“There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.”
– Ó An Beal Bocht / The Poor Mouth le Flann O’Brien.
If I could reach through this computer and throttle every person who uses the term “authentic Irish” I would.
Have you ever encountered phrases like “unnatural non-Gaeltacht Irish”, or “mere Ulsterised / Connachtised / Munsterised versions of Standard Irish” or the infuriating “real Irish”? Having visited some Irish language learning forums this week, I have – a lot – and I am now angry. Angry, not just at the arrogance, self-aggrandisement and rudeness of the people who use these terms, but angry because they will kill the Irish language.
And they will never understand that.
Note that the people I’m talking about- the people who talk this way- are consistently not from the Gaeltachtaí. – Go príomha mar tá muintir na Gaeltachtaí ró-gnóthach lena shaolta fá choinne an chac seo* – They’re a breed of learners who have raised “native speakers” to the status of demigods and labour in the living martyrdom of trying, while solemnly sighing that it’s impossible, to imitate exactly the phonology and lexis of one specific hamlet in the arse-end of Coirce Duibhne or Gaoth Dobhair or An Mám.
One wonders how they bring themselves to speak aloud for fear of corrupting the language’s purity.
Nevertheless, this linguistic masochism would be fine were it not for the tendency of these self-appointed acolytes to lurk on internet forums and pounce on advice-seeking beginners. They’ll quickly shoot down any and every approach suggested before explaining that, if you can’t move to Ros Muc for twenty years, the only approach is to learn- here they shudder- a mix of standardised Irish and whatever dialect the learner has expressed an interest in. Then, they tell you, you will have to unlearn most of it, if and when you are competent enough to distinguish the “real” Irish from the “fake”, if you actually want to speak with people.
Not true, by the way. But if that doesn’t make you want to run out and invest months, years, money in the language then I don’t know what will.
I wish I were making this up. And I’m not talking about a few isolated cases, such attitudes are endemic on popular Irish language learning sites. Daltaí Na Gaeilge being a particularly egregious example.
I’m not attacking dialectical Irish. I grew up and live in the Donegal Gaeltacht and I love Gaeilg Uladh. I’m also developing a fondness for Gaeilge Chois Fharraige, among other variants, even if I do speak in that dreaded blend of dialects which repulses so many forum-lurkers.
Nor am I saying, as I was accused of when I broached a related subject on one such site, that anything goes and we should abandon the phonology and, indeed, the saibhreas of Gaeltacht dialects.
But I do object, as strenuously as I can, to the idea that there is an insuperable barrier between the Irish of the Gaeltachts and that learned by second-language speakers. That one must pick a side in a linguistic civil war between caighdeán and Gaeltacht. That non-Gaeltacht Irish is not legitimate. That’s a hell of a lot of baggage to dump on Irish speakers, native or otherwise, and on a language which already comes with more than its share of hang-ups. Why would you get involved?
Why wouldn’t you just stick with English instead?
Every assertion of a “pure”, “authentic”, or “real” Irish is a nail in the coffin of Gaeilg/Gaeilge/Gaelainn**. I contend that the clue is in the names. There are many variants of Irish. As many, I believe, as there are speakers of Irish. And my issue is not that there is no “pure” or “authentic” way of speaking the language- that claim has been obsolete in contemporary linguistics since before I could speak. My issue is that the more energy Irish-speakers expend arguing about “legitimate” Irish, the more people will be turned off the idea of learning, much less speaking, Irish.
It takes willpower and enthusiasm to commit oneself to learning a minority language, particularly when it has so often been so poorly taught. Anyone who cares about the future of the language should embrace and rejoice in all use of it in everyday life, not disparage and attempt to delegitimise the efforts of learners.
David Crystal, in Revitalizing the Celtic Languages, puts the point so well that it is worth quoting- and reading, I promise- at length:
“There are people who are losing their command of the small language… for whatever reason. And there are those who have never got to the top of the continua, for whatever reason. Both tend to be condemned by purists, who thereby generate in the less strong-minded of these people that inferiority complex, which further harms their motivation to continue with the language.
Purists, accordingly – and I don’t care how often I repeat it – are a small languages’ worst enemy. It is sad to have to say it, because such people do believe they have their language’s best interests at heart; but they are nonetheless wrong.
By contrast, as I have said, I take the view that a small language needs every friend it can get, and that someone who shows even the slightest interest in encountering a small language is a friend, and should be welcomed and included within the community, even if their levels are 1% all over, as it were. All the population need to be involved.”
On TG4, yesterday, I watched a documentary called Ag Bogadh go hInis Meáin***. That rock in the grey Atlantic is about as far from the “Galltacht” as it is possible to be and the programme showed a flourishing and strikingly happy Gaeltacht community going about their lives.
The headmaster of the primary school was from Dublin and spoke a broad urban Irish with strong vowels and hard k-sounds. A Canadian stockbroker spoke his halting Irish with an Asian-Canadian twang. The couple from Kilkenny spoke their best school Irish and the elderly farmer who opened and closed the show spoke the thickest Conamara Irish I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. They were all of them, delightfully, getting on with their lives frí Ghaeilg.
What more could you want?
*Mainly because the people of the Gaeltachtaí are too busy with their lives for this shite.
**Irish (Ulster) / Irish (Connacht) /Irish (Munster).
***Moving to Inishmaan.