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Bilingual Irish society

old Irish man laughingA close relative of mine who shall remain unnamed to prevent any embarassment once expressed an interest in visiting us here in Ireland.

“So, what’s the lingua franca in Ireland?” she asked.

At first I was flattered that she thought I was functioning in an Irish-speaking society. Then I considered that many Americans, God bless ’em, possibly operate under the assumption that the Irish still, by and large, speak the Irish language on a daily basis.

Sadly, it’s just not true.

I read a very disheartening article a year or two ago where an fluent Irish-speaking reporter attempted to conduct herself for 24 hours in Dublin speaking nothing but Irish. As she waited for the bus that morning she got a call from another Irish speaking friend she hadn’t heard from in a while. She answered the phone enthusiastically, speaking in Irish the whole time, and when she hung up a fellow Dubliner behind her in line scowled at her and said, in his thick Dublin accent,

“Go back to your own country, ya feckin foreigner!”

The rest of her day was fraught with similar incidents and eventually, when attempting to order a sandwich at lunch, she had to resort to English lest she go hungry.

Now, there ARE communities in Ireland, mostly in the west, that do actually speak Irish every day. Known at the Gaeltacht, these regions have managed to preserve their native tongue. Young students from all over Ireland take holidays to these areas to improve their Irish. Yes, to graduate from school in Ireland you have to pass an Irish test. In fact, I’ve heard that if you take all the subjects of your final exams IN Irish, you get extra credit on your final score.

Hearing Irish spoken is easy if you plan to visit – Ireland maintains Irish-speaking radio and television stations and all civil servants are (supposedly) fluent in Irish. The boast is that any Irish citizen can conduct any business with any government employee – from a school teacher, postal worker all the way up to the Taoiseach – in Irish. Realistically, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s too many folk who put that to the test.

Most startlingly, the European Union did not initially include Irish on its list of official European languages. It was a slap in the face that a 10-year-old Irish speaker remedied through a campaign to make Irish an official European language. While it’s a fantastic triumph for the language, the EU’s initial reasons for not including it were understandable; today Irish is the only official language of the European Union that is not the most widely spoken language in its native country.

At the end of 2006 the Irish government laid out a plan to promote the Irish language and further build a bi-lingual Irish society. According to their statistics, 1.6 million people in Ireland can speak Irish, most of which live in Dublin (no surprise there – most of Ireland lives in Dublin), and 92 per cent of Irish people feel that promoting the Irish language is important either to Ireland as a nation, to themselves personally or both.

The question remains – in today’s world where English is threatening the popularity of indigenous languages like Spanish and French, can an almost dead language like Irish Gaelic be brought back into conventional usage?