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The Language
When referring to 'The Language' we always mean Irish.
by Deirdre Davitt

Visitors 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.

P and Q
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 Italy.

The 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.

Irish 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.

Since 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.

Irish Literature
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.

Although 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.

Many 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.

The 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.

A 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.

But 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.

This 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.

Deirdre Davitt is Deputy Chief Executive of Bord na Gaeilge.

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