Language | Ireland

Proudly spoken in Irish

Speaking Irish has long been controversial. But now the Gaelic language is making a comeback. What’s going on in Ireland?
Black and white portrait of the author Audrey Magee in front of a bookshelf. She has long brown, slightly wavy hair and wears glasses.

Audrey Magee is an author and journalist who lives and works in Wicklow, Ireland

Paul Mescal, the Irish actor, has an interesting capacity for turning the dull, the mundane and the neglected into something else, into something exciting and desirable. Take, for example, the baggy, polyester sports shorts that he wore playing Gaelic football in Normal People. Young Irish men have been wearing these shorts – the uniform of the Gaelic Athletic Association - for generations without anybody paying them any attention. Mescal, though, pulls them on, runs around a muddy field, and the world goes mad for GAA shorts. Even Gucci feels the pulse, the fashion house turning the GAA shorts into a must have item for men with a price tag of €550. In Ireland, meanwhile, the local sports shop still has the shiny, synthetic originals on sale for €20.

A second example of this Mescal effect is the silver chain. He wears a chain around his neck, again in Normal People, and young men around the world rush off to buy their own version, hopeful, it seems, of accruing a flavour of the sensual masculinity that Mescal evokes so wonderfully. The question now is this: is he doing the same thing for the beleaguered Irish language? Mescal caused quite the stir at the BAFTAs earlier this year when, on the red carpet, he agreed to be interviewed in the Irish language. Other actors speak Irish and readily speak to Irish language media, but with Mescal, as usual, something different happened.

“English became the language of social mobility, of urban potential, Irish the language of rural impoverishment and isolation”

Mescal is neither a fully fluent nor a native speaker of the Irish language. He went to an Irish speaking primary school, but his home environment was English speaking. During the interview for TG4, the Irish language television station, he struggled sometimes to find the words, to express himself in this ancient language, a compulsory subject through 14 years of primary and secondary education. Mescal , though, persevered. He made mistakes and he carried on. If he couldn’t find a word in Irish, he used a bit of English. He grimaced and winced as he spoke, he laughed at himself, and he carried on.

And it is that struggle, that concept of giving it his best shot that has endeared him to Irish speakers, non-Irish speakers and aspiring Irish speakers around the world. The clip of that interview has been watched millions of times and, in perfect post-modernism, Mescal is now being interviewed in English about being interviewed in Irish. His message – don’t worry if your Irish isn’t perfect, just give it a shot, try the cúpla focal, or the couple of words, and see how you go.

Mescal’s attitude marks a radical generational shift in the approach to the Irish language. Previous generations, including my own, had more fraught and difficult relationships with the language, depicted since the days of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as the language of the Catholic illiterate and the Catholic poor. Under its colonial rule of Ireland, Britain sought to eradicate the Irish language, to displace it with English.

This ambition was given legal backing in the 17th and 18th centuries when the Penal Laws barred Catholics from holding office, from property ownership, from teaching, from law, from judiciary. By barring Catholics, the English were also barring the Irish language, which went into sharp decline, particularly in urban areas. English became the language of social mobility, of urban potential, Irish the language of rural impoverishment and isolation. The language retreated in many regions of Ireland to become almost a private language, a language of home, of small community and safe spaces.

“Young Irish people in the 1940s, 50s and 60s saw English as the language of the world, the language of opportunity”

There were various attempts during the years of British rule to rekindle and save the language. Most prominent of these was Conradh na Gaeilge, or the Gaelic League, established in 1893, two years after a census which showed that only 3.5 per cent of the population was being raised as Irish speakers. The League was part of a resurgence in interest in Irish culture, running alongside the Irish Literary Revival fronted by poet WB Yeats.

James Joyce enlisted for Irish language lessons while a student in Dublin, but despised the nationalism around the language. In Stephen Hero, the precursor to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he declared English the language of the continent, and he fled for Europe in 1904 with Nora Barnacle.

After the British left the southern part of Ireland in 1922, the fledgling state declared Irish to be the official language of Ireland, with English a second language. The language was idealised, placed on an altar of adulation alongside Catholicism, the GAA, Irish dance and Irish folklore, all those strands the distillation and embodiment of perfected Ireland.

For many in Ireland, this was not a comfortable space, but a romantic idyll that offered little prospect of a route out of poverty and joblessness. Like Joyce, young Irish people in the 1940s, 50s and 60s saw English as the language of the world, the language of opportunity, the language of emigration to English speaking countries like England, America and Australia.

“Of the 5 million people in Ireland, 1.8 million say they speak Irish”

The violence in Northern Ireland, from 1969, created a fresh wave of distancing from Irish as Republicans claimed the language as their own, as proof of their commitment to the ideal of a united Ireland. The language went into further decline. Parents educated their children through English. That pattern continued until 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to that violence in Northern Ireland. In that non-violent space on the island of Ireland something different began to happen with the Irish language, though that pattern of change has not been the same on each side of the border with Northern Ireland.

South of the border, in the Irish Republic, new generations have been born into a world where the Irish language is no longer a marker of republican or nationalist identity, nor is it a marker of social status, political outlook nor of religion. It just is. It is a language. The Irish language. Irish schools, like the one Mescal went to, where all tuition is done through the Irish language, have become commonplace.

Pubs in Dublin now have neon signage in Irish, and it is increasingly common to hear parents and children speak to each other in Irish. Last year Irish became an official language of the European Union, and figures from the 2022 census just released show a 6 per cent increase in those who say they speak Irish. Of the 5 million people in Ireland, 1.8 million say they speak Irish, albeit that only ten per cent of those say that they speak the language very well.

“South of the border, away from that politics, Irish is trendy”

For someone of my generation, this is indeed a strange new land. In school, I had to hide my passion for an Irish language narrative of an island woman called Peig, on whom I base my character Bean Uí Fhloinn in The Colony. As a 16 year-old on the outskirts of Dublin in the 1980s, declaring a passion for Peig would have been profoundly unwise. North of the border, in Northern Ireland, the language remains a source of conflict and tension, a space more reminiscent of that childhood.

The Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed in 2017 for many reasons, including a row over inclusion of the Irish language on road signs and in the school education system. Over the intervening years, Unionists loyal to London have continued in their vehement opposition to the inclusion of the language in everyday life. In the hope of restarting the Assembly in the wake of Brexit, the British government last year passed legislation in Westminster to allow the inclusion of Irish on signposts and in schools. Many in unionism are deeply unhappy at this somewhat ironic turn of events in the fortunes of the beleaguered language.

South of the border, away from that politics, Irish is trendy. It is hip, it is part of a surge of interest across Europe in minority languages, but also across the world, in Australia and Africa and South America, where young people, albeit small numbers, are interested in the languages spoken by their ancestors before the arrival of the colonising Europeans.

In Ireland, this new relationship with Irish is profoundly affecting writing, music and cinema. Bi-lingual writings are becoming commonplace, such as Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, or Machán Magan’s 32 Words for Field, and the language is being brought into rap by artists such as Denise Chaila with her song Anseo, meaning here or present, the word children use during roll call at school. But the biggest artistic hit in the medium of Irish language has been Cailín Cúin, the Irish language film short-listed at this year’s Oscars.

“For younger speakers in Ireland, the Irish language is not a tool, not a marker of betrayal or loyalty, but a language, a thing of beauty steeped in heritage and roots”

For centuries, the Irish language has been weaponised, first by the English who sought to annihilate it and later by nationalists who used it as a marker of patriotism. For many in Ireland of my generation, navigating this polarised and politicised space held little interest, and we walked away from the language, only to watch now as our children turn back towards it. Unburdened by the ancient grievances of the relationship with England, growing up in an affluent Ireland that no longer pulses to the drumbeat of political violence, younger Irish, like Mescal, are able to try their hand at Irish without feeling burdened by politics, history or legacy. For these younger speakers in Ireland, the Irish language is not a tool, not a marker of betrayal or loyalty, but a language, a thing of beauty steeped in heritage and roots.

The Irish language, south of the border, at least, appears to have found its own post-colonial sweet spot.