Dec 13, 2012

Is the Irish Language Dead? A British Perspective

Yes | Tom Myatt

At age six, whilst holidaying in co. Tipperary, I woke up one morning in a state of glee. I raced downstairs, still in pyjamas, eager to watch my favourite cartoon – Dora the Explorer; however, my initial excitement quickly transformed into shock and confusion. The Spaniard and her comradeous chimp appeared to be speaking in tongues. Clearly this young adventurer had contracted a rather serious case of Glossolalia. Maybe little Dora there got on the wrong side of Satan. However, it later emerged that their dialect was in fact Irish – what I have since come to see as an utterly useless language.


The futility of the language is even accepted today by both Irish and non-Irish alike. Very few people are actually fluent in the language – most who do, teach it. The fundamental fact that leads me to believe Irish is such a ‘lame duck’ is that virtually everyone who speaks Irish speaks English. Thus there is no need whatsoever to learn it. You might get to speak to a few extra folk over in the People’s Republic of Kerry but no more. In contrast, Mandarin Chinese is spoken in a rapidly rising power by almost a billion people, and Spanish is used throughout much of the Americas. Heck, even French is the joint working language of the EU. These are the languages Ireland needs to know to ensure it is kept up to date with Century no. 21. Not some medieval affiliation with a lingo on life support.

The Dail continues to pump millions into imposing the language on children in schools. However, it is seen as tedious and unnecessary by pupils. I mean, how many of you got a great buzz off studying it? Not only are we damaging Ireland by not focusing on other languages, but we are also robbing these children of great international opportunities to study or work which we have so available to us in this day and age. It seems criminal to disallow Irish pupils from being able to experience more of the diverse and fascinating world that is out there and instead restricting them to speak to whomever they choose in Donegal. The next generation of Ireland is facing becoming completely detached from the world in which even English is being rivalled.

The Irish seem to have become somewhat emotionally attached to the language for indeterminate traditional reasons. “It’s our heritage!” they tell me defensively.  But why exactly does language in particular have to be preserved to ensure the people’s identity is not lost? Are you not Irish if you don’t speak the language? There are different ways to preserve culture. I could parade around Manchester trying to whip up enthusiasm for ancient Anglo-Saxon dialects. No one would care and I’d probably get beaten up on the bus. In Ireland, however, this language isn’t just being prevented from disappearing – its decaying corpse is all over the place. You can’t escape it. Why does a lust for tradition warrant the state use of the language to the extent that it is? Preservation, if at all necessary, does not require it to be all over road signs, information signs and government documents.

Trinity itself is even a culprit in this harmful lust for tradition. The Irish Language Office exists for the sole purpose of promoting the use of the language on campus, and to both students and staff. Enforcing the Official Languages Act is also a hobby. But all this poses the threat of great harm to our beloved institution. With a larger use of Irish language, the world’s top academics will have little reason to come to Trinity – entering a place where they have no proficiency for the tongue. Foreign and ERASMUS students’ numbers will also diminish. They come here to learn English, but will just give their high fees to someone else. Why would we want to dissolve our brilliantly international character and turn our back on all these great minds? Trinity cannot afford to isolate itself from the fully globalised knowledge economy. To promote and adopt Irish would imprison us to the history books of once-great establishments.

Despite being seen as tradition, the Irish people seem have come to agree with my view in the past 100 years: the number of fluent Irish speakers since independence has plummeted by about 90% from 250,000 to around 30,000. The Official Languages Act wants there to be 300,000 by 2030, but the futility and irrelevance is being widely recognised throughout Ireland. Taxpayer’s money is being squandered. It’s all very well and good having national traditions but the focus on preserving the past is worsening the chances for the future. Irish is not the language of the 21st Century world – a fact that Dora and co. should be fully aware of.

No | Samuel Riggs

Like most people, I originally viewed learning Irish in school with a kind of ‘I do it because I HAVE to’ attitude. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t useful, and it certainly wasn’t going to be used again afterwards, unless you had aspirations to become a teacher or some such. Irish was an uphill battle from the start for me – I came to learning it 8 years after everyone else had started, when I moved to Ireland from the UK, and only then because I was 3 months shy of the exemption date for not having to do it. So, I was lumped into Irish class, and made to start out on one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever experience in a subject. For years, I fought against learning Irish, regularly entering into ‘What is the POINT?!’ arguments with teachers, backed up heartily by my enthusiastic, but tragically not very eloquent classmates. So, what happened to change my mind about the native language of Ireland, and why do I think we should all try and learn it?

On a personal note, the main reason why I threw myself into the study of Irish so vehemently in secondary school, is because one of my contemporaries made the mistake of telling me that I wasn’t actually able to learn it. Instead of seeing Irish as a chore I had to get over in order to complete the LC, I saw it as a challenge, a way to sock it to the little sod who thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. In the end, I outperformed him in the actual test. So, HAH. This, coupled with a trip to the Gaelteacht, helped to cement in my mind why I needed to learn Irish more comprehensively.

The opposing argument to all this is that, in schools, students could spend more time on worthwhile pursuits like science, maths, music or another, more widely spoken language. Now, I hate to sound like a cliché, but the study of Irish does bring with it the idea of cultural and historical importance. Without Irish, how would students tap into the rich vein of literature written through the Irish language? It’s highly unlikely that even a few of them would have even come into contact with it, were it not for the study of Irish in the LC. The study of Irish brings with it a greater, deeper and richer knowledge about the culture it.

I really do feel like the presence of the Gaelteacht is a very real reason for the perpetuation of the language. Aside from the fact that it provides many teenagers with either an actual first shift or a pretend one (‘I shifted a girl out in Galway last summer, lads, it was grand, I’m not a fridget!’), and gives many parents a much-needed break from their part-time jobs as summertime entertainers for their school-less children, they also provide many jobs for people; whether they’re summer jobs for enthusiastic student Gaelgoirs, or jobs for substitute teachers who would otherwise spend summer completely unemployed. My own Gaelteacht was incredibly fun, even if it was of the highly-organised variety. Not to mention the fact that, without the grant supplied by the government to host families for taking on students during the summer, many families in the border and western regions of Ireland would be living, officially, below the poverty line.

But aside from this brief interlude into economics, how can Irish be used in a modern context, once we’ve spent hours labouring over it during our teenage years? Well, first and foremost, let’s be honest here. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t learnt Irish, gone abroad on a holiday afterwards, and used it to talk about hotties behind their backs. It’s probably the second most regular time that the language is used, coming a little before ‘Official Government Documents’, and a very long way behind ‘The Leaving Certificate’. We use Irish as a way to baffle other nations, and then quietly bitch about them behind their backs. I mean, it’s very likely that nine times out of ten when you hear me speaking Irish, I’m probably having a quiet complain about them to my friend, and I don’t want any potential eavesdroppers to be able to figure out what I’m saying with ease.

The fact of the matter is, is that anyone who has been through the Irish education system will have some Irish. It’s an important contributing factor to culture, childhood and to just having fun in general – if you get the hankering to speak it, you need not look too far afield to find someone to practice with. Oh, and there’s all that lovely moral superiority which comes with saying you’re able to speak it too – always a plus.

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