Want to learn Irish? A word in your ear if I may

Dear prospective learner of Irish,
You are interested in learning Irish? Your motivations are not important to me but a word in your ear if I may.
Your first port of call will probably be Google, ‘l-e-a-r-n-i-n-g i-r-i-s-h’, there you go. Here is my gripe. You will eventually be led to a forum or two and you will come upon much information and frankly misinformation on thread old and new. I wanted to write something online to try and steer you through all of this – and to set your mind at rest.
It seems to me that prospective learners are often ambushed online, filled with pseudo-linguistics and either actively discouraged from learning the language or at least sent up blind alleys where hours of language learning time is wasted in pointless debates with people, who, whilst entitled to their views are not representative of mainstream opinion.
The thing is, is that the internet is a wonderful leveler which gives an equal platform (in theory) to all, therefore minority voices and views can be greatly amplified, which is great, but which can distort reality to some extent.
The greatest weakness of the internet is the ‘straw-man argument’, that is “a type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.”

Often you will see the use of quotation marks from unnamed sources – those are the ‘strawmen’, arguments built to be easily knocked down.
It is my contention that so much of what claims to be advice for learners of Irish is little more than pure opinion, politics dressed up as linguistics whilst accusing others of the same.
Let me be clear, I claim no truth, this is a view, an opinion, albeit one I purport to be reasonable and aspire to be learned.
No one is free from ideology, but the more anyone claims to be ideology free, the more you know that they are influenced by their ideology.
So let us get ideology out of the way. I am a Gaelic revivalist. I believe that the abandonment of Irish language and culture by the Irish people was an error and it is something I personally wish to reverse and attempt to work towards that aim.
I do not believe that that is an impossible dream as I believe that all achievement must begin with an ambitious vision which one sets out not only to achieve but to surpass.
But you of course can believe whatever you want, it doesn’t really matter.
Let us get something else out of the way, as so much energy is wasted on the question, “what dialect do I speak?” My answer ‘Irish Gaelic’, if I have accidentally used a Scottish word I beg your forgiveness.
“But what dialect of Irish?”
Well, I speak the Irish I learned at school influenced by, in following order, the Irish of Loch an Iúir / Rann na Feirste, the dialect of Omeath, South Armagh and South Down, the dialect of Gort a’ Choirce, the Irish of an Spidéal, the Irish of Ceathrú Thaidhg and to a small extent the dialect of Múscraí, Cork.
In other words, a complete ‘mish mash’. Many people would therefore describe my Irish as very poor, as there is no more serious a linguistic sin, according to their ideology (claimed to be based on linguistics, which is fine, but its still ideology).
I rate my own Irish as reasonable, but certainly good enough to work professionally in it, I always work at my Irish but I am unlikely to ever improve significantly from my present point.
So, back to the thrust of this essay, you will experience the following viewpoints.  
People who are selling a dialect and will try to explain to that you must learn the language exactly like they have and that the language is being killed off by the ‘Official Standard’ Irish. This is just silly. Irish is being killed off by English. No more comment is required.
Others will attempt to tell you that only a zen like pure interest in the language for its beauty is legitimate, that all other motivations, family, cultural, political, social etc. are illegitimate and will actually harm your Irish if not the language itself.


The other group that you will find are defeatists. These people believe, not irrationally that the Irish language is doomed and that all learners should, if not be dissuaded are at least indoctrinated in this hopelessness. To this group an Irish language revivalist can actually be harming the language. 
Often in a post-colonial situation hopelessness can come to be seen as a native trait and is actually aspired to.
I have been informed of a situation where a defeatist was taking a class for beginners and refused to begin until everyone solemnly agreed with him.

Actual linguists agree that the Irish language’s fate is not set in stone, even if the predicament is dire.

There are of course trolls what are not Irish speakers nor learners who are working to destroy the Irish language and will use all means to discourage you – these are easy to spot online and I don’t need to tell you any more.
Back to standard Irish, the story of how standard Irish came about is a long and complicated one, I will not bore you with the details save to say that you will not find the answers online.
My attitude to standard Irish, very positive, may surprise some as I run a series of blogs on dialects, have written numerous articles and have published two books on East Ulster Irish – there is no contradiction, in fact you could argue that standard Irish is a great leveler.
Often I find that those who campaign against standard Irish, and again they are a tiny minority, actually support standardisation – it is just that their dialect should be the standard!
Some will condemn standard Irish as artificial, look, a statutory instrument written in standard Irish is no more organic and no less than the English version, neither the daily language of anyone save for lawyers and translators.
Much, if not everything, you are being bombarded with concerning Ireland’s ‘Official Standard’ is not true. The truth is yes, native speakers often have a problem with its existence but when asked about their specific problems with it they have no idea.
The truth is that almost all people literate in Irish write in what is essentially the official standard, certainly in terms of spelling, and normally with regards to grammar – why? Because it is the only show in town. That is the reality, schools, universities, official publications, it is all in standard Irish.
You can learn ‘Irish’ and adopt whatever dialect forms you wish if and when you come across them.
Or you can just learn a dialect alone, that is no problem, but the range of reading material available to you will be limited to folklore and novels which are almost always heavily standardised.
If you want to learn Irish, learn it, learn what you can, where you can, when you can from whom you can – but don’t waste your time fighting battles long fought and lost, accept that the professors in the universities, very often native speakers may actually know what they are talking about.
Read good books – forget the forums!
The point is made ad nauseam that learners of Irish in Ireland reject Gaeltacht Irish. This just is not true, it is frankly a ‘porky’. Now, of course, there are those who for political reasons, ignorance or simply a lack of time and or ability reject the traditional sound system of the Gaelic language, but these are a minority.
The black and white distinction often portrayed between Galltacht and Gaeltacht, between learners and native speakers does not exist, there is no conflict. In my experience, the ‘problem’ is created by those who attempt to align themselves with what they believe are the views of native speakers, I term them ‘pseudo-natives’, and try to create the impression that they are part of the native speaker ‘us’ as opposed to non-native speaker ‘them’.
Each and every time I see this it just seems to me to be a toxic mix of defeatism and personal antagonisms.
The question most often is constantly asked and fought over, “what is the best Irish” to the extent where it gets ridiculous with individuals essentially creating their own standards and spelling systems, which they have every right to do.
What is good Irish? I cannot answer that question and neither could my university professor, a renowned scholar and native speaker.
But I like the pronunciation of Omeath and Ceathrú Thaidhg, I like the crispness of a standardised statutory instrument, I like a bit of folklore from Rinn, I worship an Ceitinneach, I enjoy the strength of Conamara Irish and I rejoice in the raw vitality of the Irish of West Belfast.
However recently, whilst discussing my dilemmas regarding the vocabulary and pronunciation I adopt in radio columns (they let me a learner who mixes dialects on the radio – imagine!)  I was offered the following definition which I have now appropriated as my own, “the best Irish is the one which most people can easily understand.” 

The person who offered me this definition was brought up speaking Irish in Dublin, his mother being from the Gaeltacht – remember what I said about the black and white distinction?
This is of course the definition which I have always naturally had for English, tha’s why I haven writ this letther till ye like this, know whad a mane?

But as a final word, let me say this, so much of what I have said above could be expressed by the one word – ‘purism’.

So if you have to google, type in the words, David Crystal, purism and minority.


18 thoughts on “Want to learn Irish? A word in your ear if I may

  1. This is the best thing I've ever read about Scottish Gaelic learners.

    I know it was actually about Irish learners but it is just as true of Scottish Gaelic learners – a subject I care deeply about and wrote my PhD about.

    I particularly like the pseudo-native idea and that “often in a post-colonial situation hopelessness can come to be seen as a native trait and is actually aspired to.” I know many “pseudo-natives” who feel that any anti-Gaelic/learner sentiment from a native speaker is authentic whereas any pro-Gaelic/learner sentiment from a native speaker is taken to be non-authentic and contaminated by learner philosophy etc etc.

    I wish we could get “authenticity” out of the equation and have diversity accepted as a good thing as much in Gaelic society as it is in mainstream society!



  2. I think this is an incredible article! I have just wasted a week on a forum hearing people batter each other concerning their expertise in Irish. It is like this author was listening in to the entire conversation.


  3. Ciarán, that's a great piece, thanks. You have basically summed up my learning experience, so far. The thing is, sometimes even learning is not enough. Sometimes learners, genuine learners (though that itself is a silly concept) are looked down upon by those learned, or who have learned to such a degree that it's is off putting. The unwillingness to understand the different experience, progression, passion or otherwise, or even just simple curiosity of a learner by those who have either learned the language or are native speakers (much less so than the former) can often be understood as a certain type of snobbery. It can be completely off putting, but not to all. Another trait of this superior brigade is grammatical purity. If a learner uses or spells words or expressions in 'dialect' or even slightly incorrectly, then it must be incessantly pointed out. This 'me and everyone is a teacher' mode is nothing short of constricting and terribly counter-productive to the learner that it seems that it's almost like the ''expert'' doesn't want the learner to progress, but actually just feel superior because they 'know'.

    What you have said here is one part of the pilars of hercules.. great article!


  4. I want to jump up and down screaming “amen”! You have perfectly summed up what I've found off-putting in many on-line Irish language forums (Ironically, I've learned much of my Irish from these forums as well — mainly from the old IGTF, may it rest in peace — but I have to wonder how many people have given up on the whole thing as a bad job after encountering this kind of “purism”). Excellent article!


  5. Sin é.
    i) lucht teangeolaíochta ar 'Daltaí na Gaeilge,'
    ii) do Rómán agus a leithidí nach dtuigeann moladh d'iarracht is iad iomlán tógtha suas lena nglórtha féin,
    iii) dóibh siúd a scríobhann le Caps Lock,
    deirim 'Stopaigí.”
    Tá sibh ag déanamh damáiste don teanga. Tá cúnamh uaibh.

    Fáilte roimh bhotúin ☺ mar tá sé nádúrtha.

    Mol an óige…


  6. An-mhaith a Chiaráin,

    One other view to watch out for is the defeatist in realist's clothing. They urge an honest, realistic assesment of the language's health, but all you get is a long list of reasons why the Gaeltacht will die, the revival will fail etc etc, ignoring or dismissing any positive developments.


  7. Ciarán, you are a “revivalist”, and it may indeed have been an error to toss aside the Irish language, but that doesn't seem to be something that can be feasibly reversed, as the numbers of native speakers in the Gaeltacht are too low to refertilise the country as a whole. Basically, I'm a old romantic, and so I regret the fact that the language of the Beaker Folk has been lost!!

    Look, you've made it clear that for you the language is political. There is nothing wrong with that, but your political stance leads you to support fake Irish – an Irish never spoken before in history in Ireland. The Irish of the dreaded Caighdeán Oifigiúil – made up in Dublin, with Anglophone pronunciation and thousands of made-up words. What is the Irish for AIDS? Well, whatever you would claim it to be (there is an absurd term on focal.ie for it), you won't hear it from Irish native speakers – and in the end, that means the word is fake. Along with thousands of entries on focal.ie. What is a “charmed quark” in Irish? You can find it on focal.ie too – but particle physics has never been done in Irish, and so the word is a made up thing.

    I'm not suggesting you shouldn't try to revive the language. But if you do, you should revive it in an authentic Gaeltacht form, replete with English words for things that native speakers don't use a Gaelic word for. You're clearly from the North – you could base your revival on Rann an Feirste. Although, as owner of the corkirish.wordpress.com blog, I think the CO was an enormous mistake, and the Irish of Peadar Ua Laoghaire should have been the basis for Standard Irish.

    The raw vitality of the Irish of West Belfast – is just the same as the raw vitality of the French learned in school in Northern Ireland – a second language learned by learners, some of them with good pronunciation, and most of them with atrocious pronunciation in the target language. You could admire the enthusiasm of the Irish-learning community in West Belfast – but their language will not be a patch on that of the Gaeltacht, because they are all L2 speakers speaking a language imperfectly.

    You have made clear you are not a native speaker. So you are not qualified to be a radio journalist on Reidió na Gaelthacht. That is all there is to it.


  8. GNG, you suspect wrong. Why would I mean Raidió na Gaeltachta? I think I should have put a síneadh fada there: Réidió na Gaelthacht. Have you ever heard the word réidió pronounced? Raidió it is not. Also – words in -acht generally do not have a declined genitive in Munster Irish. See Scéalaíocht Amhloaibh Í Luínse for plentiful examples of that. So it is: Réidió na Gaelthacht.


  9. Cork Irish:

    Is féidir do dhearcadh féin bheith agat gan aon agó agus molaim thú as canúint ar leith a fhoghlaim – mar a deir tú, níl aon rud cearr leis sin.

    Ach ar an iomlán tá tú i do chónaí i mbolgán, agus tá mise sásta go bhfuil. Athraíonn agus fobraíonn teangacha i gcónaí – sin mar a dhéanann pobail dul chun cinn sa saol seo ina bhfuil muid.

    Mar sin coinnigh ort ar do bhóthar féin agus rachaidh na mílte Gael eile sa tír – idir chainteoirí duchais, nua-chainteoirí dúchais agus foghlaimeoirí – ag labhairt na teanga seo agus méadú phobal na Gaeilge ar feadh na mblianta fada atá le teacht.

    Ádh mór.


  10. tá tú i do chónaí i mbolgán – literal translation of a nonsense English original… This is just rubbish. Gaelainn chaca.

    Look – all languages develop, but only the native speakers have the right and ability to develop a language properly. If non-native speakers are developing the language, then they're speaking Gaelainn chaca to each other. Let's have more Gaelainn na Múmhan, and less Gaelainn an Mhúin


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