Back in the early 80s I was in college with a guy from North Wales. He had been a monoglot Welsh speaker until the age of 14. His family lived on a peninsula and they had no television. Primary and secondary schools had been Welsh speaking. In a reverse of what had happened in previous generations, he remembered with anger a teacher who had repeatedly mocked an English speaking pupil.
Andrew came to Dublin expecting a place as Celtic as the Wales he had left. Wales was under English rule; Ireland had been independent for sixty years, time enough to secure language and culture.He was disappointed at what he found; Dublin had been infected by what he called plastic American Euro-culture.
Andrew would have been dismayed at Ireland a quarter of a century later.He would have felt that his “plastic American Euro-culture” hadn’t just infected the country, it had colonised almost everywhere. Manchán Magan’s television series on TG4 No Béarla came to a conclusion last night. Magan attempts to travel around Ireland speaking only Irish, it was a series with some comic moments, but you also feel a sense of Magan’s disappointment at the disappearance of his native tongue.
As a Sassenach whose knowledge of Irish words could be counted on the fingers of one hand, I suppose Magan’s conclusions should not cause any undue worry. There would be people I knew in the North who would be delighted at it; I can hear a bitter woman I once knew talking about, “them ones down there an’ their silly language”. It was notable that even Sinn Fein appeared to conduct their special Ard Fheis yesterday almost entirely in English.
As a Christian I think the loss of the Irish language is a serious matter. The plastic American Euro-culture that Andrew so much disliked is mediated through the English language – Mammon speaks English! The Irish language is a bulwark against the globalised materialism of the mass media and multinationals. There aren’t many people who would want to return to a de Valera vision of Ireland with maidens dancing at the crossroads, but does anyone really want a country entirely devoid of character where leisure time is spent in shopping malls and where identity is solely perceived in what you have and what you can buy?
Irish is a mark against a world where McDonald’s counts a cuisine and where Soaps count as culture. No Béarla may become a landmark series in years to come, a last warning against the entire loss of a national identity.