3 / so honey, sing

Lyric excerpt from Irish singer Hozier’s song “Sing“. Pictured: Cork City, Ireland.

(originally written as part of a blog for a sociolinguistics undergraduate course)

In somewhat sharp contrast to my previous post, this one is, spoiler alert — more optimistic in tone. I have also turned my gaze westwards, and will be looking at the rather fascinating status of the Irish language in Ireland (especially the Republic) and the impact that music has on the attempts of language revitalisation.

Irish, less than half-alive

Irish is undeniably a minority language in its own country, despite being the first official state language; to go into the historic repression of the Irish language is unfortunately too intense a tangent to go on. Being a state language, Irish is not protected under the Charter for Minority or Regional Languages and therefore does not benefit from the institutional strategies for promotion and protection.

The government’s 2010–30 strategy outwardly expresses the importance of Irish as a community language. Moreover, it presents the very urgent issue that Irish is used in less than 3% of households.

According to the 2016 census, while Galway and Cork counties and Dublin are at opposite ends of the spectrum with most versus least Irish speakers, none of these places boasts more than 50% Irish-speaking population. Of the 1.7 million people interviewed, 73 thousand declared that they spoke the language daily while a quarter of the respondents declared they’d never spoken it. Of course, there are some language strongholds, called Gaeltacht areas, where more than 60% of the population speaks Irish. Regardless, the situation of the Irish language is dire.

Should teachers leave those kids alone?

The concrete aspects of Irish vitality are covered through its status as official language, such as governmental position and official documents or existence of training materials; the most difficult issues to tackle are the intangible ones, such as the number and proficiency of speakers, as well as intergenerational language transmission. The attitudes towards the language remain positive, but there is a noted discrepancy between that and actual use.

Within the current education system, pupils especially in state-funded schools can opt for either English or Irish medium instruction. Irish second language teaching within the former model is repeatedly criticised for its poor results, which is mainly caused by lack of pupils’ motivation, lack of teachers’ proficiency, and difficulties of teachers to implement their pedagogy.

Language revitalisation efforts are therefore mainly educationally-driven in Ireland, although there has been a noted shift towards Irish in cultural output. Alternative paths towards Irish acquisition are much more successful, such as the language and music summer camp at Lurgan (near Galway), which aims at making 14–17 year-olds into competent and confident speakers of Irish. This non-profit organisation aims at 3-week immersion and is particularly popular, and employs emphatic messages of language as being quintessential for Irish identity.

We’ll sing it away

When I asked my Irish friends what their relationship with the revitalisation of Irish was, they named one efficient element: music. Sandwiched between the massive markets of the UK and US English-speaking music industry, Irish music is emerging as cool and alternative, but is yet to become mainstream.

“The only modern aspect to Irish at the minute, at least the one I’m in contact with, is music. It’s definitely the most relevant way that Irish is being used at the moment.”

The Irish music market is a mixed bunch, between a resurgence of popular traditional songs such as Oró sé do bheatha ‘bhaile or Mo Ghile Mear. Every year, the CEOL album is released, containing popular songs translated into Irish. The participants and promoters of the camp at Lurgan also translate and perform popular music, and even form bands like Seo Linn.

Yet when researching the up-and-comers of the Irish music scene, almost all of their music is in English. The big-shots are also ones who used English, such as U2, Sinead O’Connor, the Cranberries, or Van Morrison. One of my favourite singers, Hozier, hails from just south of Dublin. This internal conflict within the music world perfectly mimics the language’s struggle domestically.

Irish is, beyond a medium, also a message in itself, especially for the Irish speakers from Northern Ireland where the language does benefit from protected status but where the conflict is even more poignant than south of the border. Primarily Irish-singing artists like Kneecap (their very name carrying sharp political messages) are hip and relevant to today’s youth. Their music, while mostly in Irish, is sprinkled with English words here and there.

To go on from here

The modest attempts at Irish language revitalisation are therefore fronted by music and culture. The youth of Ireland will never see value and beauty in a language stiffly taught to them in school “just because” and we cannot expect teenagers to understand the complex debate of why they should learn Irish. They will have to be immersed in an environment where Irish music is cool, where there are plenty of interesting movies and books, where the language belongs to them rather than their great-great-grandparents. Music is dynamic, inclusive, and ever compelling, and according to the Irish people I know, the way forward. So we can only hope that more Irish artists will emerge and popularise the language.

Personally, I have a soft spot for almost every genre of Irish music I’ve listened to, though I can’t quite pinpoint the je-ne-sais-quoi that makes Irish people’s music so appealing to me. The songs in Irish are growing on me, even though Kneecap and ballads of yore make for an interesting playlist.

Many thanks go especially to E. and C. for educating me on Irish music back in February.

You can find this blog’s tangents to go on by clicking the hyperlinks on some of the artist names and song titles in my post.




random musings

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