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Irish Language and Cultural Identity

All eighteen grandchildren know that, during the summer months at least, nothing must disturb the match. When it comes to Gaelic Games, my father-in-law is a gluttonous omnivore. Whether it is a ‘Minors’ hurling match being played out in some rainy and deserted stadium down the country or an epic clash of the titans up in Croke Park, Michael demands an atmosphere of reverential silence. His is an abiding passion and, like all true sports fans, he lives every twist and turn of the season.

Eighteen seriously loud impediments to my father-in-law’s passion for sports

There is a ritual to these Sunday afternoons on the farm. The children disappear to the front parlour or bedroom to cause mayhem, much to my mother-in-law’s chagrin, whilst we settle down to read the papers and watch the match. The fire is usually roaring, even during the height of summer, and if I have not lost consciousness due to a combination of good food and unbearable heat, I tend to watch or ‘listen’ to the match. On those occasions when the match is not televised, Michael produces an ancient battery-operated transistor radio which is perched precariously on the mantelpiece. The room then resounds to the breathless and excited commentary of what is surely one of the fastest moving of team sports.

Many of the matches are televised on TG4 – the Republic’s Irish language station. This station was launched on 31st October 1996 by the state broadcaster Radio Television Eireann (RTE). In the beginning, few commentators believed that the station would survive more than a few months and some even opined that it was a total waste of public money. Their pessimism was misplaced for not only has it survived but it has actually flourished. Indeed, it has proved to be an incredibly effective vehicle for promoting the Irish language. Even those who understand little or no Irish appear to be drawn to the station. Personally, my Irish vocabulary is very limited, but I have watched fascinating documentaries on the fishing industry in County Kerry in the 1950s or the music scene in County Cork during the time of the great Seán Ó Riada. Few now would argue for the station’s demise and it has successfully established itself as an integral part of Irish cultural identity. As an educational tool, it is second to none and at the heart of its output is the Irish language soap opera, Ros na Rún. Now in Season 24, the soap opera is filmed in An Spidéal in Co. Galway. Yet despite its rural setting in Connemara, the drama deals with tough social matters and has now found a niche audience in the States and Australia. Rather marvellously, Stephen Fry has made a rather faltering appearance on the show.

Stephen Fry appearing in Ros na Rún
Why does any of this matter?

Perhaps the point is that educational initiatives or moves to revive the wilting fortunes of national languages are often doomed to failure. By contrast, something such as a soap opera can prove extraordinarily powerful when confronting social, cultural or, in this case, linguistic issues.

Abbeystrewry Priory

The history of the Irish language since the famine has been littered with well-intentioned initiatives that have resulted in outright failure or disappointing outcomes. It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the Great Famine on the fortunes of the Irish language. Over a million people starved to death or died from disease during the period (1845-50) and another million were forced to emigrate to America. The famine’s impact was felt most keenly in those areas in the West which were predominantly Irish speaking. Last summer I visited the shocking burial pits dug aside the ruins of old Abbeystrewery Friary just outside Skibbereen in the west of County Cork. Thousands of coffinless bodies were thrown into burial pits amidst desperate scenes which were first reported on by James Mahony’s graphic and shocking articles in the Illustrated London News.

We next reached Skibbereen….and there I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them.
James Mahony

The impact of all of this on the Irish language was ruinous. In 1835 there was an estimated 4 million Irish speakers but by 1891, the Irish census would suggest that this number had dwindled to just 680,000. Many of those who survived the famine drifted away from the west for better lives on the East coast or in the burgeoning industrial towns of northern England. Indeed, the famine almost wiped out Irish altogether. One of the great heroes of the Irish revival that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century was Douglas Hyde (future president of Ireland) who was a passionate advocate of the language and, despite being the son of a protestant Anglo-Irish rector, stated in 1889 that it would be an everlasting disgrace if Irish was allowed to die out altogether. Yet whilst Hyde and figures like Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats presided over the most extraordinary literary revival, their efforts did not really translate into a proper linguistic revival. Why not?

Irish language has no great body of literature – there are no equivalents to Shakespeare or Milton. Furthermore, measures taken by successive governments after Ireland achieved independence tended to be heavy-handed and prescriptive. Teaching of Irish in schools was often considered to be deadly dull and there is no escaping the fact that Irish grammar is bafflingly complex. It is a wonderfully lyrical language to speak but extremely difficult to write. Irish language is still compulsory in Irish schools yet many children leave school after fourteen years of language tuition without the ability to speak the language with any degree of confidence or fluency.

The literature used to teach Irish in schools tends to be less than riveting. Generations of Irish children have been bored rigid by the travails of Peig Sayers. Peig was a lady who lived out her life on the Great Blasket Islands off the coast of County Kerry. Nothing much happens in her memoirs and the gruelling poverty and devout Catholicism of its rainy landscape hardly resonates with young Irish people today.

Peig’s miserable countenance is as grim as her wretched memoirs

Attempts, however well-intentioned to enforce a language upon a people more often than not breeds resentment. Even in Ireland’s gaeltachts (Irish language speaking areas), only a quarter of households speak Irish as their first language. Whilst Ireland is the official language of the state, it is only spoken by a minority of its people. Even the most ardent of republicans often falter when forced to speak in Irish. If you ever listen to Gerry Adams speaking Irish you will notice that he frequently pauses or labours over the word ‘agus’ meaning ‘and’ so that he has time to string together his next tortuous sentence.

Reflecting upon the fate of the Irish language, it is worth noting that it is often unexpected or inauspicious projects that yield the greatest educational dividend. Who would think that a tiny television station situated in the west of Ireland could succeed where so many other initiatives have faltered? Things are looking up for the future of Irish. Over 50,000 children attend Gaelscoils (schools which deliver the curriculum through Irish) and, crucially, these schools are the product of community action as opposed to state policy. Ordinarily, Gaelscoils produce outstanding academic results. There is no doubting the intellectual benefits of bilingualism and so perhaps it is not surprising that students at these schools fare so well.

Finally, it is clear that where heavy-handed government initiatives have repeatedly failed (partly due to their lofty ideals and prescriptiveness) community initiatives and popular cultural media sometimes succeed. I would contend that any country that does not leave room for independent initiatives within the education sector does its young people the most grave of disservices.


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