Who needs Irish?

I first saw this book when someone was reading it on the train a couple of years ago. The title, Who needs Irish?, was intriguing, so I borrowed the book when I saw a copy in the Skerries Library. The publisher describes the book as “a collection of essays in English for all those interested in the Irish-language today.” However, maybe the title should have been “Why you need Irish” since all of the essays are in favour of Irish.

This may not have been the main points that the authors were trying to get across, but I have learnt these facts/opinions/opinions presented as facts:

  • People an Irish name get tired of being asked what it means in English (p35). Names have meanings (mostly; it turns out that my first name doesn’t), and people like to have concepts on which to hang a name. Ask anyone whose first or last name is April, Wednesday, Hill, Smith, Fletcher, Stone, or Mason (I could go on) whether or not names have meanings. In this day and age, it would be rare for a child to be named without someone looking up the name’s meaning in a book or on a website. However, there is something about the Irish context that adds an extra dimension to being asked the meaning in English of your name. That author recounts that her name is in English on her birth certificate because the nurse had refused to write her name in Irish. The author also states that being asked the meaning your name wouldn’t happen in other countries, but in my experience Japanese people have no problem telling the meaning of their names, nor does it diminish them. For example, my friend Chie is still Chie to me even though I know that her name means “Thousand Branches”.
  • The Irish need Irish to connect with their history. Somehow the writers forgot to mention the multiple spelling reforms and at least one change to the orthography that mean that the history may not be all that accessible to those who do speak the language.
  • The Irish can’t have a separate national identity if they speak the language of the English. Maybe that’s why an inability to write the Great American Novel is a recurring theme in American fiction: it can’t be done because Americans don’t have their own language (although opinions may vary). My Country is written in English, yet somehow it speaks to every Australian:

    I love a sunburnt country,
    A land of sweeping plains,
    Of ragged mountain ranges,
    Of drought and flooding rains.
    I love her far horizons,
    I love her jewel-sea,
    Her beauty and her terror
    The wide brown land for me!

    The idea that every Australian is a drover at heart may be as illusory as de Valera’s happy maidens, but we take our common cultural allusions/illusions in English without a qualm.

  • Irish declined from the 1950s partly as a reaction from the many Irish who had to emigrate and didn’t have enough English to get by in England or the USA (p174). Quoting from the “From Language Revival to Survival essay:

    To compound the problem, it is estimated that as many as two out of every three native Irish speakers, many with a poor command of English were forced to leave the Gaeltacht for England or America during the 1950s. Approximately 10,000 left the Conamara Gaeltacht in the years 1946 to 1966. Not only did this result in a sharp drop in the population and a distortion in the age structure, but having to emigrate to London or to Boston or even to Dublin with inadequate English made an indelible impression on the minds of those young men and women. They had been let down by an educational system which failed to equip them with sufficient English for them to feel comfortable outside the Gaeltacht. Despite all the rhetoric about gaelicising the whole country and Irish being the first official language of the state, there were few opportunites available to the native Irish speaker from Conamara or from West Kerry or from North West Donegal, unless they could speak English with the fluency of a native English speaker. It is little wonder that that so many Gaeltacht people with poor English decided that they should speak whatever bit of English they had to their children before they went to school and let the schools teach them Irish.

  • Irish could be supplanted by Gaelscoil creole (p67, p135). It seems that children who don’t have Irish at home but learn it by immersion at Gaelscoil develop a playground patois that mixes English and Irish, a creole that is also spoken by those children in the school who do have Irish at home:

    As time goes by and more waking hours are spent in school, the school Irish takes over and the Irish speakers use their ‘home Irish’ less and less. The bilingual child becomes trilingual with English becoming the dominant language and their ‘Gaelscoilis‘ in second place.

    Gaelscoilis, along with “Dublin Irish” and “Civil Service Irish”, seems to be seen as either the death of the language or its future.

One of the many heartfelt passages in the book (p121) is:

There is no just reason for denying our child her right to be brought up in her own language. If we, her parents, regard the language as being central to our identity, to how we define ourselves and our attachment to the country in which we live, to its history and to its culture and traditions, then why shouldn’t we raise our child accordingly? To do otherwise would be unnatural.

Much as I agree with the sentiment, the solution that is natural for some is unnatural for others (and, obviously, vice-versa), and there unfortunately seems to be no solution that works for everybody. There are Irish people who see the English language as central to their identity, others who see sending their children to Gaelscoil as a tactical move in a competitive education environment rather than an act of self expression, and many for whom the question of language doesn’t impinge at all on their attachment to their country.

Asking who needs Irish is a vexed question. Goodness knows, I don’t have the answer to it.