The utility of the Irish language

Rosita Boland, a journalist with The Irish Times, shared an interesting post today, in which she questions, amongst other initiatives designed to preserve the language, the merits of Irish being a compulsory part of our education. Boland’s piece has come in for some strong criticism on social media, but I would encourage people to see it as a worthwhile provocation, and to engage with the debate in a constructive manner.

Part of me sees the merit in Boland’s argument–as far as I’m concerned, English is my native language. I grew up in an English-speaking household and went to an English-speaking school; fights with friends have been in English, that first awkward teenage interaction with the opposite sex was in English; in essence, all of my life’s most significant social exchanges have been conducted through English. Most importantly, I think in English. Yet, there was a time when I had “pretty decent” Irish, a skill which I am sad to say has been eroded over a decade or so of neglect. So, when Boland argues that our time might have been better spent learning something like Spanish, part of me appreciates the sentiment. But another other part of me, the part that recognises that language is more than just an instrument for communication, rejects her assessment.

I accept that there are issues with the ways in which Irish is taught–for me, the issue was always the literature. There were few subjects in school that held my attention better than our literary studies, and I daresay that Irish might have had more appeal had we encountered more contemporary texts. As a naive teenager, I just did not see the value in mastering a language if my reward was a greater understanding of works like Peig. Why not, in complement rather than as a replacement, put something like, An Béal Bocht, on the syllabus? It’s worth noting that I have no idea what the current syllabus looks like, and perhaps it has improved.

The failings of our second-level system aside, my issue with Boland’s argument is that she focuses on the utility of language. One is always in dangerous territory when seeking to determine how “useful” something like this might be–I’m sure that Boland wouldn’t query the value of studying calculus, but how frequently has she deployed it since her schooldays concluded? The value of the Irish language should not be measured in its potential, say, to secure employment for its speakers, but rather, in its capacity to preserve all that it represents. Here, I do not refer to grand notions of nationhood, but rather, all of those seemingly trivial, but vastly important, cultural particularities that only a specific language–in this case, Irish–can embody. An extension of Boland’s logic would suggest that society would be better served by a universal language (a mantle to which English is quickly ascending), something which would give rise to unprecedented cultural erasure. Language is not just about words that facilitate communication, it is about ideologies, theories, and terminologies–as English continues to spread, so to will Anglo-American ways of thinking, thus restricting knowledge, and further homogenising our world. 

Boland dismisses the notion that Irish somehow forms part of our national identity. Perhaps she is right, but to arrive at her position, she needed to possess an understanding of the very thing she is seeking to problematise–at the very least, our years spent learning Irish allow us to make informed decisions on what language means to our national identity, and indeed, our own sense of Irishness, whatever that may be. From my perspective, that makes a lot of “pedagogic sense”.

2 thoughts on “The utility of the Irish language”

  1. Excellently written Jo. While I understand her points, I can’t help feeling that they are ones of frustration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.