Opinion: this may be the perfect opportunity for those who wish to re-engage with Irish or any other language
A sense of weary déjà vu accompanies level 5 restrictions. We all want to go back to normal, but we've been struggling to adjust to the new normal, and lo!, the next normal is almost upon us. The original lockdown in March brought a sudden decrease in drinking and dining-out options so various trends of home brewing, baking and curing quickly emerged. The 2km and 5km restrictions saw unprecedented foot- and bike-traffic on local lanes and paths. Gardens and green spaces were appreciated and scrutinised as never before.
The more relaxed phases of the lockdown then witnessed some well-known Irish people publicly coming to terms with their relationship with the State's first official language. Best-selling author Louise O’Neill recently talked of the shame she felt at not being able to speak Irish while visiting the Gaeltacht. Her latest novel is set on a fictional Gaeltacht island, and includes snippets of Irish. Not content with these token phrases, O'Neill has enrolled in an online course, and says she looks forward to being able to converse in Irish.
Earlier in the summer, coverage of the Fleadh Cheoil on TG4 caused singer Imelda May to say she was "overcome with grief for a language that was stolen from me". Messages of support and encouragement followed on social media, including advice on how to go about returning to Irish. The idea of "having to learn like a child my own teanga" was a source of "embarrassment" for May.
From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry Show, Ola Majekodunmi from Radio Na Life on learning Irish as an adult and the best way to do it
In normal circumstances, the return of schools in September is followed by the commencement of night classes. Adult education is a big draw in Ireland and language courses are always a popular choice. This year, many of these courses have been forced to go online, like the one Louise O'Neill is taking in Gaelchultúr.
Nowadays, the default answer to an adult asking "how can I learn Irish?" is "download Duolingo, and work through the levels". Apps like this primarily facilitate the acquisition and reinforcement of vocabulary. This can be especially useful in the case of Irish, as most people will remember a relatively large amount of words from their school days. Practice games and drills thus help (re)learners to develop confidence in their grasp of the language.
Taking the next step, and putting vocabulary into use, is a different challenge. Here, technology is a poor substitute for the real thing. A conversation class interrupted by slow broadband, or the unnatural dynamics of the medium, can cause language learners to despair. Unfortunately, the role of the physical in situ night course cannot be successfully filled by a virtual replacement.
From RTÉ Archives, Jim Sherwin reports from Gormanston College in 1970 for Watch Your Language where modern techniques for language learning are being used.
In returning to the language, as O'Neill has done and as May yet might, attention is drawn to the many ticklish questions pertaining to Irish. These relate both to the teaching of the language, and the vitality of the Gaeltacht and seem to flare up periodically.
In 2014, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny remarked that Joe McHugh's Irish was 'rusty', just as McHugh was being appointed minister with responsibility for the Gaeltacht. An article in the Irish Times on the folly of Fine Gael's approach to the matter caused outrage amongst both Irish speakers and those unsympathetic to the language.
The current government has also been accused of neglect of the Gaeltacht. As evidence one could cite Catherine Martin's portfolio, the almost Orwellian brief of Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. Could anyone fulfil such a role successfully?
From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in November 2016, contributors to Duolingo's Irish course are to be honoured by President Michael D Higgins
It comes as no surprise that Louise O'Neill should feel the pull of Irish: Joyce, Synge and many other writers before her sought inspiration in the language. More will follow her in time to come. Equally, an artist like Imelda May, acutely aware of the power of words, and the possibilities of language, was unlikely to remain immune to what Irish can offer.
With this in mind, we understand more clearly the cause of her 'embarrassment' at ‘having to learn like a child’. Children rarely produce the kind of wrought language which O’Neill and May strive to create. Relearning a language is a lesson in humility: you immediately surrender the ability to say whatever you want, whenever you want. Humour and sarcasm are automatically curtailed; flowery, descriptive phrases may come in time, but pithy, wisdom-laden sayings (beyond a handful of hackneyed proverbs) are definitely out of reach for the early-stage (re)learner.
Those who wish to re-engage with Irish, or any other language, in the new lockdown should not lose faith. Accept that your linguistic freedoms, as your physical movements, will be restricted for a time. Language learning can be slow and tedious, and progress may seem minimal. But the slog earns a great reward. Whether it be understanding a line of a song or a poem in its original, or having a basic conversation in the target tongue, the feeling of achievement is ample reward for the effort.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ