Ní lia duine ná tuairim…

The Irish language is back in the media spotlight again in the last week or so, this time for mixed reasons.

Dara O Briain put a twitter correspondent back in his box last week with his cupla focail, and this week DUP politician Gregory Campbell got himself into a whole lot of trouble when he mocked the language in the Northern Irish Assembly.

Dara O Briain got into a twitter debate with a user called @extrastarsboss (who sadly no longer exists) who seemed to think that Ireland was the same as every other English speaking nation.

O Briain responded with the following: “No, nil se. Ta teanga da chuid fein aici, agus an culture a theann leis. Is trua nach dtuigeann tu sin.

For those of you who don’t understand Irish, it means: “No, it isn’t. We have our own language and our own culture. It’s a pity you don’t understand that.”

That shut @extrastarsboss up fairly quickly.

The DUP’s Gregory Campbell came in for some serious criticism this week when he mocked  the Irish phrase, ‘go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle’ often said by Sinn Fein members.

During a debate on the Irish language and Ulster Scots in the Northern Irish Assembly, Campbell got up and said: “curry my yogurt can coca coalyer”.

Responding to Mr Campbell’s comments, Sinn Fein’s Caral Ni Chuilin said “If it’s anything to go by, what you just did, we don’t need a strategy for pure ignorance.

“I think your conduct is not befitting members of this chamber.”

Ignorant? I wouldn’t go that far personally. I thought it was funny, but the Assembly was not the place to make such a joke.

If he had mocked a Chinese speaker, what would the reaction have been like?

Speaking on the Stephen Nolan show on BBC the day after he made his comments, he argued that there was no need to use the Irish phrase every time a Sinn Fein speaker stood up to address the Assembly, and that everyone in the chamber would be native English speakers anyhow.

Of course, it is their right to use Irish if they want to.

I am guessing his argument was that nationalist politicians were using Irish to make a point, perhaps a cultural and political point.

On UTV the night after his comments he refused to apologise and said his comments were long overdue.

“Every single day, on every single topic, Sinn Fein members get up and start to talk, start to make their contribution in Irish,” he said.

He said that the people listening to them didn’t understand what they were saying. He continued by saying “it was ignorant to keep on doing something with the knowledge that the people you are talking to don’t understand what you are saying.”

He laughed it off and said it would continue. The conclusion I got was that Mr Campbell thought the use of Irish in an official capacity in Northern Ireland was a waste of time and a hindrance.

I think most people would agree that politicians should be concentrating on more important matters.

While down in the south of Ireland, we may have thrown our biscuits across the kitchen table in disgust after hearing Gregory Campell’s comments; up north,  the Irish language is seen as almost exclusively belonging to nationalists and republicans in the north of Ireland.

Unionists would consider the language as a propaganda tool used by Sinn Fein and the IRA during the Troubles. Not all though.

The fact that there is a proud Protestant tradition with the Irish language seems to have been forgotten.

Maybe the onslaught of the Troubles meant the Protestant community in Northern Ireland retreated from cultural traditions that would have been considered Irish. The siege mentality took hold in both communities. You wouldn’t want to be seen as a Lundy if you spoke the bit of Irish, or liked a bit of folk music but happened to be Protestant and Unionist.

Ulster Scots took off after the Good Friday Agreement as something for the “other side” to learn and promote.

I wouldn’t mind but Scottish Gaelic and Scottish folk music has more in common with the Irish language and Irish traditional music than some of the Ulster Scots tradition may like to admit.

Let us not forget the great work being done by Linda Ervine at the East Belfast Mission. It is about time that the Irish language was depoliticised and promoted as something that everyone can embrace on the island of Ireland, whether they be nationalist or unionist. There is a shared history that somehow got airbrushed out of things along the way.

To many Unionists and Loyalists, the Irish language would have negative connotations, while for most people in the south of Ireland, the only negative experience we would have had with Irish would probably be studying Peig Sayers, at least if you are of a certain age.

I am sure you’d get a lot of people in the south who would agree with Gregory Campbell, that Irish is a waste of time and money, and more importance should be placed teaching children French, or German.

Every time there is a debate on the Irish language, people will have different opinions on how it should be taught, whether it should be compulsory or not, and how much funding it should get.

People will point out how there are more Polish speakers or Chinese speakers in Ireland than regular Irish speakers, but I think that is missing the point.

Go back to Dara O Briain’s twitter debate, and the expression: “tir gan teanga, tir gan anam”.

Culturally, we are quite similar to the English, but we’re also very different in many ways. It’s hard to describe sometimes, but it’s noticeable if you spend some time in an English city.

Well, our version of English is heavily influenced by Irish. Hiberno-English. For example: “I’m after having my dinner,” would be “Taim tar eis mo dhinnear a ithe”, or something similar as Gaeilge, the point being, someone from London wouldn’t say “I’m after having my dinner”. They would say: “I’ve just eaten my dinner.”

Imagine if there hadn’t been a famine in Ireland, and the traditional Gaeltachts never suffered starvation and emigration.

Imagine the British didn’t ban Irish. Imagine, since 1922, it was revived in a proper way, rather than the disastrous attempt to do so.

Would we be like Belgium? Or Canada? Or Wales? A proper bilingual country where Dingle would be a city with a population of 200,000 native Irish speakers.  A place where you could hear Irish as much as English on the streets of any town or city.

Maybe we would have linguistic divisions similar to those of Belgium. Maybe we wouldn’t. Maybe we’d be like Switzerland. Maybe we wouldn’t.

It could be argued that circumstances ruined linguistic diversity, not only in Ireland but also in places like the United States.

German was widely spoken in places like Pennsylvania at the beginning of the 20th century, but was severely repressed during World War 1.

Imagine Philadelphia was a bilingual city today and you had to get out your phrase book when you visited Pennsylvania.

Minority languages seem to be more and more under threat.

While it might make more sense to study German, Spanish or French at secondary school to improve job prospects, what would Ireland really be like if schools stopped teaching Irish?

Would it end up as something that could only be learned on Monday and Wednesday evenings as a hobby, like pottery, and that’s it?

In fact, that’s already been happening for quite a while. People are learning languages, including Irish, to get them out of the house a few evenings a week.

I don’t know what it is with the decline of Irish. Most people learn it at school, so at the very least, would be able for basic conversations, but when faced with a real life scenario in a shop for example, they will speak in English.

There isn’t, nor has there ever been, a collective decision by the population to try and speak Irish alongside English. That is part of the problem. You can teach it whatever way you want, but there has to be a collective decision to attempt to speak it in normal everyday situations.


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