Let’s be positive about the Irish language


Seamus Dillon

THE Irish diaspora and those outside of Ireland with an interest in the language have always been particularly important in promoting, preserving and developing all aspects of Irish or an Ghaeilge. The same can be said of other areas of Irish culture, such as music, dance and literature. I’d like to look at the development of the Irish language through the centuries and hopefully give you an indication of where the language is at today.

The language has been through an exciting and challenging past but, like all things Irish, these challenges have made it stronger and the future looks more than encouraging.

Early history
Like Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Breton and Cornish, the Irish language is a Celtic language. All these languages have many similar elements, particularly in their grammar. The Celts came to Ireland around 600BC bringing their language and other ways of life with them. We cannot know for sure what kind of Ireland was here when the Celts arrived but it is beyond doubt that the Celtic way of life, including their language, quickly became dominant.

Despite this dominance, Irish remained an oral language until the Fifth Century AD when the arrival of Christianity also heralded the arrival of the written word. With the help of St Patrick and his contemporaries, Christianity spread rapidly throughout Ireland. Monastic settlements soon followed. Monasteries were centres of learning; indeed they were the centres of the ‘communities’ in which they were located. It is the monks living in these monasteries that give us our first examples of the written Irish word. While the monks wrote their texts in Latin, the occasional piece of Irish can be found on the margins of their manuscripts, perhaps explaining or providing further detail on the Latin. Ogham, a system predominantly made up of dots and dashes was in existence from about 300AD and was mainly used on standing stones and the like but it was probably never used as a widespread system of writing as we would understand it today.

A nation of story-tellers and poets
The Irish are a story-telling people and the Irish language was, and is, a perfect medium in which to both tell and write stories. Many readers will be familiar with stories such as Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley); Oidhe Chlainne Uisnigh (the Destruction and Death of the Family of Uisneach); Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne); and Oisín i dTír na nÓg (Oisín in the Land of Eternal Youth). These are examples of the first Irish stories which are associated with pre-Christian, Celtic Ireland but they were not written down until centuries after that—when Christianity was dominant. We are still familiar with the characters and heroes of some of these stories: Oisín, Fionn, Cú Chulainn, Méabh, Gráinne and many more. The stories were written in Sean-Ghaeilge, or Old Irish.

The ‘file’ or poet was an important profession in Ireland and no more so than in this ‘Old Irish’ period where the file was one of the most respected and educated members of society. It can be said, however, that the ‘golden age’ of Irish poetry didn’t happen until about the 14th Century. The poets of this period had to spend about seven years in a ‘Bardscoil’ or bardic/poetry school before they officially became a poet.

Poetry of this period was written in the ‘dán díreach’ style which was governed by the number of syllables in each line. A system based on the number of syllables, as you might guess, didn’t have much room for feelings, emotions or anything that might reflect the reality of life in any great detail.

These poets were professional poets employed by a rich noble or king. They probably spent their ‘working day’ writing poetry, which they then would recite for their employer in the evening. The ‘dán grá’ or love poem was an important and common type of poem composed during this period. Despite being called ‘love poems,’ however, these poems lacked any kind of real feeling due to the syllabic nature of their structure. The poet isn’t writing about a real love or emotion. Rather, he is creating an imaginary situation where unrequited love is often the order of the day. First and foremost in this poetry is for the poet to show his mastery of the structure or the ‘dán díreach.’

From the end of the 16th Century onwards the fortunes of the Irish language were interwoven with those of Ireland as a country. The Plantations and their associated effects saw an increase in English language activity in Ireland. The increasing presence of the English in Ireland had a very negative effect on the fortunes of those who once hired and paid Irish poets. The professional poets no longer had patrons and as such they became unemployed and forced to walk the country looking for farm work. The poetry schools disappeared. The start of a decline in the Irish language had begun.

Writers such as Seathrún Céitinn, Piaras Feirtitéir ensured that Irish literature did not die completely but the Irish language of this period was only a shadow of what had gone before. Many poets came together in ‘Cúirteanna Filíochta’ or poetry courts to compose and share their work. ‘Aisling’ or vision poems that dreamed of happier days for Ireland were written by despairing poets. Before it would get better, however, the situation for the Irish language was only going to get worse. English became the language of law, business and the church. A national school system that was founded in 1831 was based solely on instruction through the English language. The Great Hunger was responsible for the death or emigration of millions of Irish speakers.

All was not lost, however. The middle and end of the 19th Century brought forth a cultural revival that included a new appreciation—in some quarters —for the Irish language.

There were many aspects to this revival of Irish. At first the revival was primarily a renewed interest in the academic merits of the language. Scholars such as Seán Ó Donnabháín and Eoghan Ó Comhraí worked on preserving and editing old Irish manuscripts and the literature therein. Irisleabhar na Gaeilge (the Gaelic Journal) was founded in 1882 and this gave many people a chance to both read and write Irish language literature.

It was a very positive start to the revival. Many of those with an interest in reviving the spoken language, however, felt that the revival was too focused on literary works that were not of interest to the ‘ordinary Irish language speaker.’ There was already—from the 1870s—a renewed interest in spoken Irish among many Irish communities in America. Irish language societies were set up in cities such as Boston and New York. Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) was founded in Dublin 1893 with Douglas Hyde as president. It had as a distinct aim the revival of spoken Irish in Ireland. Conradh na Gaeilge was instrumental in promoting, preserving and teaching the Irish language in the following decades.

Modern day situation
Fast forward to 2019. TG4 is now the national Irish language TV channel. There are three Irish language radio stations in the country: Raidió na Gaeltachta (RTÉ), Raidió na Life, and Raidió Rí-Rá. A look at www.gaeloideachas.ie provides some very interesting statistics: there are currently 270 schools in the Republic of Ireland providing education through the medium of Irish. There is also at least 130 naíonraí (Irish language play groups) in the country. According to the 2016 census there 1,761,420 people (almost 40 per cent of respondents) in the country who say they can speak Irish with 73,803 of those saying they speak it on a daily basis—outside of the education system.

While there are Irish speakers in every part of Ireland, the Gaeltacht regions remain the heartland of the Irish-speaking community. Again, according to the 2016 Census: “The total population of all Gaeltacht areas in April 2016 was 96,090, down 0.6 per cent from 96,628 in 2011. Of these, 63,664 or 66.3 per cent, indicated they could speak Irish, while 20,586 (21.4 per cent of the total) indicated they spoke Irish daily outside the education system.” (see www.cso.ie)

The Irish language has an interesting and multifaceted past. The present and future, for very different reasons, will also be as interesting and multifaceted. Positivity is the word of the day. Bímis dearfach. Let us be positive.

Dr Séamus Dillon is a lecturer in Irish language studies at Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland—sdillon@wit.ie