The Irish language is being left to wither on the vine

Inis Mór islanders in currachs meeting the ferry from Galway in 1970, a time when the Irish language was more widely spoken by people on the Aran Islands
Inis Mór islanders in currachs meeting the ferry from Galway in 1970, a time when the Irish language was more widely spoken by people on the Aran Islands

We spent the Bank Holiday weekend on Inis Mór and as always had a fantastic time there.

The gap between life there and the mainland is not as stark as it was even when I was a child three decades or more ago.

I have distinct memories of the currachs coming out to meet the Naomh Éanna in Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin, and of lifestock being ‘swam’ out to be hoisted aboard. And even in my time with The Connacht Tribune, seeing all the older people on Inis Meáin filing down to Mass in their traditional báiníns, criosanna and shawls.

But there is still something different about the islands and life there. For one, the three islands remain, to varying degrees, some of the last outposts for native Irish in the country.

While on Inis Mór the Gaeilge these days is no longer a garden without weeds, it’s still spoken widely although the younger generations all speak English as adeptly as everybody else in Ireland.

Time doesn’t stand still. In the past generation technology has made just about everything accessible and just about everything these days in the technology generation is anglophone.

Sure, even when John Millington Synge visited Inis Mór over a century ago, there was plenty of English in Kilronan (and that may have prompted his decision to move onto Inis Meáin). But if the future of Irish was under threat, then it was a very distant one, as distant as somebody contemplating back in the 1950s the day that oil supplies would be depleted.

There’s a nostalgia or affection for the language and platitudes are expressed that it would be a shame for it to die.

However, when it comes to making any commitment to save the language, we go into the realm of the banal. It ranges from those who say (naively in some cases, maliciously in others) that if enough people are enthusiastic about it sure won’t the language survive, to those who say that there should be a limit to State support and that shouldn’t include any obligation on any State department to conduct any of its business in Irish; or for anybody to be obliged to learn Irish in school; or for any teacher in the State to have enough Irish to be able to teach Irish in Irish to his or her pupils rather than in English.

And then there’s the problem of the last few places in the country where Irish is spoken as a first language. The evidence on the ground is that the minority language is being swamped by English and that parents are fighting a losing battle to bring up their kids in Irish.

Should the State be doing its damnedest to ensure that the conditions are right to allow families grow up bilingually, to retain that rich texture of Irish, to have Irish as a true living language, rather than a kind of strange code used by a small minority class in cities who have learned it in much the same way that priests used to learn Latin in order to communicate with priests elsewhere?

There are some that say that sure don’t we have Hiberno English and isn’t that a very rich form of language. Yes, it was but not any more. And the reason it was rich was that it was heavily influenced by Gaelic. But as that influence has waned it has given away to an English that will be soon indistinguishable from, like, American English. So what does all this have to do with politics.

Well, the decision by Enda Kenny to appoint Joe McHugh as Minister for the Gaeltacht was symptomatic of the views expressed by Thomas Mason a generation ago. There’s a 20 year strategy for the Irish language to which the Government has committed but has done nothing.

The only thing Kenny has said of note in recent years is that he wants to scrap compulsory Irish for the Leaving Certificate. He’s got lovely Irish but has no real feel or commitment to the language. He has said there are other ways in which the language can be encouraged but of course he has never specified what they are, or indeed taken any action.

A couple of months ago, the Dáil was meant to have its only all-Irish day to mark Seachtain na Gaeilge but the Government was unable to find an Irish speaker to do Leaders Questions.

To add insult to injury, Kenny has appointed to people to the Gaeltacht portfolio (McHugh and Heather Humphreys) who can’t speak Irish. A little bit like Thomas Mason, the Government advocates a policy of festina lente. Oh sorry, I forgot to give you the translation for that: it means let it wither on the vine.

For more of this article see this week’s Connacht Tribune