In completing the census form, I had to face a harsh reality: my young children cannot speak Irish.
On Sunday evening my pen wavered at the question of whether they spoke our mother tongue. I almost wanted to tick yes and admit that they can’t speak it very well.
They’re all still in elementary school. After helping the eldest two with their homework I know the honest answer is that they can’t even string a sentence together in Irish.
The youngest has another excuse, albeit an illusion, for not being able to. She is still early in the cycle but the omens are already not good.
My Irish isn’t great and is very rarely used, but at least I can muddle through when needed. I’m one of those people who, in a foreign country, has resorted to a Cúpla Focal to ensure conversation at the restaurant table is undecipherable to nearby diners.
But before I ticked no on the census form, I decided to do an ad hoc assessment.
I stuck my head through the living room door.
“Conas ata tu?”
Confused faces rose from glowing screens. I repeated it. Laugh this time. Brows pinched.
“Cén t-am é?”
I might as well have spoken Japanese.
And with these two simple questions I got my answer.
The eldest insisted that he could speak at school for a while, but I wasn’t convinced enough.
In fact, for months he has been learning German of all things at Duolingo – an online language training service. He can tell me I’m stupid and it’s cold outside while sounding like he’s from Berlin.
He even asked me to write on the questionnaire that he speaks German at home.
But maybe he has plans for Duolingo. This company has previously said that there are more people learning Irish online worldwide than there are native speakers of the language.
This is something I think can help ensure that active use of Irish survives.
The Irish I learned in secondary school in the 1980s was drummed into us. I received awards and got a D. Getting that passing grade was tedious and required a lot of study—but still a D.
No amount of revisionism from Peig Sayers will convince me that her biography was nothing more than a depressing, boring, and horrible attempt to instill a love of Irish in teenagers. And the poetry we endured, with its foundations in hunger and oppression, failed to convince teenagers to delve into the language either.
My Irish teacher wore a black suit every day for the last year or two of school – out of mourning, it was said, until Ireland was united. I wonder if he’s still wearing it now that he’s retired, still covered in chalk dust.
A few friends and I took pre-graduation tutoring from him as we tried to dig through this often impenetrable poetry.
I remember when we arrived late one afternoon that he asked us to tidy up a filing cabinet. It was crammed with newspaper clippings about Northern Ireland: the RUC firing rubber bullets; marches; heated politics; murders; and all the other horrible things that made up the problems.
However, he was enthusiastic about Irish, something we didn’t really relate to. We never wanted to read about Peig again or have to learn lines from An Droimeann Donn Dílis. So how is it that children go through primary school and are still barely able to string a sentence together in Irish?
Is it our fault we don’t speak to them in Irish? I never spoke Irish at home as a youngster, but I still manage to converse in it – sort of – decades later.
Is it still a problem how it is taught? That might have something to do with it, which would be a shame. If so, what is the correct way to teach it, or does it always just suffer from student apathy because they often don’t see the benefit of it, now or in the long term? Maybe a bit of that too.
Maybe in years to come they’ll come back to how many of us do with things we might have avoided in years past.
But when my children’s descendants dig up our census a century from now, I wonder if they’ll find it odd that their ancestors couldn’t speak Irish? And who knows, maybe I can check that “yes” box at the next census.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/my-eldest-can-tell-me-im-stupid-in-german-but-all-i-got-were-confused-stares-when-i-dared-to-ask-conas-ata-tu-41535651.html 2022 Census: My eldest can tell me I’m stupid in German, but I only got confused looks when I dared to ask: “Conas atá tú?”