“Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” – the cultural significance of the Irish language

By Rachel McLoughlin / January 18, 2021
irish language

The Irish language is said to be one of the oldest and most historic written languages in the world. In Ireland, our language is a window into our country’s rich history, with the earliest written forms of the Irish language estimated to date all the way back to the 3rd or 4th century, inscribed on stone in the Ogham alphabet. Fast forward 1500 years or so and today you’ll find it on road signs and official documents and even learn it during your fourteen or so years of schooling…and then what?

The 2016 Census results showed that, while almost 1.8 million of the Irish population claim to be able to speak Irish, just over 400,000 of those indicated they never spoke it, with a further half a million claiming they only use it within the education system. Centuries of colonialism and widespread emigration from Ireland to countries like the U.S. and Canada meant English became most Irish peoples’ first language over the years, more so as a survival instinct than anything else. And, so sparks the age-old question – why is it even important to learn Irish if we all speak English anyway?

One of the reasons Irish is so significant for our country is the interdependence of culture and language – it goes without saying that a country’s language is a window into its heritage, and Ireland is no different. This fact is reflected in the widely recognisable and historic Irish phrase, “tír gan teanga, tír gan anam, or in English, “a country without language is a country without soul”, proclaimed by the revolutionary Pádraig Pearse, one of the leading figures of the 1916 Easter Rising.

The influence of British colonisation on our country’s history is massive, and the Irish language was just one of many casualties at the hands of the British invasion of Ireland. The use of the Irish language was widely discouraged under British rule, especially through education; with the introduction of national schools across Ireland in the 1830s, English was the sole language through which children could be taught, with Irish strictly forbidden. When the Great Famine of 1845-1849 hit, the Irish population dropped by 20-25% due to deaths by starvation and mass emigration. The worst hit areas of the famine were rural areas, which were also the predominantly Irish-speaking communities, causing a further decline in speakers of the Irish language. 

The Irish language and its speakers started to become heavily stigmatised in Ireland, with Irish deemed the language of outcasts and the dispossessed. The majority of the remaining Irish speakers were those in rural, underdeveloped areas, those who were regarded with contempt as peasants, with English – branded as the wealthier and more sophisticated language – slowly becoming the language of the cities. Our relationship with Britain throughout history has been a rocky one, but today, as a proudly sovereign nation at the hands of our revolutionary ancestors, one would expect more emphasis placed on learning the language that was once the native one of our people, to establish our independence and cultural identity as one totally unique and unmarred by anglicisation.

Another reason Irish is important is it tells a lot about our history in a way English alone can’t. Placenames in Ireland are one example of how English translations cannot always tell the full story. Each Irish name for a city or town has a meaning or story to it, with the English translations of them usually just drawing from the phonetic sound of the word in English, like Donegal, deriving from the Irish Dún na nGall. Dún na nGall translates to “fort of the foreigners”, a fitting name for the county as back in the day, Donegal was a centre of conflict in resistance to English forces, with the famous Siege of Donegal taking place in 1601.

irish language

Photo by Brian Kelly on Unsplash

Every Irish name has a meaning behind it dating back hundreds of years and telling a story about the place of origin. Former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, worded it well when she wrote in the Irish Times about her attachment to the Irish language and her journey of incorporating more Irish into her life as President; she tells how her comprehension of the language revealed “so much” previously hidden – “now I saw the creativity, the beauty and the artistry at first hand … my understanding of Irish identity was enhanced and enriched every step of the way”.

This sentiment rings true more than ever when looking at Irish place names – learning the true translation of an Irish town tells you every step of its history, the battles that took place, the old lakes or castles or forts that defined the town. The Placenames Database of Ireland, available on logainm.ie, is a database containing all these place names and the meanings behind them, ensuring the meanings are not lost in translation, or anglicisation.

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Not only place names, but in our everyday conversations we say words and phrases that – possibly without us knowing – derive from Irish, such as common phrases like “giving out”, Irish slang for being told off or reprimanded, which comes from a direct translation of the Irish “tabhair amach”. Many well-known English terms used globally come from Irish too, like “whiskey” – a drink believed to have its roots in Ireland – coming from the Irish “uisce beatha”, or “water of life”.

It’s clear that there is a huge history regarding the Irish language, and that its influence is found all around us. However, with just 1.7% of the population actually speaking it on a daily basis, it’s clear that the effects of past British rule have not exactly subsided. In fact, issues with the future of the Irish language have often pointed towards the way in which it is taught in schools – huge criticisms of the Irish education system lie with the focus at secondary school level on learning poetry and prose, with students forced to focus more on regurgitating essay answers rather than focusing on actual Irish conversational skills.

Many leave school complaining about finishing fourteen years of schooling and barely being able to string a sentence together in Irish. A mix of defeatist attitudes that “no one speaks it anyway” combined with a poor syllabus makes for a dangerous mix for the future of the Irish language. The answer is more funding and planning at government level, and the Irish government is making steps to improve this – the 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010–2030 aims to increase the number of daily Irish speakers to 250,000 by 2030. The number currently sits at 73,803, having dropped from 77,185 from the 2011 Census.

While government proposals look promising, many Irish language initiatives implemented by the State have fallen upon deaf ears in the past. A 2014 report by An Comisinéir Teanga, or the Irish Language Commissioner, found that, although from 2013 it was announced that public bodies that use recorded announcements on their telephone services must have the recording in both Irish and English, only two out of 32 local authorities using recorded messages were compliant with this rule. With Irish considered “definitely endangered” by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, it’s time the cultural significance of the Irish language is recognised by the Irish people, and that government initiatives aren’t all-talk, no action.

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Rachel McLoughlin

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