tyrellan Hts and Knocknarra near Galway and in Belmullet Irish is not spoken any more except by a very few and one candidate elected in the Udaras election near Galway admitted he cannot converse in Irish.

As long ago as 50 years, Archbishop McQuaid told De Valera that Irish children would not revive Irish as when they went home their parents spoke English to them. The reply? “The experiment is not yet over”.

I suggest it is now and McQuaid was right.

The just published report by Dr John Harris of Trinity College, Dublin makes the point McQuaid made… parents do not support learning and their “hands off stance to children “greatly increase the chance of the enterprise failing”

The report finds that compared to 20 years ago, under a third of pupils in 3,000 ordinary primary schools have achieved mastery in Irish communication.

The report makes a serious attempt to find out how many parents can speak Irish and concluded that only 7.2% of parents who send their children to ordinary primary schools can understand “most conversations” or have “native speaker ability”.

Standards are falling in Gaeltacht schools. General comprehension of speech has dropped from 96.3% in 1985 to 73.3% in 2002.

The best hope seems to be the Gaelscoileanna. There are 127 primary all Irish schools but we should remember that many years ago there were very many such primary schools and their pupils turned to English as their native tongue when they left school.

The secondary Irish speaking schools have become popular, particularly with the middle class, but a motivation is that students get higher exam marks for writing papers in Irish, regardless of ability in the subjects concerned. This gives them a distinct advantage in the Leaving Certificate of an extra 10%

Let us look at the way the national census attempts to find out how many speak Irish in one way or another.

The last one in 2002 told us that 1,500,000 people speak Irish. We know this is not true. Loyal lies are told to uphold morale. The questions asked were

Can you speak Irish?

Yes or no.

If “yes” do you speak Irish

Weekly

Less often

Never

Based on these questions, the census concluded that 42% of the population speaks Irish. No effort is made to find out how many speak it fluently, how many have a good working knowledge, how many have the cupla focail.

Again in the words of Reg Hindley

“Irish language census figures have become for the most part worthless as an indicator of Irish survival and use” “census language figures are inflated by patriotic and nationalist sentiment and reveal wishful thinking” as Hindley put it. “The fanatics through ignorance, closed minds, excess of idealism, refuse to accommodate to the reality of an English speaking Ireland.”

I suggest that politicians such as Trevor Sergeant and Jim Higgins need to look at finding out what the real situation is in the next census. We as taxpayers pay for government spending on the language so should know how effectively our money is spent.

For instance, should Irish be compulsory?

Hindley believes compulsory Irish is “a fundamental error in social psychology”. It is “required” by artificial means.

We now know that about 50% of Irish people object to compulsory Irish. I suggest teaching people to learn a language they do not want to learn is a waste of money and the funds should instead be spent on those who do want to learn the language.

It has become a school language, promoted by propagandists and supported by urban middle class who send their children to the Gaeltacht for a month or so, partly to assuage their consciences and to get a break from their children.

It is surrounded by SELF-DELUSION and HYPOCRISY and
is practically never used in the Oireachtas, yet it is our official language, in countless government websites, read by practically no one.

We still have not had an objective assessment of the problems and failures of language maintenance.

PATRIOTISM

Many think that it is unpatriotic not to support Irish. After all it is “our language”.

Here is Myles Dillon, son of the famous John Dillon, the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Myles was Senior Professor in the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

In his essay in University Review, 1958 he asserted that “to ally Irish to patriotism is at least questionable. Daniel O’Connell despised the language, Connolly and Tom Clarke were not interested. Nor Wolfe Tone, Emmett, Grattan, Parnell and Davitt…..nor the literary giants Swift, Berkeley, Yeats and Shaw. Sean Lemass could not be persuaded to take up Irish.

Dillon pointed out that “it is a pretence that Irish was the native language so must be made compulsory to preserve it. In fact force feeding it was “a contributory factor in a wave of disillusionment and apathy that has led thousands of people to quit the country in despair”.

Irish was never the language of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

DISCRIMINATION

Irish has been used to discriminate, not least of all against Protestants. It also was an anglophobic weapon. Let me explain.

Tom Garvin wrote is National Revolutionaries in Ireland

that “ the Irish language took the high moral ground. English was the language of vulgarity and a vehicle for corruption, a Protestant language”

He went on

“the extremists confiscated the language ….they identified the language with a particular ideology….Protestants naturally excluded themselves”

I know all about Douglas Hyde, that eccentric atypical Protestant. But even he said when the lingo-fanatics took charge and forced him out of the Gaelic League,

“it was charming until it became powerful”.

It was to become a weapon for fundamentalist Roman Catholics and was feared by Protestants.

And on discrimination and Protestants here is what Myles Dillon wrote:

“The language was a means used to oust Protestants from power from civic and cultural institutions of the state from the Royal Irish Academy to the National library to the National Gallery to the Royal Botanical Gardens”

He went on

“I believe the Protestant nation is just as much part of our heritage as the Catholic and that we need what they have to contribute to the common good”.

He includes the Presbyterians in the North and the old Anglo-Irish class here. He also included the Normans, Cromwellians and the Irish who fought in 2 world wars.

“Let us not forget that there are people who think of Ireland as the Welsh think of Wales, a province in a wider anglosphere, the unionists in the North, many Catholics and Protestants here”.

If we are sincere about unity, we must recognise that there are two ethnic groups on this island. I suggest that compulsory Irish is as unattractive to northern Protestants to-day as it was to southern Protestants in the 1920s and it shows an intolerance of cultural diversity. Why not change it sooner rather than later?

And why do we insist on the scru na gaelige, an Irish language qualification that foreign entrants to the teaching profession in Ireland must attain before becoming permanently employed in their jobs. As one Englishman here said to me:

“We are not allowed to do leaving cert Irish and can only do the SCG. As part of the qualification, for which we are given a 5 year time limit to gain it (or be viewed as unqualified by the
dept of education here), we are also to attend 3 weeks of Gaelic summer school, again funded from our own pockets, the refund from the department for this won’t even cover for 1 week tuition. To be honest, I have just refused to do the thing as I feel it is so unjust and discriminatory – a pro- Irish policy if ever there was one , but the union and the department don’t see it that way.

Conclusion

I believe there is no room for honest doubt that the Irish language is now a classroom language. English is our language and comes naturally to us and it has brought us huge prosperity.

The Reform Movement’s position is straightforward. We respect all traditions in this country and on this island. From Orange to Green, to those who want to have the language as their important symbol, something to love and nurture, but we ask should they impose it on those who do not freely choose it?

Let Myles Dillon have the last word in the interests of pluralism particularly relevant to today’s Ireland and meaningful in the context of this summer school subject. His is “the idea of Ireland that is now growing up, a river fed by many streams, a stone of many colours, like a diamond cut in 6 facets”. That was 50 years ago. There are more like 60 facets today. I suggest it is no longer meaningful, and has not been for many years, to define Irish patriotism in terms of having the ability to speak Irish and to use it as a dated advanced nationalist weapon.

, ,

  • bootman

    He asks why Irsih should be imposed on English.-speakers but has no problem with English being imposed on Irish speakers?

  • Time for Equality

    Where does he say he thinks English should be imposed on Irish speakers?

    He wants equal treatment and equal status for the two languages. I do disagree with Mr Bury when he states that the English wording of laws should have legal primacy – I would think there should be some independent method of adjudicating meaning where there is confusion between the two languages.

    But on the whole the Reform argument is one I agree with – we should treat the two languages as equals, and stop forcing Irish down the throats of those of our schoolchildren who don’t wish to learn it.

    I particularly like the Dillon quote: “the idea of Ireland that is now growing up, a river fed by many streams, a stone of many colours, like a diamond cut in 6 facets” – that’s precisely how I can be a Unionist and also feel fully Irish, as well as fully British.

  • pid

    The usual stuff from Reform.

    In his conclusion Mr Bury states:

    I believe there is no room for honest doubt that the Irish language is now a classroom language.

    Aside from the fact that Mr Bury begrudges Irish it’s place in the classroom, he would have honest doubt if he were in any one of 20 pubs in Connemara this weekend.

    Tough, Robin. We’re small but we’re not dead.

  • shabaz

    It would be a great shame if the Irish language was lost, but for practical reasons and commonsense it should not be imposed on school children. There should be a choice – study irish or dont study irish.

    If there was a choice then efforts could be made to promote the study of the irish language and encourage people to study it. This would ensure people didnt resent studying because it was compulsory, but because they genuinely want to.

  • J McConnell

    pid

    The fact that some bowsies sat in a pub in some bog last weekend gibbering away in Irish is not exactly a compelling argument for retaining the policy of compulsory Irish.

    The fact that at most 1% of the general population use Irish as their daily language, that less than 10% have any degree of fluency, even after 12 years of school Irish and 70 plus years of the compulsory Irish policy, are damning indictments of the compulsory Irish policy and its utter failure to even slow the terminal decline of the language.

    If you want to learn and speak what has become mostly the language of cranks that is your prerogative, but why should the rest of us have to suffer it rammed down our throats for twelve years at school and have to pay hundreds of millions of euros in subsides every year just so you and a few anoraks like you can engage in your culturally affectatious hobby?

  • Tochais Siorai

    Whether you agree or disagree about RB’s opinions on Irish he’s factually incorrect (to suit his agenda?) in a lot of what he says e.g

    AS LONG AGO AS 1700 IRISH WAS NO LONGER THE FIRST LANGUAGE OF IRISH ROMAN CATHOLIC IRELAND.

    This is complete nonsense. The majority of Irish people spoke Irish in 1700. As late as 1845 (prefamine) there were 4 million people with Irish as their first language, half the population.

    WHY DID IT DIE OUT? BECAUSE AFTER THE PENAL LAWS WERE RELAXED, OPPORTUNITIES AROSE FOR THE CATHOLIC MIDDLE CLASSES AND ENGLISH WAS THE LANGUAGE OF EDUCATED PEOPLE.

    Er, Robin, why exactly was English the language of educated people?
    Because the native Irish were bloody well excluded from education (penal laws etc) and whatever education they got was either on the continent for the very wealthy or in hedge schools.

  • Greenflag

    ‘AS LONG AGO AS 1700 IRISH WAS NO LONGER THE FIRST LANGUAGE OF IRISH ROMAN CATHOLIC IRELAND.’

    This is factually incorrect . IIRC it was the mid 19th century . The ‘Penal laws’ BTW were not relaxed until the mid 18th century .

    However Mr Bury asks some tough questions and I believe that ‘Irish language ‘ enthusiasts need to accept that ‘compulsory’ Irish has failed to revive the language as the Gaelic League would have wanted .

    I’m torn between affection for the language and the pragmatic realisation that we are part of an English speaking world . When you hear more Chinese and Polish spoken on the streets of Dublin than Irish , it’s time to look again at ‘compulsory’ Irish . In addition given the large number of immigrants from around the world we need to ensure that they are not ‘discriminated’ against in terms of employment on the basis of language . Same goes for Northerners and English immigrants .

    In general learning another language at primary or secondary school is considered to be good for academic development overall. Do Americans/ English/Australians learn a second language at primary school ? Are their primary school age children ahead of same age Irish schoolchildren in mathematics, science , reading, english etc ? Just a thought .

  • pid

    J McConnell, you say

    The fact that some bowsies sat in a pub in some bog last weekend gibbering away in Irish is not exactly a compelling argument for retaining the policy of compulsory Irish.

    Harsh words.

    I, and my neighbours, are respectable people who speak the same language our forefathers have done for generations. Please do not call us “gibbering bowsies”

    Readers of this thread will, no doubt, judge the rest of your contributions in the light of your obvious prejudice.

  • Garibaldy

    Did it seem to anybody else that Bury wants to get rid of compulsory Irish because he was rubbish at it at school?

    As for the immigration, why shouldn’t all brands of people in the Irish state be taught the first language of the state? The fact that there are immigrants is frankly irrelevant

  • gg

    “As for the immigration, why shouldn’t all brands of people in the Irish state be taught the first language of the state? The fact that there are immigrants is frankly irrelevant”

    Teaching of Irish in schools is a good idea, but teaching immigrants is a waste of time and valuable resources. When are they ever going to need to speak it? I think giving compulsory English lessons for those who can’t speak it would be a much wiser idea.

  • oranje

    He may be factually incorrect about some things but I think he hit the nail on the head with quite a few things.

    People can dress it up any way they like but Irish is not a language of public life in the vast majority of Ireland. I did Irish debating at school and got an A in the Leaving Cert so you could say that I was quite fluent when I left school. I never once had the chance to speak Irish in normal life after school. Any time I tried I was met with a stony response.

    As a language enthusiast it pains me to say it but forcing Irish kids to learn Irish for so many years is a dreadful mistake. The results speak for themselves, most people cannot string a few sentences together after all those years in school.

    If the school time spent on Irish was devoted to Spanish then you would be giving the kids something they can really use. Irish could be taught as Latin or Greek. It is not a useful modern communication tool, it is a school language.

    The very fact that there are no native speakers of the the caighdean ginearalta says enough. You standardize a language but nobody speaks the standard.

    The other important point is that there is so little of modern interest written in Irish that you cannot use its as your exclusive medium of choice. If I want world analysis in English I read ‘The Economist’, in Dutch I read ‘Elsevier”, in French I read ‘Le Point’, in German I read ‘Focus’ and in Polish I read ‘Wprost’.
    What do I read if I speak Irish? Oh yeah, I read ‘The Economist’ still……….

  • Ariel Killick

    I’m that Australian that Mr Bury refers to as attacking him. As a professional translator for the last five years and recently accredited after a pretty tough exam from Foras na Gaeilge, I’m hardly ‘learning Irish’. But inaccuracies don’t seem to bother Bury that much. I’m also in Connemara at the moment working on the Irish-language version of Midsummer Night’s dream, which is packing out the theatre here in Inverin every night. Working with people from the Gaeltacht, who would know a lot more about the situation on the ground than Bury, I would not be quite so negative about the language. As for compulsory Irish, I was forced to learn the language of maths – algebra, calculus, trigonometry – abosolutely useless to me as a translator and I’ve never had to use it once since leaving school no matter what jobs I’ve done and I wouldn’t remember the first thing now. They could have just made sure I could do the basic additions etc in my head and that’s all I would have needed, but because we spend so long in school, they have to make it interesting and teach us all things that only those going into engineering and maths related fields will ever possibly need. I was also crap at it and hated maths, but I appreciate the education in maths for the privilege it was – which is what all education is about. You’ve the rest of your life to do what you want – it’s up to society to provide the opportunities to use the language and these opportunities with Irish are real and growing, even though those who have nothing to do with Irish yet are aware of them.

    Re ‘teaching immigrants is a waste of time and valuable resources, when are they ever going to need to speak it?’ – I was actually speaking with Mr Bury at the PD’s National Convention seminar on Irish on behalf of a voluntary network of Irish-speaking immigrants, many of whom are running their own businesses based on Irish-language services, from education, media and translation to entertainment. Almost all are highly fluent. As Irish becomes more important in the public sphere through both legislation etc and other activity, it becomes more necessary to include immigrants in that progression, for a more cohesive society, although that obviously covers a wide range of areas and not just language. What I also hear repeatedly is of children of immigrant parents excelling in Irish at school and considering it a badge of honour to speak Irish well.

  • DK

    “In general learning another language at primary or secondary school is considered to be good for academic development overall. Do Americans/ English/Australians learn a second language at primary school ? Are their primary school age children ahead of same age Irish schoolchildren in mathematics, science , reading, english etc ? Just a thought”

    Can’t really compare countries in this way as there are many other differences in their schools as well as out of school factors. School leavers in ROI are well known to be very good, but don’t put this down to compulsory Irish.

    I agree that it is worthwhile to learn a foreign language, which is what teaching Irish in schools amounts to. If the choice of language at school was optional, I think that most pupils would go for Irish as they know that it is out there and would be more useful to them in Ireland than, say, Spanish would be. However, I think that it should be compulsory that you do have to learn a foreign language at school – it is an important part of the brain to exercise, as important even as compulsory maths.

  • oranje

    I agree that learning a foreign language in primary school is very beneficial. The fact that most people in the ROI have three languages under their belt leaving secondary school is advantageous.
    I agree with the idea of choice and it would be nice if parents and children could choose their first foreign language.
    If I was doing it all again I would take Irish myself because it is a beautiful and challenging language but not everybody shares this enthusiasm. Many people care more about practicality and the chance to take, say, Spanish instead of Irish would definitely appeal to a lot of parents.

    I would also argue that learning an easy language like Spanish in primary school would give kids the confidence that would allow them to excel at Irish in secondary school if they chose it later.

    I went to a secondary school that gave French and a few ‘failed’ Irish scholars learned French rapidly and subsequently also improved at Irish.

    The fact is that Irish is about as difficult as Polish and Japanese while Romance languages like Spanish or French and Germanic languages like German, Dutch or Swedish are relatively easy for English speakers.

    By forcing children to learn a more difficult language first you are making it much harder for weaker kids. No wonder so many end up not speaking any other languages.

  • pid

    oranje,

    I’m not sure I agree with you but I compliment you on your honesty and temperate use of language.

  • Nathan

    Robin – minorities were not discriminated by the introduction of compulsory Irish into schools, least of all the community you’re presumably still a member of.

    The state-funding of Colaiste Moibhi (situated at Rathmines Castle until its closure back in 1995) empowered those Protestants who wanted to go on and do State jobs such as teaching. This Catholics Need Not Apply, all-Irish secondary level college was integral to the state policy of compulsory Irish and Irish-medium schools. Without its existence Protestants may well have been discriminated, but such fears never materialised.

    Therefore, there was no discrimination on behalf of the State in relation to this matter and to say otherwise is being disingenous. The southern Protestant community was well catered for through Colaiste Moibhi. Southern protestants such as Trevor Sargent, Frances Condell and the late Dr Donald Caird would not have mastered the Irish language had it not been for the COI teachers which Colaiste Moibhi had produced.

  • Nathan

    Forgot to mention that alienation may be the word your looking for Robin, as opposed to discrimination.

  • Ariel Killick

    Just re Irish being a difficult language to learn, my overall and honest feeling when learning it was that it was as easy as falling off a log, I won’t say how quickly I learnt it, but it was less than a year, and though I’ve a bit of a flair for languages, I’m no genius. I’ve also studied both German and Chinese, which are far more difficult than Irish for very solid reasons – German because it has an almost endless amount of irregular verbs and attendant rules (Irish only having eleven) and Chinese – because of the existence of both numerous characters and several tones to the same sounds. Polish also apparently has eleven tenses. Pronunciation was a little challenging, but not much more so than French, with its rake of silent consanants etc. As regards Australia, It was compulsory to study 3 non-English languages in first year highschool in Australia, but I’m not sure what the regulations are now, but I doubt they would have moved to more monolingualism in the curriculum given the plethora of languages spoken in Australia and on the Leaving Cert curriculum

  • Nathan

    Ariel,

    Irish is a tough language to master (particularly for dyslexia sufferers), and studying it for LC cost me a place at my first choice uni.

    It should not be compulsory in schools for Leaving Cert. Zealots who argue otherwise haven’t a leg to stand on.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    McConnell on every single thread to do with the Irish Language, displays a big bag of mccains oven freid chips on his shoulder about said language. His comments are always along the lines of Irish= backwards, mucksavage, stupid, pointless, ignorant, for people who still cook their food in big pits in the ground. His comments dispaly a lack of knowledge on the subject, as equate to nothing more than tantrums.

    Maybe Irish should be made optional for Leaving Cert. Maybe both Irish and English should be made optional at this level. Every school child has a high level of fluency in English by Junior Cert, and few use the plays of Shakespeare or Keats’ poetry in their working lives, so why teach it?

    Maybe instead of removing the subject we should look at the way Irish is being taught. It needs to be taught as a spoken language, more emphasis on the spoken word than the written etc.

    I have made my fingers bleed rebuffing arguments about it being a dead language, so im not going to bother here. It may be weak, but its not dead yet.

  • oranje

    Ariel,
    You say that you managed to learn Irish in a year and that it was like falling off a log.

    I don’t know at what stage you can say that you have ‘learnt’ a language but what could you do after a year? Could you read a novel in Irish without the aid of a dictionary? Could you have a conversation with native speakers of all the dialects of Irish? Could you write a poem in the language?

    If you could do all of these things then you are gifted at languages. Your experience is certainly not typical.

    What is typical is that English speakers find Germanic languages like Danish, Dutch and German relatively easy. Of course speaking 100% grammatically correct German is difficult but basic German is much easier to master than basic Irish because so many words have the same Germanic roots as English ones. By the same token the Romance languages also share substantial vocabulary with English which makes it relatively easy to master Spanish, French and Italian.

    Irish, like Polish, does share some words with English but you effectively have to learn new words for 90% of things. Look at two body parts – [hand (English, Dutch, German), lamh (Irish), reka (Polish), foot (English)], [fuss (German), voet (Dutch), cos (Irish), stopa (Polish)].

    People who are gifted at languages like the challenge of cracking a language. Normal schoolchildren do not want this challenge. They want something that they can master bit by bit and preferably put to use.

    In my opinion teaching children a neighbouring language first would deliver far more success. It is no surprise that Swedish, Danish and Dutch kids all speak great English. They are aided by a wealth of media in English and also by the fact that their languages are very similiar to English.

    I don’t see much use in Irish kids learning Dutch just because it is closer to English than Irish is but I do see the value in learning Spanish. Spanish is the world language that is closest to English and is clearly something that can be used later in life.

    Maybe Irish could be a compulsory third language at second level but I believe that teaching it as the second language just causes many children to fall into the monoligual pit inhabited by all too many English speakers.

  • Ciaran Irvine

    I’ve always regretted my almost total lack of Irish – I was educated in Derry, and I just don’t have the knack for languages (the one I was forced to do for the GCSEs was French, I hated every minute, and don’t remember any of it now)

    Living in Galway has only brought home the living presence of the language here in de Wesht and my ignorance of it. So I’d hardly call it dead or pointless. I still intend to spend a year trying to get the basics down at least. One of these years 🙂

    I think concentrating on the Leaving Cert and making it compulsory there though is almost certainly counter-productive. We all know young children pick up languages much more easily. And we all know teenagers hate being made to do anything. If resources were re-directed instead towards primary level where the focus would be on learning English, Irish, a third language, maths and art/music over the 7-odd years (and obviously make the teaching of the languages fun, no more Peig!) this would probably bear much greater fruit. Think of the possibilities especially in the cities with large immigrant communities – the third languages on offer at primary level could be Polish or Chinese, with Polish or Chinese kids in the class!

    If such a policy concentrating on the primary sector was in place, there may then be an argument for making children keep up at least 2 of the 3 as compulsory subjects up to Junior Cert, with one compulsory for Leaving (which one to be the student’s choice)

    How many people would be bothered with 2 years of Shakespeare and Patrick Kavanagh at age 16-17 if English was no longer compulsory? How many might actually prefer to continue to study Irish/German/Polish/Chinese of their own volition?

    After all, how many people really need those 2 years of Leaving Cert English studies? They grew up in a largely English-speaking society after all. Though again the children of immigrants might prefer to take English and Irish for the Leaving.

    Switching the focus towards early multi-lingualism in primary schools and changing the way we teach languages in our schools – anyone remember all that incomprehensible chanting of verbs? Do they still do that? Made no sense to me in French class at all – and removing the compulsion from English and Irish, but making it compulsory to study at least one language for the Leaving…now that might just work.

  • harpo

    A question for everyone.

    If the Irish language is so important to the Irish, why don’t the Irish actually use it more?

    Is it a matter of one of those issues of pride, as in ‘we are distinct because we have our own language and it should be used more’ but when it comes down to it, not so many Irish people are actually interested in helping ensure that it is used more?

    It seems to me as a unionist from NI, that it’s all very much like the general attitude in the ROI towards political unity for the island. People are more or less in favour of it if it costs them nothing, but if they are expected to do something about it, the interest level soon drops.

    So unlike countries like France and Spain, where they actually use their own language, the Irish just see their language as a bauble to be displayed as to why they are different to anyone else when challenged about it.

    So far as I see, the Irish language is just a fashion accessory for the Irish. So that when the Irish are on the world stage they can claim ‘look, we have one of those too’. But back home English is the working language.

  • harpo

    ‘I’ve always regretted my almost total lack of Irish’

    Ciaran:

    Ah, the guilt of the Irish person who knows that it is because of people just like him that the Irish language has to be worked at to survive.

    Sure you intend to do something about your lack of Irish. You and several million others. But you never will do anything about it.

    Instead you’ll try and dream up ideas as to how the next lot of generations should have it come naturally to them. But it’s a lost cause if you have to do that. The best way to make sure that any language survives is to use it on a day to day basis. Then the kids see it as natural as they grow up, and they don’t wonder ‘if this is so important, then how come the adults aren’t using it, and we are being forced to learn it?’.

    The very fact that there is this continual debate on what to do about the Irish language is a symptom of the reality that the battle is already lost.

    Why don’t the Japanese, the French, the Italians or the Spanish have this debate? It’s because they care enough to actually use their language.

    Until the Irish care that much, force feeding it to children is just pissing in the wind. It may as well be Latin if forcing it on children (in whatever form) is the ongoing solution.

    It’s already dead. And most Irish don’t care so far as I can see.

  • AM

    Goeten Dag Oranje, I think you might have added motivation to your list of language learning criteria. The motivation to learn English is higher among all young people, including Swedish, Dutch children etc, because of its status. Admittedly people from those countries tend to speak English better than people from other countries such as, let’s say France or Spain, where English language tv is synchronised not dubbed (though German kids get around that problem) and where the language learners speak a mother tongue which is itself considered an international language.

    Ciaran, agree Irish best made optional – that said and with this I retire from Slugger as it’s an information overshare – my three kids are at a Gaelscoil and slide in and out of Irish with barely a ripple. I, too, like you, am on the outside looking in my case, by virtue of age and county of origin..but I’m not bad at the German;)

    So, yes it has a lot to do with how the language is taught and what value is put on it..

    Harpo (you eternal(ly vigilant) grump) on a day to day basis, it has little value other than enlightened enjoyment of TG4 – on an emotional level..while the literature is less voluminous and more impenetrable to me than German literature, from that Irish which I learned in school and at the odd night class since and that which I occasionally and painfully translate for myself, I can say that for me it is as good.
    AM

  • oranje

    I agree totally AM. Motivation is also a big factor.

    If you asked Irish people what language they would wish to speak fluently if they could swallow a pill what do you think thry would say?

    I would bet on a majority saying Spanish because it may lack (slightly) the beauty of Italian but it is spoken so widely that it is truly a world asset.

    Some people would choose Irish but I doubt that it would be more than would choose Italian, French or German.

    How to motivate a kid to learn Spanish? Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, Pedro Almodovar,
    Penelope Cruz, Juanes, Jennifer Lopez……..

    Not too difficult to motivate kids with Spanish. As much as I love the poetry of Mairtin O’Direain that just cannot compete.

  • AM

    Hi Oranje,

    Apologies in advance for the randomly arranged response. I had planned to stop posting…;)

    I don’t know what language Irish kids would choose to learn if they could take the magic pill (kid no.1 says German, no.2 French and no.3 Brazilian;))

    Spanish is already very popular here, and not only with schoolkids, but also with those new Costa Del second home owners. It’s seen also by young and adult language learners here as a world language and one that is easy to learn…German teachers were at a premium here in the 90s after the Wall came down and it looked like the economy might be even more powerful than previously. Numbers learning German have dropped considerably in recent years..

    However watch what’s coming down the government endorsed track, yep, it’s Mandarin Chinese – I’ve no idea how they’ll encourage children to see it as anything other than difficult, and as regards cultural cachet, well martial arts heros Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh et al speak Cantonese and I’m not sure about Ziyi Zhang or Gong Li (Mandarin?), or for that matter how popular they are here. But an official push to make it available has begun.

    Polish is the second language in some Irish towns, but nobody wants to learn it.

    You’d be surprised though I think, at the number of Irish people who’d like to be able to speak Irish and another foreign language…In many ways it defies reason – there’s more goodwill there than you might imagine or be able to explain. A friend carried out a small
    survey in Cork on just that question and though few of the respondents could speak Irish or saw it as relevant to daily life as English, each of them saw it as connected to Irish identity. I suspect that this would be even more strongly the case in the North?

    It defies reason – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    Are you in the throes of Kirmes(?) now in Holland?
    AM

  • oranje

    AM,

    Learning Polish involves motivation too. Having a Polish wife motivated me to learn it but that is one of the only reasons one might learn it unless you were a language enthusiast.

    As for the kermis season, let’s just say that I choose my Dutch culture selectively and so I don’t go to any kermises. There is a program on Dutch TV about them and I am a bit too old and a bit too sober these days to take part.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    Ah Harpo, i was waiting for someone to call it a dead language. Thank you for obliging. This thread was touching on some very good points, and then you make a stupid comment like that. It may be weak, but not dead.

    AM,

    Do you think that the children of Polish immigrants will lose their parents’ language in the same way the Irish did in America?

  • Ariel Killick

    As re Oranje’s question as to what I could do as Gaeilge after a year – most of the things he mentioned actually and more that modesty forbids me to go into. While I’m well aware my own experience is entirely the norm, I really had to laugh at “People who are gifted at languages like the challenge of cracking a language. Normal schoolchildren do not want this challenge. They want something that they can master bit by bit and preferably put to use.”

    Now if only that had applied to algebra, my maths teachers would have loved me! How about history for something we “can master bit by bit and preferably put to use?” Should we ditch that as a requirement too because the economic use of it isn’t immediately clear? So much of what we learn at school isn’t used after school – it’s more of process of developing the mind and learning how to learn, which can benefit us in any pursuit in life afterwards.

    At any rate, has anyone wondered why only the most negative speech delivered to the Summer School was the only one posted on this website? Trevor Sargent (a Protestant by the way) and Senator Jim Higgins I believe also gave speeches on the same topic..

  • Ariel Killick

    sorry – please excuse my typo – isn’t entirely the norm was obviously what I meant to write..

  • AM

    Droch Buachaill,

    I read something recently about how cultural change affects language. It contained this (somewhat lengthy, sorry) quote from the linguist David Crystal:

    “When one culture assimilates to another, the sequence of events affecting the endangered language seems to be the same everywhere. There are three broad stages. The first is immense pressure on the people to speak the dominant language – pressure that can come from political, social, or economic sources. It might be “top down”, in the form of incentives, recommendations, or laws introduced by a government or national body, or it might be ‘bottom up’ [..] or again, it might have no direction [..]. But whereve the pressure has come from, the result – stage two- is a period of emerging bilingualism,as people become increasingly effecient in their new language while still retaining competence in their old. Then, often quite quickly, this bilingualism starts to decline, with the old language giving way to the new. This leads to the third stage, in which the younger generation becomes increasingly proficient in the new language often identifying more with it, and finding their first language less relevant to their new needs. This is often accompanied by a feeling of shame about using the old language, on the part of the parents as well as their children.”

    Going by what Crystal and other linguists say, there appears to be a three-generational language shift.

    I don’t really feel qualified to say how this might be borne out in the case of Irish emigrants to the US, but it seems plausible.
    In terms of Polish emigrants to Ireland, I’d suspect that the fact that the Polish is so firmly placed in Poland itself and that the population is so sizeable that it will continue to hold prestige for those emigrants and their descendents who maintain close ties with Poland.

    Irish Americans returning over the years would have come to a culture where English was dominant and prestigious. However all of these ruminations are not meant to be assertions – I don’t know enough either about Irish or language learning in general to be able to make more than speculations..

    Have you seen the short film Yu Ming is ainm dom? It’s a nice take on just this issue.

    AM

  • Ciaran Irvine

    On the Polish thing: here in Galway a good chunk of the job ads in the local papers are now in Polish, there is a Polish bar (how did we get by all those years on crap beer before Zywiec and Okocim arrived?), and a couple of Polish food shops, cafes and restaurants.

    Assuming all the Poles stay in Ireland for the next 20 years and start raising kids here, I think Polish will become part of the linguistic fabric of the nation. There’s scope and opportunity there for the Irish language bodies, if they have the wit to see it.

  • Oilbhear Chromaill

    If Robin Bury’s Ireland were truly ‘pluralist’ it would have no problem with the Irish language. The fact is that Reform is more about integrating Ireland into the UK and that part of that agenda appears to entail the eradication of the “Irish” identity, thus their long standing efforts to eradicate the language and the Angelus and lots of other stuff they think signifies Ireland’s seperateness from Britain.

    I always find comments such as that by J McConnell – but why should the rest of us have to suffer it rammed down our throats for twelve years at school – highly amusing. This constant repitition of the mantra ‘about Irish being rammed down our throats at school’ is such a tired old cliché from a tired and tiresome group of people. It’s an indication of poor vocabulary in their chosen medium, English, that they keep repeating this ridiculous refrain.

    Ramming Irish down peoples’ throats indicates to me that there was a certain passion, violent passion indeed, involved in teaching Irish to pupils in the Irish education system. It’s the reverse is true which is why we have such ignorant statements from the likes of McConnell and Bury.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    Ciarán,

    “there’s scope and opportunity there for the Irish language bodies, if they have the wit to see it”

    I believe Connradh na Gaeilge are already holding Irish lessons for adult immigrants in that beautiful city of yours-

    AM, Yao Ming was a good little film. Another short worth seeing is ‘Lip Service’shown on TG4 from time to time, taking a humourous view of the oral irish leaving cert test

  • Aislingeach

    From an American(and a former speech & language therapist)point of view —
    First point–primary school is EXACTLY where you need to have language learning. There are studies indicating that language is best acquired before the hormonal changes in the brain that come with puberty; keep giving students the best chance to learn.
    Second–yes, what is forced is often rejected. This is particularly true if the forcing is inept. From what I’ve heard, many of the Irish classes have been done poorly with rigid, repetitive, uninspired methodology. That most certainly needs to be addressed.
    Third–In high school (ages 14-18, roughly) and college, I took both French and Spanish. Can’t remember much, couldn’t converse in either, might be able to get my meaning across or understand some basic things now. But I’m glad I was forced to learn another language for the cultural and grammatical insights I gained. And, if needed, I could probably pick either language back up in a relatively short time.
    Fourth–I am an adult learner of Irish. Yes, it’s a difficult language in some respects. No, I’ll probably never be fluent (altho I can read better than I speak) and I’ll probably never use it on a daily basis, but I’ll still keep trying, if just to understand some of my favorite singers (I listen to a lot of trad). There is actually a fair-sized population of Irish language learners here in the States.
    And finally–I’m not an expert in history, but I can see that Bury got several historical “facts” wrong and that puts the whole of the argument.

  • oranje

    Ariel,
    You took issue with my statement:
    “People who are gifted at languages like the challenge of cracking a language. Normal schoolchildren do not want this challenge. They want something that they can master bit by bit and preferably put to use.”

    I don’t see why this is so laughable. Your comparison to algebra is actually quite good. Mathematics builds up very logically from simple counting at the youngest age groups through to differentiation and integration at Leaving Certificate. Languages should be treated in the same way. Initially you should master your mother tongue, then introduce a second language at six or seven years of age. Introducing an easier language as the second language would then help pupils move on to a third language which could be Irish.

    How many people understood what the tuiseal gineadach or modh coinníollach actually were? I was taught no English grammar but I was expected to understand these terms without my teacher even translating them from Irish. I learned grammar from my French teacher. In Irish I just relied on instinct.

    In the ideal world a child would understand the basic building blocks of his own language first (what is a verb, noun, tense? etc.). In my opinion he would then move on to a second language which was attractive to learn and preferably not too difficult. After that he could move on to third and fourth languages with a good basis.

    My own children are being raised as trilingual Polish/English/Dutch speakers. In the situation where you are in a sea of native speakers you don”t have to care about the building blocks so the rules above do not really apply. Most Irish kids live in a desert as far as access to Irish speakers is concerned so they have to learn Irish as a foreign language.

    Anyway, I admire that you could do so much after only one year learning Irish. Most people do not make that much progress. I am not surprised that you moved on to Chinese. I have trouble remembering the kana in Japanese so I think Chinese will have to wait for another life for me.

  • Puzzled Jackeen

    I have to disagree with Robin Bury – although I was crap at Irish at school and loathed learning it, that is no reason for me to agree with the abolition of compulsory Irish.

  • William Joyce

    Many posters have commented on teaching/force feeding Irish in school. However, they fail to mention the type of Irish taught. I did the Leaving Cert in 1971 and my Irish was quite good, as was the Irish of all my classmates.
    Speaking to one of them since, he tells me he helped his kids with their homework, using the stock phrases we learned (La brea bui brothallach sa samhradh a bhi ann srl). Their teacher was amazed at his fluency and thought he was a native speaker. He is from Ringsend in Dublin.
    Helping someone with the Leaving Cert Irish this year and reading the syllabus, I am amazed at the over emphasis given to pedantic grammar. Grammar takes up something like 40% of the marks.
    So if you say:
    I should of went ot the shops before he done it
    you will get hammered on marks, even though the meaning is crystal clear.

    Then you have the poetry and prose. The much mocked Peig has been replaced by more modern but similarly irrelevant junk. Most of it is stuff you would not read in English so why read it in Irish?

    The fault, to quote the Irish language activist, PH Pearse, is the Murder Machine, the Irish languae industry which encompasses the Civil Service etc.
    Irish is much stronger in the occupied six counties where many students choose to do it for a sense of Irish identity, cultural belonging etc. This is more in tune with Pearse than the dry as dust Leaving Cert.

    Also, the posts by the Aussie and Yank are of a high standard here prepcisely because they are interested in the language as a living organism, not as a dry Leavging Cert subject or as a vehicle for latter day LFM (Language Freedom Movement) extremists.

  • peter fallow

    Love to see sectarian Irish nationalists getting as worked up about the utter defeat of the ‘language’ project as they do about the 32 county project.
    Have some dignity and pick a fight you might be able to win, ffs. Both are dead in the water.