Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

The Language of Ireland

When I came back to Ireland after many years away, one of several things that seemed strange to me was that it was still compulsory to study the Irish language in schools. Surely, when I left at the beginning of 1988, compulsory Irish had been on the point of being abolished? What had happened in the meantime, or failed to? The familiarity of the situation was disconcerting. I’d been warned before my return that Ireland had “changed utterly”. If only!

Watching Eoin Butler’s film, An Bhfuil Cead Agam? (produced by Paul Duane), two things impressed me. First was the quotation from Pádraig Pearse, “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”. I’d heard the phrase before, of course, but I’d forgotten about it. Now, it seemed to confirm a suspicion I’d been entertaining over the past few years: that the effort to revive the Irish language has been hampered and compromised almost from the start by its association with nationalism. Irish was to be resuscitated, not primarily to preserve linguistic diversity, or for reasons of philology, antiquarian study or the advancement of scholarship of one kind or another, but rather as a supposedly essential component of a sense of national identity. This led over the decades to many attempts to learn Irish by people whose real objective wasn’t to learn Irish, but rather to acquire a badge of Irishness. (In the days of the Fáinne Nua, which was promoted on television during my childhood, there was an actual badge!) Learning languages is difficult, one needs to be motivated. If the motives are obfuscated, the chances of success begin to approach zero.

The second thing that struck me in Butler’s film was the assertion that even native Irish speakers have a much larger vocabulary in English than they do in Irish. This is at once shocking and obvious. Even as your jaw drops, you’re thinking “of course they do!” Anybody who has studied Irish in school for 10 to 12 years has run up against the boundaries of Irish’s restricted vocabulary. A single word or phrase may be used to translate three or four English equivalents. Circumlocutions are common. (Really, what kind of a language doesn’t have words for “yes” and “no”?) If I want to say I’m “hungry”, “angry”, “tired” or “afraid”, I can’t use an adjective; instead the corresponding noun is “orm” — “on me”. But the limited vocabulary isn’t the only factor making it difficult to speak Irish. There are fiendishly complicated grammar rules. The way words are spelt and pronounced changes because of gender and case. Extra “h”s are scattered about, replacing the seimhiú diacritic of the older orthography. Then there’s the “caol le caol, leathan le leathan” rule, which means that many words contain extra vowels which have no audible effect on pronunciation. Sometimes the language seems to have been deliberately designed to repel the uncommitted.

I was actually quite good at Irish when I left school. I got only a “C” at higher level, but that was mainly because I’d read just two of the set texts. I was barely familiar with the literature but I could easily get by in the language. That happy state did not last. Five years later, I had to sit an oral Irish exam for the Law Society in order to qualify as a solicitor. I was taken aback, indeed dismayed, by my lack of fluency. “Use it or lose it”, they say. It’s certainly true of Irish. But why would you use it, when everybody you want to communicate with has a much better grasp of English?

And then there’s the literature, most of which I hadn’t read. Most of it, to be frank, wasn’t literature. The two books I’d read were by Pádraic Ó Conaire and Seosamh Mac Grianna respectively. They were good, but they were also grim. More to the point, they were not at all typical. A handful of writers — Ó Direáin, Ó Ríordáin, Ó Cadhain — had written well in Irish during the twentieth century but it could not be claimed that the state of literature in Irish was healthy — or, if it was, nobody was telling us students about the good stuff. When Breandán Ó hEithir published Lig Sinn i gCathú in the 1970s, I was told that Irish language students were delighted at this new and exciting addition to the canon of writing in their language. I read the author’s own English translation (Lead Us into Temptation) and found it amusing and entertaining but hardly essential.

In short, very little is being written (or has been written) in Irish that is worth reading. That’s a terrible handicap for any language. Indeed, since Irish became a working language of the EU, it seems safe to assume that the bulk of written material now being produced in Irish consists of bureaucratic or regulatory prose that virtually no one is ever going to want to read! As Butler points out, because of the limited extant vocabulary, this EU material is littered with new coinages which are meaningful only to their creators. Making Irish a working language of the EU was an expensive mistake which one can only hope is reversible. This is true whether or not one believes — I don’t — that the revival of the language is still a realistic possibility.

Part of the difficulty with the idea of revival is that English is just too useful not to use. It’s a versatile, flexible, expressive language in which a surprisingly high proportion of the world’s best literature has been written. It’s certainly the case that a huge proportion of the best writing by Irish writers has been in English. I’m sure I don’t need to give you a list.