Recently, I was asked to write a narrative of a key moment in my career as a foreign language teacher, for an academic publication. To assist me in this, the editor supplied me with models of narratives written by learners about their experiences. Coming Home: One Man´s Return to the Irish Language appears to fall within this category, as Michael McCaughan retells his passionate, but conflicted, relationship with “an Ghaeilge”.
Paradoxically, like many other Irish people, McCaughan finds himself learning his national language as if it were a foreign language, that is to say, from scratch and via the school system, initially. Although this is simply the result of a language shift and, subsequently, a series of flawed linguistic policies in his country, some Irish people appear to feel guilty if they do not manage to become competent. According to McCaughan, this is one of the reasons why Irish learners seem to be forever apologising. They are awed by native speakers, and embarrassed when they have to admit that they only have “an cúpla focal”, only a little bit of Irish. For some of these learners, it is as if they were failing in a patriotic duty, or allowing their cultural identity to get dented.
On the other side of the debate, there are others who, unapologetically, refuse to attempt to become fluent in Irish, like journalist Rosita Boland. She is adamant that this is not to the detriment of her attachment to the nation: “I like even less having my national identity pinned to a language I never use and cannot speak. (…) Am I any less an Irish citizen if I choose to disassociate myself from our “ordained national language”, and state that the English language is actually the one in which I feel at home expressing myself?” (p. 108). Rosita Boland suggests that the Irish language has become a kind of religion for some of the most enthusiastic speakers, learners and activists, like the “Gaelbores” McCaughan also refers to, satirized at an early stage by Flann O´Brien in the novel An Béal Bocht. According to the true Gaels in this story, “we must always discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics” (cit. in McCaughan, 2017, p. 54).
The first chapters of Coming Home are devoted to the individual experiences of McCaughan as a learner after he grows determined to become fluent in what he describes as “a fever”. Mostly, McCaughan analyses his use of the services of the Irish-language national radio station, RnaG, which helps him to practise listening comprehension but also connects him to the rhythms of life in the small rural communities of the Gaeltacht. He also describes the various teaching methods used in the different language schools he attends over the summer, from a relaxed approach to the more structured use of worksheets and Powerpoint presentations. There are many tips for the Irish language learner: CDs of music and language sounds (e.g. “Gugalái Gug”); well-established dictionaries; and text-to-speech tools such as abair.ie. Information is given about dialects and official tests, for instance, Teastas Eorpachna Gaeilge (TEG) at Maynooth. Michael McCaughan completed a degree in Spanish at university and he believes strongly that “anyone can learn Irish” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 37), or, for that matter, any other language: “I am convinced that a personal interest is more important than innate talent when it comes to learning a language. That interest requires a system adapted to your lifestyle and temperament if it is to work. It takes time to find it but once you have it, in whatever form, you have started the journey” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 37).
Michael McCaughan implies that in the Republic of Ireland there is a gentrified teaching industry catering for adult learners who may feel guilty or inadequate, and appear to be stuck at a beginner or intermediate level, starting, dropping out, and restarting. This is precisely the cycle that McCaughan is trying to break. On the other hand, the situation of the Irish language in Northern Ireland is very different, and the chapters devoted to this topic are extremely interesting. The key point McCaughan makes is that the promotion of the Irish language in Northern Ireland is a grassroots movement, led by volunteers working in small communities.
Naturally, McCaughan covers the Irish classes of the Jailtacht, that is to say, the Long Kesh prison, at the time of the Troubles. Notably, a few loyalist prisoners also took Irish lessons, for example, William Plum Smith: “Smith learned about Irish history and began learning Irish. The IRA prisoners offered him safe passage into the Republic ‘cage’ for classes but the authorities refused. Undeterred, Smith sat by the fence and learned his Irish from an IRA member instructing him from the other side” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 185).
Nowadays, there are informal inexpensive Irish language classes and activities not only in Catholic West Belfast, but also in East Belfast, an area “identical to its Republican counterparts in viewing the language as a vocation, an activity that needs to happen regardless of money” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 177). The interest of the Protestant community in the Irish language is in itself part of the Irish heritage, as exemplified by the large numbers of Protestants who enrolled in the Gaelic League since its creation. Remarkably, the Irish language services in East Belfast, Turas, benefit from funding from the Ulster Defence Association club for old boys, Charter NI (McCaughan, 2017, p. 180). Likewise the Irish language centre in West Belfast, Cultúrlann McAdam ÓFiaich, according to its website, is named after two eminent advocates of the Irish language, the former, McAdam, being a Presbyterian businessman from the nineteenth-century (Cultúrlann McAdam ÓFiaich, 2019). In the context of the Good Friday Agreement, all these Irish lessons and outreach activities are a powerful peace resource that breaks down barriers and fosters understanding between communities that had been brought up to view each other as “the other” (McCaughan, 2017, p. 178).
Users of Duolingo may be already aware that there are more Irish learners in their platform than there are native-speakers of the language in the whole world. Michael McCaughan interviews several of these non-Irish learners: Aki, who taught Irish myth at a university in Japan; Matthew, who had started learning Irish in New York; and Rachael, a Canadian who had decided to learn all the languages present in her family background. McCaughan remarks that all of them were very surprised at the way some Irish people dismiss the Irish language: “The attitudes of some Irish people surprised them all. A taxi driver in Dublin laughed out loud when Matthew informed him he was on his way to an Irish language programme in Connemara. ‘Why would you want to do that?’, he said, incredulous. ‘Why not learn a worthwhile language?’ ”(McCaughan, 2017, p. 133).
While there are pragmatic reasons for learning languages, there is also this powerful fever that, inexplicably, takes possession of you and propels you forwards. This fever can stem from a desire to connect with a lost ancestral past, or with a fascinating foreign culture. It can only be fortunate that it is a contagious condition, fostering larger and larger communities of learners.
Cultúrlann McAdam ÓFiaich (2019) This History of Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich [online]. Available at https://www.culturlann.ie/en/about-us/our-history (Accessed 27 November 2019)
McCaughan, Michael (2017) Coming Home: One Man’s Return to the Irish Language, Dublin, Gill Books