“It is not in the interests of our community for Irish (which our ancestors shunned as they would rocky crags) to be spoken widely and freely.”
So wrote Richard Stanyhurt, a Dublin-born alchemist and Latin translator, in 1587.
Four hundred and thirty years later, such opinions are still being voiced against the language, and despite the words of Stanyhurt then, to the likes of Kevin Myers et al. today, the language continues to be spoken. For over four centuries (and counting) the Anglo-Irish and Anglo-centric Irish have hoped for a day when, as Sir John Davies wrote in 1612, “…the next generation will in tongue […] become English; so as there will be no difference or distinction but the Irish sea betwixt us”.
And yet, despite all the great efforts of the Penal Laws, to the incompetencies of school curricula and post-Independence government policies, the Irish language remains a living (albeit minority) language. There are, across this island, families who raise their children through Irish, and have it as the language of the home. There are other families, where parents send their children to Irish-medium schools, in the hopes that they would become more competent in their language than their elders. There are others, from free-thinking teenagers to pensioners, who decide that for whatever reason, the language is important to them. They take out books in the libraries. They use Duolingo on their phones. They turn on the radio. They read news websites and blogs. They attend coffee mornings, pub nights, and other social events. They learn, engage, and use the language, as much and as often as they can and wish.
“Seek and ye shall find” is a well-known Biblical phrase (even for a non-Christian like myself) yet for those who don’t seek, it’s no wonder that they won’t find. This is especially true of minority languages. If the English-speaking Irishman (or woman) has no interest in the Irish language, then they won’t see the vibrancy behind the language’s modern-day community. If they see Irish-medium schools as being pretentious, classist, or a way of self-aggrandising one’s standing in the community, they’re not only blatantly ignorant of the decades-long campaigning by the working classes for Irish-medium education, but they’ll also have no involvement with their local Gaelscoil or Gaelcholáiste. If they don’t understand Irish, they won’t know about any quality of journalism or broadcasting that audiences of Raidió na Gaeltachta, TG4, or the local community radio stations provide. Of course, when one doesn’t know about such quality, no wonder one would question its value, monetary or otherwise.
In short, if you don’t like Irish, that’s fine. We live in a democracy, and you’re entitled to live your life speaking nothing but our second official language – English – if you so wish. You can live in Ireland without knowing much Irish at all, and you might not miss much. You can not, however, claim that Irish is dead, just because you don’t make any efforts to see the very vibrant, living, modern, and ever-adaptive creature that is the Irish language, and its speakers. While Irish may no longer be the common language of the nation (or even of the smallest towns, one might argue) there are still many speakers who use it every day. A minority, no matter how dispersed or fragmented, is a minority nonetheless.
The Irish language has survived close to half a millenium of criticism, belittlement, derision, and mocking, and yet it still goes on, as do its speakers.