An Irish person abroad will tell you the first issue they encounter is being mistaken for being British. And although that shouldn’t be a problem, it inevitably is. Not because there’s anything actually wrong with being British, just that we aren’t. In much the same way Canadians don’t want to be mistaken for Americans, or Chinese for Japanese, we want to be recognized for who we are. We are ingrained with a strong sense of national identity.
On a holiday to Spain when I was just 13, my good friend and I faced the typical, “Oh English girls, haha”, while splashing about in the sea. We weren’t enamored by the attention. We began speaking Gaelic. “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas,” and all that jazz. Our audience thought this was hysterical, “Oh look at them? Making up their own language, ha ha.” We gave each other a wink, bursting into a fit of giggles. We moved away from people we reckoned were simply too ignorant to understand. Why didn’t we just say, “We’re Irish”? Possibly because we would have been met with the British label. And everyone knows the British only speak English (which of course, is not definitively true).
An Irish missionary in Africa once told me her party used to beat out the Our Father in Gaelic so the locals didn’t just see them as straight-up white targets. In much the same way Sarah and I cracked up, the group was in knots. They were thrown confused looks because this was a language so foreign to the locals’ ears. It wasn’t Dutch, French or English. It was both defined and indistinguishable, if that makes any sense. And what many people don’t realize is that Irish history, on a much smaller scale, has strong parallels with Africa’s, even down to propaganda. Back in “them days”, posters of animalistic Irish people were dispatched throughout England to prove we were a nation in need of taming. By animalistic, I mean the artists drew us with ape-like faces, making us appear a couple of evolutionary steps behind our British counterparts.
To this day, however, the Irish education system still debates whether Gaelic should play such a prominent role in our curriculum. Should it be a compulsive subject that could determine whether we achieve enough points to take Science in Trinity or Social Studies in UCD? Personally, I’m torn. No part of me regrets the fact the subject did count when it came to my leaving cert results. I know for others, it didn’t matter because they took more subjects. I think the best argument is for it to remain compulsory to junior cert stage, or in British terms, to GCSE level.
Why? Because on a day when Ireland overturns one of their biggest rivals in the Rugby World Cup, we want to be able to stand up, beat our chests, and say, “Buíochas le Dia!” When the national anthem sounds, we need to be able to sing along. And because the next time someone takes our pale skin to be a straightforward symbol of our ethnicity, we can leave them with, “Póg mo thóin”, which seems to be about the most universally understood Gaelic phrase there is.
Tá sé ina lá mór d’Éirinn
and kudos to the lads who did us proud today.