As a bean an tí currently preparing for the annual influx of teenage Irish language students, I was reminded of a particular incident which happened last year and will remain in my memory forever.
Having bid farewell to our 10 cailíní as they headed to the céilí, my seven-year-old little girl floated into our kitchen. Stinking of their perfume and her hair braided in the latest fashion, she was totally in awe of these urban creatures as this was our first year as a host family. She loved being their informal language teacher. “Oh mama,’ she said dreamily (and in her native Gaeilge), “I can’t wait to be 14.” “Why so?” I asked. “Because that’s when I’ll be going to Dublin with my friends to learn English of course!” she proclaimed.
I smiled at her innocence and, not wishing to break her bubble, I agreed and told her of the great time she would have.
“She’ll learn soon enough,” I thought. But then I began to both envy and admire her attitude. As all Gaeltacht children are now bilingual at a very early age, she would have no need to “learn” English. She was even by then an avid reader and a big fan of David Walliams and Jacqueline Wilson, but her confidence in her native minority Gaeilge was refreshing. Imagine putting it on par with the global Goliath that is the English language.
The struggles of a native Irish speaker are often not understood. While others bemoan how difficult it is to learn the language and argue the merits of compulsory Irish in State examinations, young native speakers are left with little or no support system.
Research indicates major language-acquisition problems in young native Irish speakers and shows that English is quickly becoming their main language of communication. Current primary- and secondary-school curriculums do not even recognise the native Irish speaker, leaving teachers and parents grappling with a system based on the learner.
I grew up in the beautiful Gaeltacht area of Rinn Ó gCuanach in Co Waterfordwhere the language was cherished and respected in the community, the education system in particular. Results of this can be seen in Conchúr Ó Giollagáin’s Updated Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht (2006-2011) in which Rinn Ó gCuanach was one of only two Gaeltacht areas to improve in its use of Irish. This I’m certain is because of the seed sown all those years ago.
Now raising my own family, I understand more than ever the need to cherish and respect the native speaker. Learners also need to be cherished and respected of course but, with such a strong support system, their needs are so much more easily fulfilled.
Coming from the smallest Gaeltacht and now living in the biggest, my husband’s native Connemara, I am in wonder on a daily basis at the richness of the dialect and the vastness of the geographical spread of the language here. This makes it all the more harder to contend with the doom and gloom that surrounds the language.
We accept that we are in the minority and we accept that the future is not all that bright if things go on as they are – but, against the odds, Irish-speaking families are blooming.
We are succeeding and it is very important to state that. We need support, we need to be positive and, most of all, we need hope. We need that hope to realise that there is a chance of making it.
The State has been accused of denying that the Gaeltacht is in trouble and the arguing goes on. People in suits play politics and talk of 20-year strategies, reports come and go, meeting are called, many statements are made and much banging of tables goes on. But where is the action?
I take solace in the success of Tuismitheoirí na Gaeltachta, an organisation I was involved in founding. Five years ago, a handful of brave mothers came together to organise social occasions for native-speaking families. Soon after, we decided to form an organisation and Tuismitheoirí na Gaeltachta was born. We were politely told by Gaeltacht funding authorities they had no money to give us and, even if they had, we were to prove the need for such an organisation. They found out the hard way to never underestimate women with a plan though, and acceded.
More than 450 families are using our services and we recently opened a purpose-fitted community centre for families in An Cheathrú Rua. Run on a voluntary basis by a committee of busy working mums, it adopts the parental approach – action not words. But sadly, we are only a drop in the ocean.
Our plight may pale in comparison to others but does not make it any more trivial. Opinions do not have to be agreed with and can be respected but I fully expect to be admonished for writing this piece. Seemingly level-headed people will ask “why bother?” and use the archaic argument of Irish being a dead language. I imagine the language bashers will be out in force and lists of action plans will be quoted in an effort to prove assistance by those in power.
I don’t believe in shying away from seeking the best for my children and for all those young native speakers who truly are the future of the language. I may fail, but when they grow up I will be able to look them in the eye and tell them that I did my best.
Sorcha Ní Chéilleachair is a journalist
Irish Times 08.06.2016