The tabooed “future of Irish”

If we ever want to truly answer the question of the “future of Irish”, then we have to stop looking for one solution that will fix everything.

People have a tendency to either idolise or despise Irish (this is largely thanks to our uninspiring Irish curriculum in school) and more often than not it is not seen as a practical language. It’s almost expected of me to be fervent nationalist because of my all-Irish education. People expect me to say that Irish is the single greatest gift we have on earth and we must speak it ad infinitum.

But my sanity has not been completely destroyed, and I can see just as clearly as anyone else that Irish is not revered by masses and that something needs to seriously change in our collective perception of Irish as our native language.

This is not of those articles on “tábhacht na Gaeilge” that we were collectively forced to read and memorise for our Leaving Cert. This is not an article urging you to forgo English, find the closest Gaeltacht and hole up with the ghosts of “Bean an Tís” past. I regretfully inform you that I, too, have been scarred by those stock phrases Leaving Cert students had to spew out in their essays in June – does “tír gan anam, tír gan teanga” ring any bells? The thought of reading another grim article on the future of Irish makes my stomach do a series of painful acrobatics.

The problem with this undeniably important question is that it is always phrased incorrectly; it is always put to you in an accusatory and tedious tone that almost shames you into a feeble reply or else instils pessimism in you toward our native tongue. People rarely sit down happily to discuss the “future of Irish” – it is always done with a degree of severity and guilt that has been detrimental to our view of the language.

But imagine if we stopped discussing the ‘future’ of Irish and started simply accepting it for what it is today.

Love of Irish

Irish is important to me. But I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve had the chance to really live and breathe the language. Irish was my primary mode of communication for the past fourteen years, and a love like that can’t simply disappear.

The transition from fourteen years of all-Irish education to Trinity was never going to be straightforward one. When you’ve become accustomed to always expressing yourself in Irish, the newfound ability to speak freely in English is . . . bizarre.

In Trinity, quite unlike in my all-Irish secondary school, there is no daily sermon on the importance of our native language, there is no encouragement to perfect the “aideacht sealabhach” and there are no awards for the classmate who most actively promotes Irish. It was a bittersweet moment when I finally stopped asking questions in my tutorials as Gaeilge (God knows I baffled my French TA enough with my hybrid English-Irish vocabulary) and when I stopped mumbling “brón orm’”as I pushed past people under Front Arch.

It has always been natural for me to speak in a self-created hybrid of Irish and English, even outside of school. We express ourselves differently in different languages, and Irish has always been my academic language, my fail-safe.

I never viewed it as me making an active point of speaking Irish. Thinking in two languages was simply the way my brain thought. Some words would come to me in Irish before English and, more frequently than I’d like to admit, there are some words I simply don’t know in English.

Even now, when I go to the Cumann Gaelach or sometimes when I see my friends from school, I feel as though I’m making an active point of speaking Irish. I miss the unconscious ease of self-expression when I used both languages in tandem.

Settling in

After a few weeks of settling in to Trinity, I found myself actively searching out Irish. I’d look for posters or signs in Irish and read them to myself a few times to assure myself that I could still understand written Irish. I listened in on conversations. Every now and again I would hear people speaking in Irish, my ears would prick up like a comical image of a rabbit, and I would gravitate towards the language.

The funny thing about Irish is that people who are fluent in it have a tendency to think that no-one else can understand them when they speak. Just last week, I was sitting in the library and I overheard a conversation where one person was actually saying (in Irish of course) how great it was that no one could understand their conversation because she was speaking in Irish.

Another bad habit that fluent Irish speakers can sometimes have is talking about other people in public in Irish, because once again, you assume that no one else understands you. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve turned to my friends to say something only to promptly stop when I realise that nearly everyone sat the exact same exam for the Leaving Cert.

The most hilarious question you will be asked at some point is (if you’ve been to and all-Irish primary or secondary school) is, “Wait, you do everything in Irish? Even maths?”.

It is a bit unorthodox (some would argue unnecessary) to know differentiation complete through Irish and scarcely be able to explain the concept in English, but I honestly wouldn’t change it for anything.

Cultural marks

I think we all bear the marks of an Irish education; they just manifest themselves differently in different people. For me it’s a constant oscillation of language, for some it’s a love for the atmosphere that Irish can create (the Gaeltacht), and for others it’s being able to translate your surname to Irish.

These are all different ways of engaging with Irish. None of them are better or worse than the other – they simply are.

The transition from Irish to English has been slightly jarring, but it has led me to appreciate Irish all the more. Now I relish the fact that I don’t know any science through English – I’m the equivalent to a 4th class student by English standards when it comes to science.

Since my coming to Trinity, the question of Irish, or rather the abolition of the tabooed “future of Irish”, has played out increasingly on my mind, and I think I’ve finally reached an answer.       

If we ever want to truly answer the question of the “future of Irish”, then we have to stop looking for one solution that will fix everything.

The reality of the situation is that we will all have different levels of Irish and the point is not converting Ireland into an exclusively Irish speaking-country once more. It’s to celebrate and encourage the smaller victories. It’s to understand that Irish can still have a very bright future, in tandem with English.