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Live the Language

Irish is dying in the Gaeltacht due to historical embarassment

I recently discovered that the famous Hollywood heart-throb, Matthew McConaughey, and myself, have something in common. We would both like our children to learn Irish in a Gaeltacht. I am already ahead of him slightly as I am raising my toddler here in the Connemara Gaeltacht, the same one that I was raised in for the first seven years of my life that rendered me fluent in Irish, and that propelled me around the world learning half a dozen other languages. However, before Matthew takes the plunge, I must counsel that he move quickly so that he won’t find that Irish has been abandoned as the vernacular here by the time his kids are teens. The embarrassment for us and the disappointment for him would be just too much.

As odd as it may sound, we desperately need someone with a silver tongue to come here and tell a large majority of the population that their native tongue is in fact dying. This fundamental but tragic news must have somehow not reached these parts because otherwise the attitude about speaking the language would surely not be so lackadaisical, Visitors would feel encouraged to use Irish instead of English. All greetings in shops and pubs would be as Gaeilge. Most importantly, native speakers would be speaking Irish with their children. If they knew? Surely?

The key but elusive message is simple: Irish needs to be spoken more than English, to survive.

In my mind, McConaughey would then explain to the locals, who need reminding, that the Irish they speak is unique, a gift from their forefathers and practically impossible to learn from sterile textbooks. That their pronunciation, turn of phrase, rhythm, musicality, use and command of the language is theirs alone. That it changes from Gaeltacht to Gaeltacht, from Parish to Parish, from boreen to boreen, from family to family, from individual to individual. That it is spoken in no other country. That this is it: the living, breathing petri dish of Irish. That by fecklessly speaking English they are silently killing their culture.

He would then explain to the parents that speaking their native tongue to their children would make them happier, more confident and more connected to their environment in the long run. In some cases he might express intrigue at parents’ reasons, if any, for not passing their heritage on. And then he could heap praise on the parents who are carrying the mantel successfully – raising bilingual children in a challenging linguistic and cultural environment. Just tell them that the effort is worth it.

He would also let the teenagers know that they are not to blame, that they have been poorly led and are contending with a globalised world dominated by English. That all languages are suffering a haemorrhage due to English. Can he let them know that trying to emulate an English language community in a Gaeltacht makes them weaker? That they can draw from their own strengths and speak two languages fluently, enrich themselves with two cultures instead of one diluted one? Can he ask them not to be shy about speaking Irish even if they are now making a lot of mistakes in it? Encourage them that gradually they will improve, with practice.

He would tell the 17 –year-old girl I met that I was sad when she told me no other family that she knows in the area speaks Irish at home. Ask her to speak Irish to her mum (who goes back generations here) when she goes home. She might even respond in Irish. He would persuade her to continue that with her brother, 10, who has a lovely grasp of the language and should be encouraged, not thwarted. Tell him his Irish is lovely, even though riddled with mistakes.

After that, he would let her know that when she goes to her friends’ houses she should try to speak Irish to them even when everyone is answering in English. Just let her know she’s to ignore the awkwardness, the shame, the embarrassment, the famine that never left us. That it’s not hers. That it’s the environment she grew up in. No leadership, no courage, no confidence: environmental, cultural or historical. But, tell her, that that’s all gone now and everyone can have 3G. Or 4G. And emojis. As Gaeilge. The new rule is not to feel less in Irish. That was her parents’ rule and that time is over.

Of all the things we have to save in the world – the whales, the donkeys, the trees – this must be one of the easiest. All we have to do in the Gaeltacht is go to our local shop, pub, school , open our mouths, and speak as Gaeilge. Live it. If only Greenpeace had their task so easy.


Kate Fennell