Irish - is it time to declare a language emergency?

Desmond Fennell, writer, cultural philosopher and linguist, believes that the Irish language could be saved.

Desmond Fennell, writer, cultural philosopher and linguist, believes that the Irish language could be saved.

‘Most of us don’t want to speak Irish, but we like to have Irish in our lives’, writes the provocative Desmond Fennell, in one of his concluding essays in his just published autobiography.* ‘We cherish Irish, the surveys show, as a precious part of our national heritage. We are glad there are Gaelscoileanna, a Ráidió na Gaeltachta and a TG4; that the destinations of buses are shown in Irish as well as English, and to hear that there is a magazine of news and comment in Irish on the internet. We would not like everything in Ireland to be in English only’.

But, he warns, there are other examples where a minority language receives much the same treatment, but is fading out of sight like the sun setting on Galway Bay. Poor old Latin. It is a dead language but still taught in thousands of schools. A Latin online daily bulletin gives the world’s news and carries ads. A radio station broadcasts the news weekly in Latin. Latin enthusiasts organise social gatherings. But despite all this, Latin remains a dead language. Is Irish sinking fast the same way too?

For a minority language under pressure by a dominant language, and to have a chance of living into the future, it needs to have a sizeable self-renewing community speaking and writing it. Surveys also show that former Gaeltacht districts are shifting from Irish to English. The Irish language has no such dynamic community. Fennell suggests that it is time to declare a language emergency.

A national treasure

The most valuable achievement of the Irish language movement to date is that there are now several thousand men and women throughout Ireland who speak and write Irish well. They display as wide a vocabulary as the average educated user of any other European language. ‘They are a national treasure because they embody the Irish language alive today. Indeed because of their wide diversity of circumstance and occupation, they embody it more fully than any Gaeltacht did.’

Echoing the example of the Irish language movement (Conradh na Gaeilge ) of more than a century ago, which successfully brought the language into the lives of thousands of Irish people, Fennell suggests that a similar tactic today may produce even better results. Invite one thousand people, who are already at ease speaking Irish in their daily lives, to form a cohesive group or community. Others could be admitted following an annual examination. They would agree on a name for the community, to speak Irish in their homes, and hold general and regional conventions. They would wear a discreet badge so they could identify themselves to each other and to people generally.

Simply by living

The badge would become a mark of positive distinction. The annual entrance examination for new members would become a big national occasion. ‘It would provide a prestigious goal for Gaelcholáistí and for university places in Irish. Apart from holding annual conventions, this body of Irish language perpetuators would carry out its remit simply by living, speaking and writing Irish, and growing annually.’

The writer believes that all this is doable. Such a movement would be the nearest thing possible to replace the dwindling Irish-speaking minority who are at present opting to speak English. ‘I can think of no reason why it should not be done. If it is not done, Irish will be well on the way to becoming a dead language; a language spoken or written in classrooms, on radio and TV, or as the cúplaí focal of politicians and on the designation signs of buses. All this reminding us, symbolically, like the reproving ghost, of the language we could have kept alive.’

Next Week: Desmond Fennell has lived what he preaches. He became passionately involved in language revival and work opportunities when he moved with his wife and children from Dublin to Maoinis island, south Connemara, in 1968. It was a time of real revolution. The slogan ‘A New Israel in Iarchonnacht’ was born!

NOTES: About Being Normal - My Life in Abnormal Circumstances,

by Desmond Fennell,

published by

Somerville Press,

now on sale €20.

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