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