Lorde, the inescapable pop siren from New Zealand, burst onto the scene recently and has refused to leave. Her music offers a breath of fresh air in a sometimes stagnant pop music scene. What made her different was the minimalist artistry she added to pop music coupled with her unique look and sultry but bold voice. Perhaps living in such an isolated country helped add to her music’s one of a kind quality, but regardless of the origin of its sounds it certainly stands out…
I didn’t expect then to find a cover of her hit, Royals, that could stand out even more. The October 2014 issue of The Atlantic features a brief article about an Irish immersion school, Coláiste Lurgan, that started a YouTube channel called TG Lurgan as a way to make Irish a more modern and accessible language. The covers the students are producing are impressive. They are talented singers and producers and have managed to create something that is not only truly unique, but reaffirms the possibility of making Irish more than just a heritage language spoken by a small minority of people, but one that has a real place in Irish society.
Since the 1920s and after Ireland became an independent republic, Irish became a mandatory part of the nation’s education curriculum. The goal was to revive the language after being repressed by British authorities in favor of English during centuries of British rule. The policy remains in place today, but is notoriously ineffective. A decent part of my family hails from Ireland. They all spent years in schools where Irish was taught, but never as a primary language, always as a second language. None of them speak more than a few phrases and some even complain that time spent learning Irish would be better utilized learning modern languages like Russian, Arabic, or German. Until recently it doesn’t seem like there was much hope for change either. Ireland would remain the country in the world where the national and first official language was spoken my a small minority of people with English persistently dominant.
Slowly, in the last few years things seem to be changing though. First, the reality of the failing education program has becoming obvious enough that, as is pointed out in The Atlantic even an Irish speaking member of the Oireachtas (national parliament) called the long standing Irish program in schools the “highest form of torture known to humankind.” The irony of this failure to teach Irish is that the government requires proficiency in the language for a number of jobs across the country, including for the police force and education at almost every level. Indeed, residents of Ireland should be able to use Irish in almost every aspect of life according to national law. The question is how many do or can?
In a four part documentary produced for Irish language TV channel TG4 in 2008 called No Béarla (or No English) Manchán Magan tests the Irish on their native language skills and embarks on a journey across the country speaking only Irish–or as much Irish as humanely possible. He discovers it is a difficult task and reactions to his experiment are mixed. The first part is linked below from where you can view the rest.
Irish is in all honesty an heritage language. There is no question that English would always play a huge role in national life in Ireland even if a majority of the population suddenly began to speak it on a daily basis. Irish culture itself is infused with English so much that it, as much as Irish, is a deeply engrained quality of Irishness. Some of the English language’s greatest writers are of Irish stock and Irish accents are certainly some of the most beloved and identifiable in the English speaking world. International business would remain an English language undertaking in Ireland as would a lot of media. But that isn’t too far off from what life in places like the Netherlands or Denmark is like. In many smaller European countries English is the primary language of international commerce still and little foreign media is translated or dubbed. But vernacular languages still survive and indeed thrive. English isn’t replacing them; it finds its own place in national life in these places while the native tongues bind people with place and identity and history and add necessary diversity to our lives.
The call to save threatened and endangered languages is propelled by these relationships. From a cultural standpoint, languages are often what define culture and individual human communities. In a rapidly globalizing world, preserving these unique cultures and identities may be a key tool in maintaining levels of diversity in human life. Language is a body of knowledge that has accumulated over time and preserves information that may be either unacknowledged or still undiscovered. As a BBC article on the topic points out, Cherokee is a great example of the pooled knowledge a language can hold about the human and natural world. Culturally, languages reveal lots about a people. Cherokee for example has no word for ‘goodbye’ just a term for ‘see you again’. It does however, have words for a plethora of natural elements in the eastern United States that reveal whether they are edible, toxic, or medicinal in value.
The state of the Irish language is certainly much better than Cherokee or numerous other threatened languages in the world today. It has government support and is spoken by a larger number of people and is taught in schools across the country. It still struggles to burst onto the scene as a language spoken equally within Ireland alongside English. That is going to be the great struggle of the next generation or Irish people seeking to raise the status of the language. In the last century, the primary battle was saving the language from total annihilation following centuries of repression by the British, the loss of huge numbers of speakers due to emigration and death during the Great Hunger, and the concurrent struggle to establish the language as part of a new national identity while also trying to build a republic from the ground up.
The role of schools like Coláiste Lurgan is going to be invaluable in re-establishing Irish as a daily vernacular. It is one of over 180 new immersion schools popping up where Irish is the primary language of instruction, not English. Significantly, this makes Irish less a dreaded mandatory subject in school, but just the language of instruction. Student’s dread can be refocused on other horrible things… like math. What Coláiste Lurgan is doing with its YouTube channel though is taking Irish and rebranding it as a language with value for young people. It provides a connection to the past, honors those who died for Irish independence and linguistic choice, while also revealing its ability to function in popular culture. After the YouTube channel premiered, the school’s website even crashed during the next round of enrollment so many parents were scrambling to get their kids in. Symbolically, this shows even people who no longer use the language functionally on a day-to-day basis see value in speaking Irish and want their children to learn and most importantly speak(!) the language. In a speech given at New York University in 2008 the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív mentioned a statistic claiming 90% of the Irish see an importance to speaking the language. A common sentiment I experienced in Ireland was a saddened sense that fewer people spoke the language.
Irish will ultimately be saved by people using the language and reviving it on the street, in the home, in school, and in their everyday lives with other Irish people. Much like French in Canada or Hebrew before the establishment of Israel, Irish is a language that is neither on brink of death nor widely spoken enough to necessarily call thriving. It has potential though. Young people are showing that potential and challenges to the Irish themselves are putting them on the stand for the language’s status. The government has made its support for the language clear enough over almost a century. Now is the time for the Irish people themselves to take on the challenge of reinvigorating a language many of them apparently see as an important part of their national character and cultural health. English will be a dominant force in Ireland, but that shouldn’t be seen as reason for resisting making Irish the primary language of daily life for the Irish. Ireland would simply be a bilingual nation like so many existing today.
The revival of the Irish language though would be a symbolic gesture to the global community indicating that despite the dominance of a few global languages, be it French, Spanish, English, or Chinese there is both a place in the world for heritage languages and a value in saving them from death. It would also be representative of successful systems of saving languages that other communities could take examples from. The role media has played in making the world smaller is inadvertently one of the best tools out there to preserving endangered and heritage languages. Dispersed speakers have an easy means of communication, small time musicians, journalists, and writers have a free platform on which to market themselves in their native language, and those interested in exposure can easily find it.
Looking at it this way, the role of Irish seems much bigger than previously. Ultimately though, it is up to people making real choices about how they live their lives that will instigate change. In any case, I’m excited to see what songs the students at Coláiste Lurgan cover next.