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First-hand facts about the Irish language

Neil Dundon | Thursday, October 4, 2007

Brendan Behan is probably performing triple salchows in his grave hearing an Irishman say this – but the Irish language is as dead as Pope John Paul II, the only difference being there are very few Paddies that are consequentially in mourning.

Irish, for the duration of my years of education here in its homeland, was a chore – a poorly taught, ludicrously complex language that was rammed down our throats by disinterested teachers and in contexts that nobody could relate to. (Have you a personal connection to a centuries-old poem about a guy who’s lost his donkey? I’m not judging.)

Furthermore, from college age onwards, you have absolutely no more use for the language, unless you elect to continue on with it in undergrad study, or if you live in a Gaeltacht. And what peeves me personally is that my years spent laboriously gaining some form of proficiency in oral Irish could have been spent acquiring a mastery of a far more useful international language. Yes, the option to study European languages becomes available in secondary school, but this must be done concurrently with continuing obligatory Irish study and at an age that is vastly beyond the golden years of language acquisition.

Now I cannot dispute that Gaelscoileanna are in such demand that, in many cases, they have waiting lists. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with an overwhelming public interest in Irish. There are two significant reasons: First, Gaelscoileanna are plumped with staggering amounts of government funding, which allows them offer teaching standards and resources comparable to private schools. Second, safety-conscious parents in disadvantaged areas (where many of the Gaelscoileanna are located) will often send their children to a Gaelscoil, since the overwhelming majority of troublemakers in the area will go to the local English medium schools. Their popularity, therefore, is not contingent on widespread interest in Irish, but parents’ desire for optimal education, from both an economic and social standpoint.

I offer that anyone whose knowledge of Irish life or culture is completely biased through some romantic personal affinity with the “Emerald Isle” should actually spend some time in Ireland. Take a bus into town from Tallaght, Finglas, Clondalkin or some other working-class satellite suburb of Dublin and see how much Irish you hear. Dodge the scores of junkies on O’Connell Street, in fact, tell them you have no spare change, in Irish, and see how far that gets you. Why not grab a tall latte in Starbucks and wander down Grafton Street, counting how many anorexic teenagers are discussing the latest episode of Laguna Beach, in Irish? Or listen to our state radio stations and observe how often you hear our most popular sport (English soccer) being discussed, in Irish? Then, cap your day off with a stay in one of our Hiltons before taking a taxi ride to the airport in a Dodge Nitro SUV. While you’re at it, tell your driver how much you enjoyed your stay – in Irish.

Even without going near the subject of its erosion through Anglicization, it is clear as day that the language is wholly and unequivocally dead – TG4 opting to dub Irish voices over South Park, or the occasional Bebo entry including a “Conas átá tú” not withstanding.

P.S. – Inis Oirr, for anyone who is interested, is one of three small, sparsely populated islands in Galway Bay, which, admittedly, has a thriving Gaeltacht community. But citing it as proof of Irish being anything more than a cumbersome relic, would be akin to proffering the entire population of the U.S. is of casino-owning Native-American extraction, following a trip to Foxwoods.

Neil Dundon

Dublin, Ireland

Oct. 4