Caoimhín de Barra has a seemingly straightforward goal for the language: “having it more widely spoken in Ireland than it currently is.”
Radical means rooted. For those bent on reviving the ancient language of Ireland, the aim of restoring Irish (aka Gaelic to many abroad, Gaeilge in its native form) proves as daunting as earlier, daring actions which took on past empires, urged on by rebels and idealists. Although for nearly a century most of Ireland has claimed political independence, its fortunes remain linked to Britain, and so does its majority language, English. What, then, becomes of the ancestral tongue, Irish itself? Caoimhín de Barra has a seemingly straightforward goal for the language: “having it more widely spoken in Ireland than it currently is.” His study Gaeilge: a Radical Revolution opens by contrasting two dominant ideologies in his homeland. “Eire nationalism” sustains the historic struggle to assert the nation as politically independent and as culturally unique. “Irelandshire nationalism” defers to Britain as its better, and confers upon the people their status as a cosmopolitan, international, and economic entity alongside other English-speaking realms.
Raised outside Cork city, where his Irish-language primary school teachers could speak freely amongst themselves, confident their charges would have no clue what was being confided, de Barra narrates what for Irish children has been a common experience since the Free State made the language, along with math and English, mandatory throughout one’s education. A somewhat less common experience follows.
Having moved to Delaware for college, this Irish expatriate finds himself embarrassed by his lack of Irish ability. His account, taking up the long initial chapter, provides one of the first in-depth depictions in print of boosting one’s Irish skills not only with conventional teach-yourself books, but of supplementing that with television in Irish, broadcast into his laptop from across the Atlantic. With the birth of his daughter four years ago, de Barra watches cartoons with her in Irish, without subtitles. He strives to revive Irish within his stateside household, and even his American-born wife catches on.
This example typifies how Irish may be restored. The same way in which it was lost–by families choosing, for better or worse, to abandon their first language at home for that of the outside realm, as in Anglophone Irelandshire. He surveys the language’s rise and fall, paraphrasing scholars and citing data past and present. As an historian, de Barra provides a lighter read than that of many colleagues. accessible to a wider audience. However, this Dublin publication, as nearly all about this topic, addresses those within Ireland, who have shared his education and grappled with their mastery of Irish itself.
Those outside the island, all the same, may benefit. One aspect that remains here too much on the margins, the internet as a global medium for language learners and native speakers alike, nonetheless provides de Barra with hope. Accompanied by media and schools, these factors combine to counter the widespread dismissal of Irish as outmoded, useless and backward. De Barra sums up current efforts on this issue.
Given that polls taken that tally the results of “do you speak Irish?” justify both the scorn and the hopes of many Irish people, data confounds the analyst. Fluency and the recollection of a few rote phrases from a long-ago lesson contend as these numbers of “Irish speakers” are touted as to the current survival or irreversible decline of Irish. As an adult regaining the language, de Barra accurately notes the “social norms” which discourage Irish speakers from using it, if one comes among them who as an English speaker lacks Irish fluency.
For all the lip service paid institutionally. symbolically and conventionally in the Irish state to the “first official language,” too few take action to preserve Irish, let alone bring it back to daily life. Bickering over whether native-born speakers in its scattered enclaves (designated as the Gaeltacht) or those who learn a standardized version in schools or on their own take priority (among the Galltacht), those who champion the cause of Irish restoration remain divided. Furthermore, as with any language under the sway of one far more prevalent, English syntax, idiom, and ideas blur into casual Irish.
Such a mixed report on the health of Irish parallels results from surveying schoolchildren. De Barra imagines students who, having had to run one lap three days a week, at the end of 13 years get chastised for not being able to handle a marathon. Irish taught in fits and starts throughout the curriculum leaves most students passive learners. Yet, the liberal-left “choice warriors” vocal on social media and in the Irish press who berate the inclusion of the language in curricula, de Barra avers, do not call for the abolition of other challenging subjects as calculus or German. He surmises, if sounding resigned, that at least “compulsory Irish” instruction ensures that those like himself who later decide to take it up as adults will have a foundation to build upon.
Unweaving “strands” tangled which trap the Irish language within a hostile native land, de Barra separates the snaring net into three sections that strengthen resistance to its flourishing freely in modern society. Colonial imposition of English by the British and their collaborators and sympathizers, joined by those who reasoned that their children might achieve more success in English before they emigrated anyhow twist into the strongest barrier. This engenders in those who came after the generations who lost their Irish fluency a persistent identity crisis.
Next, Irelandshire asserts that another country always proves more sensible, more enlightened and more rational, compared to one’s indigenes, forebears or at least neighbors. De Barra admits: “We are told all the time that ‘nobody really’ speaks Irish, but then when we do speak it. we are either told to shut up, or are ridiculed for being elitist.” Cleverly, he juxtaposes the contempt he selects from angry online posts, hurled in Canada upon French speakers, showing that even in far more populous nations, the deep divide persists between majority and minority, pragmatists and traditionalists.
Furthermore, the disdain with which those in charge may level insults at those deemed below the chattering classes and the movers and shakers continues apart from any educational system requiring second-language courses. No Scots Gaelic classes find a mandate within that nation’s schools. But, at least according to what de Barra gleans from online comments and tweets (which may or may not strengthen his credibility among his colleagues and critics), bile and bigotry piles up in many divided lands. Those across the Irish Sea in Scotland repeat the same clichés and cant as those in Ireland.
This reifies the ideal of “Magic Béarla” (what the English language is called in Irish). De Barra investigates “the idea that speaking English as a nation is an automatic road to unending economic success, and that not speaking English means nothing but misery.” He parries common misconceptions about what he titles “the phantom billion Euro” purportedly cited as the annual expense for supporting Irish road signage, teaching, administration, publishing and translation. He then switches to the fate of language revivals in other nations. (True, his book does veer about in its chapters, and within these, De Barra tends to ramble across familiar territory already surveyed by his learned predecessors, many of whom are fairly named in his works consulted. These sources may guide the curious, given they represent the array of in-print monographs.)
De Barra proves sharpest in the example of Hebrew. This instance attracts scholars consistently. Both friends and foes of the Irish draw upon this predecessor as bringing back a treasured tongue as a vehicle of communication naturally and/or ideologically. De Barra peers into the effort, predating the Israeli state, to settle on a common lingo as part of nation-building. He critiques the Irish government’s failed schemes, by contrast.
He also dissents from the remedies outlined in Tomás Mac Síomóin’s The Broken Harp, and those which suggest immersion into Irish for the first eight years of education. De Barra comes up with a few fresh ideas. “Make Irish Cool.” By “targeting the upper echelon of the Irish celebrity world” (at least, one muses, those who did not hate their compulsory course), entertainment-addled youth might take notice. Related to this sector, de Barra urges that the government establish a viable and vibrant learning center equipped with tutors and live help to assist students and graduates alike. And, by incrementally implementing Irish as the state language of government, starting with the police in his case study, de Barra reckons this would boost the monetary value of the language, and stimulate education and job prospects for a designated segment, slowly increasing, until 30-50 years on, success would be achieved.
De Barra would rope in those already running the show. The elected Irish assembly would have to prove their ability in Irish, beyond a few ceremonial phrases. An Irish-language university would support this grand project. Spaces would be carved out “for Irish to thrive alongside English, not instead of it.” Sunflowers, he observes in closing, grow strong only when some sequoias must be culled. Cleared, the tender flowers do not wither and die, but reach towards the vibrant and nourishing sun, which sustains them.