Monday, January 15, 2018

Irish as an Ornament

by Laura Ther

Curved green lines interlaced in a pattern similar to Celtic knotwork.
It is commonly believed in Ireland that knowing a handful of words in Irish is enough to consider oneself fluent. There is a well-established cultural pretense that "a few words will do" and only a few basic pleasantries in Irish are needed. It seems that those few words are learned primarily in childhood, as the number of adult Irish speakers reporting to speak the language tends to decrease rather precipitously with age (Figure 1). Knowing no words in Irish at all can also condemn someone as a complete cultural outsider, which might bring us to conclude that the Irish language is of primary importance to its people.

This assumption is correct, but it is not necessarily reflected in everyday practice. Everyday communication in Ireland has been conducted exclusively in English for at least two centuries, which led to the relative neglect of Irish. After generations of British interference, Irish had all but disappeared from public life. The events leading up to its disappearance were described by Monaghan in the late 19th century as, “the most rigorous laws [that] were enforced against the use of the Irish language [and over time] the dominant influence of the English people over Ireland resulted in the discontinuance of the Irish spoken tongue” (Monaghan, 31). Thanks to the efforts to maintain the relevance of Irish in a culture that exclusively relies on English for commerce and daily communication, the language has indeed remained a key aspect of Irish culture and identity.
Figure 1: Shows very high numbers of Irish speakers in an education setting, with an abrupt drop at age 18 and a steady decline in overall use of the language from that point forward.
Fig. 1. (Bliain Na Gaeilge » Facts & Figures)

The practice of Irish, however, is often purely ornamental. According to "Language Policy and Language Governance: A Case-study of Irish Language Legislation" by John Walsh, in Irish, “the expression ‘cúpla focal’ (literally, ‘a few words’) is widely used by those ‘speakers’ who do not know that much Irish at all but who, to varying degrees, consider themselves part of the larger Irish speaking community.” The ideology of ‘the few words (will do)’ signals the widespread belief that “a minimal level of Irish suffices in all circumstances” (Walsh, 13), which can create a vicious circle of lack of incentives for advanced language learning. For instance, in order to be culturally accepted, it might be necessary to learn how to greet people in Irish. However, selecting the proper greeting requires advanced language skills that are informed by the context of the interaction. Knowing a few words in Irish might be regarded as a symbolic or tokenistic display of the language similar to an adornment, but few seem to realize that even the symbolic use of Irish can be more complex than wearing ‘something Irish’ on occasions…

Picture 1: A bilingual road sign showing both English and Irish place names in black text on a white sign.
Picture 1. Bilingual road sign in Ireland
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Recently, the Irish Government has made several attempts to revitalize the Irish language. The Official Languages Act of 2003, for instance, was an important step in this direction. It set out some clear rules regarding the use of Irish in public and established the Office of the Language Commissioner (Coimisinéir Teanga) that monitors and enforces the use of the language in public administration. While most signage in Ireland is bilingual in Irish and English, there have been attempts to include more Irish in the media, politics and schools. In the Irish-dominant territories of the Gaeltacht, for instance, Irish on public signs is primary while English is considered a translation (Picture 1). Irish-only signs and posters are also common (Picture 2).

The Irish government’s many attempts at encouraging language learning through education were also quite successful (see again Figure 1). One such attempt was described by Thomas Sheehan in his article, “Reviving a Dying Language”. Sheehan argues that the government’s initiative to strengthen “the national fiber by giving the language, history, music and tradition of Ireland their natural place in the life of Irish schools” (Sheehan, 215) was well-received in Ireland. However, one of the immediate concerns was that “most teachers knew little or nothing of the Irish language, it was necessary to teach the teachers” (Sheehan, 215). Many more attempts have been made since the late 20th and early 21st centuries to expand Irish within the education system. The number of people capable of speaking Irish is now on the rise. As of the 2011 census, “[t]he total number of persons (aged 3 and over) who could speak Irish in April 2011 was 1,774,437. This was an increase of 7.1 per cent on the 1,656,790 persons who could speak Irish in April 2006” (Bliain Na Gaeilge » Facts & Figures). This growth is due in large part to the inclusion of Irish as a bilingual and main medium in primary education.
Picture 2: An Irish-only placard in green and white, attached to the pole of a street light on an urban street.
Picture 2.
Irish-only sign inviting the Irish to vote for marriage equality in 2015.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the fact that the Irish language still nearing extinction in everyday public life, it remains a great source of pride for the Irish. It is part of their collective identity and serves as a symbolic form of linguistic rebellion against its historical oppressors. Although the revitalization effort has become a rather complicated form of cultural resistance, the Irish language has been a tether to Irish heritage and culture. Recent attempts by the government to revitalize the language have been embraced by the Irish who realize that language is part of what makes Ireland unique from its neighbors. While the belief that a few words will suffice is still common, it is starting to be replaced with a more widely spread and widely acclaimed literacy, as a new generation of Irish people have grown up.  If anything, their pride and confidence may save the Irish language from being forever reduced to the status of an occasional cultural ornament.

Works Cited

Kelly, Aoife. "Bliain Na Gaeilge 2013- Bigi Linn." Bliain Na Gaeilge » Facts & Figures. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Monaghan, Charles P. “The Revival of the Gaelic Language.” PMLA, vol. 14, 1899, pp. xxxi-xxxix.,

Sheehan, Thomas W. “Reviving a Dying Language.” The Modern Language Journal, vol. 29, no. 3, 1945, pp. 215–217.,

Walsh, John. "Language Policy and Language Governance: A Case-study of Irish Language Legislation." Lang Policy. Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012, 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

Laura Ther was a senior in Political Science at the University of Illinois when she wrote this text in 418, ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’. Laura was planning on going to Law School and was interested in International and Constitutional Law.


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