Thinking in English – Dreaming in Irish
Sharon Ní Chuilibín
In this article we reflect on the challenges and opportunities offered by the Irish language. Up until the famine, Irish was the dominant language spoken in Ireland. The famine dealt a terrible blow to the morale of the country. Without food or dignity, such suffering as we can scarcely imagine today – such was the fate of the ancestors of Ireland : emigration or death by starvation in the workhouse, following cruel evictions.
Today, as a result of the mass emigration from Ireland, there are up to eight million who would claim Irish roots . Large numbers are found in America, Australia and in England. Far from the country of their ancestors, many have taken to task, learning the Irish language. There are free online classes offered worldwide through the Philo Celtic society, and there are Irish speaking communities wherever the Irish have landed. The Irish language also features as part of university curriculum in Holland, Germany, Canada, Australia and the USA.
This Irish language movement however meets a sizable challenge. Despite the fact that the community of Irish speakers is growing worldwide every year. The English language has the upper hand almost everywhere. This is not just an issue confined to Ireland of course. All across the world, native languages are dying under the pressures exerted by homogenisation and globalisation and a dominant Anglo American culture. This is not alone a cultural force but essentially an economic one. It is a question also of centralisation. As English becomes a dominant language, so too money and value saps out of a locality.
The words ”thinking in English: dreaming in Irish” attributed to the Limerick born poet Michael Hartnett, Micheál O Hartnéide, evoking the power of the dream –for the future.
At home in Ireland, there has been a growing demand for Gaelschileanna, schools where children are educated through the Irish language. Parents recognise the benefits and have taken it upon themselves to raise their children through Irish. There are tender shoots innovative companies to develop a realm wherein the Irish language can be spoken, outside of institutional settings. Of the 40,000 children who are being educated through the medium of Irish and whose parents are also learning the language, Irish people ask what facilities are in place for them to be able to use the language outside of the school system ?
Is í an Gaeilge mo rogha teanga”
Irish is my language of choice”
Ciarán Mac Fhearghusa is one such passionate advocate of the Irish language. Growing up his mother spoke to him only in Irish. Today he runs Óga Yoga offering classes workshops and retreats through the Irish language to schools. Wherever possible, Ciarán chooses Irish as his working language, giving preference to those companies who will conduct business through Irish. T-shirts are printed by An Spailpín Fanach in Galway. Hurls used in the activities of the GAA GaelÓga also.
This is not an arbitrary decision. Have w underestimated the importance and potential of the Eurogaelach? And of the value of the Irish language in potentially fostering the growth of business and employment in Ireland? Such is the aim of Snastablasta – supplying chocolate bars and premium coffee which all-Irish packaging. You can visit Ciarán’s website to buy your own supplies www.snastablasta.ie. As Ciarán notes “People first buy these products for the novelty value, but they return to buy more because of the quality”. “Snasta” cool and Clasta means Tasty.
Looking at the influence of the Equality of Languages Act in Canada, we can see the benefits of having products available in one’s own language. The fragility of the Irish language is evident in its lack of visibility in day to day life. Whether you speak Irish or would claim an Irihs heritage, it is a pleasure to find products in one’s own minority language.
Award winning Irish language poet Simon ‘O Faoileán lives inside the Gaeltacht region of Corca Dhuibhne in west Kerry. He compares the effort required when one chooses to conduct one’s life through Irish in Ireland as swimming up a waterfall!
“Tá sé cosúil le snámh in aghaidh easa.”
Death by Stealth
Studies suggest that unless something radical is done within this generation, the Irish as an a language, even within the Gaeltacht is losing ground to English. The education system as it is does not serve the needs of Gaeltacht speakers of Irish. Studies have been done but recommendations are yet to take effect on the ground. Funding seems to be an issue at hand. On a practical note, what is needed is for companies and therefore employment to be created that Irish speakers may use their language on a day to day basis.
The evidence suggests that there is a definite need now for a working policy and practical and innovative projects that not only acknowledge but begin to work to actively serve the needs of a growing Irish speaking community not just in Ireland but world-wide.
“Whenever the question of the Irish language has been raised it has been brought back to the simplistic and devisive issue of whether Irish should be compulsory subject in the educational system. This is completely missing the point and curtailing any reasonable space from debate on the question of the Irish language.”
Ciarán describes the government attitude to Irish language as death by stealth. It is not enough to try and maintain and protect the boundaries of Gaeltacht areas.. We really need to look at expanding through new innovative projects. To expand the present “Gaeltacht” and create new Gaeltacht areas.
At present there is little support for families raising their children through the medium of Irish. There is not enough awareness at a national level of the question of raising children through Irish, it is not on the agenda. Awareness needs to be generated as a National Question these issues need to be publicly explored.
We can effectively see no strategies of supports in place to actively foster the flowering of the language and nurture the rich culture of Ireland’s heritage. In the Gaeltacht areas factories have been closing down – what kind of employment can be created to continue to facilitate Gaeltacht communities ?
Sanctuary of Langauge
The Irish language was key to Ireland’s self consciousness as a full nation and yet once a Republic was formed the Irish State claimed an identity as a Catholic state rather than on the basis of language. After all, leaders of the language movement included many who were of Anglo Irish and Protestant heritage. Their’s was a vision beyond the distinctions of caste or creed.
For right or wrong, the cordial relationship among both Catholic and Protestant fostered within the Irish language movement suffered through a limited image of ‘Irishness”. Indeed, following the dawning Republic in 1932, the distinctive bawdiness and playfulness character implicit within the Irish language, was squeezed into the tight grip of Victorian values. The language enjoyed a widespread blossoming of interest in print and public discourse and had come to be associated with a sense of Ireland’s glorious past. But when the dust settled on a new Republic, the language was caught in the teeth of a different agenda.
Where once those who had spoken Irish in schools were punished severely, now the teaching of Irish often lacked the love and enthusiasm with which it had first been embraced. “It was forced down our throats” is a common complaint.
Today, faced with the onslaught of Anglo-American influences, many recognise the value of the Irish language, in preserving one’s sense of connection to both ancestors and the land of Ireland. For one whole ancestors spoke Irish as their first language, through speaking the language, one firmly locates one’s centre within oneself. The next step is in determining how to integrate the language as part of one’s day to day life.
Irish as a sexy, earthy language full of playfulness and dynamic sense of presence has yet to take centre stage. It is not object orientated as the English language is. In its very structure the human being is allowed a fluid, juicy sense of identity. This playful joie de vivre is found in the celebrated works of Irish writers James, Joyce Samuel Beckett and Flann ‘O Brien- where the English language sets to define and rigidly dictate the relation of a person to environment through the medium of objects. In Irish on the contrary we can say “ Tá brón orm” this translates as “sadness is on me” .
A language can bestown upon the speaker a distinct moe of perceiving and operating within the world. The person who would have said “Tá brón orm” knows that –“this too will pass”. Like a cloud passing over. So too our perceived limitations are not really ours – learning the language does not have to be experienced as a constraint, but rather a new and true kind of freedom.