John Waters on the Irish Language, Irish Times 26/06/2006
New Irish may save language
John Waters 26/06/2006
The surely unsurprising news that the standard of spoken Irish is, as one newspaper headline puts it, “in freefall” may represent the most critical moment for generations in the story of the “first official language”.
The news is indeed bad: one in six pupils failed all Irish-speaking tests; a roughly similar proportion could not converse successfully about any of a range of specified subjects; even in Gaeltacht schools, the standard of spoken Irish has declined significantly. One interesting finding of a study by a number of TCD academics under Dr John Harris relates to the disillusionment of teachers, who feel they bear a disproportionate share of society’s responsibility for preserving the language. It appears that even parents who want their children to learn Irish are unwilling to do much that is practical to support this. The reasons include, predictably, the belief that Irish is of little “use” in the modern world and the consequent communication to children of a lukewarm attitude to it.
We have a tendency to see such phenomena as consequences of mere apathy and neglect, but really they are the scheduled outcomes of a systematic programme of suppression. We are not simply indifferent to the language, but have a programmed antipathy to it that expresses itself as much in our elaborate shows of tokenistic esteem for Irish as in our repeated failure to make it part of our active culture. The language is not simply dying - it is the victim of an attempted assassination.
But two developments offer hope. The first is the much-denigrated but rapidly growing Gaelscoil movement. (The Harris survey found that more than 90 per cent of Gaelscoil pupils are reaching high standards in spoken Irish.) The second is the largely unreported fact that there is now in existence an organisation for foreign nationals who wish to become fluent in Irish. This body, iMeasc, already has over 40 members, all of whom have a high degree of fluency. Established last year by Dutch journalist Alex Hijmans and Australian translator Ariel Killick, iMeasc has already established itself as an informal network and lobby group for immigrants with an interest in speaking Irish. The group is currently lobbying for State-funded Irish classes for immigrant children living in Gaeltacht areas or close to Gaelscoileanna, as well as the collation and distribution of trilingual phrasebooks (Polish-Irish-English, etc). The range of activities iMeasc offers includes bellydancing, yoga and African drumming - all through the medium of Irish.
About one-third of the group’s members come from non-English-speaking backgrounds, most having learnt Irish before coming here. Some are able to make their living using a language they learned from scratch without any element of compulsion, patriotism or cultural piety. By its very existence, iMeasc confronts one of the central tenets of our ideology of modernity: that “progress” ineluctably means the standing-down or dilution of native cultural values. Much media comment in recent years has centred on the idea that, in order to be “welcoming” to immigrants, we must put aside elements of the surviving indigenous culture that may create “discrimination” against outsiders. This is an utterly spurious idea, based not on openness towards outsiders but on hatred or ourselves.
Writing to the Minister for Justice last year as part of its campaign against a proposal to exclude immigrants from the Irish-language dimension of the entrance examination to An Garda Síochána, iMeasc stated: “It is an entirely dangerous and short-sighted approach to indicate, from an official level, that it is reasonable for immigrants to completely disregard an important aspect of Irish culture.”
It could result in immigrants being scapecoated for dissipating native culture.
Racism, long before being directed outward, is honed and refined in the processes of self-loathing which have been hardwired into the post-colonial consciousness. Speaking recently with iMeasc members, it struck me how simple would be the rehabilitation of the language if we could first of all convince ourselves that speaking it was not a mark of backwardness or insularity but an emblem of our belonging to the diversity of world cultures. This, if we can state the issue above the babble of post-colonial pseudo-progressivism, could be the defining idea in our attempt to integrate large numbers of people from outside. But we first of all need to see that our attitudes towards Irish are not rational responses to true facts but ancient antagonisms instilled for a political purpose.
Intellectually, we know it already, but the problem has little to do with intellect, being deeply ingrained in the society’s unconscious. And since shame was the main instrument of that process of self-obliteration, it is appropriate now that immigrants have taken to themselves the responsibility for shaming us in the other direction.
© The Irish Times