Most Irish people, although they don’t want to speak Irish, want the language, our nation’s most precious creation, to survive as a living language among the languages of Europe. Many believe that this survival is now assured.
They know there is a Radió na Gaeltachta, an Irish-language television station, and an online news magazine in Irish, and that there are many Gaelscoileanna. They see most English-language public signs, and all English destination signs on buses, accompanied by their Irish versions.
The Irish language is part of our daily lives. In fact, however, all this together, does not ensure that Irish will survive as a living spoken and written language. To ensure that, there would need to be a sizeable, self-renewing community of people speaking and writing Irish well: that is to say, with at least 90 per cent correct pronunciation, grammar and spelling and a vocabulary covering a wide range of topics—as is the case when the average European uses his or her own language.
That is what the new Irish state and the language movement were aiming at for the 26-county nation in the 1920s and 30s when they set about the revival or restoration of Irish. They wanted, while halting the decline of Irish in the Gaeltacht districts, to persuade the rest of the Free State population to switch from English to Irish. The State took a variety of measures to bring this about.
This ambitious effort to produce a nearly nation-wide, self-renewing community of people speaking and writing Irish well has failed. In the districts called Gaeltacht, Irish has shrunk from being the everyday speech of populous districts to being that of scattered individual houses.
In the remainder of the Republic only some academics and a few thousand enthusiasts speak and write Irish well. Because most of us still want Irish to survive into the future as a normal living language, I believe we must again set about establishing—this time in the here and now and with the personnel now available to us—the kind of community that is necessary for ensuring that. The available personnel are the several thousand men and women who speak and write Irish well.
It would be a matter of converting that national human treasure, which embodies the Irish language as it is today, into a living “language bank” that yields high interest—is self-renewing— through adding new people to its number each year. Concretely, this could take the form of a Banc na Gaeilge consisting of, say, 8000 members;admittance to be determined by a demanding examination of applicants’ ability to speak and write Irish well. The first such exam would admit 2000, with subsequent increase being effected through an annual exam that would be a big national occasion.
Published writers in Irish could submit their work or part of it to qualify for the written part. Members of the Banc would wear a tiny jewel badge to be recognisable to other members and to everyone. On admission, a new member would solemnly promise to work for the intellectual and cultural independence of Ireland and, as a basic contribution to that, to speak or write Irish on every possible occasion.
The present Irish-language activities and occasions would continue undisturbed. Because the members of the Banc would not be living next door to each other, they would not be a self-renewing Irish-language community of the kind previously aimed at. But it would be the best that can be done under present circumstances. And the Banc would naturally meet as a whole or in parts for special Banc occasions.
The annual Banc exam would give the secondary Gaelscoileanna and the university courses in Irish a concrete and prestigious goal to aim at. In time the initial upper limit of 8000 places might well need to be extended.
Unless this scheme or something like it is implemented the spoken and written Irish language will soon enter a period of gradual, ignominious death, marked by mispronunciation, bad grammar, misspelling and a host of cúplaí focal exhibiting those features.
Dr Desmond Fennell’s latest book is Third Stroke Did It:The Staggered End of European Civilisation. www.desmondfennell.com