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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  • Lala

    “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”. This is inaccurate as students all have to study a foreign language to Leaving Cert level as well, the same as Irish.

    • Kendell

      They don’t ‘have’ to study a third language, some schools require their students to take one, but that’s the schools decision. A third language is encouraged as universities require one for a lot of courses, but it’s not compulsory. Irish on the other hand is compulsory for all students unless they get an exemption..

    • Tom Myatt

      What I meant by ‘focusing’ is that, as there are only so many hours in the school day, the time would be better spent on the other languages :)

      • Lala

        I get what you’re saying, but they get equal time in the day, at least in my school they did. I’ll defend Irish forever, don’t think we’re going to see eye to eye on things, Tom! :)

  • Mac Léinn

    “Troll” a thugar ar an phleicadh sin Tom. Mo náire thú. Is léir nach thuigeann tú an tábhacht a bhaineann leis an nGaeilge.

  • Cathal

    Tom, I understand perfectly where you’re coming from when you make such subjective sweeping statements as “an utterly useless language.”
    You see, the Irish Language has been the conduit of our culture for thousands of years. However, being afflicted as you are with that particular utilitarian myopia that comes with being British you could never appreciate this “lust for tradition.”
    But all is not lost. You have TOWIE and Eastenders. That’s culture in’nit?

  • Seán

    What an inflammatory and inaccurate piece. If it weren’t for British cultural genocide, we’d still be speaking Irish today.

    The argument of “it’s not practical/useful” is garbage. Why learn any language? English is enough to thrive in most European countries, the only countries where most people could en up living outside of Australia, USA etc. While I accept that German or French is more useful than Irish, they aren’t particularly useful either a English can get you around anywhere. Taking your argument to its logical conclusion, we wouldn’t bother learning any other languages because the time taken in school to learn them isn’t “worth it”…most of them foreigners can speak English anyway, right?

    But that’s not what I think. :Learning a language improves the way your brain functions and allows you to see the world from a new perspective. It’s also nice to communicate with people from other countries in their own tongue, even if it’s largely unnecessary as most speak English. Learning Irish is a way of engaging with our culture and heritage, it’s completely different to “Anglo-Saxon dialects” which were the predecessors to English before the Norman invasion….Irish is a language in its own right, not an ancient version of another modern language.

    I’d encourage you to go to the Galetacht and say that. According to the Census, there about 40,000 people living in Galetacht areas with Irish as their first language, and about 105,000 fluent speakers in the country overall. Now, 105,000 isn’t a big number I’ll gladly accept, but it certainly doesn’t make the language “dead”, you ignorant numbskull.

  • Pádraig

    Both pretty poor arguments.

    As Tom rightly points out everyone who can speak Irish can also speak English so there is actually no ‘threat of great harm to our beloved institution’. Top academics are not going to stop coming to Trinity if more of us could also speak Irish, that’s a silly argument.

    Also the Official Languages Act is legislation, it doesn’t have targets regarding increasing the amount of speakers. It’s funny how you can be caught out for poorly researching an article, Wikipedia isn’t always right.

    I also think that Samuel kinda misses the point, there is far far more to the Irish language than being able to speak to a ‘hottie’ behind their back. Also, as an Irish speaker, I am glad to say that I don’t feel any ‘moral superiority’ that I can speak Irish, I just speak it because I want to.

    • James Wilson

      “As Tom rightly points out everyone who can speak Irish can also speak English,” that’s not true, I’ve met a few.

  • Seán Fitzgerald

    How sad that such hatred for Irish culture is being shown by yet another British person in this country. What a hate-filled tradition. Apparently it’s an “utterly useless language” and the Irish, being Irish of course, are “emotionally attached” (read: irrational/Popish/ blah blah) to their language.

    I really think such people like the “Tom Myatt” guy above should not be tipped around just because Irish people are being polite because they’re outsiders. See them instead as the latest part of the British colonial tradition and its notions of cultural supremacy over the natives, and it’s a much more accurate, but ugly, reality.

    • Tom Myatt

      Oh no, I honestly don’t hate Irish culture at all! Otherwise i would not have moved here :) There’s no ‘hate’ or ‘colonisation’ desire here whatsoever

      • Ronan

        You’re view reminds me of one of those mock ups they have on programmes such as the Savage Eye. “I say, look! Paddy’s speaking in tongues again. Nice work with ’21 Paddy; but you’ve not won yet!” And, I think Sean, above, is speaking about the Post Colonial dynamic. I doubt for a second you’d intend to “colonise” the country.

  • john donagher

    yet another article showing why Ireland left the UK don’t talk about things you don’t understand

  • Billy

    Aontaim le Padraig. Tá an da taobh den sceil bocht i mo bharuil fein.

  • Seán Ó Cearbhaill

    There are a hell of a lot more than ‘30,000’ fluent Irish speakers, I hate and abhor people who misrepresent facts to further their cause! There are 30,000 fluent speakers in the 6 counties but there are still 90,000 living in the Gaeltacht this puts the figure at 120,000 before we even start taking in the rest of the country. The Irish is the wealth of this country and by learning it from a young age we are enabling our children to exceed in school.

    • speck

      did you mean *excel*?

  • donnchup

    “Very few people are actually fluent in the language – most who do, teach it.” I think you mean “most who are”. Learn to write English, before you lie, it is a lie by the way, about Irish.

  • Nikitha Roy

    Now a days every school is focusing on English language.Every student must read speak and understand english.I have studied distance education i can’t speak and read english now a days i started learning english with videos

  • Colm

    Similar issues are being discussed in the Irish media at the moment. Should the primary school curriculum contain less Irish in favour of maths and science? This might be a useful discussion to have within the country. We might like to look at HOW we teach Irish, and at how the subject can be made more attractive etc. However, when raised by an English person, this becomes problematic for Irish people. why? Just think of the centuries of ruthless cultural oppression of Irish culture at the hands of British colonial power. Remember that English was not adopted as a dominant language here until the mid 19th century, under pressure of the English. Before that everyone spoke Irish. Irish is our cultural heritage, and it is up to the Irish people to decide how to handle that. Excuse us for feeling defensive of our heritage!

    Regards, Colm from

  • Dearcadh-Eile

    To posit that schools should spend more time teaching “more useful” subjects like Maths or another language at the expense of Irish is a very poor argument,especially considering the fact that Gaelscoileanna across the country continually outperform single-language schools at both primary and secondary level. The demand for such schools has continued to rise over the last decade or so because parents have realised the quality of education afforded by these schools. So if anything, Irish is experiencing a revival outside of the Gaeltacht regions.

  • John Prendergast

    Tá 93% de dhaonra na tíre seo dearfach faoin Gaeilge.

    Nílimid chun fáil réidh leí de dheasca go gcreideann daoine eile nach bhfuil ár dteanga aisiúil nó eacsa chun foghlaim. Tá gné eile ag baint leis an nGaeilge, gné nach féidir le héinne a mhiniú i gceart. Mothúchán atá inti. Stair. Grá. Bród.

    Is sinn na daoine óga chun an suíomh mar atá a athrú! Bígí linn!

  • WestBrit

    Some serious chips on shoulders in here.

    Here is a question, is a person any less Irish for not being able to speak/read/communicate to any reasonable capacity in Irish?

    • Neilyn

      Not less Irish I’m sure (which of itself, doesn’t actually mean anything, does it, anymore than me BEING Welsh means anything?), just not fully or directly connected with the very essence of it, the heart of it, the uniquely Irish way of thinking and expressing that only the Irish language itself can give you, perhaps? Just as only the German language can truly be the vehicle for feeling and expressing the uniquely German character and world view?

      It has nothing whatsoever do with any chips on shoulders, I’m sure.

  • Neilyn

    Two languages are better than one, especially if one of those languages happens to be your nation’s native language, and the other happens to be the world’s most useful inter-national language. So if you have Irish and English you have the best of both worlds. It really is that simple. They compliment each other – no choice is necessary.

    German, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian or whatever can come later if, or when, a specific need or opportunity arises.

    Cyfarchion o Gymru.

  • Kris L

    The Irish language reminds me of the dead parrot sketch from monty python. The Irish speakers insist that it is alive, yet its clear to everybody that is sane, that it is utterly dead.