There are questions I get asked a lot – if not outright, then certainly implicitly: “Why are you studying Irish?” or “What do you hope to do with that?” or “Is it not a bit pointless?” It would seem that the people I talk to about my degree are not the only ones who question the value of studying our national language, as the numbers applying for Modern Irish, Early Irish and Irish Studies in Trinity have dropped in recent years. Irish Studies will be discontinued by 2017, and the TSM strand of Early Irish registered no new entrants in 2014. The prevailing narrative is that Irish has had its day, both as an academic subject and a language, and that students would be best advised to tread more useful and marketable avenues of education.
Despite this trend, however, the reasons for studying Irish are now more pronounced than ever. In a technologically advanced, Anglophone and increasingly culturally homogeneous world, the unique perspective and skills offered by a degree in Irish are particularly valuable. Rather than discouraging prospective undergraduates from choosing such an academic path, we should urge them to consider it as an option that will both benefit them personally and enrich our society.
A speaker of multiple languages can transcend the boundaries circumscribed by his or her mother tongue.
There is much evidence to suggest that the way we view the world is influenced by the language through which we engage with it. When asked to lay out photographs of faces in order from youngest to oldest, or arrange pictures of events on a chronological timeline, Arabic and Hebrew speakers often work from right to left, following the pattern of their written language. The writer Vladimir Nabokov found, upon translating his memoirs from English to Russian, that his memory of events was greatly altered by the language he used to articulate them. What these examples – and numerous others – show is that each individual language gives rise to certain patterns of thought. Each has its own internal logic and holds indelible sway over its speakers. The corollary, of course, is that a speaker of multiple languages can transcend the boundaries circumscribed by his or her mother tongue.
One of the primary benefits of studying Irish, then, is that it enables the student to view the world from disparate linguistic standpoints. The practice of weighing up arguments, forming opinions and expressing challenging concepts in another language teaches students to think outside the monolingual box. The true value of such an education is that it can be applied in any work environment. The ability to think about problems from a radically different perspective is as relevant in a laboratory as in the boardroom.
While these advantages accompany the study of any language, I would contend that they are more present in the case of Irish. As Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has pointed out, the major intellectual movements of the past few centuries, such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, had little or no influence on Irish, in contrast to the languages of much of Europe and the developed world. She notes, for example, that “the attitude to the body enshrined in Irish remains extremely open and uncoy”, as it is largely untouched by Victorian prudery. Irish encapsulates an unusually distinct manner of thought, and thus has greater potential to confront the non-native speaker with his or her own presuppositions and taboos.
Irish language publications are less tainted by the quasi-intellectual pretentiousness which characterises much academic discourse.
Our national language furthermore lacks much of the linguistic baggage entailed by being at the vanguard of social change and technological advancement. The impenetrable opaqueness of sloganeering and consumerist jargon is virtually absent from Irish, and legal cant is less prevalent in documents written as Gaeilge. Irish language publications are less tainted by the quasi-intellectual pretentiousness which characterises much academic discourse and are instead often marked by regional idiosyncrasies and simplicity of tone. All of these unique facets remind those who study the language that our conception of what is “normal” is hugely influenced by the culture to which we belong.
While the study of Irish promotes a sensitivity to difference at the border of conflicting cultural mindsets, its benefits can also be seen in a more local context. Anyone who recognises the importance of understanding history must concede the value of studying the Irish language, as it is the only channel through which much of our nation’s past can be accessed. Displaced victims of British colonialism, famine-ravaged peasants and Rising heroes have all used Irish to give voice to their experiences.
Proficiency in Irish is also essential to lay hold of the fullness of our artistic and literary heritage. The finer examples of epic mythology, acerbic black humour and ethereal aestheticism composed in Irish rival any literary offering this island’s writers have produced. Even many of those who work their craft in English – Frank O’Connor and Seamus Heaney spring to mind – are steeped in the paradigms of the Irish language tradition, and invite the nuanced readings of bilingual critics.
It is clear that there is much to be gained, even in pragmatic or economic terms, from studying Irish. I could list the further benefits of bilingualism, from increased cognitive ability to delayed onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. I could highlight the fact that there are numerous translation, media, teaching and research posts available for people with Irish qualifications, or that there are Celtic language departments in universities the world over. But the truth is that none of these things represent the most important aspect of an Irish language degree.
I believe that the recent poor enrolment for Irish courses is indicative of how students have been harried away, urged to jettison their aspirations in favour of more financially reassuring options.
I believe that what draws most people to stick Irish on a CAO form is the sense that their study will be part of something that goes beyond mere academia or training. It is the knowledge that through language they will become part of a community and a tradition that is still very much alive, despite the regular assertions to the contrary. I am sure that almost all who choose such a path have felt the warm and tender pull of that community, whether in a classroom or on a sweaty dance floor in the back sticks of Connemara. Sadly, I believe that the recent poor enrolment for Irish courses is indicative of how students have been harried away, urged to jettison their aspirations in favour of more financially reassuring options.
I hope the tides of CAO applications will turn, and that we will begin to afford the Irish language the place in our society it deserves. If trends continue, we are set to dilute or even lose an integral part of our culture. Will the last Gaeilgeoir please turn off the lights?