When referring to 'The Language' we always mean Irish.
by Deirdre Davitt
to Ireland soon realise that we are a country with two languages.
English is the predominant one and virtually everyone can
speak it, but street plates, road direction signs, bus tickets,
notices on public buildings and so forth soon remind visitors
that they are in a foreign country. For some it is a surprise
to find that Irish is a distinct and separate language,
and not just our Hibernian version of English! Others, more
historically aware, can still experience a certain culture
shock that the Irish language is actually a living reality,
and not just the subject of academic study. The Irish language
is one of the Republic’s two official languages and is designated
‘the national language’ by the Constitution. The other official
language is English.
Irish is a Celtic language. This group includes Welsh, Breton
and Cornish - known collectively to scholars as P Celtic
- and Irish. The Gaelic of Scotland and Manx are known as
Q Celtic. Although far less widespread than the other major
language groups of Europe, Celtic languages in 300 BC stretched
from Ireland to Asia Minor, from Poland to Spain and Northern
areas in Ireland in which Irish is the common language today
are known as The Gaeltacht and these are to be found
mainly on the Western coast, in the Dingle Peninsula, Conamara,
and North West Donegal. There are also small Gaeltachtaí
in Counties Cork, Mayo, Meath and Waterford as well as a
strong Irish speaking community in Belfast.
is the means of communication of approximately 75,000 people,
about half of whom live in the Gaeltacht. According to Census
figures, almost one million people or 30% of the adult population
in the Republic, claim to be able to speak the language.
the foundation of the State, the Irish language has formed
part of our education system. It is taught in all schools,
both primary and secondary, and all teachers are required
to have knowledge of Irish. There are over 380 Irish medium
primary and secondary schools in the country, over half
in the Gaeltacht.
Like most European languages in the 20th century, Irish
has developed a rich and varied modern literature. (Over
130 new titles are published every year). All the major
genres of literary endeavour are represented - poetry, drama,
novel, short story and essay. There are also many works
of biography, history, philosophy, religion, current affairs
and politics in print. Many books of folklore have been
published, reflecting the rich tradition in story, music
and song in Irish. Translation has been made from and into
all major world languages.
literature has been written continuously in Irish since
the 6th century - making Irish literature the oldest in
Northern Europe - modern literature in the sense of a body
of work which follows on from the sensibilities represented
by Baudelaire, Byron, Balzac or Goethe, is usually dated
from 1882 when the magazine Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge
(The Gaelic Journal) was founded. Another important date
in modern literature was 1897 when the cultural festival,
An tOireachtas (The Convocation) was started
by Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League)
with various competitions for original writing in Irish.
of today’s leading writers are also available on audio -
cassette, thanks to the Galway publishers Cló Iar - Chonnachta.
(See Inside Ireland’s Discount Voucher). A wider
audience is opening to Irish writers through the services
of the recently established agency, Ireland Literature Exchange,
(ILE) which supports in a practical way the translation
of Ireland’s dual language literary inheritance.
extraordinarily rich Irish literary tradition despite all
the ebbs and flows occasioned by a turbulent history, still
continues to the present day and has both consciously and
unconsciously coloured the writing of Irish people in English,
the so-called Anglo Irish Stream, which includes
so many names of world renown, among them, Yeats, Shaw,
Synge, O’Casey, Joyce, Friel, Hartnett and Heaney.
matter of identity
But, what do Irish people feel about their own language?
In a world where English is the dominant language of trade
and commerce, of the entertainment industry and of the international
pop culture, Ireland starts off with the immense advantage
that virtually all its citizens speak English. If we didn’t,
we would have to learn, and quickly! Given our geographical
location between the major English-speaking cultures, there
hardly seems much point in hanging on to a language which
is not spoken outside Ireland, which no one needs in order
to do business, and which can hardly be shown to be an economic
or practical necessity for Irish people.
the matter isn’t as simple as that. No subject has been
surveyed as exhaustively as the attitude of the Irish towards
their own language, and a common finding of all recent studies
is that Irish people want their traditional languages
to be preserved and sustained; they want it passed on to
their children, and they agree with special supports for
the Irish-speaking areas. In many ways our attitudes are
ambivalent: We may see little practical use for the language,
yet we don’t want it to die; we feel little need to use
it on our daily lives, yet want our children to learn it.
When these attitudes are probed more deeply, it seems that
our language has become for us one of the few badges which
we have left of a distinctive identity as a People. Even
those who know little Irish and are themselves cut off from
the literary and other traditions of the language, feel
in some way that it is an enriching influence in our lives
- in its own way a key to our self-awareness and self-understanding.
is the context in which Bord na Gaeilge, the state
board with responsibility for promoting the Irish language
as a living language, has been operating since its inception
in 1975. Already it has contributed to significant growth
in such areas as the use of Irish throughout the public
service, the Irish - medium nursery school movement and
Irish-speaking primary and secondary schools; the distribution
of bilingual and Irish-language books, nationally and internationally;
the promotion of the arts, particularly literature and drama,
and the sponsoring of myriad different schemes and projects
which nurture the language at local level in various communities
throughout the country. Add to this list an Irish-language
radio station, Raidio na Life, an Irish-language
professional Drama Company, Amharclann de hÍde, and
an Irish-language weekly newspaper, Foinse, and you
get some idea of just how pro-active Bord na Gaeilge has
been over the past 25 years. There has been a quiet cultural
revolution in Ireland, transforming a dying language into
a vibrant, creative one, a process that is destined to continue
into the new millennium.
Davitt is Deputy Chief Executive of Bord na Gaeilge.
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