Credit: Gript

Why ‘tír gan teanga, tír gan anam’ isn’t enough

Ferdiad? Was he down the pub with Fintan and Fiachra for the rugby? And what does ‘ní tír gan teanga’ mean anyway?

Irish revolutionary Pádraig Pearse wrote that a country without a language is a country without a soul, that there is no country without a language, and his words have been quoted endlessly by those who wish to promote the revival of the Irish language.

Unfortunately, there is far more to it than that.

While this may seem like something of a bold assertion, on the one hand we have countries like Australia and the USA, neither of whom have a language of their own, yet can anyone deny they are unique nations with their own identities?

And on the other hand we can ask, if Irish is so important to establishing our national identity, does someone born in Ireland who can’t speak Irish really have a distinct identity as an Irish person, or are they some sort of frankenpaddy with one foot in Boston and the other in London?

The answers to these questions are depressingly clear – yes of course you can have a country without its own language and no, the Irish language isn’t really all that important to Irish identity today.

If that sounds agreeable, hold the applause, this article isn’t trying to suggest that we don’t need to revive the Irish language or that the Irish language isn’t important – it absolutely is important and it would be an incomparable tragedy to lose it along with everything else that has been taken away from us as a nation.

Irish is important. It just isn’t enough.

In the same way that you can learn French without ever really touching on or understanding French cuisine, wine, music or culture, all of the things that make France unique and beautiful, mastering Irish does little to put you in touch with the soul of Ireland. After all, if google translate can do the job almost as well as a native speaker, how much of the culture and spirit of a people can the language alone bring with it?

In and of itself Irish can all too often be little more than a politicised paper-thin mask, a status symbol in certain circles, a shibboleth of admission, or a linguistic feather in the cap.

I spoke with a person studying medieval Irish, a historical period of interest to me, and I asked them had they learned anything of the clans and families of medieval Ireland during the course of their studies, anything about the customs and events of the time. No, it turned out, they had not, they knew nothing of medieval Ireland and for that matter had little interest in improving their understanding.

But what subject matter did they intend to read with their medieval Irish except the doings of the clans and the culture of the period?

Now I should emphasise at this point that I have great respect for gaelgoirí and those who earnestly learn and love Irish for its own sake as part of Irish culture. But if you ask an average gaeilgeoir about the folklore of Ireland, the beliefs and celebrations of those who came before us, our ancestors and forebears, you will more likely than not be met with a puzzled look.

The first judgement of Cormac Mac Art, the rich lore of cursing as Gaeilge, pattern days, the reason why we have bonfires at Halloween, the fairy stroke, Nera’s adventures beneath the hill, the wisdom of the different types of aristocratic trees, the battles with the péists or great wyrms, the fitness of names, where Bram Stoker first got his inspiration for vampires, the triads of wit, and the very jewel of ancient Irish culture, the Tailteann games – an endless list of cultural icons, most of which are complete mysteries to the modern Irish speaker.

And worse, not only is it rare to find knowledge of the heritage of Ireland living among the masters of our national tongue, often enough they see no reason why anyone would want to know, and can become suspicious about a person’s motives if someone does express an interest in such things.

You’re not some kind of nationalist are you, how gauche.

And yet without a connection to our history, our own magnificent, exuberant, enchanting treasury of culture and mythology, the Irish language is unlikely to go far except as a kind of eerily stilted academic subculture, one among many in an increasingly fractured society. It is a car without fuel, a stove without wood.

Again I write with true respect for those who have preserved so much of Ireland’s cultural beauty, not to brand gaelgoirí as some kind of unwitting (or even witting and willing) ethnic iconoclasts, purveyors of unmoored cargo culture, but that preservation shouldn’t become an impediment to Ireland’s future either.

What can be done, you ask?

I would call, as others have done before me with varying degrees of success, for a reconnection of the Irish language with the ancient spirit of Ireland. Let us restore the festivals and arts, let us teach the Book of Invasions in our schools, let us weave the fabric of Irish culture in an unbroken tapestry stretching back to the very earliest days, let us enjoy anew a taste of hazelnut mead at the table of those who came before, a vintage so rare and refreshing that tales tell of people risking death for a sip.

Go out of your way to learn Irish folklore, connect with your community to breathe new life into the festivals and traditions of our grandparents, and yes, try to dust off the cúpla focail now that you have a reason for doing so. Make it a part of your everyday life and never mind the haters. The rewards will be endless on a personal, local and national level.

Ní tír gan teanga? No.

Ní tír gan cultúr. Ní tír gan nós.

We are not America, we are not Australia, and if we try to become these countries it won’t end well. The vision of an Ireland disconnected from its past is a vision without a future. We have our own culture, customs and traditions, if only we remember them.


RM DeBurca 

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