February 5, 2007

Leviathan: The Irish Language in the 21st Century, Feb 8th

Posted in Leviathan · 22 comments ·


Thursday February 8th @ 9pm
CrawDaddy, Harcourt Street, Dublin 2.

“The Irish Language in the 21st Century – Delusions and Reality”

The preserve of our cultural identity and a vibrant functioning language


the expensive preserve of a dwindling minority and bane of our childhood education?

Leviathan puts the Irish language under the spotlight.

Guest Host: Aoife Ní Thuairisg, TG4 Broadcaster


Manchán Magan : TV producer & presenter of the recent controversial series ‘No Bearla’

Dáithí Mac Cárthaigh, Uachtarán Chonradh na Gaeilge

Kate Fennell : TV producer with Liberty Films

Richard Waghorne: Columnist with the Irish Daily Mail

Ariel Killick: Chairperson of iMeasc, the voluntary network of Irish speaking immigrants

Paul MacDonnell — Director of the Open Republic Institute

Musical Satire from:

Paddy Cullivan aka Clint Velour (Tubridy Tonight)


Special Guest

Leviathan: Political Cabaret
Thursday February 8th @ 9pm
CrawDaddy, Harcourt Street, Dublin 2.
Tickets €20 + booking fee

from www.ticketmaster.ie & on the door.

“Leviathan is the hottest ticket in town…” The New York Times.

Previous debates can be downloaded from: http://leviathan.libsyn.org
Live discussion at www.politics.ie

  1. Ciarán Mc

    I attended the above debate. Many interesting points were aired but in the end it was a frustrating and disappointing evening because:
    1.The Chairperson, Aoife Ní Thuairisg, showed no ability to control the discussion or to allow panellists with differing views to answer what had just been said. The discussion wandered all over the place from ancient greece to the Irish classroom. Some speakers were allowed to drivel on and on long after the audience had fallen into a slumber with boredom.
    2.There were too many panellists. Three would have been better. And essentially R Waghorne and P MacDonnell represented the same viewpoint. One just echoed the other.
    3.One panellist, who shall remain nameless, was allowed to ramble on and on expounding perverse and inane rubbish about the sounds of domestic and farm animals. The same speaker couldn’t resist interrupting others. As usual, the chair did nothing.

    The most interesting contributions came from either Manchán Magan or Paul MacDonnell, both of whom at least had given the issue some thought. Dáithí Mac Carthaigh made a number of witty and incisive correctives to the social darwinists who often betrayed an ignorance of the language and the Gaeltacht.

    But probably the most interesting opinions came from the floor, where several members of the audience talked about their own experiences of the language. One young lady talked about the lack of government support in relation to the challenges around teaching Irish at primary level. A yound man said that, despite not speaking Irish, he felt no deficiency in his sense of Irishness.

    Indeed while all agreed that Irish is not required as a means of communication – as was Hebrew for the Jews who converged on Israel from all over the world – very little time was given to the question of how relevant Irish is to the identity of the nation, and whether global forces have sucked us irreversibly in to the core of the Anglo-saxon sphere to the extent that our culture has now become a mere flavour of mainstream Anglo-american culture.

    In ainneoin fás na gaelscolaíochta agus an ardú céime i stádas dleathach na teanga, sílim féin go sleamhnóidh an Ghaeilge níos faide chuig an imeall ó thaobh cultúir de, agus faoi cheann caoga bliain ní bheidh inti ach “laidin cheilteach” a gcuirfear dream beag acadúil spéis inti agus nach mbacfaidh an gnáthdhuine léi olc, maith, nó dona.

  2. Ciarán Mc

    Paragraph 2 should read “cultural darwinists” not social darwinists.

  3. Jessica

    I agree with what Ciarán said with regards to how the debate/discussion was run. In fairness to the host, the panel was hard to control at times, even if she could have done a much better job. It was such a shame that the topic wasn’t discussed, considering the panel and the potential. I came away feeling very frustrated.

    I think it is very sad that we didnt hear more from Manchán, I am sure he had many more opinions that he had time to express. I wanted to discuss ‘No Béarla’ breifly. My point was going to be that after seeing three of the episodes of the show so far, that I felt more hopeful for the Irish langauge. If the seanfhocal “Is fearr Gaeilge briste ná Béarla cliste” are true, then there is hope for Irish in my opinion. In every town, he met someone who had basic Irish. Imagine what this country could be capable of linguistically if children and young adults were taught in a decent manner.

    I am delighted to see that people like Dáithí Mac Carthaigh are running Conradh na Gaeilge, a man with a sense of humour and wit. Personally, knowing that he doesnt come from an Irish speaking home is encouraging. The discussion breifly touched on the topic of elitism within Irish speaking groups/people. This is something I’ve known and think is unfortunate, but his position proves that despite not being a “native” speaker it is possible to be active in the Irish langauge scene, in a powerful way.

    The two lads who were “opposed” to the topic were a joke. Neither of them made a good point, and just wasted good discussion time. They proved this through their utter ignorance and lack of research/knowledge. MacDonnell’s opinions had absolutely no baring on the discussion of whether the status of Gaeilge was a delusion, or reality. He just kept arguing that Governments in general shouldn’t fund culture…!!

    The two women “for” the Irish language were interesting. Said “nameless” person wrote an interesting article which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, she just reiterated it on stage, without realising it had no relevance to the debate! And the Australian who learned irish tended to ramble as well [though I had big respect for her, she seemed intent on defending herself, even though she hadn't been attacked].

    I was the last comment of the night, saying that people suffered Irish in the education system when they reached the leaving cert. This was one of many MANY points I wanted to make. This still holds through. When you address the cause of the decline of irish it starts with people associating it with negativity in school. If this was changed, the overall outcome would be much improved. [I have ideas on this too, but I fear it might be rambling too].

    I will disagree with Ciarán when he says, as Gaeilge, that Irish wont really be around in fifty years except for academics. And this is something that I *really* wanted to say last night. If Irish can survive many invasions, the potato blight, emigration and all of the other things that this world has thrown at it, I know it will survive a bad education system and skeptics and the “saineolaithe”/”experts”.

    I am really glad to have gotten all that off my chest…!

  4. Aidan

    I have read quite a bit on the establishment of the state of Israel (including A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz recently).
    As far as I have read Hebrew was certainly not needed as the language of communication because it was only spoken as a church language. The vast majority of immigrants to Israel came from central Europe and had Yiddish as their main language. The Zionist movement propagated Hebrew as the new state language despite this fact.
    In many ways the birth of modern Hebrew brought about the near-death of Yiddish when it maybe should have been the chance to establish it as the language of Israel considering it was the main language of Jews.
    The artificial restoration of Hebrew was a great success and is definitely an example for what Irish could
    have become.

  5. Ian

    I think the last thing the Irish language needs to be associated with is the Zionist movement!

  6. Dan

    Does anyone know if the debate was recorded?

    The leviathan website hasn’t been updated with new audio clips of debates since last June.

  7. David

    This comment is directly to Jessica – You appear to be very passionate about the Irish Language. Your comment about all the things the Irish nation has had to endure though the ages, and yet were all still here, is a testiment to our resiliance. I agree, the language will be around in 50 years. As a matter of fact, when others are gone, the irish and our language will still be around. Slan go foil

  8. Ciarán Mc

    To previous post from David:
    I would argue that our resilience as a people has very little bearing on the survival of the language. Language death occurs when people stop speaking the language, it doesn’t mean that the people themselves fail to survive the catastrophes that life throws at them: famine, invasion, etc. It is true that some of the languages which are now on the brink of extinction are at that point because their people have been wiped out – certain tribal languages in the Amazon for example. But other languages disappear in less extreme circumstances. Take for instance the various languages that existed in France or Italy. Many of these have died. The same goes for Cornish. It died. Modern day enthusiasts try to revive Cornish, but the last native speaker died a couple of hundred years ago. It would seem that language death is a complexe phenomenon in which many factors come into play. If a people, collectively, and increasingly, make a particular language choice in response to cultural or economic forces, then language change can occur. I am not convinced that this is happening in favour of Irish. (At least not yet, and I hope I can be proved wrong). The use of the Irish language in the Gaeltacht areas continues to decrease (in fact is worryingly low). No evidence exist that the Gaelscoileanna produce bilingual families or communities. Yes Irish is gaining legally and much progress in bolstering its status has been made. It retains a positive hue in the Irish mind. No-one can say when Irish will die, but most evidence shows it in declining day-to-day usage.

  9. Jessica

    Ciarán, David,

    Thanks for sharing the same opinion Dave, I think that that irish people are feeling defeated before there has even been a fight.

    Ciaran, yes, while irish is “dying” in the Gaelteachts, it is “growing” everywhere else. Did you know that there is now a Gaelscoil in every county on the Island of Ireland? I think that says a lot for a language.

    I spoke of hate for the language, and that leading to its meathlu/decline. THat was all tied into how people suffer it, in school and through their exams. Our government are *finally* taking positive action to change the situation, ie giving legislation and support that is required. Some might argue: too little to late. However, I dont think it is too late (and I base this on the fact that languages die with people and during the potato blight millions of Irish and Irish speakers died, but the language survived, and 800 years blah blah).

    There is hope for the language yet. Defeatist attitudes, and negative memories will change within a generation. Our children, or our childrens children might live in a bilingual society yet!

  10. Tom

    Only just came across this concept – political caberet – how intriguing! When is the next one? But at 20 EUR, a little steep for the kind of conversation you would have in the pub with your mates anyway. And the great irony? It’s held in a licensed premises – fantastic!
    Proof the language is dead? Well the only name I recognised from the above list is Clint Velour. Didn’t know the “No Bearla” guy’s name, but now know it so thank you. I have watched about five minutes of the show, in which he thinks being a clever clogs and patronising people about not speaking Irsh will endear him to people. He is a Gael Goer looking for a hug. But take consolation from this. I didn’t recognise the name of the Daily Mail writer either. I have noting against the English language but being able to speak a language does not necessarily mean that you should. The Daily Mail is proof of this.
    As I was not at the debate, I can only guess from the comments the type of arguments which were proposed. I imagine that they ranged from the sublimely lateral and quirky Aidan, who made a weird, but surprisingly insightful analagy to the Zionists, to the Political Ciaran, who refuted his comment about not wanting to be associated with Zionists – dropping all of Aidan’s points with this fell swoop. This of course comes from the fact the Palestine equates to “Oppressed People” and the Israelis are the Tyrants or the Brits who robbed us of our national tongue, the Bastards.
    Jessica, I wish you well but please don’t mistake my honest for defeatism. Our children and children’s children will not speak Irish to any meaningful degree. I support your efforts to preserve it. But that is not the debate. “Delusions and Reality” was in the title. Here is a delusion: “Irish will be significantly more widely spoken within a generation”. Here is a reality: “Listen to what 99% of people are speaking – it’s English. The other 1% are still speaking Polska. “

  11. Tom

    Correction. Ciaran, apogolies, I erroneously attributed Ian’s dismissive point to you. Your insights seems well thought out, and not simplistic.

  12. Ray

    As an Irish person living in another officially ‘billingual’ country, Canada, I thought I’d give some thoughts on another minority language in a predominantly English-speaking nation.

    My wife is French-Canadian and I’m currently taking free French courses provided by the Quebec government. Now admittedly, unlike in Ireland, language is the primary and most important feature of French-Canadian identity and its survival and promotion is the principle drive behind Quebec nationalism. I have often wondered if political independence has somehow worked against the Irish language in some ways. The promotion of French here seems primarily about distinguishing Quebec from the rest of Canada. In our own neighbourhood Wales seems to have been more successful in keeping the Welsh language as a medium of communication used in daily life than we have in Ireland. Its also more closely-tied politically to England than Ireland or Scotland is. We are obviously the least-tied poltically to England but the Irish language seems to be going through a tougher time. In Wales the language is sometimes used in a way to suggest ‘we are not English’, just like in Canada where French can mean ‘we are not English-Canadian’. I think the idea that a lot of Irish people don’t define their Irishness by their ability to speak Irish might say something about the success of political independence. If we were still a part of the UK more people might feel the need to speak Irish as a way of distinguishing their culture from the rest of Britain. As such, as long as a political republic tells the rest of the world ‘we are not British’, Irish people will go on not seeing the language as an essential part of their identity.

  13. Ciarán Mc

    I think Ray is getting to the nub of the issue. He is hitting on the central question regarding the Irish language: really and truly, do we think that speaking Irish is an essential part of our identity? In my opinion the answer is no. It is a marginal part, but for the majority a central part, no. If you were to ask a sample of people, the majority might respond, yes. But all this tells us is that we cannot get the information we need from a simple yes or no answer. Language, Identity, and Culture, are complexe matters. If you ask people what are the core elements of their own Irish identity, I imagine you’d get a very interesting and varied response. In a broad sense our Irishness is everything that makes us different: our particular mix of sports, our music, how our society functions, our view of the state, the manner in which we speak English, our tastes in food and drink, the kind of films we like, our road etiquette, how we treat the environment, and the fact that we have a second language which we fail to revive however hard we _think_ we are trying. About 40% of the population claim to speak Irish when they fill the census. But we all know that a sizeable portion of these have reported their wish instead of raw facts. How many people read Foinse? How many people watch TG4′s news as their main news bulletin? How many people demand state services through Irish where they are available? How many people read Irish language books? How many people in Ireland talk to their boss in Irish? How many meetings are held in Irish? The anwer to all these questions is : not many. Surely that says something about how highly we value Irish as a part of our identity.

  14. Ray

    Ciaran, I think its a difficult thing to do, to prompt people to use Irish when they have a ‘choice’ to use English. There’s been a lot of talk about using Irish more frequently but just look at the language its up against! In terms of cultural power and influence in the world today, no other language comes close. When you look at people from other nations like the Netherlands, Iceland, or Quebec, their command of English as a second language is quite impressive. But they have huge cultural resources to learn from, Hollywood, the popular music industry, premier league football, the Internet.

    Sorry to return to Canada again but I think it makes a point about the huge influence of English. Canada is officially a bilingual country, so English-Canadians learn French for a couple of hours a week until they leave school in much the same way that many of us learned Irish. French-Canadians learn English for a couple of hours a week from age 6 and the rest of their education is in French. By school-leaving age functional bilingualism amongst French-Canadians is 3 times higher than amongst English-Canadians. Why? Well when you walk into a bookshop in French-Canada, most of the books are in English, most of the CD’s in the record shops are English, most of the magazines in the newsagents are in English, most of the movies in the cinema are English and most of the cable TV channels are in English. Life in French-Canada is about 60% French and 40% English. However life in English-Canada is about 95% English and about 5% French and so the opportunities for English-Canadians to use French are much less.

    There’s even a debate going on in the UK right now much like the one in Ireland but instead they’re focusing on the compulsory requirement of all British secondary school students to learn a second language. Some commentators suggest why bother, since most of the world wants to speak English, learning a foreign language should be optional at school. In fact being a native English speaker is almost a handicap when it comes to picking up a second language. Bilingualism amongst native English speakers whether in America, Britain or elsewhere is much lower than on continental Europe. Such is the enormity of English language cultural production that it is much easier for non-English speakers to pick-up the language than for native English speakers to pick up foreign languages, who have to constantly search for resources.

    Alas, functional bilingualism in the English speaking world does not come from studying the other language for 40 minutes a day. It comes from using that other language as the sole medium of education. To go back to my original point, what the government seems to be saying with its language policy of extra points in the Leaving and options for people to demand state services in Irish, is we’d be very happy for you to use Irish if you wanted to, but no pressure. 4 and 5 year old children usually don’t have to make those kind of choices. The only way to keep the language alive that I see is a systematic policy by the government to increase the amount of Gaelscoilanna, which means finding more competent teachers. We’ve heard a lot before about bad teaching of Irish, how about a full-time degree course just for Gaelscoilanna teachers where the government puts its money where its mouth is and actually provides an incentive by reducing tuition costs for those choosing to take the degree or actually educate them for free which they might have to do if the language continues to decline. The payback to the government and to the nation will be the ability to teach hundreds our children entirely through the medium of Irish, a prize that surely outstrips the cost of sending those potential teachers to university for 3 or 4 years for proper training.

    However I don’t see that happening anytime soon as I don’t believe anybody in the Irish political establishment has the bottle to propose such a thing for fear of being labelled a utopian republican dreamer, although what the survival of the Irish language has to do with knee-jerk nationalism, I’ll never know. But if there’s one thing I know about the civic culture of Ireland, its that however much people pay lip service to a unique national identity, the most important thing for any Irish person is not to pay taxes to fund what they believe to be is an unnecessary public service, which is why the government will go on politely asking people to speak Irish instead of funding the decades long conversion of our education system into the medium of Irish.

  15. My first language was Irish but much of it is forgotten now for lack of use. But my “Irish English” is very real, as is that of my children, who retain a richer sense of language than many of their school friends. Living on the border of Devon and Cornwall, I hear a poetry and in the language around me that points to a rich linguistic past – like at home in Cork – an amalgam of celtic, french and english. It may be true that Cornwall has “lost” its language, but they haven’t lost their powerful use of adjective and metaphor.

    Personally, I think we should all be learning Chinese these days. Each language carries its own subtle memes – if we add ours to theirs, the outcomes could be amazing.

  16. Alan Lee-Levins

    What’s all this about the Irish language dying out? I’ve listened to thousands of native speakers on Radio na Gaeltachta since the 70′s. Now we have the fabulous resource of TG4, both broadcast and on the internet. And thanks to the Web, I can immerse myself fully in Irish all day long if I want to, even though I live in Hawaii. When I go back to Ireland as a tourist, I never have any trouble finding someone to talk to in Irish. Can we stop whingeing about the state of Irish now and get on with our lives?

  17. tom

    Just my view here, looking at how the welsh keep their language going and their close ties with England.

    I hated irish in school, learned more french in before inter cert than I could speak irish at leaving cert.

    Why? The way it’s thought and it’s not changing and its our school systam that will Kill Irish. Memorising unspeakable outdated ununderstandable poetry is no good for a spoken languge, i never learned 19th centuary french poetry in school, I learned to converse in french. Even english poetrt made no sense to most of it.

    Like des bishop said on the late late recently, their should be compulsary irish in schools teaching the spoken language and let the other stuff be optional for the swots and bonus points for it.

    I would love to speak irish, understand some, apreciated more later on but hated it in school, utter usless sylabus rammed down our throats.

  18. Paul

    I’m English but my wife is a native of Co Mayo, and several times a year we tour around the Connemara and Mayo gaeltacht areas. My wife isn’t an Irish speaker, she has the same memories as tom and only remembers the negative aspects of being forced to learn it in school, but now in her late 30′s, she is becoming “culturally aware” of how much Ireland has lost, and is keen to learn Irish.

    We often seek out remote country pubs and restaurants where Irish speakers go, and the opinion of many Irish speaking residents is that the gaeltacht is shrinking year year by year for all practical purposes. While it may be true that the Gaelscoilanna are at the forefront of the fight against decline of Irish, it remains true that for a language to survive as a living entity, it has to be a language of the hearth. Our neice attends a Gaelscoilanna and goes to summer camps in the gaeltacht, all of which she loves, but she never speaks Irish outside school with her friends and family as their proficiency leval is fairly low.

    It’s unlikely that Ireland will ever be induced to give up speaking English due to its position in the world, and many sociolinguists believe that bilingualism always leads to the death of one of the languages unless it’s accompanied by diglossia, which is the use of two separate languages for different purposes. In England from 1066, the Norman Conquest until around the 1360′s, Latin was the language of the church, and the lingua franca of the European educated. Norman French was the language of the administration and the court, and English was the language of the uneducated peasantry. Until plague, famine and war broke down those divisions, the three languages survived side by side because they were used for different purposes.

    There are very few Afrikaaners in South Africa who can’t speak English, due to the acknowledged usefulness of English in the world, but in their own homes they speak Afrikaans all the time. The focus of government intervention in Ireland to support the language, which must begin with the Gaelscoilanna, must be in the direction of making Irish a language of communication between friends on the streets and, especially between families in their homes.

  19. have just come across these comments about the irish language while cruising round cyberspace .i am third generation irish living in britain and a good few years ago decided that if i wanted to take up my irish citizenship then the least i could do in return would be to learn the language
    .perhaps as i learn’t the language as an adult and out of ireland i feel that i can be fairly objective about the situation. i have every confidence that the irish language will be with us for many years to come in one form or another–it may be that it may have to metamorphose into a form of english that uses irish words not disimilar to the spoken changes that french canadian is undergoing–however as someone who has listened to all the excuses under the sun for the decline in irish over the years i have never once heard anybody mention the obvious.
    and that is for male and female speakers of the language or people who are keen on its survival in the modern world to get it together and produce lots of irish speaking children.this will in turn create a demand .if the diehards in the language debate cannot be bothered to perform this relatively simple task then rish will forever be assiged to the sidelines. before people go off on one about this ,i have six kids and it really is not so difficult to raise a large family.even in england i am managing to teach my kids some irish and they really enjoy it

  20. Eamonn McDaid

    I returned to Ireland to find that I was excluded from many jobs in the public service because I did not speak Gaelic. My parents, grandparents, grandparents before them all spoke English. English is my native language. It is the language of poetry and scholarship for which this island became famous. It is also our foremost advantage in a globalised worId. I am Irish and proud to be so but a dead language has nothing to do with my national identity. I object to the majority having to fund the enormous expense of the Gaelic language for the benefit of a small minority. The majority of the population is barred from primary school teaching because they do not speak Gaelic. This is a disgrace that such a pool of talent is barred from our education system. Many who do attain employment in our primary schools have very poor Gaelic and some in gaelscoils are unable to speak Gaelic. My children will not be forced to learn Gaelic, as I was forced, but will instead be encouraged to learn a modern European language or even Chinese. Should they take an interest in learning a dead language, they are welcome but they will not be forced. The ridiculous cost of such schemes as TG4 is very evident when it is switched on and a foreign language documentary is subtitled in English. The list of wasted endeavours is very long in regard to imposing Gaelic on the Irish population.

  21. Somhairle

    I believe that the Irish language should be embraced, I do not understand Irish men and woman denouncing it as a dead, or soon to be, language. Stop talking about the current trend and do something about reversing the decline. Dont forget Irish has boombed since independence, although never back to its original level.

    Damn right im talking about national pride, the language was almost wiped out when a foreign language was forced upon us. So I think its our duty to make Irish more widely spoken, why cant we take back what is ours? Do we just lay down and admit its declining while doing nothing about it? are we as a people that weak? I don’t think so, with all we’ve survived im sure we can revive Irish.

    The kids are having a hard time learning because most 40/ 50 somethings have little grasp of the language and it is not spoken at home, we should do more to learn it, rather than moan about how we’d like too. Sure we can go on about the government needs to do more, but until each individual makes a change Irish will remain a minority language.

    Sure English is the global language, and this should be used, but in addition to Irish, it will take pride, effort and a couple of generations to revive Irish, but it should start at home.

    It is with a sad heart im am debating in the Irish language in English. Maybe in 15 years my son will be posting debates on her in Irish, rather than English :-)

  22. Sílim, tá sé bronách, is doigh leat é sin.

    Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge ag rang oiche i Sasana agus tá bród orm as, níl sé an-decair.
    Ba cheart duit é.

    What is lost in a language can almost never be regained, it is hopeful that your children’s children don’t resent you for letting go of something that is still alive and still possible.
    It is hard to believe that the government can’t see how incredibly necessary free Irish langauge eductaion is, not just education in the language either, but education on whatv the language is, why it has been lost and why you should want to save it.
    And the lady who called it ‘dead’ there are minority languages out there that would love to be as ‘dead’ as Irish apparently is.


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