Dreaming in Irish
My great-grandmother, Anna Peterson (nee Thorsen) was a Norwegian immigrant to America at the beginning of the 20th century. When she arrived, she spoke no English. Becoming fluent in English was no easy task. Initially taken on as a domestic in genteel Boston, she was let go from her job and sent 'to be with the other heathen Scandinavians in Minnesota' after an incident on a tram (she accidentally stepped on the skirt of the woman in front of her when boarding, causing the skirt to detach and momentarily forgetting the English for 'I'm sorry' waved her hand frantically and said 'never mind, never mind.' Her employers were not impressed.)
But its fortunate she was cast out to Minnesota as that's where she met my great-grandpa, Hans (Aas) Peterson. They had three boys. Although Hans wrote poetry in Norwegian, they forbade their sons to speak Norwegian at home because they wanted to encourage English as their first language. My mom regrets that her dad had no Norwegian but as an immigrant I can understand wanting your kids to be completely accepted in the country you live in and not being thought of as 'different'.
My great-grandmother knew she was finally fluent in English when she started dreaming in it. I am a long way off dreaming in Irish.
I was interested in learning Irish long before I moved here. I took a year of Irish language at Boston College ('91-'92) and augmented this with Irish classes at UCC in the summer of '92. When I moved to Dublin, in 1995, one of my house-mates gave me Irish lessons to help me along. I admit, I was not the most motivated student. Besides a personal desire to speak Irish, there was no practical reason to have it (unfortunately). I was also quite surprised by the amount of people in Ireland who don't speak Irish. Even though they were exposed to it for 12 years in school. My initial surprise and incredulousness slowly turned to acceptance. And pragmatism.
I love and deeply respect languages in general. Nothing else so perfectly captures the expression in one's heart than the words we use to express our thoughts and feelings. For this reason, I find it deeply regrettable that languages can, over time, die out. There is a sense of loss there, one that cannot be filled. And yet languages are such fluid organisms - they do change and progress over time, whether the language guardians wish them to or not. History has proven that we humans cannot eradicate any spoken language any more than we can force a group to take one on. As a human expression, language is a very personal and important right.
A (gaelgoir) friend of mine recently admitted he has stopped dreaming in Irish, although he did for some time. A true lover of the language, he lamented to me that the way Irish is taught in schools is regrettable - that this has done more to discourage people from being interested in it than encouraging people to learn it. As a parent, I can see his point. When my daughter entered primary school I was very excited as I thought this was a great opportunity for us both to improve our Irish, together. (I had personally been exposing my daughter to cúpla leabhair i nGaeilge via Conradh na Gaelige since she was a baby. I can just about get through Bran me-fein.) Unfortunately to-date, we have not been inspired (yet) by our exposure to Irish through school. But maybe its better that way. Maybe we shouldn't rely upon the State for this. Maybe we should learn it not because we have to but because we want to. Practically, my daughter is keen for us to have a secret language we can use when visiting our relations in America. It might seem trite but we (and I'm speaking for myself, anseo) need practical reasons to keep it going. Its far to easy to fall back on using Béarla mar go bhfuil sé chomh éasca.
I don't know what the answer is regarding promoting the Irish language except that I sense any growth must come from a grass-roots base. I thought the bród movement of a couple years back was very smart indeed. Not only because it made Irish fun (vs an academic chore) but because it really brought Irish words into the day-to-day Hiberno-English we speak. And that's important. Words fall in and out of favour all the time. If we can make Irish cool again...or at least easily accessible...there's no telling what might happen.
One day, I might dream in Irish.
|Census 2011: percentage stating they can speak Irish (Wikimedia Commons via SkateTier)||Census 2011: percentage stating they speak Irish on a daily basis outside of the education system. (Wikimedia Commons via SkateTier)|