The Language for Whom the Bell Tolls

Article written by Adam Volf, in English.

Lethargy, apathy, and ineffective methods – the issues which challenge the Irish language’s survival, and how it must be saved.


West of Ireland coastline, Photo by Henrique Craveiro on Unsplashed

Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam

‘A country without a language is a country without a soul’  (Patrick Pearse, Irish writer, poet, revolutionary).

How does one revive a dying language?

The story of the 19th-century revival of the Hebrew language is what American film critics would call a feel-good story.

In the 1880s, as Jewish migrants from all over the world began to arrive in Palestine in droves, Itamar Ben-Avi (born to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe) became the first native speaker of Hebrew in over a millennium. Hebrew has since grown to over nine million speakers (including five million native speakers) and was bolstered by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, gaining recognition as the official language of an entire country. Truly extraordinary, by anyone’s metric.

But the lengths to which advocates of the Hebrew language resorted to in order to ensure the revival of Hebrew were equally extraordinary. Itamar Ben-Avi’s parents were Deborah and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, both competent linguists who painstakingly spoke only in (non-native) Hebrew to one another in order to optimally immerse their son in the liturgical language of their people. Eliezer forbid young Itamar from playing with other children, whose linguistic inclinations could corrupt his ability to speak native Hebrew. Itamar’s lonely childhood ultimately paid off, and he is today celebrated as the first native speaker of the modern Hebrew language.

Similarly, the revival of Hebrew was facilitated by an unmistakable historical opportunity marked by the mass migration of Jewish people, separated by centuries of assimilation, who spoke a vast array of different languages. Such an opportunity for the reintroduction of a language has – arguably – never presented itself either before or since. The basic instruments of its revival were the demographic conditions of the time, the extraordinary dedication of a network of advocates such as the Ben-Yehudas, and time – which allowed consistent demographic growth to do its work. Within a hundred years, an extinct language was saved.

Now to turn to Irish.

The status of the Irish language is difficult to describe to non-residents of Ireland. The Irish language is certainly not extinct. But many could be forgiven for not realising that it continues to exist, for its use appears so sparse. Indeed, many Europeans may be unaware that Irish is an official language of the European Union, and many more will have spent endless time in the company of Irish people without having heard them utter a single word in Irish. Currently, Irish is a kind of cultural enigma. For most Irish people, the language holds a sort of affectionate place in society. The Xenophobe’s Guide to Ireland perhaps summarizes this most acutely by comparing Irish to the good china plates: for use at Christmas, baptisms, state dinners, and other official events – but not quite for everyday use. This is broadly true.

Again, the Irish language is not extinct. Indeed, the Irish language – with its 1.5 million (official) speakers – is not even close to becoming extinct. But figures – much like the number of individuals who claim ability in the Irish language – only tell half the story. The use of the Irish language is declining. The historical span of territory within which Irish has been dominantly spoken has swiftly receded in the time that Hebrew has flourished. Today, the designated Gaeltachtaí (Irish-language zones) appear so tiny, one could conceivably mistake them on a map as areas delineating some sort of geographical specificity – a bog or marshland perhaps. The number of native speakers (that is, first-language speakers) is likely no higher than 80,000. Irish is less likely to be heard on the streets of many of Ireland’s largest cities – Limerick, Cork, and (especially) Dublin – than Polish or Portuguese. While numbers of speakers – or, rather, individuals who claim some ability in Irish – is statistically rising, many have only the cursory knowledge afforded to them by years of mandatory classes. Irish people sometimes exaggerate their abilities in Irish, resulting in misleading data on its use. The reality is rather that Irish-language competency on the Emerald Isle is fading. Certainly, its prospects as a native language are dire, and its use as such may soon be limited only to the very oldest generation of Irish people.

A Hundred Years of Inaction

The galling retreat of Irish is a consequence of several factors. Certainly, the language shift caused by centuries of colonisation took a toll on the language. However, more recent devastation has been visited upon the language by the inability of the Irish government to resolve its issues – or general inactivity in this regard. Of greater issue still, perhaps, is the simple lethargy of the Irish population and an exasperating disinterest which has seen few Irish people exercise their Irish-language skills.

There cannot be any doubt that cyclical British interventions in Ireland brought the Irish language to its knees by the mid-19th century. The related language shift to English severely impacted Irish language use. But to blame the dire position of the language today solely on the exploits of Cromwell, the British Crown, and the absentee landlord system, and the famine is a faltering statement. In 2022, the Republic of Ireland will celebrate one hundred years of statehood, and one hundred years of almost-total control over its internal affairs. A hundred years, also, of constitutional sovereignty, and a hundred years within which to correct the spiralling use of Irish. Instead the state will mark a hundred years of inaction.

Since 1922, a sovereign Ireland has been unable to accomplish what an unsovereign Jewish state managed in less than fifty years. According to the Central Statistics Office, around 550,000 people spoke Irish in 1926. In 2006, 1.65 million people claimed the ability to speak Irish. Encouraging, almost. However, those figures were inflated by the mandatory Irish lessons in school, and a general vagueness in the data regarding actual language proficiency. A better indication is provided by the number of people who claimed to speak Irish outside the education system every day – 53,000, or 3.2% of the total that claimed Irish language ability. And of those 1.65 million, a total of 411,000 answered that they ‘never’ spoke Irish outside the education system. Therein lies a more vivid indictment of the language’s use. The vast majority of Irish people will have encountered – and used – the language only during education. Those are abysmal returns, and only successive Irish governments can account for this. While focusing on classroom instruction, the state entirely ignored cultivating everyday language use, provisions for its use in institutions, and (crucially) redressing the linguistic imbalance which favoured English, and rendered Irish impractical for everyday interaction, as once it had been. Unfortunately, this failure was repeated. For one hundred years.

True failure lies also with the Irish people themselves. The case of a sovereign Irish people cannot be compared to the case of Jewish immigrants arriving in mandatory Palestine in the early 20th century for an entire string of reasons (most notably, that many Jews shared little in common other than ethno-religious denomination, rendering the question of a common language more pointed than in a largely Anglophone Ireland). Nevertheless, the sacrifice required to sustain a language has demonstrably eluded the Irish nation for successive generations. Irish people have very much to account for, in what concerns the demise of the Irish language.

I’m Irish, and I don’t care if the language dies

To try and explain the baffling opposition that the Irish language faces by demotivated Irish people is a laborious effort. Unfortunately, to find examples is not difficult at all.

Many opponents of the Irish language contend that Irish-language activists are extreme in their outlook. Yet one does not need to be a particularly committed advocate of the language to baulk at the apathy (at best) and antipathy (at worst) of a startling number of Irish people to the language. To explain the urgency of continued action in order to preserve a language of any kind is beyond contention. Yet, some Irish maintain that the language is ‘dead’ and therefore of no use, that they rather learn other, more ‘useful’ languages (a position typically occupied by people who’ve done nothing of the sort). Others contend that they simply do not like Irish, often pointing to disillusionment with their experience of instruction in the language, and corresponding aversion to the language. Naturally, neither are valid reasons to allow a language to die out (there is, moreover, no reason that any language ever should be allowed to do so) – and rather thinly masks a more pithy general truth: that many Irish people are simply too lazy to learn Irish.

To preserve a language is a proverbial no-brainer. It is the same as arguing for the preservation of a particular species of animal (let’s say, the Northern White Rhino). Some will actively support initiatives to save the rhino, and contribute time and effort towards this. Most people will do nothing to prevent the extinction of the rhino – but will at least pay lip service to the need to preserve its existence. Others will, regrettably, not see the importance of changing any part of their routine – exploitation of the rhino’s natural habitat, perhaps, contributing to its migration rhino and the general malaise of the species. To make even a lightly-inconveniencing alteration to benefit this animal would be too inconveniencing. Such nakedly self-serving factions exist also in the fight to save Irish. Contained within this group are the most vitriolic and unpleasant foes of the preservation of the language: those who stubbornly declare that there is no need to preserve Irish when English is of such universal value to Irish people. These would be the last group of rhino-exploitation enthusiasts: individuals who actively encourage the gradual decline of the rhino, because they happen to harbour greater fondness for water buffalo. It is of no consequence that these species can coexist. One is fine.

Why save the Irish language?

Many Irish people who argue against preserving the Irish language do so without recognition of the very benefits attributable to it. Aside from its long history and presence in texts, scrolls and annals as old as human presence on this island, Irish impacts even English-language use in a manner perhaps invisible to the naked eye. Many Irish will be aware of – and may even laud – the so-called ‘gift of the gab’, the perceived wit and spoken charm possessed naturally by the Irish people. What many may never have considered is that this supposed innate gift is a direct derivative from the cultural tradition of the Irish language, with its stylistic features and narrational whims. To speak Irish is to speak in allegory – and Irish has a pronounced expressionist feature which lends itself readily to English-language literature. It is this very expressionism which has allowed Ireland to produce some of the most creative minds in English literary world – Wilde, Yeats, Beckett, Heaney, Joyce, Behan, and Edna O’Brien. Whilst few (if any) of these may have spoken confident Irish, it is the swift repartee and unconventional expressionism of the Irish language which would have bolstered their writing.

After all, who would employ the English equivalent when Irish language can produce phrases such as these:

Nuair a bhíonn an fíon istigh, bíonn an ciall amuigh – ‘When the wine is in, sense is out’ (doesn’t really require translation)

Má tú ag lorg cara gan locht, béidh tú gan cara go deo – ‘If you seek a friend without fault, you’ll be friendless for all time’

Is minic a bhris béal duine a shrón – ‘One’s mouth regularly breaks one’s nose’ (general sound advice)
Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla cliste – ‘It is preferable to have broken Irish, than clever English’ (no equivalent phrase in English, but this remains my personal favourite).

Words to live by, indeed.

To allow Irish to fade is to allow a literary and tale-telling tradition to fade with it. A tradition which – whether they are conscious of it or not – Irish people have come to be renowned for.

What is to be done?

Amongst the thinly-veiled excuses for the general apathy of many Irish towards the Irish language, there exist some reasonable concerns with the position of Irish in society. The ramblings and references to the importance of prioritising preservation of the status of English over Irish language use are largely logic-free and should be appropriately discarded. But valid arguments against Irish language preservation efforts do exist.

What is undeniable is that the simplistic arguments for the eradication of compulsory education in Irish are born of animosity towards the language. This, according to many, is derived from a personal, negative experience with the language. And these – in turn – often derive from mandatory schooling in Irish. Irish is mandatory throughout education (until age 18) with few exceptions. Thus, the majority of Irish people are forced to take Irish lessons throughout their childhood and adolescence, as one of three ‘core’ subjects (along with English and Mathematics). While there is an entirely valid reason for this measure, the end result (alongside the elevated numbers of speakers – a misleading but positive factor) is a marked negative feeling toward the language. A misguided negative feeling, perhaps. But understandable.

Irish-language sceptics have called for Irish to be made voluntary – in other words, that students be given the option to discontinue their Irish language education after a certain age. Indeed, some Irish language advocates have echoed these sentiments, arguing that antipathy – and therefore aversion – is a result of coerced learning and will ultimately damage the language’s prospects. On the other hand, others – including people without Irish language skills – have contended that to end compulsory education would effectively accelerate the demise of the language, especially as a globalised Ireland welcomes greater numbers of immigrants, whose offspring would – understandably, perhaps – limit their studies of Irish as much as possible. Many ‘native’ Irish would – almost certainly – do the exact same thing. The consequences for an already-endangered language would be devastating.

A rational response would be a synthesis of the compulsory and voluntary study of Irish. The Irish schooling system requires school attendance until age 15. By law, 15 to 18-year-olds no longer need to attend school. Why then, should they be made to continue with Irish? If 15 year-olds are considered well-educated enough to abandon education, they should be given the opportunity to abandon Irish-language education too. To continue to impose Irish upon students throughout the chaotic final years of secondary school is futile – many will have made their minds up (or have had their minds made up for them) on their post-school lifepath. Many will have despaired with learning Irish. Continued imposition of Irish will contribute only to the visible antipathy espoused by many Irish to the language. As of age 15, efforts to encourage Irish language use should be discontinued. At this age, the willingness – or lack thereof – to continue with Irish will have become evident to most Irish students. They should not be made to stumble through their final years of schooling carrying a language they perceive as useless. To alter the compulsion to study Irish will alleviate the negative feelings of many Irish people toward the language, without impacting their ability in that language. Irish language study would remain compulsory only until completion of the junior cycle in secondary school (roughly age 15) and no further. Those who would wish to continue with Irish past this point would be given appropriate incentives to do so. Those who would wish not to, would not do so.

But another, more crucial change should be made to the primary school system (typically lasting until age 12). Irish language use should be made compulsory for all subjects, without exception. In effect, every Irish primary school should become a Gaelscoil (a monolingual immersive school in the Irish language). Irish pupils would take classes in geography, history, physical education, basic maths and science through the Irish language. They would be encouraged to converse in Irish at break-time. They would attend Feiseanna (Irish-language cultural festivals) and theatre performances. They would learn to interact with teachers in Irish, and would bring Irish into their households. They would learn not only the rigid, proper Irish of school texts, but also slang terms and tailored speech. 

The benefits of such a measure are limitless. In addition to the marvels this would result in for the status and endurance of the language, a secondary effect would include renewed interest in Irish cultural events and promotion of the same. Many Irish students would become bilingual in English and Irish – something which would benefit their study of other languages too. It would, almost certainly, benefit English-language literature, due to the wealth of phrases and linguistic traits that would flow into English-language pieces of composition and prose. It would benefit the educational system equally – since Irish students would continue to gain the same educational grounding with the additional benefit of an entire extra language. In the long-term, there would be no more need for contentious Irish-language requirement for entry to various civil service professions, since proficiency will have been acquired during childhood. There will be no more compulsion to continue to labour with Irish at a stage when subject choices are – rightfully – more selective, during the senior educational cycle. To implement such a move would eliminate many of the grievances of both supporters and opponents of the language. To implement such a move would assure the survival of the language.

Such a dramatic change to the national educational system would require many years of preparation, training, infrastructural and institutional alterations, investment, vision and patience. It would be marked by controversy and opposition. It would be decried, dismissed, besmirched and doomed to failure by its critics – many of whom would lambast the need to learn Irish at primary level as dogmatic and illiberal (as they have done with the current compulsion to study the language. But the ultimate benefit would far outweigh any such prevarications. To do so would, in effect, preserve the Northern White Rhino without harming the precious Water Buffalo. As someone who attended a Gaelscoil while continuing to speak English and Czech at home without difficulty, I can promise this.

The efforts to sustain the Irish language must face a reckoning soon, before it is too late. Ireland should make the necessary changes in order to promote and protect the ailing use of the Irish language. To do so will require an overhaul of the measures in place.

But in doing so, Ireland may just revitalise its teanga (tongue/language)

And in doing so, it may also rediscover its anam (soul).

Published by LA REGIONISTO

La Regionisto focuses on regional economic, political or cultural issues. Its aim is to enable everyone to deepen their curiosity for various regions of Europe and beyond, in a classic or fun way. We welcome articles written in any language and from any approach!

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