Without needing to think too much I would say that the most popular questions I have been asked over the last five years are: but isn’t Ireland a part of the UK? and, is Irish just like English?
The answers to both are a resounding no!!
You’ll know how I feel about the first question if you’ve read my Brexit post or, if you’re an Irish person who has ever set foot abroad but the second one is much less talked about and deserves the attention.
Let’s just get the question out of the way shall we?
English = what’s your name?
Irish = cad is ainm duit?
I am an Irish language convert. In school I studied it at honours (highest) level, it posed no real problems and in the final examination I did particularly well. But I couldn’t wait to be rid of it. It seemed to belong to a past that had nothing to do with me. My friends and I used to frequently laugh at modern words that either had no Irish equivalent or seemed just to have had an ach sound attached to the end of them. Each word felt like evidence that the Irish language could not serve us as we negotiated our way through forthcoming millennial life.
Mind you, I do know how to say: I have no house in Irish (!).
In university I also had no need for Irish. There was a stigma or at least an image that went with those young people who spoke Irish outside of school and I had already aligned myself very much as an English speaking, English literature student. Irish would have no place in my life beyond the presence it had had in the secondary school classroom.
And, to be fair, I was right. I have not needed Irish at all. The fact that I have it and have not let it die has made no difference to my interactions, both home and abroad. It is this though that makes me rage against those who think it is an outdated language and who, for the most part, think as I did before I emigrated.
As a nation we should be ashamed of not being able to speak our national language fluently. Our education system needs to have a very large mirror held up to itself as do those involved in and responsible for that system.
But that alone passes the blame for the state of Irish into the hands of others when it is our own. Regardless of how it is taught – which is so frequently the excuse – Irish should be an integral part of the modern Irish household. The fact that it requires a little more effort seems to have been enough to put the majority of people off.
Though undoubtedly proud of being Irish, so many times have I baulked at how we are seen by the rest of the world. More than a hand full of times have I come to understand that Ireland is often seen as nation of laid-back binge drinkers with thick, laughable accents, a tendency towards the craic and that there are a few people who “somehow” became intellectuals. It can be very difficult to be taken seriously an Irish person abroad. I’ve been expected to have the “ah shure it will be grand” attitude on a number of occasions.
One of the things that I have found brings credibility to my sense of purpose in being an Irish person abroad is being able to speak some Irish. Maintaining a language that is so different from English and that is by no means widely spoken – that requires dedication and a consistent intellectual effort and crucially is not to easy to laugh off. Being a polyglot still commands a degree of respect in our society.
Whenever I hear debates about whether or not Irish should be made optional as a secondary school subjects or how it is useless internationally, I cringe. Usefulness alone is not the sole platform on which a language deserves to be judged. Letting the Irish language slip out of the school system sends a strong signal to young people that Irish itself doesn’t feel entitled to be studied or spoken.
Oh but my son or daughter would much rather study Spanish and get a career overseas.
To that I’d say that it may well be the case but your son or daughter may not always be in Spain but they will always be Irish.
The chances of my children growing up in Ireland are slim but they will be learning Irish, no matter where in the world we are.
Just as there are some phrases that my Spanish or French friends struggle to explain to me, so there are in Irish. The excuses that my foreign friends give me is that whatever word or phrase it is, is just so French/Spanish and has no equivalent in English.
But I’ve watched them laughing about how it has no translation and the sense of belonging that connects them to their language and the fact that this word or phrase is understood not just by those in the room but by a much larger populous. It is any wonder that I – and so many other English speakers – want to learn their languages if only to begin to feel that sense of integration and belonging.
The Irish language, as much as a pint of Guinness or the famed craic, is a way of connecting to that which makes us who we are and to appreciate the linguistic ticks which hint as to who we’ve been.
This post has decided it for me. In February instead of giving up something, I will dedicate a part of my week to studying Irish.
Below are some videos of popular songs sang (brilliantly) in Irish. Just in case you’ve never heard it before and are curious.