Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Irish within an Anglicized Ireland

This follows up the replies to the post that I sent to Learning Irish Yahoo Group yesterday. It's my reply to other list members' replies!

Kevin's comment about speakers using English in public settings when there are those present who lack Irish is exactly on target. Statistically, therefore, the number of those identifying themselves as speakers may not decline on paper, but Irish becomes less used in public, and retreats into the home and the circle of intimates away from the ear of the tourist, the blow-in, and the visitor to the Gaeltacht. Irish marks itself as the code of the native against the intruder. It may not be meant as hostile. It may show instead the natural defensiveness of a hard-pressed community that sees itself under cultural and economic assault. As in "they paved paradise and they put up a parking lot," what attracts many to the Gaeltacht may hasten its decline. Which makes me wonder, as Steve Fallon (who was at An Cheathru Rua in the NUIG program but who also tours the other supposedly Irish-speaking enclaves) does in "Home with Alice: A Journey through Gaelic Ireland," (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2002) what we adult learners bring to and take from these Gaeltachtaí.
Antoine O Flatharta in his plays set in Conamara (he's a native of Leitir Muilean) addresses this situation where Irish begins to ebb away from being heard out in the wider world. He himself used to write plays in the 80s and 90s in Irish, published by Cló Iar-Chonnachta; some are out-of-print now. Now he writes children's books in English. I don't know what this signifies for a man who was called the leading Irish-language playwright. Learners might like to read his play "Gaeilgoiri," as there's lots of Bearla in this story of two young women from the city who stay with a local family while at the Irish-language classes. I find personally the author's "macaronic" use of English and Irish mixed intriguing if sobering. ( It's like a "Spanglish" hybrid, a creolization of two tongues.
Mairin Nic Eoin, a leading Irish-language literary critic, has a wonderful book I can only get bits out of due to my low level of skill, but if you read Irish better, her recent (again from Cois Life) "Tren bhFearann Breac" applies postcolonial and cultural theory to readings of contemporary Irish-language literature. Her title comes from a Cork poet's verse. He tracks passage past (what Hugo Hamilton in his memoir "The Speckled People" calls also) the "breac," the place name signs of his native Munster. These compare to those like himself: bilingual, half-and-half, on the border, on the margin, the fringe of anglicized Ireland today. The fact of a waitress with only the Lithuanian or Polish with the Gaeilge fascinates me as a sign of an alternative new Irish identity that in 1992 perhaps Colm Breatnach or Antoine O Flatharta might not have ever anticipated.
Poignantly in his 1992 poem Colm Breatnach laments the italicization of his native Irish on the signs, always second-class, always relegated to the side as ignored or patronized. I wonder if the battle over Gaeltacht signage in Irish only changes this perception, or only further proves the majority view of 21c futility of making the case for Irish in Irish, as in the reaction of the Dingle folks to their town becoming "only" An Daingean?

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