Vol 2 Ed 17 » Cultura » Personal Reflections on Forced Bilingualism. My Experience with Irish

Personal Reflections on Forced Bilingualism. My Experience with Irish

Katharine West

Orm, ort, air, uirthi, orainn, oraibh, orithu.
We chant together and look at the hand-made posters stuck above and beside the blackboard with blue tack. The fifth-class teacher points to the next group of Irish prepositional pronouns and off we go again: agam, agat, aige, aici, againn, agaibh, acu.
Too many students suffer through Irish-language classes in contexts that do little to inspire love and curiosity for the language. I remember learning a much bowdlerised Celtic mythology (very toned-down versions of the hero myths in terms of violence, while any and, indeed, all possible references to sex were removed) at primary school, which then moved on to stories about peasants and donkeys. Later, for the Irish Leaving Certification, or the end-of-school exams that students must take to be admitted to university in the Republic of Ireland, we read Peig Sawyers' autobiography. While it may be considered by some to be a fascinating social history of Irish rural island life in the early 20th century, it did little to rouse much interest in a language, rather, it appeared to confirm the impression that Irish was impractical and irrelevant. This was mostly due to the fact that the approach to teaching Irish is steeped in 19th- and 20th-century Ireland's efforts to combat Protestantism and the English and their influence on the Emerald Isle — battles that have not been longer considered all that relevant in themselves for the last couple of decades. While most scholars would agree that languages are alive and change over time, Irish as per the State-mandated curriculum remains steadfastly stuck in an invented and sentimentalised past.
Irish is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland. English is, therefore, the second official language despite being used for the vast majority of official communications and parliamentary debates. Irish holds this lofty position due to Article 8 of Bunreacht na hÉireann or the Irish Constitution, a document that was drafted in 1937 principally by Eamonn de Valera. He was determined to promote the institutional design of a morally superior state in which Irishness would be perceived as both Catholic and rural and in direct opposition to the implicitly Godless Protestants and English and their urban ways. A consequence of this was the “special position” of the Catholic Church, that was maintained until 1973 and the Fifth Ammendment[1].


The Irish language has been a victim of both language ecology and planning in different aspects, but most notably owing to Ireland's tumultuous relationship—political, economic, and social—with England. Irish became identified with rebelliousness, as did Irish traditional sports or the Gaelic Athletic Association[2]. Both the language itself and traditional sports later became associated with Republicanism, and more specifically with the IRA (Irish Republican Army). These currents would determine much of the economic, political, and social direction of the country in the 20th century, especially in the North. Thus, the language in terms of its social ecology did not manage to lose an association with the countryside, or, indeed, its connotation with subversion.
Irish during the 19th century was considered by the English (when they considered it) to be the backward language of rebellious peasants who needed to be civilised. The civilisation of Ireland was the justification for colonialisation and the imposition of British rule and English values on the island. It is not for nothing that British policy for Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was entitled Killing Home Rule with Kindness and revolved around the idea of buying out the landed gentry and selling their land to those who actually farmed it. This policy was based on the belief that if the Irish only had a greater investment in the status quo (and food) they would be less likely to rebel.
A response to the growing use of English in Ireland was the Gaelic Revival. One of the constitutive elements was Conradh na Gaeilge, or the Gaelic League. Founded in 1893 by Eoin MacNeill to promote the use of the Irish language in daily life in an attempt to counter the increasing Anglicization of the country, the Gaelic League organised classes and published a newspaper. It lobbied for the official inclusion of Irish in education and remains one of the most important Irish-language promotional organisations to this day. Another fundamental part of the Revival were the preoccupations with applying archaeology to explore the Island's past that was being glorified in the writings of Lady Gregory, W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, to name a few, who were interested in taking their inspiration from Celtic mythology and Irish folklore.
Irish independence from Britain or, in the consideration of Michael Collins, the independence to achieve independence came in the form of the Southern Irish Free State following a treaty in 1921 that permitted the division of Ireland and also established the Northern Irish Free State. Once the Irish could move to designing their own education, it could be presumed that the Irish language would finally receive the attention it deserved. But aside from a nod that those who presented their official state secondary education examinations in the language were to receive extra marks for using Irish, not much was really done. Sadly, the South disintegrated into a bloody Civil War, which meant that most of the 1920s were dedicated to re-establishing a rule of law (but, this time, by the Irish themselves).
The Catholic Church stepped in in the absence of a strong state, and took control of education and the health-care sector. The Church's priority was not strengthening the Irish language, but the formation of good Catholics. Irish was taught with the same enthusiasm—and pedagogical techniques—as Latin, a dead language, but French was considered more important. Notwithstanding, Irish was (and remains) an obligatory subject in primary schools and for all those who have received their primary education in Ireland.
The IRA continued to be a potent force during most of the early 20th century, and the burning out of Protestant farms, country houses, and industries by the IRA meant that there was an exodus of both money and the Protestant middle class to both the North of Ireland and to the Mainland. This continued during the Anglo-Irish Economic War of the 1930s. The consequences of both were a state that was turned inwards. With the outbreak of the Second World War and Ireland's neutrality (a policy that could be best summed up as "Neutral in Favour of the Allies"), Ireland continued on its isolated path as a European backwater during the 1950s and 1960s, its language along with it.
Change Afoot
Ireland applied to the European Economic Community and was accepted in 1973. This led to people being more interested in European languages, and since then German, Spanish, and Italian have all grown in importance. However, French continues to be the language taken by 50 per cent of Leaving Certificate students; while Irish remains a requirement for entrance to six of the country's seven universities. It is also a requirement for entrance to the Civil Service and for admission to the Bar to practice law either as a solicitor or as a barrister. The Irish-language version of laws—and the Constitution—are given priority in the event that the English-language version is ambiguous, a rather odd situation as the debates in the Dáil, or parliament, generally take place in English.
The grand majority of the population believe that knowledge of another language is important, but the country is far from reaching the European Commission's goals (2011) that European citizens should speak two additional languages. However, nowadays there is an interesting movement towards recovering Irish.


The Gaelscoil movement, or the use of Irish as the principal teaching language in schools located in Dublin and other non-Gaelteach (Irish speaking) areas, has become increasingly popular with non-gaeilgors (or non-Irish speakers) due both to the perceived benefits of bilingualism and a resurgence in cultural pride that emerged during the Celtic Tiger years. This was a period from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s in which rapid real economic growth was experienced in Ireland fuelled by foreign direct investment.
The arrival of migrants (especially the Polish) has also meant that we have had to renovate what we teach and how. The contentious aspect of religion has led to the establishment of new schools that are much less religious in nature or even avowedly secular, such as Educate Together. These schools have played an important part of this resurgence especially as they are not really promoted by the government per se, rather they are a response from civil society. The schools have the reputation of having very committed parents and teachers and of being inspired learning communities.
Another civil society development has been produced by Seo Linn, a music group of sorts. As most Irish secondary school students must pass Irish to be able to study at university, a rite of passage is a trip to the Gaelteach during the summer holidays. Students are forbidden from using English and conversations must be as Gaelige (or in Irish), even outside of class. Seo Linn are Gaeligor teachers who are active in the Gaelscoil movement. They are all musicians and they translate pop songs into Irish as part of their activities outside of class. Their version of Avicii's "Wake Me" went viral. They have also recorded versions of Daft Punk and Macklemore songs, all of which have been extremely popular. Purists complain that the songs are not in "proper" Irish and that they do not promote the language's rich musical heritage, but for the first time in many years, there is growing interest in a language long perceived to be just shy of its last breath.
Irish presently has around 350,000 speakers who live principally in rural areas. Their lifestyle is changing as these regions have been taken over by second-home owners, and there are few jobs available for the young. If the language is to survive, we need our young people to love it and use it. If this means the promotion of a less sophisticated variant promoted by the translation of pop songs into Irish, so be it. The moving enthusiasm of the students who sing in Irish in the Seo Linn videos show that Irish may yet have a chance to be a vibrant—and urban—language that is relevant to young people.

[1] Also mentioned are the Anglican Church of Ireland as well as the Presbyterian Church, the faith to which the majority of Ulster Unionists belong. Curiously, Jewish Congregations were also recognised, which was decidedly in opposition to the currents on Mainland Europe at the time. The effect of this recognition was to give rites such as baptisms and weddings that were performed in valid places of worship an official status.
The Constitution also explicitly forbade the establishment of an official state religion. This was probably a refection of a) Ireland’s experience with the then established Church of Ireland, and b) De Valera’s belief that the absolute majority of Catholics would render establishing the Catholic Church unnecessary.

[2] The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded to promote indigenous sports (such as hurling, Gaelic football, and rounders) in 1884. Membership thereof required abstaining from participating in “foreign” sports such as football, rugby, hockey, and cricket The most impressive application of this ban was the removal of the then president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde from the position of patron of the GAA – all for having attended an Ireland – Poland football match in 1938. The ban was running out of steam in the 1960s and was formally removed in 1971.

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