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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty