Why do the Irish not speak Irish?

My sister lives in Galway on the west coast of Ireland and recently began singing with a choir from a university there.

She sent me this song below of the choir singing an Mhaighdean Mhara (The Mermaid).

As the choir states it is a traditional lament, most associated with County Donegal and the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area) of Gaoth Dobhair. It tells the story of a mermaid who leaves the ocean to marry a mortal man and bear his children. Longing for the sea, she eventually returns to the waves, leaving her husband and children behind. The song has lullaby qualities and is traditionally sung to comfort children who have lost their mothers.

The song led me to wonder why our native langauage still struggles for its life.

For over ninety years the Irish language has been force fed to its citizens yet we never acquired a taste. 

When Ireland became an independent state in 1922 Irish and its teaching assumed a nation building role. Under British rule the position of Irish as the conversational currency of everyday life was subsumed.

The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 commanded that “if any English, or Irish living among the English, use the Irish language amongst themselves, contrary to this ordinance, and thereof be attainted, his lands and tenements, if he have any, shall be seized”.

A 1536 missive from Henry VIII to the colonial rulers of the port city of Galway ordered that “every inhabitant within said town endeavor themselves to speak English” and teach it to our commandment, as you tender our favour.

Yet it was hunger and not heavy handed rule that delivered a decisive generational blow to Irish that is still felt today.

The Irish famine, An Gorta Mór, withered an entire culture.  Speaking at the time one Irish observer noted the affect the Great Hunger had on the passing of culture from generation to generation.

“Fun and pleasurable past-times fell by the wayside. Poetry and singing and dancing stopped. The people lost and they forgot everything, and when life improved in other ways those things never returned to the way they were. The hunger killed everything.”

British rule continued to bludgeon Irish to death, through force and statement.

A British statute blamed the Irish people’s attachment to Gaelic as the main cause of their “certain savage and wild kind and manner of living”.

A speaker of the English Parliament James Stanihurst called for a “reformation” of habits among the Irish, “to breed in the rudest of our people, resolute English hearts”, as the Penal Laws enacted against the Catholic clergy and laity from the 1690’s drove the teaching of Irish to the “hedge schools.”

Using Irish to build the nation 

In this newly independent Irish state of 1922 therefore the battered state of Irish and the urgent need to address a weakened cultural identity would clearly be a priority.

In seeking to address the ‘subordinate position’  held by the Irish langauge  as outlined at the National Programme Conference by the INTO in 1921, Irish became compulsory, to be taught for at least one hour per day and, where possible, was to be used as the language of instruction in schools. Singing was to be taught using only Irish songs; History was to be taught as Irish history only. The aim in setting down these rules for teaching was ‘to develop the best traits of the national character and to inculcate national pride and self-respect’.

In April 1922, the (then) Provisional Government decreed that Irish be the medium of instruction for infant classes while Padraig Ó Brolcháin, in his role as chief executive officer for education, set out the new government’s policy on national education for the Irish Free State as follows:

In the administration of Irish education, it is the intention of the new government to work with all its might for the strengthening of the national fibre by giving the language, history, music and tradition of Ireland, their natural place in the life of Irish schools. 

Teacher training colleges then needed to promote fluency and competence in Irish language and culture, which had a significant impact on the profile of the Ireland’s teaching profession in the early years of the new state. A dominance of trainee teachers from Irish-speaking backgrounds occurred and the teaching profession was weightily heavily with a group from similar cultural background.

The importance of fluency in Irish as the gateway to a primary education profession continued in Ireland right up until 1961 when open competition and the closing of the Irish preparatory schools occurred.

The Catholic Church plays a decisive role 

Hand in hand with this use of Irish as nation building tool went the objectives of the Catholic Church, as outlined in a fascinating piece of analysis by Thomas Donoghue.

The pulpit trembled the Irish people and bullied its politicians. Recognising the importance of education to create a loyal subservient middle class the Catholic Church gripped the reins of education in Ireland, an action that would have a lasting on how our national language was taught.

The Irish State were happy to avoid any controversy with the powerful Church and readily handed control of education to the Bishop’s mitre, an attitude perhaps summed up in 1928 by Deputy T.Sheehy from West Cork who argued in the Dail that school should be concerned primarily with imparting “the Commandments, Christian knowledge and the Catechism.”

The extent of the State divestiture of education is evident from the first annual report of the Department of Education which stated it assumed no responsibility for the appointment of school principals, teachers or managers.

With this freedom the Catholic Church through the Reverend TJ Corcoran created a curriculum for Ireland’s education that developed an obedient teaching profession, a devoted middle class, and a fertile ground for easy pickings to supplement stern nunneries and hallowed seminaries.

Teaching and the curriculum in Ireland was designed to lessen any critical debate or stimulate the imagination rather it was developed to indoctrinate.

Reading for pleasure was discouraged as was curiosity with the world around you.  A fist was slammed on any enquiring mind to the body of knowledge presented.

Note the text books.  Densely packed with information but without any illustrations that could tweak the imagination. The Christian Brothers Geography book of 1925 gave lists and lists of facts and covered the whole world, yet had only one map and no pictures.

Our national language got the same sterile treatment, which ensured generations of Irish digested Gaelic in its most unpalatable form.

The texts for Irish were predominately grammatical and the guiding principle was that long tracts should be committed to memory then regurgated when needed, typically in an unpleasant form.

For generations the teaching of Irish more or less followed this mournful and repetitive form. (Its elements captured with brilliance in An Béal Bocht by Brian O’Nolan)

The grim memories of an old woman living on a remote island off the south west of Ireland was a central pillar in our strategy to ensure our native tongue lived on. Our language already stained with past misery became with misery pre-packed.

14 years of  Irish education, but we cannot speak it for 14 minutes 

Despite every Irish citizen receiving 14 years of compulsory Irish education, we couldn’t speak it for 14 minutes. A tense used to describe what might or might not happen, An Modh Coinníollach, sent shivers through our generational spines.

We all knew the teaching was wrong but as we sat back the already crumbling foundations of our language were being further washed away.

We learned, we made changes. Peig Sayers and her bleak island life wore us all finally down, to be replaced by a tale about a teenager hooked on heroin.  We pumped money into this Irish body and that Irish body and we eventually uncovered a diamond with TG4.

This broadcasting house has produced some of the finest drama, documentaries and broadcasting talent ever witnessed on Irish screens, and all through the medium of our language. TG4 presented a unique and enquiring mind of the Irish, a mind that looked at different angles, explored the hidden story and voices that demonstrated that purposeful confidence could be achieved in language imprinted into our DNA as being associated with helpless rain filled nodding acceptance.

Enter an Irish-American into our lives and speaking Irish suddenly became sexy as the first whif of elitism floated around Ireland’s gaelscoileanna. Des Bishop’s journey to learn our language was not just humorous, it also shone a light on archaic teaching practices still breathing after all these years.  But the embers of fashionable Irish were flamed, Irish became a USP on the high street.

We as a people will never speak Irish as the tongue that once bound us together, instead we are still bonded by the agony in its learning.

From highlighting beautiful laments to storming pop songs however, a generational jack hammer does seem to be chipping at the edifice of misery caked upon our language, and that can only give us hope.

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