Part of our heritage, or a waste of time? The Irish language and me.

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?

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/82955120@N05/10294419204/">Free HDR & Photomanipulations - www.freestock.ca</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">cc</a>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.photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/chriskealyphotography/7439961316/">Chris Kealy</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a>

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.

photo credit: Chris Kealy via photopin cc

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23 thoughts on “Part of our heritage, or a waste of time? The Irish language and me.

  1. I know that I am not one who gets a vote…. 😉 But having been to your incredibly stunning country on numerous occasions I have say I love it’s culture. It’s identity. It’s history. I love the sound of the Irish language and have been blessed to have family there who still speak the language as their primary language. Though I don’t understand it I have been with them when they spoke and I understood what they were saying from ….I don’t know what. But when they would speak in Irish and I would make a comment asking them if ‘this’ is what they said they would be surprised that I knew. I would hate to see the beauty of the language be lost any more than it has been. I listen to songs sung in Irish and don’t have a clue to what they are saying but I feel something wonderful when I listen. I hope it remains. And grows.

    1. I’m glad you “got” it. It is a most descriptive language. I do hope it lives, I think the next generation’s interest is probably make or break for it. Fingers crossed.
      What a loss to us all if they chose to ditch it.

      1. I love the videos TG Lurgan do on Youtube. They just fascinate me. If you haven’t seen them you might enjoy them. It seems one of the Irish speaking schools, or programs, take popular songs and sing them in Irish with the kids. They do an amazing job.

        1. I’ve never seen them but will check them out. Thanks. Funny you over there can tell me about an Irish item on utube. 🙂

  2. Maith thú Tric! You have indeed done a wonderful favour for a struggling language. My parents made the same decision you did. Sent me and my siblings to Gaelscoileanna and we too grew up outside the Gaeltacht. I am now a fluent speaker. I studied it at university level and have worked in the Irish language sector for almost 13 years now. I even speak Irish to my children. So if any of your children go on to even do that one last thing – you will have ensured the survival of our beautiful national language.

    1. Go raibh míle maith agat Sadhbh. I knew I had made a good decision when my daughter was in senior infants. The little one I minded was the same age but in an english school. She was telling my little one all about the Irish she was learning, and my daughter said “You are so lucky, we never learn Irish” which was exactly what I wanted her to experience.
      I think so far it looks like the first two, whilst naturally interested in business, have loved the language and have a very positive attitude towards it. I would think I’d died and gone to heaven if any of them were as pro active as you in years to come.
      You made my night! Thanks.

  3. oh, i think it is so important to preserve the languages and i think they are a part of who we are. and where our families came from. and hopefully where we are going. i’m happy you did your part to make sure that the next generation, at least in your family, will know and understand this beautiful language.

    1. Thanks Beth. I always remember my Irish teacher saying “The British had only to wait for the invention of television to get rid of the Irish language forever” Fingers crossed enough of my generation do something to turn the tide.

  4. I like, that you take good care of your old language and the culture about it.
    When we live in another country, we learn a lot about ourselves, but absolutely also about where we come from and the feeling about nationality. I can feel that too.

    1. Yes I think we should all travel so we get to better understand our own country and what it means to us. I can hear it in your comment how well you understand that.

  5. Tric, you reminded me of my late father as i read this great post. He was educated through Irish up to Leaving Cert and remained fluent all his long life. He didn’t try to stuff Irish down our throats but somehow his obvious love of it rubbed off and he left us with lots of Irish sayings that I very much savour now. It’s undoubtedly a very musical language and such a pity that it has been so ‘unloved’ by so many over the years.

    1. I think the “stuffing it down our throats” sentiment is so correct. Many poor teachers of Irish, particularly in national schools turn children off. The children learn grammar and spellings not the basics of conversation. In truth many national school teachers have poor Irish and do not have the confidence to converse with their students. I hope it’s not too late for change.

  6. As I read I couldn’t help but think about small communities in the U.S. that I know of that foster rivalries and dislike for others simply because of an imaginary line drawn between them. At the same time, I have daughters who may be the last link to their father’s native language and that is somewhat sad. I think every human being deserves to own and honor their culture and heritage by whatever degree they want.

    1. The “degree they want” is a big debate here as many do not want to learn Irish. Their parents were taught it badly and have no interest in it often seeing it as a waste of time.
      Fingers crossed we have enough who love it who can change things.

  7. Language is an important part of a people’s culture, and I’m heartened that Irish culture is still alive despite the efforts of the British and others to suppress it. I would hate to live in a world that was homogeneous, where any place you visited looked, felt and sounded the same. I am proud of my Lancastrian heritage, of the dialect and history of the village where I grew up, and my wife is equally proud of her Scottish roots.

    1. Two very easily identified cultures the Scots and the lancastrians. The world would be a very dull place indeed, and I hope over the next many years the Irish language will thrive once more.

  8. I grew up outside the Gaeltacht and so only learned Irish at school. I kinda dreaded it but even then I still felt it was an important part of our heritage and to this day, especially now that I’m living in London and my own little boy I really wish I’d made more of an effort. It’s so sad to think that such an important part of our heritage, our Irishness may be lost. I used to work in a pub and we took on some staff from Connemara and I always felt so ashamed that I couldn’t speak to them in our own language, even now when a West Indian friend asks me to speak Irish I have to say I can’t speak any more than the basics.

    1. I suspect yours is the experience of the vast majority. Being away from Ireland our heritage becomes more important to us I think.
      If it was just left to me I don’t think I’d have done a great job with the next generation but thankfully I was able to leave it to my husband.

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