Learning Gaeilge is compulsory during primary and secondary education in Ireland. Most of us graduate with little more than a few phrases drilled into our tongues. Does that mean Gaeilge should be dropped from the curriculum altogether? Is it a hindrance to young learners or fundamental to Irish culture? Can we lay any claim to the language if we can barely string a story together after 14 years of study? Or is there an underlying resistance to Gaeilge that we don’t see with other European languages? After all, plenty of students embrace French, Spanish and German. Perhaps it’s the compulsory nature of the subject that erodes its value?
In my understanding, language is fundamental to culture. And considering Ireland’s distinctive experience from its Anglicised counterparts, I believe it’s important to nurture our culture. We are, after all, a former colony. Through language, however, our identify has been diluted so that we appear as imperialistic as any European heavyweight from the 1800s.
Outcry has erupted among Gaeilge speakers across Ireland recently over the state’s failure to correspond with them in our national language. Opponents say it’s a waste of money translating large documents, reports and leaflets as Gaeilge when everyone speaks English anyway. This money would not be redirected into the public purse if translations were abolished though so it’s a fruitless argument. However, if we eradicate Gaeilge from official documents and refuse to use it at its most basic and practical level, we are throwing it to the rubbish heap. The only way to nurture language is through practice and the state’s failure to do this shows its willingness to abandon our original tongue.
While working in an East London school a few years ago the English teacher engaged the multi-cultural class on the topic of culture. He called on students to characterise their nationalities. The most profound lesson I gained was a Somali boy’s statement that “here they have no culture”. It speaks volumes of the perception of the Anglophile world. Many Europeans I’ve met believe English-speaking countries have no culture. The food, the clothing, the traditions – they’re all perceived to have been imported to fuel consumerism.
With the loss of Gaeilge, Ireland has less and less that sets it apart. The GAA no more creates a distinctive Irish culture than Aussie rules or American football epitomise Australia and the US. Globalisation is, in many ways, working to erode heritage and culture. It is deceptive progress. Communicating in a single language as part of a homogenised culture just makes it easier to sell. Humans have broad common qualities that should be embraced. But we also have national idiosyncrasies and characteristics that ought to be protected. Without diversity, we’re a mere factory line of consumers ready to be despatched when our wallets run out. I thought the Irish fought for more than that.