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The Irish language is for all times, not only for St Patrick's Day | Languages

March 17, 2023
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What better way to say "Happy St Patrick's Day" than in the Irish language itself: Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh?

But although this fiesta of all things Irish has gone global, in Britain you are unlikely to hear anyone at your local pub twisting their tongue around this phrase any time soon.

That is because the language is burdened by a heavy weight of history, and an infrastructure for teaching it – that enjoys the support of the British, or indeed the Irish, governments – is conspicuous by its absence.

You can whine about the politics of this until you are green, white and orange in the face but if you want to learn Irish – and many people do – your best bet is to organise your own classes.

This strategy has long been employed by Britain's tireless Irish-language network, Coláiste na nGael. Taking a leaf out of their book, I was among residents of Sutton in London who took matters into their own hands back in 2005 by establishing a class that has survived to this day.

Its evolution offers practical lessons about the challenges of launching a community class, and broader insights into obstacles to minority languages provision – and, indeed, to cultural relations.

In its early form, our class emerged as little more than a list of potential students from an open day organised with Colaiste na nGael in a local hall.

We instantly encountered practical hurdles: there was a dire shortage of dedicated Irish-language teachers in this part of the world, no information about where to find them and no clear guidance on the curriculum for a beginner's course.

Efforts to establish stability were also hampered by the lack of a venue, and for a long time we migrated from one hall to another. Eventually we found ourselves within the warm embrace of Sutton's adult college, and thought we had arrived. Then the bill came, and for the privilege of hosting a class that we had organised ourselves the local authority charged a hefty premium, and made unforeseen bureaucratic demands. We moved on.

After a long process of natural selection, membership settled down to a core group of people who had become friends, allowing us to abandon formal venues for our teacher's living room.

The challenges we faced provide insights into official responses to minority languages in the UK, social cohesion and cultural relations, that all coalesce around one theme: indifference.

The class initially formed one element of a more ambitious initiative to create an Irish society that would provide cultural and social events, and lobby the local authority to improve provision for this community.

Initially, this prospered, enjoying a wellspring of support from within the Irish community that built on the positive climate generated by the peace process. It was as if people had found new confidence after years of keeping their heads down.

But eventually our initiative withered – in no small measure because it failed to gain anything resembling a meaningful commitment from the local council.

Don't get me wrong: there was no antipathy and some individual officials were very helpful. No, the problem we encountered was much more corrosive: indifference.

This took many forms but can be summarised in a sentiment often muttered in this period: that the council as a corporate body did not equate Irish culture with that of other minorities – and hence felt less of an obligation to this community.

For us it was no trivial matter. While it is relatively easy to set up a language class, it is much harder to keep it going – and that is why the strategic commitment of a local authority to this kind of cultural initiative is so important.

But our local experience also illustrates a wider, national obstacle to social cohesion– the lack of equitable recognition of cultures that are valued by their communities.

This issue remains highly contentious and continues to sour relations within Northern Ireland. Within the wider UK, it is reflected in the complete absence of an appropriately resourced national infrastructure for teaching the Irish language.

Indifferent officials in any doubt about the cultural value that minority communities place upon their languages would do well to examine a key demographic attribute of our class.

Despite the oft-restated notion that learning a language gets more difficult as you get older, most of those who have stayed the course are elderly and retired.

These are first-generation immigrants now fully integrated into British life who had, as children, learned basic Irish in a homeland that has been transformed in their absence. The class reconnects them with memories of a distinctive way of life that they can share with likeminded people.

Our initiative speaks volumes about the need for minority languages to enjoy central and local government support, but also about ways around official indifference.

Perhaps most importantly, it also points to a seemingly oxymoronic dimension of the way in which minority languages endure: the elderly can be the most dynamic element in the equation.

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