20 February 2006

Official approach has left us lost for words on Irish

Irish Independent

I BELIEVE - forgive me if it sounds arrogant - that I know how to save the Irish language, which Dr John Harris's forthcoming report will suggest is dying.

Two true stories may illuminate the case.

In about 1942, my English husband was a schoolboy at his public school, Marlborough. Veteran teachers had been called in to supplant younger men on active military service.

A retired teacher in his 70s who had served in the First World War was brought in for modern languages, and he embarked on teaching his pupils German through (a) poetry and (b) various German marching songs which he had picked up in the trenches during 1914-18.

It was a bit rum in the middle of hostilities against Germany for these English lads to be standing up in a classroom singing 'Ich hatte einen Kamarade' - a poignant ballad about a soldier lamenting the death of his mate.

The old teacher chose the song because it illustrated the use of the accusative - einen Kamarade - but it was also a human insight into a universal need for friendship and attachment.

Presently, the old teacher proceeded to teach the poetry of Goethe, Heine and Schiller, always starting with the most engaging and romantic.

Around the same era, my elder brother Carlos was sent to an Irish-speaking school in Dublin, in which everything was to be taught "through the medium". It was a harsh regime where the masters - not priests, but lay teachers - beat the boys roughly if they failed in their lessons. Not only was Irish exclusive and compulsory within the school, it was also compulsory within a mile radius. My brother was reported for speaking English at a bus stop half-a-mile from the colaiste and, once again, beaten black and blue.

Which method was the more successful in imparting a love and a proficiency for a language?

Using music, ballad and poetry? Or coercion and punishment?

It's a no-brainer, as they say. My husband developed a lifelong enjoyment of the German language; and despite the horrors of the war, never judged Germany by the Nazis.

My brother learned enough Irish to pass exams; and being of a tolerant nature takes a charitable view of those Gaelgoiri masters who leathered the children for their failures.

("They were lonely poor Kerry men and Connemara men in the big city.") But he never developed the grá for the language which is such a vital part of mastering a tongue.

The revival of the Irish language was, for the Irish State, an idealistic, if unrealistic, aim. Squeezed between the might of a global language like English - coming from both Britain and America, not to mention Australia, New Zealand, India, much of Africa - Irish had almost no chance of being revived as a first language.

Great endeavours sometimes need a touch of fanaticism and the proponents of compulsory Irish were often fanatics.

Wiser counsels, such as the great parliamentarian, James Dillon, warned against Irish being made a compulsory subject in education and as a qualifier for the civil service, but he was brushed aside.

Irish was enforced, and we were all subjected to learning it, with that weary air of duty, if not with actual chastisement.

Despite all the compulsion and all the investment lavished on it, the revival of Irish as the first language of the state has failed.

And yet, there is a way of sustaining Irish. But it needs a total rethink of what the language is for.

The idea that Irish should be revived as an operational tool of communication, Government, business and administration should be dropped. It is not going to happen. So stop pretending that it is.

Give Irish, instead, a different status and a different aspiration. Regard it as a language of poetry, history, imagination and heritage; as something worth loving and cherishing for the sake of its tradition.

In other words, take the politics out of it. Keep the culture in.

Keep the street signs bilingual - that has a poetry of location. Keep the language alive in all its cultural dimensions. And remember that Irish has a strongly pluralist tradition, too.

In the 18th and early 19th century, the most enthusiastic Irish revivalists were Protestant parsons.

The first patron of the Celtic cultural revival was Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. The city with the highest number of Irish language classes before the First World War was Belfast.

I have recently heard three individuals speaking in Irish with such beauty of expression I had cause to regret my own lamentable capacity. One was Maire Cruise O'Brien. One was the historian Declan Kiberd, reciting 18th century poems.

And one was Ciaran Mac Mathuna, who has so successfully intertwined the language with the music.

It's not the Irish language that has failed.

It's the politics of the Irish language that have failed - the coercion, the compulsion, and the mendacious pretence that most people call the Department of Finance An Roinn Airgeadais. They don't. But most people would still like to be able to hear and recite 'Mise Rafteri an File'.

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