Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

You can't force Irish language down the throats of those who don't want to learn

Caitriona Ruane

Memo to Caitriona Ruane: Bíonn chuile dhuine lách go dtéann bó ina gharraí.

That drifts back to me half-remembered from second form Irish class and is recovered through the magic of Google. It translates as, "Everyone is sociable until a cow invades his garden."

This might apply to the uninvited use of the Irish language. Interest is best promoted without ramming Irish down unionist throats.

Writing Irish language answers – even with a translation provided – to English speakers smacks of driving your cows into their garden.

Perhaps Ms Ruane (right) could be allowed to reply as she wishes, but, to use an English proverb, she might catch more flies with honey.

I learnt Irish as a schoolboy in Co Louth and resented it because of the air of compulsion that underpinned it.

You had to study Irish until you left school for any public sector job and you wouldn't get your school Leaving Certificate without passing in Irish.

I later transferred to a Northern Ireland state school, where it wasn't offered and I have always regretted not working a little harder at Irish when I had the chance at it.

I know enough to make a stab at what place-names mean, but I'd like to understand more – traces and echoes of the Irish language are all around us.

My daughter, who learnt Irish at school, is now at university in Galway, where she hears Irish spoken, often as just a "cúpla focal" – cod Irish for a couple of words – but sometimes conversations. She is considering learning the rudiments out of curiosity and to know the origins of words.

It is probably better to let people come to the language through free choice, rather than try to force the issue.

Promoting cultural projects, or voluntary classes, as Caral Ni Chuilin and the Ultach Trust have done, is more effective than replying to English speakers in Irish.

Voluntary classes have attracted people in loyalist areas, like the Shankill and east Belfast, where Ms Ruane's tactics might get their backs up.

In spite of a history of compulsory Irish in the Republic, the number of Irish speakers has fallen steadily since the foundation of the state. There are now no native speakers alive who aren't also fluent in English.

The decline can best be addressed by encouraging people who show an interest – not foisting it on those who don't.

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