The Great Irish Debate
On March 17, 1956, a young, adventurous Irish woman named Phyllis Minihan, my aunt, arrived in New York Harbour on the RMS Saxonia. The ship had sailed from Cobh, a few days earlier. Phyllis had trained as a Nurse and Midwife in the North Infirmary and had secured a nursing job in the Maternity Department at Morristown Memorial Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey.
In May I made a brief visit to the USA to visit 92-year-old Phyllis who is suffering from Dementia and now resides in a supported living facility. She travels through periods of confusion; her long-term memory is better than her short term and it’s difficult to break the periods of long silence. Having said that she is content in her own world and welcomes visitors even if meaningful conversation is a struggle. She smiled when I spoke acknowledging the Irish accent regardless of what I said. By pure accident I used a little Irish and instantly she engaged with me telling stories and reminiscing on her home in Lisheen, Skibbereen. Over the next few days I busily brushed up on my own Irish at night to help converse the following day, we had Irish songs and prayers etc and she fully engaged and I could sense the great satisfaction and peace it brought her.
Since that visit I have been reflecting on my own use of Irish and have a greater appreciation of the importance of keeping it relevant in our everyday lives. Some time ago I read a letter to the Examiner and it too has been playing on my mind. It made interesting reading about the state of the Irish language. After a trip to Daingean Uí Chúis the following points were raised. “We naively expected that, being in a Gaeltacht, Irish would be spoken widely”. Apparently very few had a cúpla focal. “Nobody seemed embarrassed or apologetic, despite the town being festooned with business and street names as well as all directional signs in Irish”.
Irish is our official first language and most of us spend at least thirteen years and 14000 hours of tuition in Gaeilge yet very few of us speak it regularly or even feel comfortable about using it. So, what went so horribly wrong? The 2016 Census returns, did not contain good tidings for the language, with a decline across all significant categories including daily speakers of Irish outside the education system and knowledge of and use of Irish in Gaeltacht areas. The fall in the Gaeltacht areas is particularly dramatic, a whopping 11 per cent in daily speakers within the past five years. The 2011 Census, released by the Central Statistics Office shows that Irish is now the third most spoken language in the country, after English and Polish. Why is multilingualism important? The old mantra that was most famously expressed by Willy Brandt, the former, charismatic chancellor of the then Federal Republic of Germany went along the lines of “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language, but if I’m buying, ‘dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen ‘, then you have to speak German”, Cork business community please take note! Some politicians, in the past, successfully played to the gallery on a ticket of, draining the Shannon, Irish Unification and the restoration of the Irish language. Questioning any of these sacred cows was deemed unpatriotic. So, let’s have a look at the facts.
- The state spends €1.2 billion every year on Irish language teaching. This number was calculated by an eminent academic.
- TG4 costs approximately 32 million Euros per year. How many of our citizens watch this channel?
- Irish was recognised as an official EU language in 2007. The EU IS now hiring 62 Irish language translators for its institutions in Brussels and Luxembourg. The recruitment drive is part of a plan to recruit up to 180 Irish language speaking translators between now and the end of 2021 in order to provide Irish translations of EU transactions for the Irish electorate! Fodder for Brexiteers?. Ironically post Brexit English may no longer be an official language of the EU, but Irish will.
- Millions of euro are spent every year translating documents into Irish.
- The Supreme Court recently dismissed a challenge by a Romanian man who argued his drink driving prosecution could not proceed because he was not supplied with a breath alcohol statement in Irish as well as in English.
- The power of the Irish language is also evident in that it is one of the main components in keeping the padlock on the doors of Stormont at present. The Sinn Féin insistence on imposing the Irish language on their Northern opposition effectively means that Northern Ireland has been without a Government now for over a year.
- There are 7,000 languages spoken in the world, and half are seen as at high risk of dying out in the coming century. History records just one that has been brought back to robust life: Hebrew, revived by eager Zionists more than a century ago on the basis that a state required a unifying language as well as a territory. Tír gan teanga tír gan anam. P H Pearse
- Archbishop McQuaid who told Eamon de Valera in the 1950s to give up on imposing Irish on children in schools as when they came home, their parents spoke to them in English. De Valera replied, ‘The experiment is not over yet’.
Of course, the experiment is truly over and what is now timely is that an open, unemotional, rational debate on this subject. All of us who have a grá for the language would wish to see it flourish. As the Examiner letter states, it is sad to admit, however, “If Dingle represents the current state of its revival, then our beautiful native language is truly in its death throes”. Therefore, bold decisions are required.
Academics and bureaucrats instinctively resist simple solutions to complex problems. Perhaps we could consider the splitting of Irish education into, fundamentally, the spoken language and then prose, poetry, Peig Sayers, the Modh Coinníollach, etc for purists. Compulsory oral Irish examinations for the generality of our students, as a method of keeping the language alive, thereby leaving the technicalities of Gaeilge as an optional for the points seekers, intellectuals and budding bureaucrats. Albert Einstein is credited with saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. I wonder if the above flexibility was there in my youth would my love of Irish have been stronger and would my spoken Irish and my ability to communicate with Phyllis have been easier.
Ar agaidh linn!