The Irish language

Good Morning

Today in our notes on 1916 we look at language and culture in and around the time of the 1916 Rising.  What is a language? According to the sociolinguist Max Weinreich “ a language is dialect with an army and a navy”. What then of the Irish language?

 The Irish people have for a long time had a love hate relationship with our own language and culture. As far back as 1842 the Irish Nationalist Thomas Davis stated that “ a nation without a language of its own  is only half a nation”. He said it however, in English. The great EmancipatorDanial O Connell, although a fluent speaker neverreally uttered a word of it beyond childhood.

Patrick Pearse said he wanted an “Ireland not free merely, but Gaelic as well, not Gaelic merely but free as well”. The irony being that for most people it had to be in English to be understood.

The real decline of the Irish language can be traced to “An Gorta Mor” of the 1840’s. The areas hit hardest during the famine were along the western seaboard. These were the regions where the language was traditionally imbedded the deepest. Mass starvation and emigration reduced the numbers of Irish speakers hugely.

The Irish language had a steady decline until a new found interest began to emerge in the 1890’s. Conradh na Gaeilge was founded in 1893 with the express intention of reviving Irish language and culture.

Was it a success? The answer like most answers in history in not easy one. As you know I am speaking English now. I would not be able to give this talk in Irish and even if I could would you be able to understand it?  Since the foundation of the state we as a nation have seemed to be almost completely immune to all attempts to make us learn the language.  Ironically there are Irish Language clubs and groups in America, Australia, England and Canada to name but a few where the language thrives. It appears when the Irish language is forced on us we reject it thoroughly. If it’s voluntary itthrives. Perhaps, as one commentator has suggested, if the government made it illegal, the whole nation would be fluent in a week.

The revival of the Irish Language has some success though. The number of Irish Language schools in the country continues to grow by the year.  Tg4 is a very popular TV channel, and the Gael Colaisti continue to be very popular during the summer. And yet the prospect of the Irish language becoming the main language of the country still appears slim. How many of the students of the Gael Scoileanna continue to speak Irish when they have crossed the threshold of the school grounds.

In 1947 the Hebrew language was almost a footnote in History. When the state of Israel was established however all the people of Israel voluntarily learned Hebrew so it could be a unifying e nation language of the nation. Now all Israelis speak English and Hebrew. In Wales the close relative of the Irish language Welsh was too about to slip into the pages of the history books. Now in Wales there are large areas and hundreds of thousands of Welsh people who use Welsh as their first language. If Israel and Wales can do it, why can’t we?  If Max Weinreich is correct and a Language is a dialect with an Army and a Navy, maybe there is hope. We have after all an Army and a Navy, so why not a language?

Ma ta gaeilge agat, ban usaid as. Go raibh maith againn, Slan.