I once participated in a #CultureTrav chat on Twitter and the topic was languages. We all speak a language in one form or another. When we learn a new language it helps us communicate and learn about another country’s culture. Some languages are easier to learn than others and we’re drawn to the musicality of certain languages. For me French and Italian are like music to my ears ☺ But the chat got me thinking about my own language and my appreciation for it.
Here in Ireland our main language is English despite Irish being the first official language of the state, as stipulated in Article 8 of our Constitution. Irish is classified as an Indo-European language and has gone through many phases in its ‘lifetime’. Scholars divide the development of the language into four distinct periods: Old Irish: 600-900 CE; Middle Irish 900-1200 CE; Early Modern Irish 1200-1650 CE; Modern Irish: 1650-present day. It’s quite a guttural sounding language and there are many ways to say one thing. In 2007 Irish became an official EU language.
Native Irish speakers are concentrated in officially designated Gealtacht (Gweal-tawkt) or Irish speaking areas. The main Gaeltacht areas are in West Kerry, North West Cork, Ring in Co. Waterford, Connemara, Co. Mayo, and Donegal. A small Gaeltacht area also exists in Rath Cairn, Co. Meath. Increasingly, a large number of people who claim to use Irish on a regular or daily basis live in urban areas, in particular Dublin and Belfast. One million people claim to speak Irish but 75,000 people speak Irish on a daily basis.
With the signing in of the Gealtacht Bill in 2012, Gealtacht areas are now based on linguistic criteria instead of geographic area. Since 2010 a 20 year strategy for the Irish language has been put into place. One of its aims is to increase the number of families throughout Ireland who use Irish on a daily basis.
The 19th Century was a calamitous time for the language. In 1801 5 million people were estimated to be living in Ireland, with 2 million being monoglot Irish speakers, 1.5 million bilingual speakers (Irish and English), and 1.5 million English speakers. The 1851 census records the total number of Irish speakers had declined by then to just over one and a half million. By the end of the century, the number of Irish speakers had declined to 600,000. As well as the first hand ravages of famine and emigration, a noticeable shift to English had been occurring throughout the century among the impoverished Irish speakers.
English was increasingly seen as the language of social and political advancement. This was supported, in the main, by the Catholic Church, and by political leaders such as Daniel O’Connell. The National School system brought in by Sir Robert Peel in 1831. Its main aim was the teaching of English and the use of Irish was discouraged in education. With the introduction of the ‘Tally stick’ children were beaten if caught speaking Irish. The use of the tally stick was endorsed by many parents who felt that Irish was of little economic use to their children. The success of these measures can be seen from the census figures for 1891.
A renewed antiquarian interest among scholars and writers in the ancient tales led to a renewed pride and interest in the Irish language in the latter half of the 19th Century. Initial efforts were primarily directed at the preservation of the language and its ancient literature. The rise of Cultural Nationalism led to a new awareness of the Irish language as a marker of national identity.
This led to the establishment of Conradh na Gaeilge or The Gaelic League in 1893. The aim of the League was the restoration of the Irish language. The League ran Irish classes throughout the country and also taught native speakers in Gaeltacht areas, who were
previously illiterate in Irish, how to read and write in their own language. The establishment of the language revival movement became part of the Irish nationalist movement. Conradh na Gaeilge still promote the Irish language and run regular classes at different levels.
There has been a love/hate relationship with learning the Irish language for many generations. It isn’t an easy language to learn but you would think learning it in school from the age of 4 or 5 that we would be quite proficient in our native language but unfortunately, no. There has been many debates about how the language is taught. From my experience of learning Irish in school there wasn’t enough emphasis put on actually speaking the language. There is also the attitude here that we’re not going to use it anyway after we leave school, so what’s the point in learning it. The exception being if you become a primary school teacher or teach Irish at second or third level education.
It saddens me when I think of people from countries like France, Germany, Italy, Spain being obviously fluent in their respective languages plus a little English if not fluent and maybe another language, and we struggle to build and maintain a level of fluency in our native language.
Basic Irish Words And Phrases
Below are some basic Irish words and phrases:
Fáilte (fall-cha) – Welcome
Dia dhuit (jia guitch) – Hello
Conas a tá tú? (kunas a taw too?) – How are you?
Tá mé go maith (taw may go mah) – I am good
Slán (slawn) – Bye
Le do thoill (lay duh hell) – Please
Go raibh maith agat (go row ma a-gut) – Thank you
So what is the future of my native language? Well if it comes to pass that Irish isn’t compulsory on the school curriculum anymore, who knows! Having said all that, there are many wonderful groups around the country promoting and keeping the Irish language alive. A language is an integral part of a country’s cultural identity. There’s a saying in Irish, ‘tíre gan teanga, tíre gan croí’ (cheer gone changa, cheer gone kree). In English that means, ‘a country without a language is a country without a heart’. What’s your favourite language? Is language really an important part of a country’s culture and identity?