Main Difficulties

I don’t suggest it is easy to learn good Irish. Not being a native speaker of English, my idea of what is difficult in Irish is obviously different from that of most learners, but speaking of purely practical difficulties, I’d like to note the following:

  • The dialectal differences, of course. People often exaggerate them, especially those people who try to find any convenient excuse not to learn Irish. However, they are there, and they complicate the acquisition of Irish. There is a recognized linguistic, or sociolinguistic, phenomenon called schizoglossia. In a schizoglossic situation, you don’t know which kind of language you should see as exemplary and normative, and you have this feeling that whatever you say, it will be wrong according to some norm. This phenomenon especially concerns diaspora minorities, for whom the language they habitually speak will be full of borrowings from the local language, but who at the same time often find the linguistic changes in the old country vulgar and distasteful. Analogies with Irish should be obvious; in a way, the Irish-speakers are a diaspora in their own country.
  • The abundance of bad examples. Publicly displayed Irish in Ireland is often plain wrong, and when it is not grammatically incorrect, it is too obviously translated from English. For instance, the dead word rochtain is far too often used as a catch-all for all the meanings of the English word access. However, it should be limited to where a special term is called for (accessing a computer network, for instance), instead of calling every door an “access” to the building. Of course, the ultimate problem here is the stupid way how English nowadays tries to express the most everyday things with Latinate abstractions, and then people translating into Irish but without much idea of how Irish really works think that they need a special Irish word for every hard word in English, instead of translating the highfalutin’ English into plain and intelligible Irish.
  • Bad teaching materials. It is very good that people use Learning Irish, because it is vintage Gaeltacht Irish. But as my little spies have told me, it does occur that reading materials for schools often intentionally depart from acceptable Irish, using instead their own pidgin. An example of this is a (printed and officially distributed) book which consequently used past tense instead of habitual past tense. This is so wrong that it should be punishable with death. If children haven’t been taught the habitual past yet, there are grammatically legal workarounds (for example using the conditional instead – there are dialects where conditional has ousted the habitual past – as well as the expression ba ghnách le [duine] [rud] a dhéanamh: bhíodh sé ag obair ansin = ba ghnách leis a bheith ag obair ansin “he used to work there”). But learning materials should never include anything grammatically incorrect.
  • Bad cultural priorities. We are constantly told to admire “modernist” authors who are no native speakers and whose “modernist experimentation” is just a way to conceal the fact that – to put it brutally – they couldn’t write anything near Gaeltacht Irish to save their lives. At the same time, there are excellent writers of popular fiction whose novels have never been reprinted since their first publication back in the fifties or sixties. In the nineties, Cló Iar-Chonnacht rediscovered and reprinted Máire Nic Artáin, which is a linguistically superb novel about a Catholic girl falling in love with a Protestant boy in Belfast. When I read it for the first time, I was completely lost for words: how was it possible that such a book hadn’t been reprinted for almost forty years, while everybody had been kvetching about how there are no books for young people in the language? For Chrissake, if people like me read Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie novels with interest in Finland when young, how is it possible that young Irish people wouldn’t read Máire Nic Artáin? And it’s not the only example. Seán Ó Mulláin’s swashbuckling historical novels about the Ryan family are still waiting to be reprinted. So is Mícheál Ó hOdhráin’s Cine Cróga.
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Some more thoughts about reading and learning

When you learn Irish, the goal is to become perfectly fluent. Not Gaeilge bhriste, but Gaeilge chliste. The very idea of reviving the Irish language is about reviving it as an authentic language. This means that you are supposed to have as good a command of it as an average Irish intellectual would have in an alternative reality where Ireland still was an Irish-speaking nation. For this, you will need to re-enact the personal linguistic development of that alternative-reality person. This might sound scary, but it is actually easier than for many threatened languages, because in Irish there is a wealth of folklore and native autobiographies available. In fact, the reading list I published here can only scratch the surface.

If you were born in an Irish-speaking Ireland, the first things you’d learn in the language would be children’s folklore. There is a lot of this stuff available in the folklore collections. Other folklore is to be recommended too.

There is another reason why I speak so much about folklore as a source of good Irish. In a community where literacy in the native language is unknown, but where there is a thriving oral culture of storytelling, the storyteller and the tradition-bearer is the best equivalent to the writer and author in a literary society. The best native writers of Irish were born to stpryteller familias. Thus, if you want to learn the kind of Irish that was appreciated by the last monolingual native speakers as the best traditional Irish, you mut learn the storytellers’ Irish. This is also why Peig used to be taught to learners. She was the daughter of a storytelling family, and a renowned storyteller and tradition-keeper herself.

Now of course somebody will start kvetching about how Peig, or Gaeltacht literature in general, has nothing in common with modern life. I beg to differ. I have translated Isaac Asimov into Irish, I have written popular science in Irish. The language I needed for writing popular science I learnt reading folklore and native writers. I did need to look up the terms in specialist dictionaries, yes. But the rest, the system of the language, came from the folklore.

That folklore is the literature of the last custodians of the traditional language, the Gaeltacht people. As a student and learner of the language, you are their servant, you are the caretaker of their heritage. Myself, I am but a servant of theirs.

Some Stupid Prejudices about Irish

“Irish speakers are racists.” It is often stated that Irish speakers are particularly racist or suffer from xenophobia. Being a foreigner with Irish myself, I must say that I have never encountered racism or xenophobia among Irish speakers. In fact there are Irish speakers with non-European looks who have been victimized by racists. To me it seems that an average Irish racist gets his ideology from Britain and speaks no Irish (in fact, Britain has been a huge influence on Finnish organized racism too). Typically, Irish speakers in Ireland are told to “go home to their own country” by ignorant racist fools who are so stupid they don’t even recognize their own ancestral language.


In my opinion racists are typically consumers of what I call default culture. Default culture is the sort of culture that is readily available to everyone, i.e. mass culture in English language. Non-default culture is for instance modern literature in Irish: most Irishmen don’t speak Irish as their native language, which means that they must take the trouble of learning Irish before they can read it.


Racists usually are culturally and socially lazy people with a very narrow comfort zone. They come up with all kinds of excuses why they shouldn’t make friends with a Muslim or learn Irish. I don’t find it particularly plausible a racist would take the trouble of learning Irish. The only racist I know of who has bothered to learn Irish is an Englishman who wants to recruit the Irish for his cause. Obviously, he is also an opponent to Irish independence – a fact that should make you think twice before you equate Irish nationalism with fascism or racism.


“Irish is a dead language.” Irish is no more a dead language than German or French. A dead language is one that has ceased to be spoken by parents to children, but although Irish is a minority language, it is certainly not a dead language by this definition. And it is the definition linguists usually use, i.e. people who do know something about languages, or about language in general.


One reason why Irish is said to be a dead language is the fact that Irish speakers mix in English words. For some reason, mixing Irish words into your English does not similarly make English a dead language. In fact, in a bilingual country widespread language mixing is a fact of life – also indicative of the fact that both languages are very much alive. 


Although I am myself a stickler for what I perceive to be good Irish (and be warned that after reading and annotating thousands of pages of Irish folklore as well as literature written by native speakers I think I have a pretty well-informed idea of what constitutes good Irish), I don’t really think vocabulary mixing and wholesale use of English words in Irish is the problem, but rather a symptom of the problem. The problem is that Irish has relatively low status in society, and that terminology in Irish is often not readily available to people. If you are never taught at school that a spiral galaxy is réaltra bíseach, and have seen popular science programs on astronomy only in English (because none are produced in Irish), you will obviously not know the Irish term and call it “spiral galaxy” even when speaking Irish. If there was enough status in speaking good Irish and learning scientific terms in Irish, of course people would learn good Irish and pick up all the terms. 


“We can’t expect that immigrants learn Irish.” Actually, many immigrants to Ireland have learnt fine Irish. Immigrants are not stupid, they are people, and people are intelligent and curious – it’s part of being human. Living in Ireland, intelligent and curious people tend to get interested in Irish. It is indeed racist to suggest that immigrants couldn’t learn Irish.


If you think of a Kurdish immigrant who has spent their adult life literally fighting for their right to native language, how dare you suggest that they would not have at least some fellow-feeling for the Irish language struggle?’


“Other languages should be preferred.” For some reason, in every bi- or multilingual country you find a certain fraction of people who suggest that learning languages spoken in your own country is unnecessary and that everybody should use the majority language. In Ireland, the language subject to this sort of cold-shouldering is Irish, of course, and preferable languages suggested include French and German because of their commercial significance. 


However, in Belgium – where there is a small but significant Germanophone minority along the eastern border – German is at least as much despised as Irish is in Ireland. Surely learning German would entail as much practical advantage for a Belgian as for an Irish person? Yes, but inside Belgium German is a minority language, and learning it would mean a concession to that minority. Similarly, there are Anglophone Canadians who resent the suggestion that they should learn French. Those who revel in their majority status prefer to lord it over the minority.


So, this bull shit about preferring other languages for commercial or practical reasons is precisely what I call it – bull shit.