Ireland ’s Language Remains on Life Support

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Mar 18 21:32:08 UTC 2009

March 17, 2009, 5:23 pm

Ireland’s Language Remains on Life Support
By Robert Mackey

Matthew Cavanaugh-Pool/Getty Images “Go raibh maith agat” — what you
say whenever someone gives you a Waterford crystal bowl full of
shamrock. U.S. President Barack Obama and Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen
on St. Patrick’s Day at the White House. Since March 17 is probably
the day each year when more words are spoken in the Irish language
than on any other, it seems like a good moment to check in on the
decades-long debate still raging in Ireland over the government’s
costly efforts to keep that language among the living, and whether it
is really worth the expense. As Kari Lydersen pointed out in the
Washington Post on Monday, the number of people who actually use the
language they are forced to learn in school is shrinking at a great

Irish, often called Gaelic in the United States, is one of thousands
of “endangered languages” worldwide. Though it is Ireland’s official
tongue, there are only about 30,000 fluent speakers left, down from
250,000 when the country was founded in 1922.  Terry Eagleton
explained why this is so in his book “The Truth About the Irish” in

When most of Ireland finally became an independent nation earlier this
century, Irish governments forced through a ham-fisted, unrealistic
policy for reviving the language. Many children who were forced to
learn it at school found it a tedious chore and forgot it as soon as
they could. Indeed, an advice column published today in The Irish
Times, aimed at secondary school students, noted that “a large number
of students seem to have a mental block when it comes to studying
Irish.” And in reply to the frequently asked question, “should I
continue to study Irish at higher level?” the same advice-giver began
his response with these words: “Be sensible.”

Since Irish is now heard in modern life not much more frequently than
Latin is, it is not hard to find evidence online that Irish students
are no more enthusiastic about the language today than your Lede
blogger’s classmates were at school in Ireland in the 1980s. Here, for
instance, is how a lively thread from a 2006 chat-room discussion
among a group of high-school seniors in Ireland — headlined “Arrrgh!
Irish!! Why is it mandatory! I hate our education system!!” — begins:

Oh god of all gods, why is Irish mandatory? I understand the whole “we
need to keep culture in Ireland” and part of our culture is our
language … but honest to Jesus, if someone doesn’t want to learn it,
why make them?

Kevin Myers, a columnist for the Irish Independent in Dublin, has
concluded that the Irish language is dying, and wonders aloud why
Ireland’s government, by continuing to pay for things like
Irish-language television and education, is spending so much money to
postpone the inevitable.
Mr. Myers recently told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (in the
report embedded at the foot of this post) that he thinks the Irish
government is wasting money on a revival project that has obviously

Languages die. This is a norm. Dozens of languages die every year. Is
it good? No, it’s not culturally good, it’s not good for the world
that something happens, but it does happen, that’s it. Species become
extinct, other species emerge. It is the world we live in. You can
weep about the world we live in — and with every reason to — but
that’s not going to change anything. Putting money into the Irish
language is to say “I’m going to burn this money.” It’s like getting a
big bonfire, throwing all your millions of euros on it and setting
fire to it. That’s what it is.

But to illustrate just how long this debate has been going on in
Ireland, consider that the opposite side of this argument was
presented with vigor in the 1940s and 1950s by a far more famous Irish
columnist, Myles na Gopaleen. In a column written for The Irish Times
in response to an editorial critical of the Irish government, led by
Eamon de Valera at the time, and its language-promotion spending, Mr.
na Gopaleen wrote:

The horrible charge is made that Mr. de Valera is spending half a
million a year on reviving Irish. I may be a wild Paddy but I take the
view that the free expenditure of public money on a cultural pursuit
is one of the few boasts this country can make.

In the same column, Mr. na Gopaleen, who wrote novels in English under
a second pen name, Flann O’Brien (his real name was Brian O’Nolan),
added, “It is worth remembering that if Irish were to die completely,
the standard of English here, both in the spoken and written word,
would sink to a level probably as low as that obtaining in England,
and it would stop there only because it could go no lower.”

Mr. na Gopaleen knew whereof he spoke. In addition to his outstanding
columns, written at different times in Irish and English, and his
novels in English, he also wrote what I am reliably informed is the
greatest comic novel in the Irish language, “An Beal Bocht”
(translated into English as “The Poor Mouth“). Much of it, in fact, is
a send-up of the language revival movement — but the writer’s facility
with both languages gave him strong footing to argue that one reason
so many great works are written in English by Irish writers may be the
pressure of the Irish language beneath the surface of the way English
is spoken and written in Ireland.

To illustrate, Mr. na Gopaleen provided what he said was “a literal
translation of a letter” written in the year 1600 by a famed Irish
chieftain, Hugh O’Neill, to a hostile captain. Read it and consider
how they compare to the words “Either you are with us or you are with
the terrorists” spoken some four centuries later in English:

Our blessing to ye, O Mac Coghlin: we received your letter and what we
understand from her is that what you are at the doing of is but
sweetness of word and spinning out of time. For our part of the
subject, whatever person is not with us and will not wear himself out
in the interest of justice, that person we understand to be a person
against us. For that reason, in each place in which ye do your own
good, pray do also our ill to the fullest extent ye can and we will do
your ill to the absolute utmost of our ability, with God’s will. We
being at Knockdoney Hill, 6 February 1600.

The ebb and flow of the language is not dissimilar to some of the
elaborate phrasings John Millington Synge wove into the speeches in
“The Playboy of the Western World,” three centuries on. That play was
written after the author had spent some time in the west of Ireland,
where the Irish language was still putting up a fight at the time. As
Mr. Eagleton noted in his book ten years ago, “The language is growing
fastest among the nationalist communities of Northern Ireland, who
learn it to affirm their cultural identity.” That is still true today,
as evidenced by the fact that the British government now pays for
something called Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta: the organization runs
schools in Ulster where most subjects are taught in Irish.

So in the part of Ireland ruled by the Irish, students rage against
the burden of having to learn the language spoken on the island before
the centuries of British domination, while on the part of the island
that is still part of the United Kingdom, students the same age sign
up to study entirely in that tongue. One suspects Myles na Gopaleen
would have enjoyed this extra effort to preserve Irish culture, no
matter how quixotic it may prove. As he argued many decades ago:
“There is probably no basis at all for the theory that a people cannot
preserve a separate national entity without a distinct language, but
it is beyond dispute that Irish enshrines the national ethos, and in a
subtle way Irish persists very vigorously in English.”

To hear the language being spoken today, and some the arguments for
and against spending more Irish money on it, enjoy the following
report, made in Dublin three months ago:
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