It was a relaxed and cheerful conversation between two people sitting under an awning, catching up over coffee on a benign spring day. After a half an hour or so, they headed off in different directions on bicycles they had tethered to a nearby bollard.
othing to distinguish this conversation from hundreds of others. Except for one small thing. They were chatting in Irish.
There wasn’t even a hint of the cultural preciousness that those who covet the language often showboat in public.
It was simply fluid and melodious. Natural, unstrained. Irish may have been neither of their primary language of everyday use, but it certainly seemed to be their first love.
You wouldn’t expect that to be unusual in Ireland but, if you reflect on it, you realise it is. Every day you will hear so much talk and banter in any number of languages from across the wide globe. So routine now that we don’t even notice. This kaleidoscope of aural colour has been a gift to a country that for too long only seemed to speak to itself in beige and greys.
But Gaeilge, long on the margins anyway, now seems so far at the back of the queue that it is hardly heard at all.
Poor Peig Sayers – a far more interesting woman than our educators ever gave her credit for – has shouldered more than her share of the blame
No need to waste time here hand-wringing about how the independent state got it woefully wrong from the very beginning. How everything from curriculum compulsion and the coercion of officialdom, through to the dead hand of Gaeilgeoir evangelism, has worn down a nation’s love for its ancient tongue.
Poor Peig Sayers – a far more interesting woman than our educators ever gave her credit for – has shouldered more than her share of the blame.
There’s a more insidious foe, too. It isn’t those who have no particular interest in the language and are perfectly honest about it. I’d include myself among those, without shame nor pride.
It is more those who brazenly and ostentatiously pretend they have. They generally surface during the worthy Seachtain na Gaeilge, throwing around their cúpla focal as if any living language can thrive on crumbs and tokens.
You’ll find they also surface every five years to distort the census by pretending they speak the language when plainly they can not.
The inconvenient truth is that if people really wanted to engage and persevere, they would – just like with any other passion or even hobby, from Pilates to open sea swimming. There’s nothing wrong with this casual and very occasional relationship with the language in itself. It’s more the delusional belief that it has anything to do with reviving or even respecting it.
If all that professed love, so vocally virtue-signalled at every opportunity, translated into something tangible, we would hear Irish spoken in complete sentences more often.
The old mother tongue deserves better. As do those who bother to gain fluency, or at least competency, and keep the language alive. Like those cyclists enjoying a cappuccino as Gaeilge that fine day. Fair play.