When I was a child, my dad would read to me every night before I went to bed. I was, and always have been, an avid reader. I would clamour to be read three to four stories a night. I adored picture books – Charlie and Lola was my favourite by far. Every night my dad would read to me and every story he read would be in Irish.
Recently my dad admitted that he translated the picture books he read to my siblings and I when we were children from English into Irish as he was reading them, because there were so few books available in Irish. It never occurred to me that this was something he might have to do.
The future of the Irish language is something that I have heard being discussed for years. At the Gaeltacht secondary school I attended, we were often given talks about the importance of conserving the language. We were told that the future of the language was up to us, that if we wanted to hand our language down to the next generation, we had to speak it amongst ourselves. For a language to survive it needs to be spoken, not just spoken about. I will admit though that, at the time, I didn’t care. I was in no way then and in no way now a perfect gaeilgeoir.
But now that I am older, I have begun to understand the many ways in which the language has shaped my life. I was raised in the Gaeltacht, grew up watching Dora as Gaeilge, went to Irish-speaking schools from junior infants right up to Leaving Cert. I truly cannot imagine what my life would be like, particularly my childhood, had I not been raised by my parents with our language. It is integral not only to my experiences, but to my identity.
And yet, as a teenager, I was embarrassed about speaking the language amongst my friends. At the time, it wasn’t the ‘cool’ thing to do. I didn’t understand why everyone was so worried about the possibility of the language dying out. To me it seemed it was everywhere. Almost everyone I knew and grew up with could speak Irish. It wasn’t until I began to understand the history behind the language that my outlook completely changed.
Over time, I began to realise the immense struggle that had been involved in ensuring the language would survive. When the British colonised Ireland, our language was stolen from us. Use of the language was penalised. In a first-year history lecture I learnt that there had once been a time where children were given tally sticks to mark each time they were caught speaking Irish. At the end of the school day the number of notches in the stick would determine the severity of the punishment. As someone who’s entire schooling was centred around the language, it was hard for me imagine a time when its use would be repressed in this way. Stories like these are what put the conversation surrounding the future of the language into context for me – there was once a time where speaking the language you were raised with put a target on your back. For me, because the language has permeated everything in my life, I never truly understood just how hard the people before us had to fight for it.
To me it seems that the conversation surrounding the future of the language has shifted over the years. The language has found a modern identity all over the island of Ireland and beyond, with the rap group Kneecap and TG4’s social media offshoots creating content that cements the language’s relevance amongst today’s generation. There are vast Twitter communities of people from all over the world conversing in the language. People have begun to realise the benefits of being bilingual, that Irish is so much more than ‘how it was taught in school’. As a language student being bilingual has allowed me to open the door into exploring other languages. Linguists stand by the fact that being able to speak two languages makes it much easier to learn a third. It has also made me realise that being monolingual in English cuts us off from our European heritage. Neither is being monolingual the typical experience of many people around the world – something my Erasmus year has made me acutely aware of.
A teacher once told us; “You don’t have to worry about your kids not learning English. The world will teach them English. It’s up to you to teach your kids Irish.” This, for me, is the future of the language – it is by adapting it to become a part of our everyday lives, through the media we consume and the people we communicate with, that we can ensure that the Irish language not only survives but thrives, now and well into the future.