Friday, March 30, 2007

Cúpla Focail ag Móráin Daoine

I have been perusing the reports from last year's Census, just published yesterday (yes, I am that type of person), and apart from the remarkable rise in foreign nationals living in Ireland (up to 10% of the population and probably higher than the amount that actually replied) the thing that has most intrigued me is the perennial question of how many Irish speakers there are in the country. In the past I have heard figures of 500,000 bandied about, which always seemed suspiciously high, particularly given that people I have shared houses with during previous censuses have ticked the 'able to speak Irish' box with very little to back up the claim.

This year, it appears the number of people able to speak Irish is a whopping 1,656,790, or roughly 40% of the population (and interestingly, women appear to be a good deal more likely than men to speak it). The population of Wales, then, and just a little short of that of Slovenia. Which makes you wonder why more people are not exercising this ability on a more regular basis, and why we do not hear more of the language on the streets of our towns and cities and in pubs and bars. When one examines the various other tables however, a different picture emerges, such as the one that tells us that 53,471 people speak it on a daily basis outside the educational system, which is a figure slightly lower than the number of Irish speakers living in the Gaeltacht (62,959) but a credible one nonetheless. Not surprisingly the figures of people who speak Irish increase as the frequency is reduced.

So, it confirms the suspicion that Irish people back home are as likely to claim proficiency in the ancestral tongue as those living abroad are. It is usually an uncostly and easy way of showing that one is different from folks in Manchester or Massachusetts. Seanachie is able to hold his own in the language, as clicking on one of the tags below this post will confirm. So I will point the finger, as it is tiring for people to be paying, well, lip service to Irish, claiming it as a petty badge of cultural difference, while making no effort to learn or speak it. Manchán Magan discovered the real hostility that persists among Irish people towards the language when he tried to get by speaking nothing but it for a Guardian article a couple of months back. The loss of the language over the past two hundred years was engineered by a peasantry aspiring to the petit bourgeoisie; now its loss has rendered much of the country, in a paradoxical way, simultaneously loquacious and inarticulate. Reminding an Irish person of their inability to speak Irish is an opening of a sore, akin to disparaging a man's sexual proficiency. But then that's probably something that would be distorted just a wee bit if it were ever to be included in the Census.