17 September 2005

Two simple ways to get Irish to flourish

Daily Ireland


In his by now legendary address in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich in Belfast last month, Dr Shlomo Izre’el, Professor of Semitic Languages in Tel Aviv University, Israel, identified two prerequisites for the survival, revival and flourishing of the Irish language in Ireland, namely idealism and necessity.
The former, he observed, we have in spades, the latter he was less sure of. In fact, his study, his observation, his gut feeling and his common sense told him that while English was a linguistic necessity all over Ireland (excepting, perhaps, the Gaeltacht areas), the pure necessity for Irish as a linguistic tool in Ireland was negligible.
He went on to compare the Irish situation with that of Israel, where Hebrew today is a linguistic necessity. You just cannot live a full and proper life in Israel today without Hebrew. In Ireland it is impossible to live a full and proper life without English.
The fact that Hebrew went from having no speakers of the modern language to having over six million within 100 years was one of the reasons why I invited Shlomo to come to Cultúrlann and share his view of the Hebrew experience with us.
Despite the various arguments, boycotts, protests and differences of opinion, I am glad that Professor Izre’el accepted the invitation to deliver the annual Pádraig Ó Donnchú commemorative lecture, and I am convinced that Irish does, indeed, have a lot to learn from the experience of Hebrew in Israel.
I, too, have identified two prerequisites for the survival, revival and flourishing of the Irish language.
Let us be clear about a thing or two from the outset. My over-riding interest in Irish is as a linguistic tool for Irish people. A means of communication that is particular to us, our own, Irish language: the Irish language of today and tomorrow for the Irish people of today and tomorrow. We need our own, Irish language to ensure that we remain distinctly Irish in the world.
I know the Irish language is the repository for a rich and wonderful literature, both oral and written. I am happy to think of the great stories and sagas that were to our ancestors as movies and television soaps and dramas and theatre are to us today. I read modern Irish literature all the time from Ó Cadhain to Mac Grianna, from Aodhán Ó Rathaille to Cathal Ó Searcaigh, from Nuala Rua to Deirdre Ní Ghrianna. I love poetry and novels, short stories and plays but they are all bunkum as far as reviving the language is concerned.
I am not interested in learning Irish just to be able to read and appreciate our great language, the oldest in Europe.
Sure, I might as well learn Latin or ancient Greek, if it is all just about reading and appreciating literature. If you are thinking of learning Irish just to be able to read and appreciate literature, take my advice and forget it.
I want Irish to be the living, vibrant, no-nonsense, irreverent and beautiful everyday tongue of the people of Ireland.
Most people in Ireland don’t read great literature in any language, so why should they in Irish. It’s page-turners we want, full of murder, deceit, high-speed action and sex. Like every normal person waiting for a plane, or a train, we want to be entertained, but not to be taxed in the brain. We want to escape, not be burdened by the nobility of art and culture.
Or else we want music mags, camera mags, car mags, computer mags – any damn mag that is useful – in Irish.
Of course some people – like yours truly – want class literature, but we are in a minority. Also, even those of us who demand highbrow literature (I have read Cré na Cille, let it be known), also want lowbrow stuff as well. Like a movie mag, to keep up with the comings and goings of the stars. Or a gossip mag to keep up with the comings and goings of, well… the stars.
All these weird and wonderful toys of leisure will come when market forces detect a need for them.
If a publisher thought he could make a few quid profit by sticking out a DIY – Does – Exactly – What – It- Says mag in Irish, then a publisher most certainly would do so. Until then, however, I don’t think so.
Basically, in order to have the type of services in Irish that we already enjoy in English – whether they be of the written variety or otherwise – we need more Irish speakers. A lot more Irish speakers.
Which brings me two my two prerequisites for the survival, revival and flourishing of the Irish language.
First, learn Irish. Second, use Irish. Learn Irish, use Irish – couldn’t be simpler.
In a dream world, an ideal world, the Irish government would instigate a short-term action plan to have a critical mass of the Irish people speaking Irish within, say, three or five years. Five years. Enough people speaking Irish to create the necessity for other people to speak Irish.
This is not an impossible proposition. Irish is an easy language to learn, although the idea of the current Irish government going on a crusade to revive the language is a bit hard to picture.
Imagine walking into a shop in Andersonstown, or Lucan, or Dundalk and your first instinct would be to speak Irish. That you just knew that Irish would be language most likely to be used by the shop guy and most of his customers.
Imagine if you wanted to find out who won the match last night, or how the Israeli pullout from Gaza and the West Bank was getting along, or what’s the betting for Saturday’s three-thirty at the Curragh, or whatever, that you immediately went to Lá, or TG4, or Raidió Fáilte, Raidió na Life or Raidió na Gaeltachta…
Imagine a world where you spoke Irish most of the time to most of your friends, most of your family, most of your school mates, work colleagues, political comrades, political enemies.
This is all possible, provided you follow my two step guide to reviving the Irish language: learn Irish, use Irish.
First of all we have to want to. More next week…

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