Brian Fleming tells us that thousands of students are opting out of learning Irish (Education Today 17th Jan. 2006). An ESRI study concludes that Irish is "the least popular subjects among school students". What has gone wrong? Why after 80 years of force-feeding is Irish so unpopular and spoken by practically no one? Let me explain why the language is all but dead, especially in the quiet, once isolated country places where it was the thriving first language, the small Gaeltacht areas.
The truth is that today less than 20,000 people speak Irish as their native language.
Reg Hindley, a former lecturer at Bradford University, has specialised in studying languages, both Irish and Welsh. He took a sabbatical year from Bradford University to study the status of the Irish and wrote a book called The Death of the Irish Language, published in 1990. His main conclusion is clear and uncompromising. He states, "There is no doubt that the Irish language is now dying". In effect, we are now vying with Portugal as the most monolingual country in Europe -- but at least in Portugal the official language is Portuguese.
Hindley believes the current generation of children who are first language native speakers may well be the last one. And remember all these children speak fluent English. They know, as do their parents, that their job prospects are zero if they do not speak English. Their parents also know that this country would never have had the "Celtic Tiger" if we spoke Irish, not English.
Unlike the children of HiCo parents, we know that the children in Gaeltacht areas think that Irish is really quite boring and certainly not cool. But the state has been blinded to these realities. "The failure to reconcile romantic nationalism and nationalist myth with the realities of Gaeltacht life has been a conspicuous element in the failure to save the language" according to Hindley.
The reasons why Irish is dying are obvious. Irish once thrived in the isolated small communities which spoke it. With the coming of the motorcar and the advent of mass tourism, all this ended. Dingle, for instance, now depends on tourism for its main source of income, and these tourists speak English, whether from London, Paris or Berlin.
But what happens if Irish dies in the Gaeltacht areas, as now seems inevitable?
"A country which cannot adequately support at home the people who speak its dying national language, will have grave difficulties in sustaining it into the future", states Hindley. Do the HiCo parents believe this? Doubtful. They will be happy to have their children speaking classroom Irish, a dumbed down, easier to learn version of Irish that native Irish speakers find almost incomprehensible. And can Irish be sustained by only by enthusiastic intellectuals who associate language with nation?
Understandable as it was that the new Free State had as a top priority to revive Irish, it was probably too late by 1922 to succeed.In 1922 only a handful of people were native, monoglot speakers. That decline began as far back as the late seventeenth century when parents increasingly encouraged their children to speak Irish, especially as the penal laws were relaxed.
By the late eighteenth century Irish was "an interest for scholars and occasional Protestant activists as a medium for conversions", according to Hindley. Put simply, Irish people had decided over a period of some 200 years to speak English for very sensible pragmatic reasons.
Let us face facts: despite all sorts of ingenious plans and incentives, the battle has been lost.
And students know it. Irish is not a "sexy" language. Even in Gaeltacht areas teenagers have rejected Irish as a language of romance. One said, "But if you went to a disco in Galway and asked someone to dance in Irish, you'd be absolutely shunned. It's just so uncool, man." For sheer compression, as an obituary for a language, that would be very hard to beat.
It was once believed that the failure to embrace the Irish language is to disavow your very Irishness. This spirit is very much alive today among many adults, but our youth have learnt the way to gain access to knowledge and power is through the language of the Anglophone world. Is it not time to make Irish optional?
(by Robin Bury - originally published in the Irish Times)