‘Do you speak Irish?’
They say everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and while this may be true I am proud to be Irish American everyday. You may have heard an “Erin go bragh” or even a “sláinte” or two in bars on St. Patrick’s Day, but even on the most Irish of holidays, we don’t hear much of the Irish language—which is a shame! I remember hearing stories growing up from my Grammy about how both sets of her grandparents and even her own Mother spoke fluent Irish. I remember her telling me how whenever her mother and aunts did not want the children to understand what they were talking about they would speak Irish. I remember asking my grandmother many things about our Irish heritage and she would tell me about the currency, the Irish national anthem, heck she could even recall in vivid detail what the Killarney country side looked like, but when I asked her if she could recall anything in the Irish language the answer was always a firm no.
I remember asking my grandmother why this was the case, after all my best friend’s grandmother spoke Polish and she knew some words and taught them to her children and grandchildren. I remember being no more than 14 or 15 and totally confused as to why we did not have such a vital piece of our heritage passed on. The answer I received was both sad and honest. When my great grandparents immigrated to the United States they felt the only language their children and grandchildren needed to know was English and so the ability to fluently converse in the language of our ancestors died with my Great Grandma in 1948. Why is this the case that even in Ireland most Irish people have forgotten the language? The story is also very sad but very honest and here it is.
Like a good portion of Irish history, the English can be blamed. For most of Irish history, the English ruled Ireland, but the language only really began to decline after 1600, when the last of the Gaelic chieftains were defeated. In my looking into the bigger picture, I have never once found that the Irish language was banned or persecuted but I did see how it was discouraged. It was discouraged by allowing English to be the official language of rule and business. It was discouraged by allowing no room to support the Irish language and culture.
Interestingly enough, while the English language slowly spread and took root in places like East Ireland and Dublin, the Irish language held a stronghold in the West in areas like Valentia Island where my Great Grandma was born and raised. By 1800, Ireland was split nearly down the middle between the two languages.
Had two major events not happened we probably would have a lot more fluent Irish speakers but they did so that’s how a slow decline in Irish speakers came to be. The first, I’m sure you’ve heard of at least once in world history, was the Great Potato Famine (1845-50) which hit the Irish speaking West hardest of all. Out of a population of 8 million, roughly 1 million people died and another million immigrated. From then on immigration became a common part of Irish society as huge numbers of Irish left the country every year, primarily to English speaking countries like Britain and America. This meant that most Irish people needed to speak English in the likely event that they would leave home. Irish would be no good to them in America, English was a necessity. English was the language of the future and of economic opportunity; Irish was the past and the language of a poverty stricken island that couldn’t support them.
The second major event was the advent of education. Starting in the 1830s national schools were created across Ireland to educate people through English and Irish was strictly forbidden. While nothing could be done to prevent Irish from being spoken in the home, it was strongly discouraged and shamed. Irish was depicted as an ignorant peasant’s language, whereas English was the language of sophistication and wealth. Poor potato farmers spoke Irish, while rich and successful businessmen spoke English (I teared up just a little writing that attitude of the time). So that is what allowed English to become the language of the cities while Irish language, unwanted and looked down upon, retreated to the most remote and underdeveloped parts of the country.
It was with this attitude, both sets of my great-grandparents came to America and did not bother to teach their children the language they spoke back in the old country. Living in America afforded my grandparents and their siblings (as well as future generations) a strong education and better job opportunities BUT they also were deprived of knowing a crucial part of their heritage. I do not blame my Great Grandparents, they believed the only language their children would need to know is English, but I do get wistful when I see a young woman and her elderly Grandmother conversing in Spanish that I was never given the opportunity to speak in such a beautiful language.
My Grammy would’ve been 100 years old on May 2nd. In her memory, I have decided to do one of two things and one of them is to learn the Irish language. For me, it would be an honor to go to Ireland one day and be able to speak in Irish to the people there to gain a part of my heritage back that was once shamed and thought of as an uneducated language to speak. I am always very proud of my Irish roots even when St. Patrick’s Day is past, I want to honor my Irish heritage by learning a language that has both fascinated and made me sad when I think of just how many people were discouraged from speaking it. When you think about it, if you go to France you can hear people speaking French, if you go to Italy you can hear people speaking Italian but if you go to Ireland you hear people speak English. Today, only 1% of the Irish population speaks Irish exclusively, only 7% speak both Irish and English fluently and the rest of the population speaks English with the exception of a few words and curses they may know in Irish. This is very sad.
While there are many debates that the Irish language is dying, I think it is up to all of us even those of us who are not in Ireland to learn the language to keep the language going. Languages continue to live when people communicate in them in the real world. In 2005 Irish was recognized as an official EU language but it has a long way to go in giving this language the recognition it needs.
My goal for 2019 and beyond is to really immerse myself in the Irish language, I want to speak it one day as well as I speak my own language. I want to know it, I want to speak it, and I want to write it, because I am proud of it.
Are you bilingual and proud? Leave a comment below and tell me what language you would like to learn if you do not know one already.
Love you. Mean it.