The Irish language is enjoying a renaissance

I well remember a moving story that Maurice Brick, author and fluent Gaelic speaker, told me many years ago. He comes from the heart of the Ballyferriter Gaeltacht in West Kerry, and he was sent to a special hospital in Dublin for treatment for a throat problem when he was ten years old.

At the time, the only language he spoke was Irish. That’s all he heard in his home and his community. However, none of the nurses or staff on the ward understood a word he was saying.

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In fact, they handled their unusual arrival from Kerry by speaking in a weird vernacular while laughing at her unusual speech. Being away from his family and unable to connect with those around him was a scary situation for the youngster.

However, there was a nun on staff who realized her situation even though she too was not proficient in Irish. But she came to his bed every night to read him a story in English. He well remembers the book she brought, “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe. It alleviated his loneliness as he looked forward to his nightly visits to the bedside each day.

The Irish language is a compulsory subject for all students in Ireland. This means that the school curriculum must include a daily class period devoted to learning Gaelic. Thus, during eight years of primary education, all pupils would have more than a thousand hours devoted to the subject.

The hospital workers who treated Mr. Brick should not have been fazed by his speech. I don’t blame them, but it suggests a major pedagogical deficiency in teaching language skills.

Talk to Irish immigrants in New York and you’re unlikely to hear anyone who can string together a sentence or two in Gaelic, but they’ve all had plenty of instructional time on the subject.

I taught Irish for a year to middle school students, all in their 15s, at Rathmines College of Commerce in Dublin, while completing the compulsory teacher certification courses at University College Dublin.

It was a negative experience. My class of about twenty-five students, all girls, was to study a book called Brian Og (Young Brian) by the famous Irish writer Padraig O Conaire.

Padraig O Conaire.

The book tells the story of a young man who left his home during the penal days in Ireland to study for the priesthood in Spain. This story did not resonate with my class who struggled to read simple sentences in Irish, let alone a 90-page book dealing with topics that did not arouse their interest.

I was not up to motivating them and I felt very uncomfortable in front of this class every day. I was painfully aware that my efforts confirmed their association of Irish with personal failure – a disaster that certainly left them with no love for their mother tongue.

With the exception of two daughters, their plight was well summed up in the words of Australian writer John O’Brien, in his ballad ‘Tangmalangaloo’: ‘Glum and dumb and imperturbable through all combat they sat – they seemed to think that they were there, but I wasn’t sure.

My grandchildren living in Dublin have a much better experience learning the language where the focus now seems to be on oral proficiency.

Colonial powers always try to undermine the local culture and replace it with their own. In 19th century Ireland, the English denigrated the literature, games, religion and language of the local people. The inferiority complex, characteristic of so many Irish people, has its venomous roots in colonialism.

The Irish language was associated with poverty. The ability to write and converse in English opened the door for emigrants to Canada, England, Australia and the United States. My grandparents, from Lauragh in County Kerry, spoke Gaelic among themselves, but they encouraged their ten children to learn English, knowing that most of them would earn their living abroad.

Times and attitudes have changed for the better. Bilingualism, the ability to converse in two languages, common on the European continent, is now seen as a hallmark in many parts of Irish society. For example, there is far more Irish spoken in Dublin, especially among the middle class, than ever before.

On Monday, March 21, a New York Times article covered the language revival movement in Belfast focusing on the growth of hip-hop among young people.

The rap group Kneecap is the pioneer of this new genre of Irish language. Times reporter Una Mullaly describes how “the band’s ramshackle rave and rudimentary hip-hop” mixing with Republican politics, obliquely pushing for a united island, draws large crowds to Dublin and Belfast as well as a growing audience in some English and Scottish. cities.

The kneecap provides an unusual response to the chauvinism that Brexit represents from a nationalist community that voted overwhelmingly against severing the link with Europe. One of the group’s leaders suggests they are part of an ongoing search for a new Irish identity, stripped of colonialism and Catholicism, tapping into older Celtic spiritual and mythological roots.

The latest Irish-language film An Cailin Ciuin (The Quiet Girl) won two awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. More surprisingly, it beat out Oscar-nominated ‘Belfast’ to win Best Picture at the Irish Film and Television Awards. The film’s story was adapted from a New Yorker magazine short story written by Claire Keegan.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile.

I had an interesting conversation about the growth of the Irish language in Northern Ireland at a recent conference with Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile from Belfast who represents Sinn Fein in the Dublin Senate.

He points out that there has been a phenomenal growth in the use of Irish among teenagers and students, not just from the nationalist community, who are comfortable speaking both languages. He claims that 10,000 young people in the North are proudly bilingual. It’s a huge number in a small geographic area and represents a revival of the ancient language.

The association of the Irish language with poverty was a great obstacle facing revivalists. That day is over. The Irish now – north and south – live in a relatively prosperous society and, with a focus on Europe, they are increasingly in tune with modern thinking about making datheangachas cool, mastering two languages.

Gerry O’Shea blogs at

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