Ghetto Irish

Seán Cottrell, the chief executive of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, in an opinion piece for the Irish Times newspaper on the place of the Irish language in our education system:

“Despite 14 years of learning Irish, the majority of people are unable to speak their native language with confidence. In a recent survey carried out by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) of our members, over half of the respondents stated that the strategy for Gaeilge is not clear and that they favour a “radical overhaul” of the Gaeilge curriculum.”

The solution? Focusing on the teaching of “conversational” Irish to all students during their school years, with the language functioning as an optional “academic” subject at the secondary level. The study of Irish as a written, literary language, similar to English or any other modern vernacular, would be of lesser importance or in some cases, perhaps, side-lined altogether.

So, what happens if we produce, twenty years hence, a half-generation of orally fluent, if in some cases functionally illiterate, Irish-speaking school-leavers? How will things be different in a future Ireland for those thousands of teenage boys and girls with Irish as their first or second tongue?

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with the government in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with the Garda Síochána in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with the legal profession and the court system in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with the emergency services, fire, ambulance, et cetera, in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with the medical profession, doctors, nurses and healthcare workers, in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with the education sector, teachers, school principals, lecturers, administrative staff, in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with the finance sector, banks, building societies, credit unions, accountants, et cetera, in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with their potential or existing employers, in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with their fellow employees, in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with their employers’ customers and vendors, in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily communicate and conduct their business with retail suppliers, shops and companies, from groceries to drapery, electronics to vehicles, in Irish? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

Will it be accepted that they have the right to readily request or demand all of the above by reference to constitutional or legal provisions? In theory, perhaps, in practice, absolutely not.

In truth we are left with a “solution” which continues to gheottoise the Irish language in the schools but this time with the added advantage of making some or many Irish-speaking adults illiterate in their own language. The indigenous language of this island nation was forced into its present parlous condition through politics. It will be saved from it present parlous condition through politics. That is the job of government not of school children, and it is unfair to expect the least powerful in the land to do the work of the most powerful. The de-culturalised members of a political class too lazy, cowardly or bigoted to act otherwise are the ones who need to be taught a lesson or two.

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18 comments

  1. I think I mentioned elsewhere recently how striking it is in Wales – at least North Wales, the openess with which Welsh is spoken as against in Dublin. Indeed in recent months I’ve only been in one place – the local ALDI, where I heard someone using Irish. Outside of that in Ireland in the last six months only Donegal.

  2. Ní aontaím le do dhearcadh faoi seo. Caithimid glacadh leis nach bhfuil Gaeilge ag formhór na daoine in Éirinn agus níl sin chun athrú mar atá rudaí faoi láthair. Bheadh sé níos fearr dá mbeadh daltaí ag foghlaim conas Gaeilge a labhairt. Is é an cumas cainte an rud is tábhachtaí nuair atá daoine ag foghlaim teanga.

    1. As far as I can make out you’re actually agreeing with Séamas. Cumas cainte may indeed be central to language learning, but (I know, I’ve said this before …) ability is no use without the will to use the language, yet kids in immersion education in Ireland, Scotland and Wales all seem to prefer to speak English to one another outside the classroom. So they’ll speak Gaeilge/Gàidhlig/Cymraeg with their granny but English with their peers, and with their future partners, and so with their kids when the time comes, and the language is stuck in the school system, permanently on life-support, a dead-and-alive zombie state.

      But I digress, Séamas’ real point is that even with ability and willingness to use the language, there still needs to be a public environment where its use is ‘normalised’ as the jargon has it. As a language goes out of use it retreats into ‘closed’ private situations, so the big challenge is how to pull it back out into the public sphere. It would be worth looking to see if any country has really managed to crack this one, and if so, how. Catalonia maybe??

      1. But why would two native English speakers speak any other language among themselves instead of their shared native language?

        And you can’t violate anyone’s language rights by speaking with them in their native language.

        1. One one level you’re correct, but then in Ireland things are never that simple 🙂

          Wouldn’t you like the Russian speakers in Latvia to adopt Latvian as their normal everyday speech, or at least for their kids to do so? But if they continue to speak Russian to one another, and in their families, their children will be native Russian speakers, and so the situation will remain as it is now for ever.

          Would you want that? Really?

          But you’ll say the situation is completely different in Ireland with very few native speakers. But in that case where would you draw the line? How far down does the “national language” have to go before you give up on it?

          1. I want the Russian speakers to act exactly the same way as I do here in Ireland. Speak the national language to strangers/natives and speak whatever they want with everyone else. I don’t care what language they use at home. The state can set the language requirements for civil servants and private companies, but there’s no way they can regulate informal communication without resorting to ridiculous repressive measures. (What are you going to do if you hear 2 guys speaking Russian on the street? Beat them up and send to a re-education camp?)

            Don’t know where the Irish got this silly idea that just teaching a language at school is enough. To me it looks like a cargo cult – hey – those guys in France are all speaking French and teaching it at schools. If we start teaching Irish at schools – soon everybody will speak it. That’s not how it works at all.

            I can’t see a valid reason for someone who has been raised as an English speaker in an English speaking country since birth to change that language to something else.

            Language legislation is meant to protect people who genuinely can’t speak other languages of the state. Like Francophone Quebecers, for example that in many cases can’t speak English properly or at all (or anglophone Canadians who can’t speak French).
            But if a native English speaker from Dublin walks around and tries to speak a different language (that’s supposed to be official) and when everybody answers him in English – is he really being discriminated against here?

            1. Fair enough, I appreciate your POV. However consider this:

              The Russians pretty well made everyone learn Russian throughout their ’empire’, whether that be in Latvia or places that are still contained within Russia, like Karelia or all the other places with minority language, there are many but they are almost unknown in the West, expect to specialists. But as you say, the people mostly still spoke and still speak their native languages amongst themselves.

              But where the English went, and made English the official language of the government, trade etc. then in many, perhaps most cases, people stopped using their original languages, even between themselves. This happened in Ireland, Scotland, large parts of Wales, with native Americans/Canadians/Australians etc. In some cases the natives were overwhelmed by ‘white settlers’ but that never happened in most of Ireland, or many other places where there was a change of language.

              So first, how do you explain these two different outcomes, in one case like Latvia, the native language carries on beside the ‘imperial’ language, whereas in the other, like Ireland, most people simply stopped speaking their native language to their kids because they were ashamed of it, or thought it would “hold the kids back” etc.

              Seeing as this is what actually did happen, is it surprising that the Irish etc. have tried to make the same process work in reverse? Perhaps they need a different model, what if anything can you suggest from your clearly different experience?

          2. If uncivilised barbarians invade your country – why would you want to become more like them?

            1. To get rich? Or to get a job at all? Simply to survive? So as not to get the shit beaten out of you by the cops in the street (parts of Spain). So that as a kid you didn’t get a beating every day at school (Wales). The list is a very long one.

              With the growth of towns and in particular industrialisation, the foreign language became the language of wealth, ‘progress’ and education, or simply the link to the wider world. Somehow it seems Rīga didn’t become a German city, in language at least. Maybe there were just too many different kinds of foreigners trading there. However it happened, I think you were very lucky. Language shift happened even in (most of) Wales, where like Latvia most people were protestant and literate before industrialisation.

          3. But in order to do all that you don’t have to throw away your own language. Especially when you’re in your own country.

            And Russian is not the language of wealth, progress and education. It’s the language of poverty, backwardness and illiteracy and always has been. The Conquerors aren’t always more culturally advanced than the conquered – in many cases it’s the other way around. Just look at the difference between the Baltics and Russia at any time period. Russia still hasn’t advanced to democracy. It is a dictatorship – just like it was 100 years ago only now “Tsar” has been renamed to “President”.

            1. Russian may not be a language of wealth, progress, and education but at one time over your people it was the language of power. That is all that counts. The proof of this is simple: the political destiny of Latvia was not in the hands of Latvians. All of your arguments comparing Irish and Latvian fail because you cannot prove that if even one more generation of Russian controle over your people were to have occured, the Latvian language may have begun a serious downward spiral that it could not come out of. We may yet see the Russians take controle again in order to protect Russian minorities. In the Ukraine, lack of access to Russian-language services and schools was enough to provoke invasion. Ireland had hundreds of years of invasion and domination.

          4. Before 1918 we’ve NEVER had our own country. Latvia has been part of many empires – German, Polish, Swedish, Russian, etc. And our language still survived.

            Look at this chart:

            The amount of Latvian speakers remained stable during the whole occupation period. (at ~1.3 millions of people) What changed was the amount of immigrants/planters from Russia that didn’t identify as Latvians and had no relation to our country or our language whatsoever. That didn’t really happen in Ireland except in the north a couple of centuries ago. They threw away their language without excessive amount of immigration. The Brits were no angels, but they sure as hell didn’t slaughter 90+% of native Irish speaking Irish population and then replace them with English speaking colonists from the UK. In that case there would not even be an independent Irish state, because those colonists would not identify as Irish – you can see that in NI – the unionists have absolutely NO desire to join the Republic of Ireland.

            1. There were many waves of immigration into Ireland, as far back as records, or indeed legends go, the difference is that following the “Taking of the Gael” all subsequent immigrant groups were absorbed and became Irish, indeed often “more Irish than the Irish,” up until quite recent times. Indeed as far as language goes, there were many areas in the North that were both protestant and Irish-speaking (although this is often denied by anti-Irish factions today).

              So the interesting question is what changed the balance. Presumably industrialisation, state education (English only!) and increased centralised government bureaucracy. In order to try to disentangle the different causes I suppose you’d have to compare different countries, which is why the different fate of Latvian is so interesting.

          5. Yes – the migrants to both Ireland and Latvia were absorbed over time. (Many Latvians have German, Russian, Polish and other foreign surnames) But the Irish language’s decline wasn’t fuelled by migrants that refused to integrate, that’s for sure. Despite throwing away their language the Irish still had their own national identity – that’s the only reason why the Republic of Ireland exists today. Unintegrated (is that a word? :D) immigrants would have most likely stayed in the UK as they did in NI.

            Of course it’s debatable how “real” the current Irish republic is, because had they not thrown away their own language – this country most definitely would be very different today (better or worse – it’s hard to say).

            Industrialisation happened in the Russian empire too. And the language of the government in Latvia was NOT Latvian for most of its history, because as I said – it was part of many different empires. One explanation might be that the occupiers didn’t have time to impose their language upon the locals, because they were replaced by different occupiers fairly often. But then again – the Irish language also survived for centuries under the British rule. It was reduced to a regional minority language very quickly (for a language) mostly during the 19th century.

            1. The word you want is probably “unassimilated”, it means something like “undigested” 🙂

              And yes, it a good point that Latvia was surrounded by several different empires whose fortunes rose and fell over time, while Ireland was out on the edge of Europe facing only the UK, with much weaker links to Catholic France and Spain.

              I’d be interested to know how literacy and education developed in Latvia, whether through Latvian or other languages, as this might have been significant.

  3. Nil fhios agam. Chuaigh mé go ranganna gaeilge cúpla bliana ó shin agus I found some folk were struggling with all the rules of Irish and simply wanted to speak everyday stuff sorta speak.
    If you take eg the English language a lot of people have been taught it all their lives and may even speak it wrongly but it doesn’t bother them. They just speak it one way or another. Maybe just encouraging conversational Irish may not be a bad thing for most folk? Further down the line those folk could take on advanced Irish if they so wish, purely to get the ball going a bit faster.
    I wouldn’t take a knee jerk reaction to mr cottrell opinions just yet. His heart could be in the right place.

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