What with the “Beast from the East”, the upcoming abortion referendum and the ongoing crises in health and housing, you’ve most likely missed a double celebration of the Irish language that’s languishing at the bottom of the media’s priority list.
“Seachtain na Gaeilge” (Irish Language Week), which is now showing signs of rampant inflation by running from March 1st to 17th, is the annual attempt to raise the profile of the language. 2018 is also “Bliain na Gaelige” (Irish Language Year) where we’re supposed to “celebrate and discuss the importance of the language”. Quite how that’s supposed to fill fifty-two weeks can only be imaged, as there’s only so much self-indulgent navel gazing and denial that most people can fit into their busy schedules.
Not to pour cold water on these worthy initiatives, but this time next year will more people be speaking the language on a regular basis? I doubt it. Since moving to Dublin in 1991, I have only heard the language being spoken on the streets of the nation’s capital on one occasion. For me that’s the essence of the problem. Irish is no longer a living national language in any meaningful way. It has retreated to the margins of the Gaeltachts and the bubble of Irish language schools. While not dead, it is on very expensive life support.
The government has a stated target of 250,000 daily speakers of Irish by 2030. To put that in context, in the 2016 census, that number was 74,000 and in decline. In fact the percentage of the population who use the language on a daily basis, outside the education system has been in steady decline for over a century. That government target, like so many others, seems to be pie in the sky.
In many ways the decline has been self-inflicted. My mother’s generation, the first to be born after we gain independence, were forced to learn all subjects through the medium of Irish. They were schooled using books in a specially designed Irish typeface which may have helped to keep printing jobs in Ireland, but did little else to make the language accessible to non-native speakers. The typeface was abandoned in the 1950s by which time the level of compulsion had already turned most of a generation against the language. When you know the Irish words for the chemical elements in Irish but you don’t know them in English, it’s of very limited use.
Other initiatives like forcing members of the public service to take Irish language tests, pouring money into the Gaeltacht areas and establishing Irish language radio and television stations have been expensive but had little meaningful impact in arresting the decline in the daily use of the language. Consequently the question must be asked, can anything be done to increase the usage of the language and indeed, would such an increase even be desirable?
It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and see this decline as the natural consequence of an increasingly globalised world where English is becoming more dominant, but surely our language is a unique part of what we are, a key part of our national identity, and something we should be striving to maintain as part of our inherited heritage. That heritage is a lot more than using the Irish form of your name on social media or using the language for covert conversations while abroad.
My suggestion is a compulsory Irish National Studies subject up to Leaving Cert level. This subject would concentrate on the spoken language but it would go much further. It would also incorporate Irish history from the time of the folklore legends to 21st century Ireland. The teaching of Irish history is currently woefully shallow compared to what it once was. This proposed National Studies course would also incorporate Civic, Social & Political Education to a higher level than currently thought at Junior Cert level.
The advantage of a National Studies course would lie in giving every student leaving second level an advanced view of our national heritage and history and how modern Ireland works. It would help the “new Irish” better understand the country that they now call home.
I would also make passing this National Studies course compulsory for anyone seeking Irish citizenship, even if they were not born in the state. Other countries like Denmark have this requirement and I think it is right and proper to ask all our citizens to have an appreciation of what it means to be Irish.
We could work with the British education authorities to add this course to the GCSEs course available in Northern Ireland, but I would not make it compulsory there. I believe such an initiative would do a lot more than some of the measures that were recently discussed as part of an Irish Language act and this course would stop the language being weaponised by Sinn Fein, north of the border.
There are other initiatives that I would like to see which could further help reviving the language and our appreciation for it, like making Irish the only language for commentary on televised GAA matches and having more Irish language music on our radio. Having a National Studies course is, I believe, a good first step to take, as it advances the language while at the same time raises the value we place on our national identity.