George V. Reilly

Ta Fuck-All Gaeilge Agam

Where are the Irish Speakers?

Culture Shock

When I reviewed The Wrong Kind of Blood, I adverted to the culture shock that I experience whenever I visit Ireland.

The Ireland that I left eighteen years ago this week was emerging from decades of social repression at the hands of the Catholic Church. Con­tra­cep­tives were illegal until 1979 and when first introduced, could only be obtained by pre­scrip­tion from a pharmacy. The pre­scrip­tion re­quire­ment was dropped in 1985, and other re­stric­tions were lifted in the Nineties, so that they’re now sold by dispensing machines in many pubs.

Ho­mo­sex­u­al­i­ty was crim­i­nal­ized by the same Victorian laws that sent Oscar Wilde to Reading Gaol for two years. The laws were seldom enforced, but most gay people were closeted. Those laws were repealed about fifteen years ago, leading to a more open gay community. Same-sex marriage has been proposed, though it has been turned down for now.

Abortion is still illegal. There were huge debates about it in the Eighties, mostly regarding a successful con­sti­tu­tion­al amendment to make it even more illegal.

The Catholic Church still plays an important role in the lives of older people, but for many of my generation and younger, the only time they see the inside of a church is for hatches, matches, and dispatches.

I still remember how upset my mother was twenty years ago, when one of my unmarried cousins became pregnant. Now, one in three children are born outside of marriage.

The Church is in­creas­ing­ly being seen as irrelevant. The Irish Church, like the American Church, acquitted itself very badly in the matter of paedophile priests.

There’s less and less of the backward, priest-ridden country that Joyce and others railed against.

(The moralistic Pres­by­te­ri­ans who controlled Northern Ireland were, if anything, even more oppressive than the Catholic Church in the Republic.)

It is the economic changes of the Celtic Tiger that are more im­me­di­ate­ly obvious to the visitor.

Glimmers of economic hope were appearing after joining the European Economic Community (now known as the European Union) in 1973. But un­em­ploy­ment was high throughout the Eighties: nearly 20% na­tion­wide; much higher in deprived areas.

Emigration had been the safety valve for decades. 80% of the generation born between 1930 and 1940 emigrated. Eighty percent! The Forties and the Fifties were par­tic­u­lar­ly hard in Ireland, then entrenched in benighted economic iso­la­tion­ism.

Now the country is awash with money. The property market spirals ever upward, scaling new heights of insanity. Non­de­script houses in the right parts of Dublin go for millions of Euros. It is all but impossible to buy one’s first house. Middle-aged parents are re­mort­gag­ing their paid-off houses, to lend their adult children enough to make a down­pay­ment.

Former emigrants have returned. Once ho­mo­ge­neous, the country is now awash in immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. Su­per­mar­kets now have a special section stocking Polish food!

While we were in Ireland in November, we saw John Boorman’s dark new film, The Tiger’s Tail, which addresses many of the problems that the new wealth has brought. Greed and corruption were always present in Irish society, but the scale is much worse. The disparity between rich and poor is growing to US levels.

The Irish Language

Last week, my friend Eric sent me a pointer to a blog post at Lan­guage­hat which linked to an an article in the Grauniad by a native Irish speaker, Manchán Magan, who set off on a trip around Ireland with one self-imposed handicap, not to speak a word of English.

Despite 25% of the population claiming that they can speak Irish, in practice, it’s closer to 3%. Magan en­coun­tered great difficulty in finding people who would even attempt to respond to him in Dublin, and not much better elsewhere. He ends on a somewhat hopeful note, having en­coun­tered some children speaking a fluent, modern dialect of Irish; children who attend the Gaelscoilean­na, the all-Irish schools that are increasing in number everywhere.

We Irish call the language of our ancestors "Irish", not "Gaelic". The Irish name for the Irish language is Gaeilge.

The Irish language was long associated with rebellious na­tion­al­ists, and the British came close to killing off the Irish language in the nineteenth century, helped along by the dis­pro­por­tion­ate effects of the Famine and emigration upon the Irish-speaking regions.

Once the Irish Free State (later the Republic) achieved in­de­pen­dence in the 1920s, the teaching of Irish became compulsory in Irish schools. All applicants to public sector jobs were supposed to be proficient in Irish. Irish became the official first language, with English relegated to second place.

You might think that this would lead to a revival of Irish. Not so. The Wikipedia article on the Irish language quotes the author of a com­pre­hen­sive survey on the state of the language:

‘It is an absolute indictment of successive Irish Gov­ern­ments that at the foundation of the Irish State there were 250,000 fluent Irish speakers living in Irish-speaking or semi Irish-speaking areas, but the number now is between 20,000 and 30,000.’

The Wikipedia article goes into more details.

From my per­spec­tive, the main problems were the appalling way that Irish was taught and the lip service paid to the notion of reviving Irish.

Most Irish people of my generation left school after 14 years of having this difficult language shoved down their throats by the Irish Taliban, the humorless old fuckers with misty-eyed dreams of maidens dancing at crossroads. It was all stick, no carrot. Little effort was made to engage people, to make them enjoy the language. Instead, it was taught in a dry, academic fashion, placing more emphasis on the analysis of tedious poems than on con­ver­sa­tion.

The Israelis managed to revive Hebrew, turning it into a modern language spoken by seven million people. The Irish have nearly killed off Gaeilge.

[The title of this post, Ta Fuck-All Gaeilge Agam, is a pun. Tá focal Gaeilge agam (Taw fuc’l Gayl-guh ah-gum) means "I have a word of Irish" or, less obliquely, "I speak Irish." The cúpla focal (couple of words) are the handful of Irish phrases that Irish people are wont to toss into their speech. I did leave school with a modest grasp of Irish, but not nearly as good as my French or my German.]

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