PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 2018
In a rather predictable – and depressing – way, this week’s reports about interviews for pre-schoolers allowed all the usual suspects to vent the usual prejudices against the Irish language.
“Discrimination!” they cry. “Language snobs!” they screech. “This is a disgrace!” they thunder. “Why can’t they just speak English!” they lament. Ultimately, I think, what they’re saying is: “Who do these bloody gaelgeoirí think they are?”
Of course, anyone that hostile to Irish would never stoop so low as to use an actual Irish word. Or, if it absolutely couldn’t be avoided, they’d deliberately mispronounce it, to remove themselves further from the taint of this guttural speech of peasants and culchies and half-baked hippies and whoever else doesn’t fit their narrow Anglophone parameters.
In any event, it turned out that reports were exaggerated. Wannabe-bilingual ankle-biters won’t really have to sit opposite a stern-faced gaelscoil judging panel and discuss their long-term ambitions for the Irish language, on the personal and macro levels.
They’ll simply be brought in and observed while their parents chat to a teacher or principal. So, in effect, it’s mamaí agus dadaí who are being tested.
Is it discriminatory, for a gaelscoil to pick genuine Irish-speakers first, where the number of places is restricted? Yes, in the neutral and non-disparaging sense of the word: they’re choosing what they consider the better of two options, and giving preference to Irish speakers over English.
That’s a good thing, if you ask me. They have to differentiate in favour of Irish, no? Otherwise the whole point of a gaelscoil becomes meaningless.
You might as well insist that the local basketball club also coaches kids in volleyball and hacky-sack and BMX biking, otherwise they’re being discriminatory. Well, yeah…but then it wouldn’t be a basketball club anymore, would it?
Personally, I love the idea of gaelscoileanna. I love that the number of them has multiplied in recent decades, and continues to rise; that more and more kids are attending. I love that gaelscoileanna, with their core principle of full immersion in the language, are turning out thousands of youngsters who’ll leave school at least bilingual, if not fluent in many more. (Fun fact: growing up bilingual makes you better at learning other languages).
I love that younger generations of Irish people have fewer and fewer hang-ups about the native tongue than their – let’s be frank – pretty weird parents and grandparents, still tediously grousing about being “forced to learn Irish” four decades after they quit school. God, get over it already.
And you know why I love all of this? Because it makes the world a richer place. Any time a unique culture, indigenous to one place, is preserved or revived or refreshed, that makes the world a richer place – a better place.
My kids attend a gaelscoil. Not because I’m a bourgeois snob, or “they’re good schools” (at primary level, as far as I can see, they’re all basically the same standard), or for social-climbing, or because it’s now the trendy thing to do.
Those may well be part or sole cause of other people’s decision to educate the pups through Irish. I only speak for myself, and that self always wanted to be fluent in the language and regret that I am not. So – in what you might call a sort of benign vicariousness – I long-ago determined that any and all offspring would, if possible, go to a gaelscoil.
Keeping Irish alive makes the world a better place. Simple as that. It’s nothing to do with nationalism, even cultural nationalism; in some ways, in fact, the “Irish” element is maybe incidental.
It pleases me almost as much that, for instance, the Basque language is thriving. (Second fun fact: “Euskara” is the Basque word for “Basque”. Go ahead and use that in conversation!) I love that post-independence Israel revived Hebrew as the spoken word of everyday life, resurrected from its calcified state as rabbinical terminology. I think it’s wonderful that India has 22 official languages and over 1500 less-official ones.
But I am Irish, so that’s the one I root for and shout for and, I suppose, care for the most. People yammer on all the time nowadays about “diversity”: well, here it is, folks. The magical Babel of Planet Earth’s manifold tongues.
I can’t understand Irish people who are not only indifferent to gaeilge, but actively hostile against it; who, secretly or openly, want to see the language die off. It’s completely bizarre, not to mention hypocritical.
Do they also wish to see Basque die off? I mean, what’s the point of it? Why can’t they just use Spanish? Discrimination! Snobs! Disgrace! Who do these bloody Euskara-speakers think they are? (Or is it only their own language they despise?)
Again: all these things make the world a richer place. Irish does too – and gaelscoileanna are helping with this very noble cause.