Movie hits give me hope our Irish language can be saved

The growth of the Gael Scoil movement over the last two decades filled me with hope and confidence that we might some day again become a bilingual nation, writes John Arnold
Movie hits give me hope our Irish language can be saved

A scene from Irish language film An Cailín Ciúin, which has raked in more than €1million in box office receipts

I SUPPOSE my chance of being nominated for an Oscar, a Grammy or other such award this year are limited enough, but hope springs eternal.

Yet who would have imagined 12 months ago that films about a fostered girl and a story concerning a hurling-mad dog could be gathering multiple cinema awards?

There’s a shean-focail in Irish Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear - all is not as it seems and it sums up the amazing success of An Cailin Ciuin and Roise And Frank.

The growth of the Gael Scoil movement over the last two decades filled me with hope and confidence that we might some day again become a bilingual nation. On reflection, now I’m not as confident.

Tens of thousands of our teenagers and those in their earlier twenties have had an all Irish education but I have not seen any huge evidence that more and more people speak our native language on a daily or even weekly basis.

They say, ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ - this can apply to so many different skills and traits and it certainly applies to caint as Gaeilge.

Over the years, poor ‘Peig’ has got an awful bad press for her life story in the Irish language. True, her life and the telling of it was no bed of roses. It wasn’t a barrel of laughs yet I loved her account of island life. She told it as it was, warts and all.

For many in the Irish education system down the years, the story of Peig was synonymous with bochtannais agus cruatain - hardship and poverty. There’s probably a throwback there to post-Famine times when approximately a million (mainly Irish-speaking) people fled the hunger here. They scattered across the face of the globe seeking basic survival.

Most ended up in English-speaking countries where their native tongue was of little economic benefit to them. They had no prospects of returning home to dear old Ireland. As they began new lives, English became their language of work, education and socialisation, and their native tongue became less used. In time, the next generation had little knowledge of Irish.

Amazingly, some places kept pockets of Gaelic culture, music and language alive and vibrant, but these were outliers.

A cousin of mine now lives in Butte, Montana, in America, where there was huge emigration from places like West Cork. As the mines in that part of Cork were ‘spent’ in the 1860s and 1870s, hundreds left for the new mining districts of Montana.

Now, more than 150 years later, the fifth generation ‘Irish’ in Butte and surrounding areas have rekindled their interest in Irish. The language is now being taught as a university subject and my relation Ciara tells of the growing pride and interest in both spoken Irish and also the wider Gaelic culture.

Undoubtedly, the Famine of the 1840s had a catastrophic effect on the country and Irish suffered hugely. The saibhreas and stair - richness and history of the Gaelic tongue was of little importance when it came to combatting hunger and death.

It’s said that the Irish language came to be associated with a way of life that ended with the disastrous failure of the potato crop in the 1840s. Ironically, it is now patently clear that as a million people died, and as many fled, Ireland was still exporting huge quantities of foodstuffs - an awful scandal surely.

All this negativity associated with Irish is understandable, yet does not adequately explain the sorry state of the language in modern Ireland. I cannot fully grasp how students are able to study French, German, Spanish or Italian for just five years in secondary schools and are then fluent speakers of their ‘new’ language. Contrast this with the fact every Irish child - with a few exceptions - starts learning our own native Irish at the age of five and yet a full decade later so few are proficient in Gaeilge?

As they say, it bates Banagher, but it’s worrying and in truth, sad.

TG4 and Raidio na Gaeltachta are wonderful and are brilliant in their promotional efforts. Despite these media outlets and the proliferation of Gaelscoileanna, Irish is not ‘spreading ‘as a daily spoken tongue.

Apart from the Muskerry Gaeltacht, Ring in the Deise, Rathcairn in Meath and Belfast, the Irish-speaking districts are still largely confined to the western seaboard.

Centuries ago Cromwell was said to have condemned the native Irish ‘to Hell or to Connacht’ - is it that these communities, under severe threat of persecution, clung even stronger to their duchais agus caint- their heritage and language?

I don’t know, but one sees, for example, how the Welsh language has been brought from the verge of extinction to now being a vibrant and flourishing part of everyday life.

I know I am lucky to have had a gra for Irish since my National School days. I recall my Auntie Jo - who was born in 1911 - tell of visiting elderly relations in Castlelyons in the 1920s. These were people born in the 1850s who grew up with Irish as their everyday language. They still had the ability to speak Irish but ‘twas like ‘the relics of auld dacency’ as they only spoke it when they discussed lofty matters not suitable for the ears of children!

Nil fhios agam - truly, I’m not sure, why we as a nation haven’t more of a burning pride in Irish.

The inspiring words of Padraig Pearse - his belief that ‘Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam’ - a country without a language is a country without a soul, has largely been forgotten.

Maybe ‘compulsory’ Irish had a negative effect for years, with it being seen as a load rather than a ‘seod’ or precious jewel. Maybe, in our lemming-like rush to be ‘modern’ and ‘up with the (international) Jones’s’, we have forgotten what makes us Irish and different from English or American people.

Suggestions that our own National Anthem should be abandoned and replaced with a ‘more suitable’ song are just indicative of how far we have strayed from Pearse’s ideals.

Of course, he was dreamer, but if we haven’t a dream to cling to, well it’s a poor look-out for us Irish.

A glimmer of hope has come from a most unusual source. Who could have ever imagined an Irish language film could rake in over €1 million in box-office receipts? Yet the award winning An Cailin Ciuin has done so.

That beautiful story in Roisie and Frank is exquisite and hopefully these films and others might give a much-needed fillip to Irish and demonstrate to all Irish people the beauty and richness of our ancient language.

During 2022, I was part of group of farmers all over the country who were filmed at work on their farms. The idea behind the forthcoming production was to focus on how Irish farmers can play their part in helping solve environmental problems and restore and encourage biodiversity. The filming was largely done as Gaeilge and will hopefully hit the big screens later this year!

Chun na firinne a ra - to tell the truth, it will be a four-part documentary on TG4 - but that doesn’t mean I can’t get an invite to Hollywood to strut the Red Carpet.

Ta me dochasach go leor - yes indeed, I am fairly confident but won’t book my airline tickets until I get the Official Invitation! In the meantime, usaid pe Gaeilge ata agat - use whatever Irish you have, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

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