The Irony for an Irish Speaker Abroad

It’s not often that a video I discover on social media has a great impact on me. One video recently did, however; one of the many clips and videos produced and published by the Irish-language television station, TG4.

Is í ár dteanga í (“It’s Our Language”) was performed by actor Bríd Ní Neachtain, and notes the social struggles that an Irish speaker faces. From listening to people complaining about the amount of money spent on the language, to being asked what the English version of a Gaelic name is, the short video sums up the social and cultural implications of being an Irish speaker today, and the pride one holds over their linguistic heritage.

Nach mbeadh sé iontach a bheith in ann do theanga féin a labhairt… gan a bheith go síoraí á cosaint,” Bríd bemoans: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to speak your own language, without having to constantly defend it. For me, this sentiment captures perfectly what many Irish-speakers (myself included) feel nowadays; a bittersweet mix of pride and pain in being able to speak an ancient — albeit now minority — language.

As Irish-speakers, we are assigned the role of the defender in every single debate about the language. We are expected to advocate and defend how it is taught, funded, protected, and promoted. We are expected to arrogantly see ourselves and act as champions of ‘the system’. We are expected to be undeserving recipients of government grants, or to sponge off other sources of controversial funding to keep a language that is often regarded as ‘on life support’.

In our automatic assignment of champions and defenders of the ‘good fight’ of speaking a minority language such as Irish, we are also vilified — often illogically, and without consistency. In the media (and by countless commentators on social media) Irish speakers are often made out to be members of one of two groups, placed on opposite extremes of an Irish social spectrum. On one side, we are made out to be backward militants, or feral hicks on the fringes of civilisation; sworn to fighting the very syllables of English being spoken within earshot of a Gaeltacht’s boundaries.

To others commentators, whether in the media or on the street, we are perceived as over-educated, middle-class elitists living comfortably in south Dublin (or some other affluent suburb), wishing to push our children into Gaelscoileanna solely so we can boast about it to the other yuppies in Starbucks over brunch. In their vision, we speak Irish for a boost in status, for social advantage, or for a party piece at get-togethers.

Ignoring the fact that no other social group has ever been heckled for being both rural weirdos and hyper-affluent snobs at the same time, the point is apparently that the Irish-speaking community is dismissed as a community at all, because we are perceived as merely a nuisance to English-speaking Irish people. If we attempt to defend ourselves and engage in a debate, many will try to revoke our validity, because we engage in the debate in English (forgetting that they’re highly unlikely to be fluent in Irish, if they’re complaining so much about it).

In short, we are reduced to little more than a reminder about years of compulsory and fruitless Irish tuition in school. The idea that a healthy and genuine community of Irish speakers exists today is simply beyond the realms of imagination.

The reality, of course, is very different indeed. What I’ve learned since leaving Ireland, however, is that the vicious debates about the Irish language are confined only to Ireland. As someone now living in England, I’ve noticed that the English (of today, at least) have no negative views about the Irish language, because few even realise that it exists at all. My ability to speak Irish is perceived no differently to the ability of some of my colleagues to speak Urdu, German, French, Russian, or Dutch, depending on their nationality or family heritage. In short, I’m merely another foreigner, who can speak his own language as well as English.

On that note, I’ve also noticed that as a ‘Gaeilgeoir’ abroad, I’m actually free of the social struggles mentioned in that TG4 video. If I chat to my friends on my phone in Irish while in a café, the person beside me probably isn’t questioning the value of my language, or how it was taught. Unlike my experience in Ireland, I have never been asked in England if there is an English version to my surname, because they don’t expect or demand a correlation to exist. It may be anecdotal example, but I’ve been surprised by the amount of Brits I’ve met who never realised that Séamus (or any variant thereof) is the Gaelic equivalent of James.

Recently, a ‘Pop Up Gaeltacht’ event took place in Dublin, showing just how vibrant, modern, social, and welcoming today’s Irish speakers are. I’m sorry I missed it, flying back to Dublin a day too late for it, but hopefully I can make the next one. Maybe some English-speaking Irish people should pop along too, to see that we’re not as crazy as some newspaper columnists like to make us out to be.

And for the other Irish-speakers: If you ever get sick of the hassle that comes from being a Gaeilgeoir, flights abroad are a wonderful thing. Bain sult astu.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Why I Love Speaking a ‘Useless’ Language

I was at a wedding earlier this week, where I met many of my partner’s family for the first time. One particular relation I met was my partner’s uncle, a retired teacher from County Kerry. He’s known in the family for being a Gaeilgeoir, an Irish speaker, and so my partner joked that he would warm to me quite quickly, because I was also a Gaeilgeoir.

“Scott has a cúpla focal as well”, my partner announced to his uncle, no more than a few seconds after being introduced to him. ‘Cúpla focal’ is Irish for ‘a few words’, but he soon learned — much to his surprise and delight — that I had more than a cúpla focal, I was ‘líofa’ — fluent.

The Irish-speaking uncle was thrilled to have a conversation in Irish with me that evening at the wedding’s dinner, and asked all about how I came to be fluent in the minority language, and how often I used it. Since finishing university, I’ve used the language on a weekly to daily basis, including when I worked for a unique department of the BBC in Belfast, where Irish was the daily working language of the office.

Irish is my second language, but it has been a part of my life since I was roughly ten years old, when I became fascinated by it. I would’ve regarded myself fluent by the time I was about 17, a time when the language would’ve been a big identifier for me. I was an Irish-speaker first, a gay guy second, and an Irishman third.

Over the years, the terms and labels I used to identify myself fluctuated in their priority. The language started as the ‘important’ label, then it swapped places with my sexuality, and then both lost out on top position as I dismissed both, and accepted myself for being simply me; an introverted guy from Dublin who hates crowds but — ironically — likes being in the spotlight every so often.

Still, my mastery of Irish was, and is, something upon which I place value. My fluency in Irish meant that I found a niche for myself when starting to work in the media. Any literature I’d write, such as poetry or blogging, would’ve gotten noticed by literary circles quicker in Irish than if I wrote in English. In short, being fluent in a minority language, spoken daily by no more than 3–5% of the Irish population, was actually a massive asset to me.

And yet, so many people regard the Irish language as useless, dead, moribund, and pointless.

To many, it’s quite fair to say that with the way Irish society is currently structured, there aren’t many opportunities to use or speak Irish. We don’t see the language on much product packaging or advertising, unlike Canada, which makes French almost as equally visible as English in predominantly Anglophone areas. Wales is also better than Ireland in terms of visibility for its respective language, even though the public’s attitudes and gripes with Welsh are somewhat similar to Ireland’s situation. In general, minority languages suffer the worst from that old phrase; out of sight, out of mind.

For all the issues, problems, and challenges that it faces, I still love using it, like at the wedding this week. I love meeting up with the odd friend from college, having a coffee in Dublin or London, and launching into Irish without even considering the option of using another ‘mainstream’ or ‘useful’ language, like English. I love picking up the phone and hearing someone start off a conversation with me in Irish, whether it’s an employer, a friend, or just my mother (who only has a cúpla focal, but uses what she has). I love seeing businesses, like cafés, use a bit of Irish on their signs or menus, because it feels inclusive. I can’t say that I feel included, per se, because English is still my first language, but it’s still kind of heartwarming when others make the effort.

In an unexpected way, Irish is far from ‘useless’ in that regard, because it brings everyone in Ireland together, even those from a different background other than Ireland. From the ‘Fáilte Abhaile’ (Welcome Home) sign at Dublin Airport, to the wordplay memes I see on Facebook, to the random “Slán” (Goodbye) or “Go raibh maith agat” (Thank you) you might hear from people on the street, hearing, speaking or using Irish makes me feel at home, regardless of where I am. They say ‘home is where the heart is’, and I always feel at home whenever my partner uses his cúpla focal with me. He’s sometimes nervous using it, he might need to ask about something grammatical, and he’ll sometimes forget a fairly common word, but once he starts, whether we’re in Dublin, Nottingham, or even Toronto, I feel at home.

That’s how powerful, useful, and valuable Irish is to me. That’s why I use it. That’s why I love it. Because is liomsa í — it’s mine.