ST Patrick’s Day brought yet another Seachtain na Gaeilge to a close, but I wasn’t celebrating my national language.
I was standing in the changing room of UCD’s swimming pool and looking at a door that said ‘Stóras Bugaithe’.
‘Stóras’ is listed in my dictionary as an Irish word for ‘store’, though I’ve ever heard of it. But ‘bugaithe?’ The plural of ‘bugaí?’ Oh, come on. ‘Buggy’ is an English word of unknown origin, which once meant a four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage. But for 100 years we have pushed babies in it. In Ireland, it is the only word for what is a ‘push-chair’ in the UK and a ‘stroller’ in the US. ‘Bugaí’ is simply an Irish phonetic spelling of the English word.
I am hurt by the reduction of Irish, the oldest spoken literary language in Europe, to phonetic translations from the relative newcomer, English.
Who gains from the translation of ‘buggy store’ into ‘stóras bugaithe’? Anyone who wants to make fun of the Irish language, that’s who.
Not one person will be directed more quickly by the words ‘stóras bugaithe’ to a place to stow a buggy. It is a gross insult to the beauty and integrity of the Irish language.
My children and I get great fun out of made-up words and literal translations. The announcement on CIE trains that the ‘bear sneaiceanna’ is open for business and serving ‘míanraí’ never fails to crack us up. But, in truth, we’re only laughing at ourselves. And the joke is less funny because these literal translations are often not even grammatically correct.
How much did it cost to pay some functionary to write the large sign in Dodder Park that tells cyclists — ‘rothaithe’, if you don’t mind — to ‘be aware’? It’s translated as ‘bí aireach’. It’s plural for starters, so that’s ‘bígí.’ But I don’t think that even does it. ‘Tógaigí aire’, or ‘take care’, would be more natural in Irish, which has a different structure to English.
Irish is being strangled by the implementation of the Official Languages Act, 2004, what little of it was not already murdered by the translation policies that preceded it.
There is virtually no Irish speaker in this State who isn’t fluent in English. That’s the hard truth.
There is little practical reason for rendering signs, and official documents and public announcements, from English into Irish. There is no practical reason for rendering official English into an Irish-English ‘Esperanto’ that dignifies neither language.
Granted, the Government amended the Official Languages Act last year, so that not every official document has to be translated. This is welcome, because Cork County Council had spent €90,000 translating their local area plans, which were requested by not one single person.
But it isn’t the money I care about.
Even at the height of official-languages spending, Eamon Ó Cuiv said that the €350,000 spent on implementing the act was not a lot in the context of a national annual spend of €50bn. If it genuinely facilitated a minority, or maintained the use of Irish, I would spend it gladly.
The problem is it does neither. It is pure tokenism and the token is used willingly by every political party in the Dáil.
Thus, we had the horrible spectacle, on Lá na Gaeilge, last week, of Deputy Mick Wallace being told to put on his head-set so he could hear a simultaneous translation of the Taoiseach speaking to him in Irish.
The attempted humiliation of Deputy Wallace, who did not have the benefit of as much education in Irish as Enda Kenny, was disgusting. But so was the humiliation of the Irish language, used as a weapon by one native English speaker against another in our chamber of parliament.
The truth is new research shows that 12-year-old children in the Gaeltacht, who have done most of their schooling against the backdrop of the Official Languages Act, are less competent in Irish than they are in English.
As Joe Mac Donnacha, himself from the Gaeltacht, writes in the Dublin Review of Books, the language is in its “final throes” and the only question is whether Irish will hang on as a second language in the Gaeltacht or disappear.
The collapse of Irish in the Gaeltacht is not due to economic disadvantage, but due to the number of non-Irish speakers living in the region and to increasingly globalised technology. These forces are putting pressure on languages spoken by millions, let alone on a language daily spoken by 80,000.
The only remedy for the predominance of English among Gaeltacht children is to cordon them off in their own schools, their ears unmolested by the words of other children.
This would just be another failed attempt to get someone faraway to carry the can for the Irish language, while we get on with the real business of living through English. And Mac Donnacha asks if it is morally acceptable for the State to encourage parents in Gaeltacht communities to raise their children through Irish “when the State itself is aware, or should be aware, that those children will struggle to acquire native speaker competence in their first language, given the linguistic dynamics of the current Gaeltacht.”
I first understood that Gaeltacht Irish was dying while listening to the beautiful poetry of Kerrywoman, Siobhán Ní Shíthigh, who is now in her 60s.
She spoke about her childhood growing up with her grandparents in their West Kerry home, and I felt the peace and isolation in which she learned to speak. I understood very little of the poetry, but I could hear its richness and cohesion. I realised I had heard the voice of the last generation of true Gaeltacht speakers and now this is borne out by research.
Irish people deserve the opportunity to experience the glories of this language, from the anonymous creators of the song, ‘Dónall Óg’, to the poetry of Seán Ó Ríordáin. They should have access to the original Irish placenames that bind us to our landscape.
They should have the right to their Irish names and addresses and I support compulsory Irish, at least to Junior Certificate, to keep those doors open.
They should be encouraged to revel in the difference between Irish and English, not forced by law to pretend that they can be the same.
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