Caoilfhionn Nic Pháidín, Seán Ó Cearnaigh

A new view of the Irish language

This multi-author work (in English) portrays the story and the current state of the Irish language. Among the topics covered are education, the media, the Gaeltacht and literature.

20.00 15.00

Product ID: 743 ISBN: 978-1-901176-82-7 Categories: , , , , , ,

The 1871 census came to the stark conclusion that ‘within relatively few years’ Irish would cease to exist. Yet, over a century later, Irish became the twenty-third officially recognized language of the European Union in 2007. To believe the census returns of recent years, Irish is in a state of rude health. But is this true when half a million people claim to speak Irish, but seldom actually speak it? In the traditional Gaeltacht areas, Irish is in peril – whilst it flourishes in Gaelscoileanna, in urban areas and in cyberspace. What do these dramatic shifts mean for the language’s future?

A New View of the Irish Language covers issues such as language and national identity; the impact of emigration and immigration; music, literature and the media; the importance of place-names; teaching and learning Irish; attitudes towards Irish; and the state of the Gaeltacht – and probes beyond the statistics and rhetoric to explore the true situation of Irish in the contemporary world. Contributors: Ruairí Ó hUiginn, Pádraig Ó Riagáin, Liam Mac Mathúna, Máirín Nic Eoin, Liam Ó Muirthile, Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, John Harris, Breandán Delap, Conchúr Ó Giollagáin & Seosamh Mac Donnacha, Caoilfhionn Nic Pháidín, Pádraig Ó Laighin, Lillis Ó Laoire, Anna Ní Ghallachair, Ciarán Mac Murchaidh, Brian Ó Conchubhair, Aidan Doyle, Aidan Punch, Suzanne Romaine, Dónall Mac Giolla Easpaig and Iarfhlaith Watson.

Weight 620 g

Tim O'Mahony

Editors Caoilfhionn Nic Pháidín and Seán Ó Cearnaigh have done us all a service by focussing on the state of our first official language in their new work, a collection of essays by various scholars entitled A new view of The Irish Language published by Cois Life Press earlier this year. In the introduction they offer these essays as a successor to Brian Ó Cuív's View of the Irish language, a series of Thomas Davis lectures published in 1969. Now, as then, the fortunes of the language may be summed up in the phrase 'a glass half full or a glass half empty', but the new publication gives some credence to the idea that Irish is in a better position now than it has been since the foundation of the state.

Even since the 2002 census there has been a marked increase in the percentage of those who list themselves as speakers of Irish, both within the Gaeltacht and in the country as a whole, and more importantly there is an increase in those who say they use Irish on a daily basis. Schoolchildren excepted, this figure has gone from roughly 79,000 to 109,000, a remarkable jump. However, more than two-thirds of Gaeltacht schoolchildren who list themselves as daily speakers do not speak Irish outside of school.

We are all guilty of a certain amount of exaggeration in our assessment of our ability to speak Irish, but the essays do portray a more favourable attitude to the language in recent years. The late 1960s and the '70s were the years of the Language Freedom Movement, when Irish was compulsory, and failure to pass the Leaving Certificate exam in Irish meant no Leaving Certificate at all. The language was poorly taught in school, the textbooks were old-fashioned, and no attempt was made to encourage students to speak Irish or to integrate the study of Irish with our ordinary lives. Blasketwoman Peig Sayers topped one poll for the most hated person in Ireland! In my own Oral Irish exam for the Leaving Cert, the examiner asked me about Diarmuid Ó hÉigeartaigh, who had been born and reared in the next parish, Caheragh, in West Cork, and had published an autobiography in Irish, Is uasal céard. I had never heard of it. Neither was it ever pointed out to us that our great grandparents, who were still alive in the 1920s, were native speakers. So many opportunities lost.

The book makes a number of valid points in the debate about future language policy. Should language policy be aimed at those who speak Irish, or should it be aimed at the whole population? The difference here, as pointed out, is between maintenance and revival. Should we be aiming to preserve Irish as a national symbol rather than as a language spoken by the vast majority? Is it fair to the people of the Gaeltacht to expect them to bear the whole responsibility for keeping the link to the living Irish of our forbears, a link we all want to preserve but which we do precious little about? Is it possible to maintain Irish as a living language in the remaining Gaeltachts, with the pressure of an English-dominated media? Is Irish going to become a kind of 'pidgin' Irish, such as the phrase heard recently, 'An enjoyeáil tú do holidays?'. A great part of everyday Irish spoken in the Gaeltachts is like that, particularly amongst younger people. Is that such a very bad thing?

The book also includes a number of illuminating essays on the literature of the modern language, discussing poets such as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Louis de Paor, Biddy Jenkinson, and Cathal Ó Searcaigh, who have explored new themes and visions in their work, and point out the seminal importance of the journal Innti, whose first editors were Gabriel Rosenstock and the late Michael Davitt. In Irish language fiction too, the influence of magic realism is discussed and many innovative and experimental writers are mentioned, including Tómás Mac Síomóin, Mícheál Ó Conghaile, Pádraig Standún, Lorcán S. Ó Treasaigh, and Alan Titley.

Silly episodes such as the controversy about the proper name of Dingle have obscured much of the good work done by the state and the present Minister for the Gaeltacht. Irish enjoys an official position of strength now, both at home and in the European Union, and while the translation of thousands of documents into Irish is expensive, it does give a rationale to the study of the language. Once teaching was the only career open to those with a third-level qualification in Irish, but now there are so many positions as translators, interpreters, and media personnel that Irish in school is already acquiring a new importance as a useful subject, instead of its old image as drudge and hardship.

This book is a thought-provoking and timely collection of well-balanced essays, and is beautifully produced by Cois Life.

Read the full review here>>

Proinsias Ó Drisceoil, Irish Times, 5th April 2008

This is a book of 20 essays each of which deals (in English) with an aspect of the Irish language in a contemporary context. Each essay is of value and a number pose particular challenges.    Aidan Doyle's essay Modern Irish Scholarship at Home and Abroad defies its unpromising title by proposing a complete change in the way Irish is taught at university level. He advocates for Irish 'the compilation of a language course such as is available for other foreign languages' and claims 'it is hard to defend the policy of lecturing through the medium of Irish, considering the lack of teaching aids and books'.

For sociologist Pádraig Ó Riagáin, (Irish Language Policy 1922-2007: Balancing Maintenance and Revival) 'the Official Languages Act 2003 signals a false dawn or, maybe, a last hurrah'. Based on a concept of individual rights rather than any idea of a general revival of the language, the Act will, he suspects, fall foul of the numerical and social weakness of Irish-speaking networks.

In a feisty and entertaining essay (Teaching and Learning Irish Today) Anna Ní Ghallachair, director of the Language Centre, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, argues that the literature component of Irish language courses at second level should be maintained and she draws attention to what she sees as the 'disastrous consequences' which have followed the dropping of the compulsory literature component from second-level courses in European languages. Nor has this, she argues, increased the communicative competence of students.

Both Ní Ghallachair and John Harris (Irish in the Education System) contradict the widely-held view that large amounts of school time are devoted to the teaching of Irish. In a crowded curriculum the amount of time devoted to the subject in primary school is at most 2.5 hours per week for junior and senior infants and 3.5 hours for first to sixth classes. Some teachers, for reasons discussed sympathetically by Ní Ghallachair, hardly teach the subject at all. In secondary schools the requirements of the examination system make the enjoyable teaching of the language itself an indulgence which cannot be risked and the language skills of students remain static. The outcome is predictable.

Conchúir Ó Giollagáin and Seosamh Mac Donnacha (The Gaeltacht Today) show the extent to which Gaeltacht areas are 'in an advanced stage of language shift'. As a consequence the immersion in a second language available to students of French, Spanish or German is far less available to learners of Irish. Their essay indicates how state policy might counteract the seeming inevitability of the Gaeltacht's demise but, as the use of English becomes embedded among the young in all Gaeltacht areas, it is difficult to be hopeful.  This is a stimulating, handsomely-produced book, essential reading ....

Ciarán Ó Pronntaigh, Andersonstown News, 02 June 2008

Some books, like films, demand your attention. Just as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth made us sit up and think about climate change, anyone who reads A New View of the Irish Language will realise that we are fast approaching our own linguistic tipping point. The book itself is a series of 20 articles written by practitioners and experts in their fields, dealing with all aspects of the language, including literature, identity, the Gaeltacht, language use and transmission, its legal position, education and the media, amongst others. Most of these writers have an obvious affinity for the language and its future, but none let their sympathy cloud their thinking and what we are served up is a series of well-written, dispassionate snapshots of where the language actually is, rather than where we would like it to be. Wide-ranging in its scope, a number of articles stand out for me, particularly those dealing with how the language is passed on from generation to generation in the Gaeltacht, what most people recognise as the well-spring of the language.

Certainly the Free State and then the Republic became quite good at producing numbers of Irish speakers but it never was able to produce enough of them in one place to form a "contiguous community which economically and socially would stay together and bear offspring which will remain part of that community", as one article succinctly puts it. While communities like Bóthar Seoighe realised these dynamics existed it, will necessarily take government action to turn things around on the grand scale. Gaeltacht Part of the problem goes back to the dichotomy in government policy from the start. Language maintenance was deemed enough for the Gaeltacht while revival was initiated for the state as a whole. Both policies, however, were not integrated or even parallel, rather they both seemed to be going in different directions.

The standard of teaching and the quandary some teachers were left in by the system which expected them to use the language with pupils who couldn't or wouldn't use it, the level of language in both Irish-speaking and English-speaking schools, economic development, and the way national identity can encourage the use of Irish as long as 'I' don't have to speak it, are some of the areas touched on where reality has been blinded by the 'national project'.

Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh puts his finger on part of the problem when he says that the "large number of Irish speakers dispersed throughout Ireland still have not succeeded... in establishing settlements of Irish speakers of sufficient critical mass to generate the kind of 'credible acoustic reality' of Irish that would affirm the young in a language reflex favourable to using Irish..." This theme is taken up by Ó Giollagáin and Mac Donnacha in their most important article, 'The Gaeltacht Today', in which they look at how the language is transmitted in the Gaeltacht, from schooling to the family, and they come up with very interesting, if depressing, results. The home transmission of a language, they say, "lays the initial acquisitional framework, but the younger speakers complete the process themselves by using and developing their linguistic capacities within their own social and institutional networks. As the Irish-speaking networks among the young become more marginalised and disrupted in their own community, their ability to complete the acquisition process becomes increasingly compromised by the introduction of English into these networks..."

The young, to paraphrase the authors, are less confident in slagging each other in Irish and turn to English. Other chapters give much valuable insight into the socio-linguistic position of the language and lay out objectives for what has to be done to ensure the decline of the language is not irreversible. However, what the book fails to do, having laid the groundwork so well, is to go the next step and give us an idea of how the objectives as laid out can be accomplished. Unfortunately, this may have to wait for another book. The fact that the book is in English has to be welcomed as it will surely act as a reference point which Irish speakers can draw upon to answer perennial questions such as, 'So how strong is the language?' We can all come to understand that the question is multi-faceted and to talk about it sometimes seems to be like standing on a shifting dune of fears, facts and feelings. The editors deserve high praise for bringing together such worthy research and presenting it in such a readable book.

Lucilita Bhreatnach, An Phoblacht, June 2008

THIS is a book written in a communicative style as Béarla, in English, containing 21 contributions from writers who explore contemporary issues and the present-day development of the language in Irish society. According to the editors, Caoilfhionn Nic Pháidín and Seán Ó Cearnaigh, "The goodwill of this largely English-speaking population is essential for [Irish language] promotion, and this support must be sought and maintained primarily in English." They add: "This is not immediately obvious to English-speakers cushioned by a super-power language but the issue of language decline is increasingly of concern to policy-makers in many European countries. "The Irish language is an inclusive expression of identity for a broad spectrum of people."

Fair enough, but the future future of the language needs to be grounded in reality and articulated in a clear strategic policy. I welcome this book in English. This is because I believe that everyone with an interest in Irish has the potential to make it a more widely spoken language. This book contains some gems. Iarfhlaith Watson in his piece, The Irish Language and Identity, writes that Irish identity "is a process - in a continual state of flux, always changing and never fixed. Despite this, identity appears to be fixed and natural. This is what gives it strength." Interestingly enough, he goes on to say that identity holds us together. And he speculates if there will be a radical redefinition of that relationship and the Irish language's role in it.

In Brian Ó Conchubhair's piece we gain an insight into the growth of Irish-language schools in the country. There are 3,700 children attending Gaelscoileanna in 25 schools in the Six Counties and 28,000 in 170 Gaelscoil in the 26 Counties outside Gaeltacht areas. He calls for a new strategy that sees Irish-language organisations working in tandem with other similarly-minded groups or, referring to Tomás Mac Síomóin's book, "whether the future lies in a return to the revival spirit or a réabhlóid". Ó Conchubhair argues that there has been a popularisation of the Irish language. It has been internationalised with mainstream Irish-language media and websites that keep people abreast of issues.    Blogs have also become a key component in this global conversation. As for the other 19 informative essays in the book, read them. They are all thought provoking and cover different dimensions, such as the importance of place names. My only disappointment is that there could have been more written on the development of the spoken language by children and teenagers. This to one side, A New View of the Irish Language is a welcome contribution to the current debate on the language. Check it out.

Siobhán Ní Fhoghlú, Books Ireland, June 2008

A New View of the Irish Language gathers twenty essays on the state of the Irish language as a contemporary vernacular, and on the challenges and opportunities that impinge on its continuity and development. Its title echoes the 1969 Thomas Davis lectures, A View of the Irish Language edited by Brian Ó Cuív. While that earlier publication comprised twelve essays, the collection under review contains twenty; it is arguable that the increase in size reflects a more complex social and linguistic context for Irish. The topics include discussion of the extent and level of the Irish spoken in the country now, of the Irish language media and electronic resources, and of Irish in a global context. Three essays look at Irish and the arts - music, prose, literature and poetry respectively - while another three consider education and scholarship with respect to Irish.

The editors' stated objective of getting some of the best scholars and experts in their fields to write in a non- academic style has resulted in admirably clear essays. For instance, Anna Ní Gallachair's piece on 'Teaching and Learning Irish Today' is a model of how to present facts and ideas in a succinct and informative style. Ruairí Ó hUiginn's piece on the language summarises its history, managing to give a comprehensive an comprehensible overview with illustrative examples in the space of just a few pages. Liam Mac Mathúna in 'Linguistic Change and Standardisation' ranges widely over all aspects of the current state of the language, and Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh recounts the state's dealing the language, noting how in the last quarter of the twentieth century the evangelical impulse of the 'revival' decades was being replaced by the state's understanding of itself and its services as functioning in a predominantly market-place environment ... and a facilitator and supporter, as resources permitted, of initiatives for promoting the use of Irish in the wider civil society.
Overall, this volume will serve its readers very well, as it is akin to a mini encyclopedia of the Irish language and contains the answers to many 'frequently asked questions'. Most of the essays have a discreet bibliography at the end; all are mercifully free of footnotes; a significant plus is the inclusion of an index of the many names cited, a useful but not a usual feature in collections of essays.

Click here for a review by Pól Ó Muirí

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