The Irish Language

Image Credit: Ellen Nugent

'At Least Two Sides'

It has been a long time since I was forced to learn the Irish language in school. And for many of those years learning it, and since, I have had a bitter hatred of all things Oirish. Learning Irish in school felt so inauthentic to even a 7-year-old me. I would constantly fight with my parents, asking them what use was it? Why did I have to learn this? I knew that English and Maths had value, my lived existence was in English, most of the culture I interacted with in books or on television was in English. Not necessarily the Queen’s English, but something very similar to it, even if poorly spelled. Maths I understood as what smart people were good at and smart people got jobs. The only jobs people could tell me that Irish was necessary for was a national school teacher and civil servant. National school teacher upset me the most because of the ridiculousness of it. If we did not have to learn it then the teachers would not need to know it, I reasoned petulantly.

As I have gotten older and in particular as I’ve travelled, I have come to understand that the Irish language has value. Maybe not as a primary spoken form of communication, though it is no worse than most, but because art exists that was created in the language and we do not want to lose the nuances within that art. I reject the idea that it is a necessary part of our national identity. The vast majority of the citizenry can barely speak a word of it and for many of them, the primary shared reference point with respect to the language is the shared misery of having had to do it in school.

I am tempted to go further and say that the Irish language has been co-opted by nationalistic forces like Sinn Féin and Aontú which seek to emphasise our differences rather than what binds us to the world. That same self-harming rhetoric of Brexiteers. All that is needed to build a nation are shared values and a valid way to communicate those values. There is no need to have a special language to do it in. If anything, this desire that nationalist parties have for a widely spoken Irish language reveals a tremendous insecurity they have about our status as a nation. 

So, how do we save the language without alienating a good proportion of the population? Well, maybe we can start by removing it from the compulsory school curriculum. Allow people to come to the language freely and in their own time and maturity. This is not to say that the option to learn the Irish language in school should not exist, it absolutely should, it just should not be mandatory. Similar to how many families choose to opt-out of specific forms of religious education, you may be able to replace instruction in the Irish language with a curriculum that introduces students to the idea of languages themselves and teaches basic vocabulary in many languages.

Ideally, you create a situation where parents get to choose what level of emersion their child has in the language (hopefully with feedback from the child). If parents want to, they can bring their kids up with the Irish language spoken at home and send them to Gaelscoileanna. If they don’t feel that learning the Irish language is of value to their child or they are unfortunate enough to have a child like I was, they can choose to participate in the general language class instead. And if any child would like to, they can take it as an option at any time during their schooling. Maybe you would create particular stepping on points like junior infants, first class, first year, fourth year etc. Many students already take up specific languages late in their schooling.

Then you could change the emphasis of the language. You can market it as a fun or interesting thing to learn. Subsidise teaching adults the language. Support publishing new Irish language literature or making the classics of the Irish language canon freely available to all, schoolchild and adult alike. There’s plenty that can be done, plenty that is being done, that can benefit from more funding if people have a non-antagonistic attitude to the language. 

But ultimately, it’s also the liberal thing to do. Your view of the importance of the Irish language is just an opinion. Forcing others to do things because you think they should want to is a dubious moral position to take. Allow everyone to choose their relationship to the language and you might find people who would otherwise have been scarred by the teaching of it speaking the language for the pure joy of it.