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How to save Irish

We should urgently select 1000 language-lovers to champion it

Latin, a dead language, is taught in thousands of schools. A Latin online news bulletin gives the world’s news and carries ads. A radio station broadcasts the news weekly in Latin. Latin enthusiasts organise social gatherings.

But despite all this, Latin remains a dead language. Is Irish on the way to becoming that? Most of us don’t want to speak Irish, but we like to have Irish in our lives. We cherish it, the surveys show, as a precious part of our national heritage. We are glad there are Gaelscoileanna, a Radio na Gaeltachta and a TG4; that the destinations of buses are shown in Irish as well as English, and to hear that there is a news-and-comment magazine in Irish on the internet. We would not like everything in Ireland to be in English only.

However, it is one thing for a minority language under pressure by a dominant language to give pleasure to those who speak and write it and to comfort others by its presence in their lives. It is quite another for that language to live into the future as many of us hope it will. To do that it must at least be the spoken language of a sizeable self-renewing community as Latin, for example, is not. With the former Gaeltacht districts now completing Ireland’s shift from Irish to English, the Irish language has no such community.

This fact constitutes an emergency for lovers of the Irish language; an emergency that needs to be countered by dramatic new action – not by the State which has lost interest in Irish but by the lovers of the language themselves.

The most valuable achievement of the Irish language movement is that there are now several thousand men and women throughout Ireland who speak and write Irish well; that is, as correctly, and with as wide a vocabulary, as the average educated user of any other European language. Collectively, these people in their speech and writing are a national treasure because they embody the Irish language alive today. Indeed, because of their wide diversity of circumstance and occupation, they embody it more fully than any Gaeltacht ever did.

The initiative that is called for is to convert this national human treasure, which embodies the Irish language as it is today, into a living ‘language bank’ that yields high interest—is self-renewing— through adding new people to its number each year.

For a start, it would be a matter of establishing – insofar as now possible and with the personnel now available—the kind of community that is necessary for ensuring the continuance of Irish as a living language. The personnel available for that are those several thousand men and women who speak and write Irish well.

Identify a thousand of them and obtain their consent to be jointly responsible – together with others whom they would admit to their number through an annual examination – for the survival of Irish as a spoken and written language. Have them agree on a collective name for the language community they would form; undertake to hold general and regional conventions; and choose a discreet badge that they would wear on their clothing to identify themselves to each other and to people generally.

That badge would become a mark of positive distinction. The annual entrance examination for new members, which would become a big national occasion, would provide a prestigious goal for Gaelcholáistí and for the university courses in Irish. Apart from the holding of its conventions, this body of Irish-language perpetuators would carry out its remit simply by living, speaking and writing, and growing annually towards an initial complement of, say, 8000 members.

The present Irish-language activities and occasions would continue undisturbed. Because the members of the language community would not be living next door to each other, they would not be a self-renewing community of the ideal kind. But it would be the best that can be done under present circumstances.

The annual entry exam would give the secondary Gaelscoileanna and the university courses in Irish a concrete and prestigious goal to aim at. In time the initial goal of 8000 members might well need to be extended.

It must be clear that unless this scheme or something like it is implemented, the spoken and written Irish language will enter in the coming years a period of gradual, ragged, ignominious, death, with very minority-interest programmes on radio and television recalling the real thing.

Desmond Fennell

Dr Desmond Fennell’s last book was ‘Third Stroke Did It: The Staggered End of European Civilisation’.