Sending our children to Irish schools, drinking in the trendiest watering holes that just so happen to have Irish names, checking out comedians doing gigs as Gaeilge, and tuning in to television programmes presented by fluent speakers. Where did it all go right? In less than two decades, we've gone from shunning the Irish language and associating it with all we wanted to deny about our nationality to endorsing it as a fashionable and positive thing – a quiet(ish) revolution that the Irish public is all too willing to be part of. And the growth of the Irish language isn't just a superficial thing. Last month, the UN reclassified Gaeilge from 'endangered' to merely 'vulnerable'. We're on the way to saving our native tongue for good, through enjoyable methods that most are happy to endorse, and not a copy of Peig in sight.
It's difficult to pinpoint where this all started, but many things aligned to ensure that Irish was no longer the preserve of people in the more isolated parts of the country. First up was positive visibility, and that's where the almighty Irish language media drive over the past decade or so has come good. When TG4 (then TnaG) was established on Hallowe'en in 1996, many presumed it would act as a niche product for the population of the Gaeltacht. But since then, instead of existing quietly and pumping out programming for a small audience, TG4 has been responsible for some of the most visible ambassadors for the Irish language – in a youthful and attractive way. Dáithi Ó Sé and Grainne and Síle Seoige along with Sharon Ní Bheoláin and Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh in RTE, have risen to become our best known TV celebrities – all Irish speakers.
A couple of weekends ago, the Irish Language Media Awards (Gradam Cumarsáide an Oireachtais) took over Farmleigh in the Phoenix Park. The event featured some of our best-known television presenters. People including Dáithi Ó Sé (who won TV Personality of the Year) and Des Bishop (who won TV Programme of the Year) stepped up to a podium to accept awards in entertainment, but also in many ways, prizes in preservation. It's easy to dismiss the idea that this kind of media prominence has a major effect on how we view Irish, but industry insiders point to key figures in entertainment and the media as having a huge influence on the more positive attitude towards our native language.
Natasha Fennell is a communications adviser with Stillwater, a company that works with Irish language organisations. "What has happened in this sector [Irish media] is that it has been completely professionalised," Fennell says. "Public sentiment towards the language has changed – the Irish language has managed to turn a corner from being quite nasty to being fashionable. That shift has been made."
Fennell believes that a dominant presence in Irish media of fluent Irish speakers has played a huge part in changing the way the public perceives the advantages of learning Irish. "They are role models," she says of the nominees in the Irish Language Media Awards. "Because of them, people have started to see the value of what Irish can bring you. And it's about confidence. They have instilled confidence in young people to use the language and be proud of it."
On the front lines of preservation are, of course, young people. The generation born in the 1990s and in this decade have never known our horrific lack of confidence linked intrinsically to shame in our identity – which the disposal of the Irish language was a huge part of. For them, Irish means everyday school, giant céilís on St Patrick's Day, Des Bishop on TV and after-school cartoons on TG4. The overhaul of the school syllabus – often pinpointed as a massive obstacle in getting people to love Irish as opposed to loathing its every mention – has played a huge role in this. The syllabus is now more accessible, with relevant material ensuring that this generation of schoolgoers will never have such a negative view of Irish as previous ones did.
But perhaps the most enthusiastic upheaval has been the dramatic changing face of the Irish school system itself – the explosion of Gaelscoileanna. Previously viewed as strange and archaic institutions isolated to Gaeltacht areas, sending your kids to a Gaelscoil is now as necessary an accessory as having a family ticket to Electric Picnic. The fashionable nature of this trend has created a massive revolution in how our children are schooled, and in turn, a huge effect on the number of people communicating in Irish on a day-to-day basis. Just look at the stats: in 2008, four of the top 10 schools in Ireland – ranked using a 'feeder school' method of calculation based on how many students went on to university from each school – were all-Irish schools; Coláiste Eoin and Coláiste Íosagáin in Stillorgan, Dublin, Scoil Damhnait in Achill, and Lauren Hill in Limerick. There are now over 30 Irish-speaking primary schools in Dublin alone and eight secondary schools. Cork has 22 Irish-speaking primary schools and also has eight secondary schools. There is at least one Gaelscoil in every county in the country, with Leinster housing the bulk of them. More than double the number of students are now taught through Irish outside the Gaeltacht as are inside the Gaeltacht. The competition for parents to get their children into Gaelscoileanna at a young age is now fierce.
Because of this, students no longer resent having to learn the language – it seeps into their every day communication and conversation. It's no longer a black spot on the timetable to dread, but an intrinsic part of the daily fabric of going to school.
A perfect example of a product of this shift in education is Miriam Maher. At just 21 years old and from Wicklow, Maher's parents weren't Irish speakers, but she went to an all-Irish primary school. Now, she has a Sunday morning Irish language pop music programme on Dublin's FM104. "The language is only growing bigger and better. At the [Irish Language Media] awards, the amount of interest people had in them and the number who were there on the night proves how much people are into it at the moment. All these Irish media outlets and shows in Irish on mostly English-speaking stations are just doing great, and their ratings are increasing. That's why there are so many jobs there at the moment."
Maher is still in college, but the doors of opportunity are already flinging open, "I've only been presenting for FM104 for a year. In that year, I've managed to do a column for Foinse [an Irish language newspaper], I work with the BCI [Broadcasting Commission of Ireland], I worked with Raidio Rí-Rá run by DIT – it's going great so far. I don't think I'd have those opportunities if I didn't speak Irish."
A knock-on effect of this change in the education system is that parents are now learning from their children, or rather re-learning the Irish that they forgot. Gael Linn runs courses throughout the year with their autumn evening courses filling fast already. One person already enrolled is Fionnuala Shannon. "My three-year-old is starting a Naíonra Montessori in September. I would love to be able to speak some Irish in the house with him, but because my own Irish is very weak, I have signed up for two nights a week with Gael Linn."
The introduction of an education structure for adults helps many put their Peig days behind them and learn Irish in a more productive, effective and constructive manner. There was a time when people were taken aback if someone said they were learning Irish as an extracurricular activity, but now most people describe fluent speakers as 'lucky', and nearly every Irish person talks about Irish in a fond and yearning way – either saying they wish they could speak it, or it's one of those things they "must get around to at some stage", instead of consigning it to a miserable school-related history.
Former Rose of Tralee Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin, who is now carving out a career in television thanks to being a fluent Irish speaker, says the language has had "huge advantages" for her professionally. But like most people who are keeping the language alive, it's not just about getting a gig – "it's a beautiful language, and you can express yourself in a richer way than you can in English," she says.
Like many, she is confident that although the language has already grown hugely in recent times, the best is yet to come. "It has changed so much already, but we won't see the full effects until the next generation." There doesn't seem to be any way back now, buíochas le Dia.
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