I am Irish. As I say it I feel proud. I love this country, it’s countryside and people. I know that for many the past number of years have been a struggle and the shame of our treatment of unmarried mothers and the widespread abuse in the church and within sporting organisations has shook us all as a nation. However the Irishness I refer to is my sense of identity. What I feel when I am asked “Where do you come from?
As a child, because of “the troubles” I was very aware that we were a divided nation. Part ruled by Britain. I saw the soldiers and every day heard about the bombings and murders that were common to both sides. This division made me even more aware that I was Irish and proud.
Here in Ireland we speak English. Yet there are pockets of places which speak Irish, our native language. As a child I grew up in Dublin, definitely not an Irish speaking area. In fact growing up I was aware that on occasions people said, we Dubliners were like “West Brits”, a comment I disliked intensely.
Most children in Ireland go to school at the age of five, and there begins their learning of the Irish language. For eight years in Primary school and a further six in secondary school we learn it. So you can imagine how difficult it would be not to actually know it after all those years? Yet one to two years after leaving school the vast majority of Irish students would not be comfortable holding the most basic of conversations in Irish. In fact not only would they not be able to speak it, they would say they hated the language and would wish it was not a compulsory subject.
As a child I too learned Irish. I was not the greatest at learning languages and had no great love for them. However, as I have written before, I was so lucky to meet an Irish teacher who made a real difference. He had a passion for Irish language and culture. He was perhaps slightly anti British, which appealed to me at the time, although he didn’t actually ever say he was. It was only in his stories we heard it.
I can remember one Monday he was missing from class. When he came in on Tuesday he apologised for his absence but told us he was “detained” by our neighbours. Of course now I was interested. This was better than learning Irish. He went on to explain that he had been at the airport returning home, when he was pulled over. He had an Irish passport and on it was his name. It happened to be an Irish name, I don’t mean a name associated with Ireland such as Paddy, I mean his name was an actual Irish name such as Seán. As he passed passport control he was asked what his name was. He replied giving his name, but was then asked what his “real” name was. I’m sure you can imagine that this did not go down too well. He became irate and when he was asked what was his name in English he said he didn’t have an English name. As this was the 1980s, a time when the IRA had taken “the troubles” to Britain in the form of bombs, there was a real anti Irish feeling and my Irish teachers protests, and his pure Irish name, were seen as a possible threat to national security. The result was the detention of my Irish teacher and a free class for myself and my classmates.
As you can imagine all this drama was hugely enjoyed by me, and further increased my sense of my own identity.
When I left school I made no effort to continue Irish, and never used it. It was not until I left Ireland and went to Australia that I began to understand it’s importance to me. In Australia I was an immigrant, someone who did not belong. In work on the hospital wards I was called “Irish” by some of the patients instead of my actual name. I had at times to defend Ireland and the Irish and became aware that I was an ambasador for my country. By the time I went home to Ireland I felt very strongly about what being Irish meant to me, and dearly wished I’d had an Irish name which would have identified me as Irish immediately anyone met me.
As part of that reawakening of my love for the Irish language and culture, I remembered the many non curricular lessons my Irish teacher gave us. The beautiful Irish poetry he read to us, not part of the course, and his use of the language to describe the most ordinary, in a wonderfully descriptive way. My husband is a fluent Irish speaker and hearing him speak it made me wish I could join in. I began to understand that my language, my native language, was important to me, and it’s survival mattered.
So despite the growing calls in this country for the language to be given less of a role within our education, I have done my bit to ensure it does not die or is not killed off. I haven’t signed petitions or got involved with debates, but I have named my four children old Irish names. They all went to Irish speaking schools and can speak Irish as fluently as is possible in a none Irish speaking area.
Will it do any good I am not sure? What I do know, is that my children have grown up in an Ireland where the Irish language is far from popular, and yet each one of them have developed a real grá (love) for it. It is that grá which I hope will ensure it lives on into the next generation. After that who knows? At least I feel I’ve done my bit.