and I are communicating in English. Globalization,
imperialism, and practicality ensured this event.
The nations other official means
of communication, Irish, ranks in the top 300 of the
worlds safest endangered languagesthemselves
perhaps 6,000. But as an everyday medium of communication,
the 20,000-odd Irish who choose to use it habitually
represent only a fraction of those of us who know
an teanga. Still, this ability to choose, we
know, allows urban gaeltachtaí to flourish
even as the rural strongholds erode. Perhaps a shift
in Irish speakers has occurred recently, without an
overall decline in native users: while
fewer gain the language as children, more attain fluency
on their own? But, can this freedom of choice keep
Irish alive? Certainly, the tendency of many in the
designated national districts to opt out of using
Irish when raising the next generations threatens
the continuity of Irish as a communal language.
me explain how this fits in to issues The Blanket
regularly explores. Too many activists marginalize
language death, even as environmental, political,
religious, cultural, and migration concerns rouse
response. Liam MacCóil connects activism to
language decline in Irishone of the languages
of the world (translated in The Languages
of Ireland, eds. Michael Cronin & Cormac Ó
Cuilleanáin, Dublin: Four Courts, 2000). Consider
the plight of the Penan people. A July 1999 National
Geographic article on language survival summarises
their plight, as 7,000 face the loss of their Malaysian
method of communication. Demand for timber drives
the destruction of their ancestral forest. Uprooted,
the people and the trees both topple. The people move
into government settlements, built to encourage sylvan
depopulation. The trees fuel construction in the West.
Reading that article and writing his own, MacCóil
wonders: how much of this wood is used in the
Irish building boom that we hear so much about of
late? (142) And, in turn, that Irish boom depends
upon forces largely generated outside of local control.
pobal of Béal Feirste Thiar or An Spideal
may anchor Irish shelters within an Anglophonic whirlwind,
but how long can such defenses be bolstered? These
resistance movements, I contend, remain as vital as
those based on class and economic equality. Language
deserves its own preservation as not some fossilised
relic, tourist attraction, or pseudo-racial shibboleth.
Wittgenstein and Benjamin Whorf both pondered the
links between culture and a particular language that
encapsulates a worldview that refuses slick translation.
Think of whats even lost in rendering those
two place names into West Belfast and Spiddal(the
crossing at) the mouth of the sandbank, and the hospital
thats long vanished from that Conamara coast.
You erase those settings, our history, that view.
David Crystals overview, Language Death
(Cambridge UP, 2001), he cites a native living near
another ocean. Whenever I speak Tlingit, I can
still taste the soap. Like the tally-stick struck
the Irish who lapsed into their expression of dúchas--that
untranslatable sense of place, identity, and belonging--so
that speaker remembered the humiliation brought by
a teacher, representative of a colonial power and
that English we share. Such assertions of resonances
between the way in which we describe our world and
that world itself need not be dismissed as Revival
romanticism or blood-and-nation ethnocentrism.
this with the starkness of Aidan Mathews The
Death of Irish, quoted here in its entirety:
tide gone out for good,/ Thirty-one words for seaweed/
Whiten on the foreshore.
Whorfian concept of many words to express wealth reduced
to one word for seaweed may have never
been better conveyedalbeit in the conquerors
tongue inherited by its peons. Mathews wrote in 1983,
so perhaps the death rattle of Irish heard throughout
modern times deceives, and its but a defiant
challenge to extermination.
problem remains: who can understand this battle cry
if its only in Irish? Michael Hartnett titled
his 1975 book of poems A Farewell to English,
yet he found that his decision to subsequently compose
only in Irish malnourished him. Even before he again
took up publishing poems in English as well as Irish
before his death, he opened up to Eastern and European
sources as a translator, refusing to be confined to
a binary choice.
either/or option, long forced upon Irish children
in decades of compulsory immersion, often by teachers
barely ahead of their students or by instructors manhandling
the language into its own hurley with which to batter
their charges, crippled Irish efforts at recovery.
Voluntarily using Irish appears acceptable throughout
Ireland. This continues the life-support of the language,
even as the number of those choosing to adapt Irish
may decline from the older silent majority who still
may resent their earlier forced exposure. In the online
magazine Beo, the singer and folklorist Lillis
Ó Laoire recalls his own difficulty entering
an Irish-language school, then summarises the challenge
Muiris Ó Laoire [teangolaí as Ciarrai]
ainm iontach suimiuíl air: coilíneacht
droim ar ais. A brú siar sa scadán
ag daoine, an dóigh chéanna ar brúdh
Béarla orthu, céad go leith bliain
ó shin ná mar sin. (Agallamh
Beo: Eagrán 32, Nollaig 2003)
Ó Laoire [a linguist from Kerry] put it in
a wonderfully apt phrase: reverse colonialism.
Shoving it down peoples throats, in this way
forcing English on them, and for a hundred years ago
since. (Beo Interview: Edition 32, December
we dig in against English? If we adapt this attitude,
are we admitting defeat? That we canat best--only
shift our redoubts, never to realise that Gaelicised
nation for which so many republicans have fought?
Regarding Irish as having lost its effort to regain
linguistic and cultural territory, what do we make
of the perhaps initially superficial but nonetheless
noticeable trends in Ireland? For instance, the granting
to more children of identifiably Irish first names?
The campaign now to truly translate all place names
in the Republic into their correct Gaelic forebears
(or equivalents)? The rise of infant, primary, and
secondary schools for Irish within urban areas? The
tendency for more Irish traveling abroad to lapse
into at least school or broken Irish to distinguish
themselves from all of us global captives of English?
(Speaking cúpla focal as gaeilge at
least within earshot of said colonials, although my
experience shows that its mistaken for German
by the uninitiated! My teacher mused that Irish sounded
like a Swede speaking Hebrew.)
my next article, I will continue with reflections
on translation and the dominant power.
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