Love it or loathe it, one of the impressive things about the Irish language movement in Belfast is the high levels of fluent speakers, and within certain areas at least, a degree of sympathy for it. However Manchán Magan takes an extraordinary journey around Ireland, trying to get by by speaking the Republic’s official language Irish.
And with some sobering results.Underconfidence amongst those who only infrequently speak it may be key to some of the aggression:
Eventually they located a charming young woman who spoke perfect Irish and was able to tell me everything I needed to know, but she was terribly nervous, believing her vocabulary to be inadequate. It was not; it was wonderful. It is an odd tendency that people often have an erroneous view of their ability to speak Irish, either over- or underestimating their ability – possibly a convoluted psychological legacy of the stigma attached from days when it was a sign of poverty and backwardness.
Though it didn’t apply to all he meet:
I might have been tempted to give up the journey entirely had it not been for something that happened during the radio phone-in. I was rapidly approaching a point of despair when some children came on the line. I found they spoke clear and fluent Irish in a new and modern urban dialect. They told me how they spoke the language all the time, as did all their friends. They loved it, and they were outraged that I could suggest it was dead. These were the children of the new Gaelscoileanna – the all-Irish schools that are springing up throughout the country in increasing numbers every year.
Outside Dublin it was different:
Even on the staunchly loyalist Shankill Road in Belfast I was treated with civility, though warned that if I persisted in speaking the language I was liable to end up in hospital. In Galway, I went out busking on the streets, singing the filthiest, most debauched lyrics I could think of to see if anyone would understand. No one did – old women smiled, tapping their feet merrily, as I serenaded them with filth. In Killarney, I stood outside a bank promising passers-by huge sums of money if they helped me rob it, but again no one understood.
From a purely regulatory perspective, the language has recently won some important (though possibly Pyrrhic) victories – the Official Languages Act guarantees the right to communicate in Irish with all state and semi-state organisations (although whenever I tried sending Irish emails to government bodies during the journey they were ignored).
Possibly the language’s most significant moment of the past few centuries occurred on Monday this week when Irish became an official working language of the EU. It is a huge vote of confidence by our European neighbours, and it seems appropriate that Irish people should decide at this time once and for all what we want to do with our mother tongue. Should we stick a do-not-resuscitate sign around its neck and unplug the machine, or else get over our silly inferiority complex and start using the bloody thing?
As the Gaelscoileanna children might say: “Athbhreith agus cuir diot é!” (Just rebirth and get over it!).
The TV series based on Manchán’s journey, No Béarla, begins on Sunday at 9.30pm on TG4.