Thanks to English, Irish thrives

By Colin Ryanbanner_streetnames

It was not until the 19th century that Ireland truly became an English-speaking nation. The Famine was not the primary cause but certainly helped. The Irish-speaking regions of Munster and the west resisted longest, but yielded by degrees. Bilingualism opened the door to English and English took over the house: the language of modernity, of empire, of a wider world.  The dominance of English is now unquestioned, yet that very dominance has opened a door to Irish.

In Ireland fluency in English has long been a given: a part of the atmosphere. This has had two consequences. One is that young people in the Gaeltacht seldom see the point of speaking Irish; the long war there is over, and victory has been ceded to the language which promises a future.

Young urban Irish speakers (often educated through the language) see it very differently. They accept English as the background noise of their lives, as a linguistic status quo. They feel no competition between the two languages, and the use of Irish is a freely made choice. English is always there when they need it (which is often). Irish, though, opens up possibilities which the other language cannot offer.

Irish, paradoxically, is invading domains where English was once secure. Education is one: the demand for education through Irish is greater than the supply, particularly at secondary level. Irish-language media have an unexpected vigour, though the question of supply and demand still has to be resolved. Irish has an extensive modern literature, though generally ignored by those devoted to Irish studies. The language has found a local place in IT innovation and even a foothold in the secondary literature of science. Irish is increasingly heard in the courts.

Direct state intervention has had little to do with this, though government funding has proved useful. The establishment of TG4 (Irish language television) did much to encourage local production houses. The proliferating Gaelscoileanna (schools which teach through Irish) are the product of community initiative, but operate through existing legislation. The confirmation of Irish as an official language of the EU has meant,rather controversially, jobs for translators.The indifference or incompetence of the state, however, is evident in the refusal to provide services through Irish and the failure to fundamentally reform the teaching of Irish in mainstream schools.

In 19th century Ireland a balanced bilingualism ceased to be possible. The need for English came to seem obvious and urgent. English was what you needed to get on in life, to emigrate, to simply be respectable. Irish did not disappear, but it could be said in hindsight that, in the absence of any state support for the native tongue, the triumph of English was necessary. It allowed time for the other language to recuperate, to find a place in a modern urban environment, to remake the rules and exploit new possibilities.

The urban revival of Irish in no way threatens English, and English therefore cannot stand in its way. Fluent speakers of Irish are relatively few – no more than 300,000 – but there are more of them every year, and they are among the best educated in the country. Amid millions of Irish monoglots they have found a way to both accept English and challenge its pre-eminence, two things which are perfectly compatible.

For Irish speakers overseas, most of them in English-speaking countries, the situation is different. Take Australia: Irish has no institutional importance here, and if an Australian chooses to write in Irish the work has an uncertain status in Ireland, as it has in Australia itself.

Yet the use of Irish abroad influences its utility in Ireland and broadens the general context. A threatened language, by adaptation, once again asserts itself.

Colin Ryan has published fiction, poetry and journalism in Irish.