Page 7, 27th January 1967

27th January 1967
Page 7
Page 7, 27th January 1967 — Preserving The Irish Language

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Locations: Dublin, Birmingham


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Preserving The Irish Language


IT IS A HOLY and a wholesome thing to see a nation examining its conscience-and in public at that. For this is what Ireland is doing at the moment in an area of controversy and growth in which old attitudes are being questioned and criticised and in which new forms of commitment are emerging. This is the area which deals with our culture in general and, above all, with the Irish language.

Last year was. of course, the Jubilee of the 1916 Rising, but this anniversary was celebrated in a country which, sociologically and even politically speaking, has changed radically in the past 50 years and which is. to coin a current cliché, looking for a new sense of identity.

The appearance of a largely urban, comparatively well-off middle class: the gradual acknowledgement of the role that Ireland could play on an international level; increasing economic prosperity and the ultimate, if as yet wraith-like, prospect of joining the Common Market, have all corn bined to create a national consciousness which is a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. It is into this situation that that debate on the Irish language has been tossed, like a hand grenade.

When, in June. President de Valera spoke at the official commemoration ceremonies in the General Post Office and drew the nation's attention yet again to what he considered to be the twin aims of the country —the achievement of political unity and the restoration of the national language—there were not a few wiseacres who, looking ahead to the forthcoming Presidential election, stroked their beards in a ruminative sort of way and ventured the opinion that this intransigence would lose him votes. It did, of course.

But what the wiseacres possibly failed to realise was that the stubborn, proud, visionary intransigence of the old is being replaced, almost imperceptibly, by the committed living dedication of the young. Dry statistics tell use little enough, but those from the 1965 census show, with a clarity that even the most cynical are forced to acknowledge, that more people, and

more young people know Irish today than did in the heyday of the Gaelic League 60 years ago.

Three events in particular during the past year helped to focus attention on this phenomenon. The first was the publication of Runtu,s. Gaeilge; the second was the formation of the Language Freedom Movement; the third was the publication of "Bilingualism and Primary Education." Each of these deserves to be examined separately for its individual significance. and also for its relevance to the subject as a whole.

Runtus Gaeilge is, at least potentially, one of the most revolutionary instruments for language teaching that has yet been created in any country in the world. Borrowing selectively from earlier French and American techniques—and improving on them considerably

it is the work of a team of linguists who have been working consistently on this project, with the recognition of the Department of Education, over the past three years. In its analysis of word frequency, idiom, sentence structure it has producted a picture of a living language which is arguably more scientific and detailed than most of the work being done along similar lines in the other European countries.

The Language Freedom Movement was founded by a Dublin architect, Mr. Christopher Morris, with the stated objects of campaigning for the abolition of "discrimination" and "compulsion" with regard to the Irish language, in particular the requirement of a pass in Irish at Leaving Certificate level and a qualification in the language for certain posts in the public service. "Bilingualism and Primary Education", the fruit of a doctoral thesis by Fr. John Macnamara, a priest who was until some time ago a professor at St. Patrick's Training College (for primary teachers) in Dublin, is an analysis of the amount of time devoted to the teaching of Irish in primary schools and the effect it can be presumed to have on levels of attainment in other subjects.

The author's principal findings — that 42 per cent of the primary school curriculum (apart from the time devoted to religious knowledge) is claimed by Irish, and that this retards Irish children in English to the extent of some 17 months, by comparison with English children at the same level — have been widely discussed.

The relationship between these three basically separate phenomena is a complex and subtle one. Each of them, however, has played a significant part in a polarisation of attitudes towards the Irish language which seems almost certain to replace the apathy with which it has been regarded in many quarters over the past forty years, and which, until recently, seemed to be a greater threat to the country's sense of identity than any exterior force—Britain or the E.E.C., for example — could possibly be.

The phenomenon of the Language Freedom Movement is particularly interesting. It is largely urban and middle-class in character, and reflects above all the pre-occupations of a section of the community which has never experienced the fact of the Irish language or culture with any vividness and which has become to regard it as part of a rather sinister policy of hypocrisy and lip-service on the part of the Government.

The size of its following generally may be judged fairly, I think. from the size of its membership, which is not large, and it is more than likely that it has consistently been inclined to overestimate the amount of public support for its cause. Its habit of asserting that many people agree with its aims but are afraid to declare themselves openly for fear of being discriminated against is a useful pointer to this. At the same time it represents a body of opinion which is largely Irish, particularly vocal, and must be taken seriously.

It is also, to some extent, schizophrenic. Its policy attracts, basically, the sort of people who have received an inadequate education in Irish (as, indeed, in other modern languages) and whose concern for things Irish in general has been overlaid by an equally strong, if not very well articulated, concern for their children's education and careers. It also attracts, unfortunately, the sort of people who appear to lack even this concern, and the emotional upheaval which the establishment of the organisation has evoked has also encouraged some of its members to go even further in the hope of eliciting further support.

Its president, Mr. Morris, has stated categorically that whereas originally their objections were only to the method being used, they were now "against the revival in principle." This is clearly a statement which amounts to the

expression of a desire to alter the Constitution, but this has not yet been stated in so many words, and it is not difficult to see why. The tragedy is that the underlying seriousness of this is not seen clearly by a great many of those who are taking part in the debate, and who are occupied with the issues that are basically on the periphery of a country's attempt at self-expression.

The L.F.M. also endorses Fr. Macnamara's findings uncritically and unscientifically, and have chosen to base their principal attack on a statement by a senior members of the present Cabinet—at that time Minister for Education—to the effect that the aim of Government policy was the "replacement" of English by Irish. The panic which this rather unqualified statement aroused ignores, perhaps deliberately in some cases, several important human truths.

The first is that — as, for instance, in the case of ecumenism — people have realised that they can work together towards a common objective in freedom in spite of the fact that they may, as yet, have no very clear visualisation of what it will actually be like when it has been achieved. The second is that language is, in its simplest definition, people talking to each other, and that therefore the consensus of the community in matters of language is something which is vital to the wellbeing of society itself.

The Commission on the Restoration of the Irish Language (which published its report in 1965 but has been described by L.F.M. members as a "packed jury") was quite explicit on this point. Noting that the national aim was "to restore the Irish language as a general medium of communication", it acknowledged freely that English would continue to be the language most commonly used outside the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking areas for some time ahead and that "to assume otherwise would be unrealistic."

Anybody who is being realistic about the progress made to date in the implementation of this policy, on the other hand, will readily admit that the survival of the Irish language over the past 20 years or so has been almost, in spite of official policy, rather than because of it, and that for many deeply concerned people the whole problem has been approaching the point of no return.

Part of the trouble can be traced to the fallacy that natural zeal and an ability to speak the language are in some way an acceptable substitute for business and skill in the business of restoring it. The language has been taken too much for granted, in a sense; the measures taken to promote it have all too frequently been based on short-term rather than long-term policy, and have suffered indescribably from a belief that a financial incentive is a fundamentally valid one.

In this way a great deal of money has been spent on the wrong sort of things. Official neglect of the Gaeltacht—now being tardily remedied — has created a situation in which the Irish-speaking Irishman has cause to complain that he is the man who is being discriminated against. that he, in spite of the Constitutional guarantees for the language which embodies his way of life, is being forced to learn English, that he will be better off at £30 a week on a building site in Birmingham than leading a life of picturesque decay somewhere in Connemara.

Few Governments have done very much to persuade him that this is not in fact the attitude they are trying to evoke, and the erosion of the Gaeltacht is one of the most serious social and political (in the widest sense of the word) problems in contemporary Ireland. Again, only time will tell whether the process has been halted before it became too late.

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