The surprising people speaking up for Irish

THE resignation of the Irish-language commissioner, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, is “undoubtedly the worst blow to the Irish language in many years,” say Irish-language group, Conradh na Gaeilge.

The surprising people speaking up for Irish

Ó Cuirreáin, appointed as the first commissioner in 2004, and re-appointed in 2010, says many civil servants and public body employees are only capable of conducting business through English.

Ó Cuirreáin accused the Government of hypocrisy, and said Irish speakers in Gaeltachts were being neglected.

But the Irish language is being embraced by new speakers, and this is welcomed by Foras na Gaeilge, which is responsible for the promotion of the Irish language.

Dr John Walsh, a lecturer in Irish at NUI Galway, says Irish is attracting unlikely practitioners. Walsh is involved in an EU-funded project, ‘New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe’, led by Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. It involves 15 partners from Europe. Other languages include Basque, Catalan, Galician and Scottish Gaelic.

Walsh defines a ‘new speaker’ as someone who has learned Irish outside of the home; either at school, through adult classes or some other formal means.

“Our project is about finding out what has encouraged these people to make the decision to learn Irish, what their views on Irish are, what their experiences of speaking it are, and how they relate to native speakers,” Dr Walsh says.

A few non-Irish nationals have been interviewed for the project, which is in its early stages. “The non-Irish nationals are a very interesting group, because they don’t come to the language with the baggage that a lot of Irish people bring to it.

“They may be motivated through heritage connections to Ireland, or they’re simply people who are interested in integrating more fully with Irish culture. Some may be interested in moving to the Gaeltacht,” he says.

Dr Walsh says that he knows of a student from the Czech Republic who is learning Irish, and he’s aware of a number of West of Ireland-based Africans learning the language.

“I know that there’s a certain amount of non-Irish nationals going to Gaelscoileanna. They’re very often people who are linguistically open, because many of them would speak three different languages already. I had students in the past who worked in a school in west Dublin, where a lot of the non-Irish nationals were very well-disposed towards the language. Their parents wanted to learn it as well,” Dr Walsh says.

Some enjoy learning another language. “Irish can be an interesting challenge for them. It’s not a burden for them,” he says. However, some of the new speakers “experience hostility from Irish people. Some people don’t like the fact that a French or Spanish person would know more Irish than them. But, in general, they’ve viewed with admiration.”

Walsh says that few non-Irish people studying Irish at NUI Galway are complete beginners. They come to the university having previously attended an introductory course.

“Irish is taught in a lot of universities outside of Ireland. You can study Irish in Poland, and there are dozens of universities in North America where Irish is taught.

“People from these backgrounds can reach quite impressive standards of Irish. The question of difficulty in learning the language comes from some Irish people who have their own attitudes towards the language,” Dr Walsh says.

“Through preliminary work that we have done on the new speakers, we’ve found that they’re very committed, and will overcome the intricacies of another language and get to grips with it.

“It shows the importance of attitude. None of the new speakers talk about the fact that they’re struggling. They’re speaking Irish quite happily and want to get better. They often talk about it as if they’re on a journey and haven’t quite got there yet.

“But any objective analysis would say that they’re very good already.”

Some Irish are learning the language to move away from nationalism. They’re not speaking it for patriotism.

“I think a certain generation associates nationalism and patriotism with political violence in the North. But, for a lot of young people, it’s all about being tolerant and open. They tend to be very accepting people, with liberal views towards the world.

“They’re accepting of all sorts of diversity. The older generation that we’ve spoken to are much more nationalist.

“They might have been at school in the 1940s and 1950s, when Irish was much more strongly associated with nationalism,” he says.

With the new speakers of Irish come changes in the language. “We’ve definitely experienced all sorts of linguistic innovation across the spectrum. Nobody is replicating the traditional model. Researching language revival is part of this project.

“Irish is being brought into the future. Some people can be quite daring, almost transgressive, deliberately breaking rules and almost revelling in it. Other people are more conservative, as they try to stick to the style of the Gaeltacht areas,” Dr Walsh says.

While purists may not like to see Irish changing, Walsh says that “one of the cardinal rules is that language changes.”

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