The Irish Language: Lost in Translation

On reading an advanced copy of “The Revival of Irish – Failed Project of a Political Elite” by Donal Flynn, I was reminded about the failed attempt by the Irish education system to instil in me a working grasp or a love of the Irish language.

It is not easy to be loyal to a language when it was difficult to learn and never used outside the classroom.  Nevertheless I managed to attain a D grade in Pass level Irish. This meant that when I repeated my Leaving Certificate I did not have to sit Irish again. The second time around my grades went up a notch in every subject thus allowing me to get into my choice of third level education.  It is very possible that if Irish had not been compulsory in the first place I would have been let loose on the world a year sooner.

Every day in the news another sector of Irish society is crying out about the cuts the government have made in response to the austerity measures currently imposed on our economy. But not one voice looks back at the time and money spent translating signs and documents into a language which is not used by its own country.

Donal Flynn’s book highlights the efforts of each successive government to continue “The Revival” and discusses the various voices who have been silenced when they dared to publicly announce the detrimental effects that the teaching of Irish has had on the literacy of our nation.

If the down grading of the Irish language means that our country’s literacy problems can be better addressed then I support this.  These much needed funds could be diverted into areas of Health and other public services.

I do not object to a continuation of the teaching of Irish in schools but if the compulsory focus was taken away and we were taught it in conjunction with the cultural side of our history I feel that a more genuine affection may be nurtured.

Anyone who has an interest in Ireland becoming a self-sustaining nation in an increasingly global-focused world needs to read this book.

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12 responses to “The Irish Language: Lost in Translation

  1. Máirtín Ó Curraoin

    Judging by what he has written, this person was no more succesful in mastering the English language than he was in mastering Irish. Blaming Irish for failings in literacy in Ireland is a nonsense. On the contrary, I have always found that competent Irish speakers are also competent in English and find it easier to learn other languages. Are Irish speakers now to be treated as outcasts in their own country, with no rights and their language further downgraded? If that is the case, then I will campaign vigorously for a return of this country to the United Kingdom, as we will have abandoned all rights to a free independent nation.

    • Thanks you for commenting Máirtín, certainly Mr Flynn see’s the continuing teaching of Irish as an imposition, personally but 12 years of education so that some of us can retain the cupla focal to impress foreigners. It seems like it has failed to me.

      As for rejoining UK, I do not see The U.S., Canada or Australia too bothered about sharing a language.

  2. Máirtín Ó Curraoin

    Thanks for your reply. The countries you mentioned did not have much choice in the matter as they were conquered by colonists who destroyed the indigenous people and languages of the territories they conquered. Ditto the Spaniards in Central and South America. No doubt Mr Flynn and his ilk would wish that the English had succeeded in doing the same thing in Ireland. Unfortunately for him, this is not quite the case and he is left to carry on the good fight and rid us of this so called albatross around our necks.
    As a person who is Irish speaking by accident of birth and whose first language is not English, I find the attitude of Mr Flynn deeply insulting and there are many more like me. The only benefit most native Irish speakers ever got from the country of their birth was a one way ticket out of it, bringing their language with them. Thankfully, most of them continued to use it among themselves in their adopted countries, much as immigrants to this country now continue to use their own languages here. Any Irish speaker will readily identify with them. Perhaps Mr Flynn will target them next.
    As an Irish speaking citizen of this country who pays his taxes here, the least I could expect is that I would be able to do my business with the state through my own language. This is not the case in spite of all the mythical Irish speaking public servants mentioned by Mr Flynn,
    I therefore feel that this whole independence project has been a failure. We have lost our economic sovereignity, some people are now trying to rid us of our cultural identity and if they succeed what’s the point in keeping up the pretence? If we rejoined the UK, abandoned our ‘bog language’ (as some of our Northern friends call it) once and for all, we could have lasting peace on this island, or could we?
    However, all is not lost. Enda Kenny’s proposal to end the requirement to study Irish for the Leaving Cert was quietly dropped in the face of massive protests by (mainly) young people. I often feel that if people were banned from speaking the language it would thrive. We are a strange people indeed ‘ach sin scéal eile’ as Mr Flynn wouldn’t say.

  3. ‘the principal duty of an Irish Government in its educational policy’ was to serve the construction of Irish nationality” Eoin McNeill, Ireland’s first Education minister.
    (quoted from Terence Brown, Ireland a Social and Cultural History 1922-1985. Fontana 1985).

    Such is the philosophy of the cultural nationalists and Gaelic revivalists who saw the promotion of Gaelic and peddling the mythical notion of Gaelic Irishness as more important than education in itself.

    Even in 1967, JJ McEligott of the Dept of Finance, and a man who was in the GPO with fellow cultural nationalist Padraig Pearse, admitted that Gaelic “could not be revived and that the ideologically driven emphasis on the language was lowering educational standards”.

    Teachers’ organisations also claimed that subjects such as science were suffering due to the emphasis on Gaelic and its “revival’. Tom Garvin’s, “Preventing the Future, Why was Ireland so poor for so long” has many other examples of how the lives of many children, particularly urban working class children, were sacrificed on the altar of cultural revivalism – even been taught in primary school through a language they, or their parents, did not speak or understand.

    As for Martin Curran’s assertion that Gaelic speakers ‘are also competent in English”… what a laugh! The vast majority of Gaelic speakers are , who are mother-tongue English speakers. A language, by the way, that has been spoken in Ireland for centuries.

    Flynn is correct. The most vocal opposition to Enda Kenny’s proposal to make Gaeilge a subject of choice, rather than compulsion, came from teachers and those running colleges and accommodation in the Gaeltacht.

    Language shift occured long ago. Only insular nationalists, lobbyists and hobbyists benefit from the continuing nonsense promotion of Gaeilge, which sees non-Gaelic speakers (Irish and non-nationals) discriminated against in employment and education in this country.

    See http://gombeennation.blogspot.ie/2010/12/one-fifth-of-teacher-training-places-to.html

    and

    http://gombeennation.blogspot.ie/2010/12/discriminate-against-non-gaeilge.html

  4. Thank you both for continuing this debate.

    It is obvious that I am not a native Irish speaker, yet I still do not feel that I am any less Irish because I do not have enough of a grasp of An Gaielge to hold any sort of meaningful conversation.

    I hold an Irish passport, I have read literature by many Irish writers and can sing along (tunelessly) to a few of our ballads. Besides my bi-lingual passport al else in in English.

    I feel that if we had reverted to speaking An Gaeilge and remained dancing at those misty crossroads we wouldn’t have had the opportunities of the last 9 decades. Though the last five years may go against that argument.

    We have already given away our fiscal sovereignty. What defines Ireland is how we approach the next few decades and I do not see how our language is going to be of help.

  5. Máirtín Ó Curraoin

    I see that Gombeen Man has taken it upon himself to Anglicise my name. That says it all I’m afraid. The mindset that links speaking Irish to dancing at crossroads is beyond belief.

    • I did not mean to offend your love and loyalty to the Irish language by flippantly linking it with another part of De Valeras idea of Ireland but in my mind they are bound together.

      Can you say that the Revival of Irish has been a success?

  6. Máirtín Ó Curraoin

    No offence taken. Just a few points I forgot to take up yesterday. I only wish that those who run Irish Colleges etc had the massive lobbying power attributed to them but unfortunately as is plain to see, that is not the case. As I said, most of the opposition came from young urban (especially Dublin) people. Just check out the film footage!!
    I did not mean to infer that anybody is more or less Irish if they speak our native language or not. No more than a person who speaks with a Love/hate accent can be considered more Dublin than a person who speaks with a so called DART accent. As I pointed out before, native Irish speakers have suffered discrimination and ridicule in their own country for centuries, suffering higher rates of emigration etc (no violins please). As for my great love and loyalty to the language, that was not always the case. As a teenager, I was forced like many others to seek work in London. There, I found my lack of English a great handicap and resented the fact that I was not a ‘Béarlóir’. I know many others felt the same way. If you think that learning Irish is hard, you should try and learn English from Cokneys from scratch. But I survived, the result being that for many years I spoke English with a Cockney accent as did many of my fellow emigrants. This is a reality that people like Mr Flynn and others seem to have no conception of. I suppose you can’t blame them for that either.
    It was only on my return to Ireland that I saw the light and began to ask myself why I should be ashamed of my language and why I should not have the same rights in this country as English speakers have. Why should I and others like me lie down and be treated like dirt?
    Of course the Revival has not been a great success. It was never approached except in a half hearted way. But you cannot say it was a failure either. There are thousands of fluent Irish speakers in all walks of life in this country and in other countries today. They are in all professions and none. I am often pleasantly surprised to hear Irish spoken frequently as I walk the streets of Dublin and elsewhere. Perhaps Mr Flynn and others should listen more as they go about. But then they might think they were listening to some central European language. But I ramble on,,,,,,,,,,

    • Apologies for not relying earlier!

      We are coming from two almost opposing standpoints, I grew up learning English first (and yes in South County Dublin) and surrounded by the English language, the only place I heard Irish were in those few hours every week in school. I could apply all of the other subjects in school outside of the classroom except for what was supposed to be my native tongue.

      Again Mr Flynn has a stronger view than my own but it did get me thinking about a potentially different view of how we could approach the teaching of Irish without trying to obliterate it all together.

      I completely appreciate your situation is quite different, being a native Irish speaker, it is obvious that you will have a loyalty to it that I respect but can never share.

      Thanks for your comments as it has given me more of an insight into the other side of the argument.

  7. Máirtín Ó Curraoin

    Yes I do appreciate where you are coming from. You grew up with a different life experience. I do think that diversity is a good thing though and enriches us all. South Dublin is also a broad church and is home to many Irish speakers and supporters of the language. It has two top class Irish medium secondary schools, Coláiste Eoin and Coláiste Íosagáin. I have heard that one can regularly hear pupils chatting away in Irish on the Dart. In the inner city, I know several people from the Liberties who are fluent Irish speakers and so on. It often seems to me that are two Irelands. (or maybe more) all seeing the world in different ways.
    To say that I have a strong loyalty to the language is I think to miss the point somewhat. I don’t think native Engish speakers or French speakers or whatever speak those languages out of loyalty (You would hardly describe yourself as ‘an English enthusiast or loyalist’) They speak them because they are their languages and they think in those languages same as I and all other native speakers think in Irish.
    Yet Irish speakers are frequently referred to by some non Irish speakers as Irish Language enthusiasts as If they were like people interested in vintage cars or traditional music or greyhound racing or whatever. Such an attitude shows a very deep misunderstanding of how a language defines a person. We have an unfortunate tendency in this country to pigeonhole each other. Irish speaker, GAA, Traditional Music, etc in one box. Others in some other box, The reality however is more complex. Many Irish speakers are enthusiastic rugby supporters (witness TG4) while many GAA supporters care very little for the language. The much maligned (by some) de Valera was an Irish speaker who played rugby and taught mathematics in Blackrock College in South Dublin. Now that’s diversity for you.

  8. Máirtín O Curraoin is far too hard on me, although he may be right about my poor English. I’d welcome any comments on the text of ‘Revival of Irish – Failed Project of a Political Elite’ before the next printing.

    The book is about the political dynamics of the Revival of Irish and nowhere does it presume to tell anybody what language they should speak. As for myself personally: why should I dream of objecting to any language that any individual chooses to speak or to whatever basis he or she may have for their choice? What is objectionable is, for example, the use of political power to impose Irish on Leaving Cert students who have studied that language for a decade and want to spend their Leaving Cert time on some other subject. That’s an abuse.

  9. Donal Flynn: Is forcing children to “learn” Shakespearean poetry, trigonometry, calculus, algebraic equations and numerous other things equally an “abuse” given that the overwhelming majority of students have no practical use for them the minute they leave school, or is there some other reason you have for singling out Irish as being the “forced” subject in school?

    I have yet to find use for *anything* I learned in secondary school, having learnt how to read and calculate sums before I arrived there. This scapegoating of Irish for personal failures is risible.

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