IRISH has been compulsory in our schools, both primary and secondary, almost since the foundation of the Free State back in 1921.
The idea was praiseworthy, the results might have been predicted.
All too many children grew up resenting the fact that they had to study it, and had to pass it if they wanted to get through their exams at all.
In later years, many came back to our native language, realising that it was, after all, something special and unique, like the rest of our culture — what you might call the Riverdance effect.
But we all have memories of what Irish meant in our childhood lives, whether positive or negative.
We had quite a wide range of responses to our story last week about David O’Sullivan, who at the age of ten was sent for the summer to the Kerry Gaeltacht for three months, to improve his Irish and thus his chances of getting into a good secondary school.
Some readers, who have fond memories of spending carefree summer days and nights down in Dunquin, courtesy of UCC, go misty-eyed at the recollection of ceilis and nights at the pub, long walks over the hills, and budding romances.
Others, who were sent at an earlier age to strict colleges in Ballingeary or Ballyvourney, have mixed memories of stern households, strict controls, and above all homesickness, a yearning to be back among the familiar things of everyday life with their parents.
“If it was supposed to make me love Irish, it had exactly the opposite effect,” confesses Margaret. “I hated every minute of it, and crossed off the days until I could go home again.”
“Oh I loved it,” says Pat. “I was an only child and once I got used to being with crowds of others, it was a whole new world for me.
“We went around in gangs, we played games when classes were over, we even had dances some evenings, learning to do The Siege of Ennis and the Walls of Limerick and sets.
“It opened my eyes to a lot of things! Oh, and yes, I soon got into the knack of talking Irish.”
Ireland has had a troubled time with its native tongue. Over several hundred years of colonial rule, when to speak Irish was an indictable offence, when the only possible way to get ahead and improve your lot in life was to learn the invader’s language and learn it well, our rich ancient words, in which so many superb works had been written, were gradually forced into obscurity.
The road back was long and hard.
One of the first actions of the new Irish Free State after 1921 was to establish Coimisiún na Gaeltachta and designate those areas which had at least 25% of their population Irish-speaking as true Gaeltachts.
In 1927, Éamon de Valera, always a determined supporter and promoter of our native language, made a tour of all these areas, and in later years visited each one where a brand new Irish College had been opened.
His arrival on Cape Clear, by helicopter in 1966, for the opening of the college there, caused a local sensation. The island itself had around 250 inhabitants at the time, and the new project could accommodate 150 pupils for a month at a time during the summer.
It makes you wonder just what a difference such an increase in population made to the island’s economy. The sweetshops at least must have done a roaring trade!
Many parents back in the 1950s and ’60s saw these Irish courses as a relatively inexpensive way of giving their children (and themselves!) a holiday. And if they chose the more controlled colleges, they could be fairly sure that their offspring would not get into too much trouble.
The rules were fairly strict in a place like Ballingeary, where even speaking one sentence in English could get you sent home, and staying out after the evening curfew brought swift dismissal.
It was very different down in the far reaches of Kerry, where UCC operated a system that allowed its students a free two-week holiday staying in local homes and improving their Irish in the most natural way possible — by hearing it from the native speakers and learning to talk as they did, with growing confidence.
“It was something I did for all three years of my time at college in the 1960s,” says Dermot. “Staying down there, walking out to Slea Head, wandering on the beaches, maybe getting out to the Blaskets with one of the local boatmen if you were lucky, and spending the night in Kruger’s pub in Dunquin — I still remember it all as if it were yesterday.”
The man to get hold of to take you out to the Blaskets, he reveals, was a local character known as ‘Pound’ because that was what he would charge any hopeful traveller to make the risky crossing in his battered rowing boat.
Nowadays, of course, it’s a swift trip in a modern vessel (and at a considerably higher price), but back then you had to find the right day with no wind and preferably less rain than usual.
Students with well-thumbed copies of Twenty Years a-Growing and Peig in their rucksacks made the crossing whenever they could afford the hefty fare.
“I remember Padraig Tyers at UCC constantly urging students to take advantage of this generous offer of a holiday in West Kerry,” recalls Katie who was also up at the university in the ’60s.
“He used to run these compulsory Irish classes at the end of the day which we were all supposed to attend in our first year. I always tried to dodge them, but then got a stern letter commanding me to his office to explain my absence — in Irish of course.”
What was she to do?
“Fortunately, I knew this guy in the Dramatic Society who had great Irish — he later went on to work for the Abbey in Dublin. I explained my predicament and he taught me some beautiful Irish phrases to explain why I hadn’t been there. I learned them off, and went to my meeting with Mr Tyers.
“He was much impressed by my command of the language — but of course once we got off the preliminaries, I was in trouble!
“It’s like learning enough French or German to ask your way somewhere, but when they answer with a flood of words, you’re lost!”
Tom remembers his time in the depths of the Kerry Gaeltacht with nostalgic pleasure.
“It was to get my Irish up to some kind of standard for the Inter Cert, and my parents brought me down to this tiny house in — was it Feothanach? I know we drove down a narrow enough lane, and then there was this muddy track leading down to half a dozen cottages, and I was to stay in one of those.
“My mother was a bit doubtful, but it was a great holiday! I was out on the hills exploring every minute of the day, and only got back for supper, to eat everything they put on the table in front of me!”
Tom remembers particularly climbing Mount Brandon one day, from the steep side fronting the sea, and discovering buried amid the bracken and gorse an ancient rusty sword.
“Of course I took it with me, but further up the cliff, where things were getting a bit difficult, and I had to search for handholds, it dropped from my grip and spun all the way down into the sea below. I still regret losing that bit of history!”
But did he learn any Irish? Tom ponders. “I suppose I must have. I passed the Inter Cert anyway!”
Does anyone remember the Irish snobbery war which raged throughout the 1960s and on into the last decades of the 20th century?
The supporters of west Kerry or Corca Dhuibne Irish (Professor Sean O’Tuama among them) declared that this was the only pure and true Irish, while those who loved and cherished the soft Irish of the Muskerry Gaeltacht maintained that theirs was by the far the most lilting and beautiful.
Of the language spoken in Donegal or Connemara, or even on RTÉ, there was no consideration. Either you spoke Muskerry or you spoke Dunquin, and there were times when it was as bad as the Mods and Rockers of ’50s England.
“I think the Irish spoken down in West Cork is the loveliest of all,” says Jane.
“You can hear it in Gougane Barra still, and over on Cape Clear. You can understand every word they’re saying, while when you listen to the Nuacht on RTÉ you ‘d have a job realising they were speaking Irish at all!”
Jane remembers one trip to the Storytelling Festival on Cape when she was fortunate enough to sit in on one of Diarmuid O’Drisceoil’s sessions.
“It was like sipping honey to hear him. He told of the lonely farmer, the strange golden ball he finds and hides in the chimney, the beautiful young girl who comes to work for him, and the frightening visitor who comes riding by at midnight. ‘His horse’s hooves striking sparks out of the stones. Into the room with him, and he stops in the middle of the floor.’
“In the dramatic pause that follows, you could hear a pin drop. Then he speaks slowly,in a deep, ringing tone:
‘Ní bhainimse leis an saol seo, tagaim ón saol eile’
(I am not of this life, I come from the Otherworld])
“A deep collective sigh went up from all of us instinctively. That was the real Irish, that day.”
What are your memories of learning Irish in the summer months long ago? Wonderful or woeful? Adventurous or awful? Let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org