Monday, November 3, 2008

Pól Ó Muiri on Gaeilge's Future.

I excerpt freely from this excellent review by Ó Muiri from the Dublin Review of Books. There's much nuance; I could not cut as sharply as I'd intended. Those who may find this critique worthwhile, then, may forgive my lengthy borrowing. At least I formatted it and added italics for readability for my non-Irish-speaking audience! The URL is at the end of the entry for the complete version; mine's courtesy of for 3ú Samhain 2008.
Look West

A New View of the Irish Language, Caoilfhionn Nic Pháidín & Seán Ó Cearnaigh (eds), Cois Life, 271 pp, E20, ISBN: 978 -1901176827.
Sa bhliain 1800, bhí cónaí ar mhilliún duine laistiar de líne ó Dhoire go Corcaigh arbh í an Ghaeilge a ngnáth-theanga labhartha. Faoi 1891, áfach, ní raibh fágtha ach 700,000 cainteoir Gaeilge sa tír, a raibh cónaí ar a leath acu i gceantair arbh í an Ghaeilge gnáth-theanga chumarsáide an phobail (ceantair ar a dtabharfaí 'an Ghaeltacht' in am trátha). Léirigh Daonáireamh 1891 go raibh 14 faoin gcéad den phobal dátheangach, gur Béarla amháin a bhí ag 85 faoin gcéad agus nach raibh ach 1 faoin gcéad ina gcainteoirí aonteangacha Gaeilge.

[In 1800 a million people lived behind a line from Derry to Cork whose usual language of speech was Irish. By 1891, however, there were only 700,000 Irish speakers in the country, half of whom lived in areas where Irish was the community’s language of communication (areas that would in time be called 'the Gaeltacht'). The Census of 1891 showed that 14% of the population was bilingual, that 85% spoke only English and that only 1% were monoglot Irish speakers.]
John Walsh, from An teanga, an cultúr agus an fhorbairt: cás na Gaeilge agus cás na hÉireann (Coiscéim, Dublin, 2004).

Irish is not doing badly in the world at large if we take the 2006 census figure of 1.6 million. By this yardstick, Irish would count as one of the 347 languages accounting for 94 per cent of the world’s population. In the European context only Maltese (371,900) and Estonian (1.08 million) are smaller than Irish, but Europe is perhaps unique in having within its borders such a large concentration of world languages (5 in the top ten) but only about 3 per cent of the world’s languages. Only about 5 per cent of the world’s languages have at least one million native speakers.

Nevertheless, to think of Irish as belonging to the big league of world languages with at least a million speakers makes it sound rather safer than would a comparison based on figures assessing the size of actual Irish-speaking communities. If we take the 2006 Census figure of 53,471 (3.2 per cent of the population) as the number of persons over 3 who use Irish daily outside education, or the figure of 17,687 (27.5 per cent) of the Gaeltacht population over 3 years of age who use Irish daily outside education, then we should direct our gaze towards languages of similar size (c. 8,000 to 54,000) and status. By this reckoning Irish belongs in a mid-sized group comprising about 25 per cent of the world’s languages with 10,000 to 99,000 speakers.
Suzanne Romaine, 'Irish in a Global Context', from A New View of the Irish Language.

The figures are startling, and perhaps confusing too. If there were a million native speakers of Irish in 1800 and 1.6 million speakers of Irish (native and learners) in 2006, then the case of Irish is not so bad as some would make out. Irish is not a world language - few Irish speakers make that claim - but it is a language of the world and belonging to the same category as 25 per cent of other world languages is no mean thing. Further, perhaps 'compulsory' Irish was not as bad as system as was thought. The numbers of native speakers living in Ireland is tiny in comparison with the figure for 1800 but the numbers who have learnt the language is impressive. (That they don't all get the opportunity to speak the language on a daily basis is an issue that will be addressed later.)

Looking back is the Irish speaker's curse. There is always something to be commemorated or remembered. If it is not the Battle of Kinsale, it is the Flight of the Earls, or Louvain, or the Famine, or Douglas Hyde, or the Gaeltacht as it was twenty years ago. (It was better then.) Even the most optimistic Irish speaker looks back - and not necessarily in the wee small hours when the drink is in and the sense is out. Looking forward is, of course, not unknown. There are some very forward-looking language pioneers who have achieved much in recent times. However, on the whole, looking forward goes against the Gaeilgeoir grain; looking forward is like a summer fad ' soon forgotten ' and quickly replaced by the dark impulse of retrospective introspection.

It is no surprise that looking back continues to hold such a firm grip on the mind. One could argue that those who fail to learn the language lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. Then again one could argue that the language sector has been holding the same internal conversation for the last thirty years or so. It is somewhat ironic that the publishers of this collection of essays, A New View of the Irish Language, should take their template from a book that was published in 1969, A View of the Irish Language, edited by Brian Ó Cuív. The editors of the current collection, Seán Ó Cearnaigh and Caoilfhionn Nic Pháidín, write that:
The future of Irish is uncertain. It requires us to look in many directions, at once, but never backwards or inwards. Raising the ghetto walls, in the Gaeltacht or elsewhere, is no solution. The new compass must include points both real and virtual, from geographical communities to cyber-based networks, from the Aran Islands classroom to the google-user of inside the Arctic Circle. Looking 'west', however, must remain a source of inspiration and linguistic renewal for speakers of Irish looking in, while preserving and developing a living west is an urgent necessity for maintaining Irish-speaking communities in the heartland.

There is certainly truth in that statement. However, the reader is immediately struck by a paradox: there is an honest attempt to honour past work and yet, that act of honouring, is, contrary to the editors' desire, a look 'backwards'. Ireland has undoubtedly changed since 1969 - though those changes are not immediately noticeable in the editors' selection of essay. The essays concern themselves with Ireland, for which you can read the Republic. Ó Cuív's collection appeared at a time when Stormont still stood and when Northern Ireland was the alternative linguistic model for Irish on the island - a place where the language was effectively the preserve of the Catholic community and education sector and enjoyed no official status. The editors do mention, in passing, that: 'Looking north, the language must develop across the political spectrum, and this vitality sustained (sic) in future decades against the threat of waning enthusiasm.' There is absolutely nothing wrong with the sentiment expressed in that sentence. However, there is no attempt to put meat on those bones.

That the language faces huge problems is undoubtedly true and the editors’ assertion that the contributors 'tell the story as it is, a glass both half-empty and half-full' is an honest one. Nonetheless, the number of contributors has the unwanted result of making the story of Irish seem more complicated than it need be. Given too that the editors have aimed the publication at 'a broad public', fewer contributors writing more essays might have helped give the material a more sustained conversational tone. To my mind, there seem to be four main questions that a book like this should answer. First there is the philosophical one: why Irish? Why bother learning the language at all; what 'good' does it serve? Second there is the question of 'how' Irish? How does the language sector work? How is the language funded? Who gets the money? How do they spend it? Third there is the issue of the Gaeltacht. What is its role and its future? Finally, there is the question of 'why' and 'how' together. What results are there from the money spent on the desire to learn?

There is nothing very original about any of these questions and they are addressed on a regular basis in Irish language circles. Indeed, the 'Why Irish?' question was the title of a discussion document produced by the now defunct Bord na Gaeilge in 1989, Why Irish? Language and Identity in Ireland Today. The authors wrote:
More importantly, we would argue that it is far too premature to consign the Irish language to oblivion. The trends which have encouraged its marginalisation in recent years are not irreversible. Indeed, a number of movements already exist in Irish society which could, if they were pulled together, start to reverse these trends: the naíonra or pre-school movement, the all-Irish schools and the success of summer colleges; the growth of a commitment to Irish within some professional societies; developments in art, music, literature and dance; environmental and community movements which are integrating the language into their goals. The linguistic situation is there to be created, if we can convince ourselves that its creation is worthwhile.

Almost twenty years later, the 'linguistic situation' is still being created. The educational movements to which the authors referred are still there. Even better, there is a bilingual television service, TG4, an Official Languages Act, and Irish is an official and working language of the European Union. Despite that, the need to convince is as great as ever.

Many Gaeltacht areas are in decline, that is to say the numbers of Irish speakers using the language is dropping and the quality of the Irish they speak is evolving or fraying (depending on whether you look forward or back) into something other than it is now or was in recent times. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the State who know Irish but don't have the opportunity to speak it. That those people continue to mark their support for the language in the census, for example, is no small act of fidelity. Then again there are hundreds of thousands of people who despite their schooling in the State have nothing to do with the language and bear it ill will, if letters to the editor or newspaper opinion pieces are any accurate indication of the public mood. (And they are not always, it must be said.) Still, those who do rouse themselves to fury and disdain the language usually insist that it is of no relevance to them and write that they resent its very existence.

Yet the paradox for the Irish language is that this could be termed its Golden Age. Never have language organisations had so much money; never has the language enjoyed such legislative protection or indeed such powerful political patronage. It is only a matter of months since an Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, Brian Cowen, and the leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny, spoke politics ' actually spoke as opposed to reading a pre-prepared statement ' in Irish with each other in the Dáil. There are Irish language entrepreneurs, Internet magazines, old-fashioned printed news publications and magazines, so much prose and poetry that you could not shake a stick at it, there is a television station, a national radio station and a couple of local ones, a professional caste of journalists and university lecturers that would warm the cockles of Aodh Mac Aingil’s croí, there is a Gaeltacht development authority and a cross-Border body and cultural centres and then there’s the money. Did I mention the money? Bags and bags of money. It's not so much
béal bocht
as big bucks.

Time then for a new appraisal of the Irish language. High time, and the fact that A New View of the Irish Language is in English but addresses the Irish-language issue is welcome. There is a certainly a domestic and international audience for this material and the broad range of topics touched on - poetry and prose, issues on legislation, scholarship, teaching and learning and the media, for example - offers a useful primer. For someone with no or little knowledge of the language, it would be a fine enough start. However, the difficulty with individual essays is that the tone is not the same throughout and what is offered ' individual experts with opinions ' does not necessarily end up giving an insightful overview of the subject. As one contributor notes, the essay form has its limitations. Perhaps it is inevitable that not every essay carries the reader’s attention. After all, the essay ' like the interview ' is essentially a conversation between writer and reader and if you meet twenty people in one go the chances are that you will not be riveted by everything they have to say.

Iarfhlaith Watson's essay, 'The Irish Language and Identity', is the closest thing in the book to a focus on the 'why' question. He writes:
The Irish language continues to be regarded as an important aspect of Irish national identity. To the majority of people in Ireland the Irish language is primarily of symbolic importance ' It seems that the majority of people in Ireland believe that promoting the Irish language is important to the country and to them personally, but a lower percentage believe that actually speaking Irish is important to being Irish. Overall, the majority of Irish people appear to regard the Irish language to be of symbolic importance for Irish national identity and a very large minority regard the actual speaking of Irish as important.

He goes on to argue that:
Efforts to revive the Irish language reflect wider ideological processes. Although there have been ideological shifts, and identity has changed (because it is always under construction), national identity has remained at the heart of justifications for reviving the Irish language. People learn Irish and support its promotion because of this sense of identity. Moreover, the Irish language is supported by the state to a degree to which other minority languages are not. In general the public supports (or at least tolerates) this level of commitment because of the perceived connection between the Irish language and Irishness. Identification with the nation, although not as 'hot' as it once was in Ireland, remains. The Irish language remains related to that identification.

Watson's suggestion that Irish is being 'revived' is problematic. The language has never been dead and the preferred term for many in the language sector is 'maintenance', a process of underpinning what already exists and encouraging new initiatives. Of course, it could be added that the reason the majority does not actually believe that speaking Irish is important is because they simply do not get the opportunity and that the state support which Watson mentions for Irish as a 'minority language' is actually support for what the Constitution terms 'the first official language'.

Perhaps the reason why Irish and national identity seem so hard to define is because there are, in essence, two views of the Irish language in competition. Douglas Hyde and Patrick Pearse had visions for the language that were, in some regard, complementary and in other ways totally different. Those opposing elements have never been entirely reconciled. For Hyde, the language project was an intellectual one which aimed to maintain a native and distinctive part of Irish culture against a world language. Pearse did not entirely disagree with that but his project was also a revolutionary one; he wanted to reinstate Irish as the language of a Republic. Not surprisingly, both views are accommodated in the history of the language’s development in Ireland (by which I mean the entire thirty-two counties).

One of the difficulties that the contemporary language movement has had in persuading people to use the language is that the middle class ' a vague term, I accept ' are for the most part not taken with either intellectual or revolutionary projects. Language organisations that pitch the language to this audience as part of Ireland’s valuable cultural heritage are on a hiding to nothing. They cannot convince enough of this bloated, self-satisfied class (who hardly know holiday French or Spanish) that the rich, metaphysical rewards of speaking Irish are worth the effort. The little Englander attitude towards languages ' that they are all redundant in the face of English spoken loudly ' 'Another coffee, per favor!' ' is all too common. There is little mileage to be gained from extolling the beauty of language as language when the ultimate badge of identity is the physical commodity ' the car, the second home, the designer clothes.

Similarly, political parties who attempt - and not always with any great conviction - to tick the language box in their electoral strategies are wary of waving the flag too much in case it frightens off certain voters. The idea of preserving Irish as a revolutionary undertaking is not one that goes down well with many affluent voters or indeed some affluent commentators. Only the Provos have tried to push language as revolution. They have been rebuffed in the Republic (and not just on language grounds obviously) and they have probably done more harm than good in Northern Ireland, where they have poisoned the ground water with their rhetoric - and also with the blood of many dead.

So 'why Irish?' remains the question that cannot be answered - or at least not answered to the satisfaction of enough people often enough. Then again, perhaps the language lobby has lost the run of itself in its attempts to justify Irish. Perhaps the failure to place ' and keep ' the Gaeltacht at the centre of national cultural is finally bearing its own poisonous fruit. Perhaps the easiest way of answering the 'why Irish?' question is to point to the Gaeltacht and its distinctive and unique culture - which amazingly still survives, fractured but functional.

The relationship between Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht areas has shifted. Slowly but surely the importance of the Gaeltacht has been downplayed - even by some Irish speakers. The Gaeltacht has become simply another component of the language sector. The Irish that people learn in, say, Belfast is seen to be as legitimate as the Irish of Gaoth Dobhair, so much so in fact that some would argue ' and I have heard it ' that there is no need to leave West Belfast to learn Irish. That disregard for the Gaeltacht is shocking; it is a stupidity that is hard to credit, but one that exists and one that is not so difficult to understand. It is language as symbol rather than language as medium, that is to say you learn enough Irish to navigate the political issues of the day but never learn enough to realise just how little you know. That, of course, is frightening. There are few learners of Irish - and I include myself - who do not, every once and while, wonder just how firm a grip they have on the language they use. Only the vain and the ignorant have the luxury of ignoring that question.

The language question has become so difficult because it has become so confused and it has become confused because there seem to be so many questions. Perhaps 'why Irish?' can be best and most comprehensively answered with the simple answer 'Because there is a Gaeltacht.' Why provide services in Irish? Because there is a Gaeltacht. Why educate through Irish? Because there is a Gaeltacht. Why write in Irish? Because there is a Gaeltacht. (This is not to say that the Irish speaker who lives in the east or midlands of Ireland is less an Irish speaker than the one raised in the Gaeltacht.) But beside the Gaeltacht all else is secondary - not worthless, mind, not without merit, not unimportant - simply secondary. It is the Gaeltacht, above all else, that gives the language its authority as a national undertaking and the destruction of that Gaeltacht will herald the final and ultimate destruction of that authority. (Should the reviewer draw any conclusion from the fact that the essay on the Gaeltacht is ninth in this collection? It seems strange that a book aimed at the general public would have this topic so far back. After all, many people’s experience of real spoken Irish ' perhaps their only one ' is a youthful stay at a Gaeltacht summer college.)

As already noted, Ó Cearnaigh and Nic Pháidín have written that the Gaeltacht remains an 'inspiration' and that 'preserving and developing a living west is an urgent necessity for maintaining Irish-speaking communities in the heartland'. But if that inspiration is the only option what happens if the Gaeltacht dies? Seosamh Mac Donncha and Conchúr Ó Giollagáin write in 'The Gaeltacht Today' that:
Recent research serves to highlight what is readily evident to Gaeltacht inhabitants: the Gaeltacht as a linguistic entity is in crisis and struggling with the pressures of an advanced stage of language shift. The approach date has served to implicate our communal and educational institutions in this process of language shift rather providing proactive support to resist the pressures of this sociolinguistic endgame. As the use of English becomes more embedded in the social networks of the young, the clear challenge of educational and communal institutions in the Gaeltacht is to empower young speakers of Irish to counteract the pressures of the majority language in a manner that fosters the socialization of Irish in the social networks of the young living in the Gaeltacht. The obvious outcome of an inadequate response to this stark challenge is the completion of the language shift from Irish to English in the remaining Gaeltacht districts where the use of Irish still predominates as the communal language.

That question of language shift from Irish to English would seem to be the most important one at the moment. It could be argued that as the language sector has developed it has become so complicated that it has forgotten its own Gaeltacht roots. This is not an argument to abandon all Irish-language activity in non-Gaeltacht areas. That would simply be silly. Not every Irish speaker (this writer included) wants to live in the Gaeltacht. There has to be a balance in catering for Irish speakers outside the Gaeltacht and native speakers within it. But it would seem to me that the balance has shifted too much, with many regarding the Gaeltacht as just another part of the equation. If we argue, however, that it is the Gaeltacht that gives the entire language movement its moral right to promote the language on a national scale then if that Gaeltacht disappears, are not Irish speakers - despite their funding, their numbers and their legal protections - little more than the enthusiasts for Manx or Cornish, people who seek to revive a language that has no native speakers?

One wonders indeed if non-native speakers of Irish appreciate often enough just what a wonderful phenomenon the native speaker is? Is there a sufficient understanding that even the most parlous, holed, fractured breac-Ghaeltacht contains more native Irish than a dozen night classes for learners. This is not to deride the learners and it is not to talk up areas many of which may be fatally wounded. It is a simple expression of wonder that so many areas have managed to keep the linguistic faith, that despite emigration, unemployment, holiday homes and an indifferent officialdom there are still people who have clung to the language and who, given the right encouragement and support, might yet pass it on to another generation. Should it not be a matter of national pride that they have held on to so much despite the challenges they faced. Let me put it another way: were these people, say, cheese-makers rather than Irish speakers, would we not enthuse about their fidelity to old ways and marvel at the knowledge they had kept alive in spite of dungeon, famine and sword?

The reasons for the marginalisation of the Gaeltacht in the story of Irish vary from place to place. In the North, they often have their roots in politics, where many urban Irish speakers simply do not feel the need to go the Gaeltacht. There can be an aggressive chauvinism within cities towards the country at the best of times. It is not surprising that that might also find expression in language circles and that chauvinism can also be exaggerated by local politics. Tight-knit city communities can offer the fluent Irish speaker a small pond in which to swim. That the Irish they speak and the topics they address in that Irish will not necessarily chime with the syntax and subject of Gaeltacht Irish does not bother them: city Irish is as good as country Irish, they argue, though in fact, the city dialect is often a poorer version of the country one, with all the implications that has for the quality of speech.

[Discussion of the Údarás na Gaeltachta, Foras na Gaeilge, post-GFA party shuffling in the North, difficulties of a national organization for a disparate localized identity throughout much of the island, and the uneasiness in academia regarding lecturing "as Gaeilge" follow.]

That is one reason why a concluding chapter would have been welcome. Another would be to provide a manifesto for the weary reader. With the best will in the world, reading twenty essays will leave even the most committed general reader tired. That there is much of interest in many of the essays is a given. However, there is no headline, no one moment to focus the reader and say: 'Look, this is what we believe. This is our clarion call.' The book would have benefited from a reflection on what its contributors have said, not as a corrective to them but simply to bring their various thoughts and arguments together and to offer the reader a coherent overview.

With that in mind, I will leave the last word and the focal scoir to Suzanne Romaine, whose contribution introduced this review:
While it is critically important to confront openly and realistically the actual extent of the Irish-speaking communities at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Irish would certainly be a lot worse off without all the work on its behalf. Most threatened languages will not achieve anything like the relative success of Irish. A sign that once hung in Albert Einstein's office declared that 'not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted'. The active Irish-language scene probably comprises only 5 to 10 per cent of the island's population, and around one in three people (c 1.8 million) on the island can understand Irish to some extent. This means that the world in Irish will not be lost and the world can indeed still be lived in Irish by those who choose to learn it and use it. That is hardly failure.

Dublin Review of Books - Pól Ó Muiri review

Photo: They also sell "Sarah Palin in 2012," but their Election Day Special expires tomorrow, for some reason.

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