By William J. Furney
Browsing the rails of a Zara in Cardiff earlier this year, trying to find my usual white tee, I heard a melodic language I didn’t understand; and in a flash I realised how the ancient tongue of my homeland really was dead while the one here, in Wales, was alive and in everyday use — even trumping the national (British) tongue: English.
The next morning, there it was again: a gaggle of girls beside me on a platform at the main train station, talking excitedly about something, in Welsh.
In Ireland, it’s compulsory to learn Irish in school until you take your final secondary-level exams, aged 18; apart from a few exceptions, like students with special needs or those who have lived outside Ireland for a while, there is no choice in the matter. Few (none) of my fellow classmates liked gaeilge, and most of us considered it a waste of time — we would never use it and would be better off studying something else, or learning a real-world language that might be of benefit, like Spanish, French, German, even Chinese (although we had French classes too).
By the time I left school, and after all those tortuous Irish lessons, from the time I started school, at four years old, I could barely speak Irish (although I passed all the exams). Certainly, when the Irish-language news came on the TV or radio, I hadn’t a clue what they were on about.
What a waste.
It was said the language was taught in a clinical, almost robotic way that had little to do with the way it was actually used, in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht parts of western Ireland and the tiny Aran islands off it where it’s predominant — in a pub one evening on one of those bereft, wind-swept islets, I encountered a Guinness-drinking local man who only spoke Irish and claimed he had no English (and asked me to buy him a pint, a request in gaeilge I barely managed to decipher).
Successive Irish governments insist on students learning Irish, and it had been a requirement for entry into the gardai (police) as well as teaching and other positions, such as the civil service — rules that have since been scrapped. Some universities in Ireland still require, somewhat controversially, given the increased diversity of the Irish population in recent times, that applicants have at least a pass in Irish in their final secondary school exams, known as the Leaving Certificate.
Consonant-stuffed Welsh is notoriously hard to learn, including for the prince of Wales who is now King Charles. Brits and others travelling around the picturesque nation are often baffled by road and other signage in the native language; and Welsh words can be alarmingly lengthy, as with the longest of them all: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which is the name of a town.
Just as the Irish language is largely unused and fading (and a heavy burden on students), Welsh is becoming more popular than ever. The Welsh government has set a goal of achieving 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050 — meaning, in a country of 3.1 million people, those who use the language every day. Much of the plan centres around education support, starting at nursery nursery school.
“Our vision for our language is outward-looking and inclusive and I want everyone in Wales to feel like the language belongs to us all,” said Education and Welsh Language Minister Jeremy Miles, when the scheme was announced last year. “I look forward to working with our partners, across Wales, to give as many people as possible the opportunity to enjoy learning and using Welsh.”
Apart from the outdated language diktats in Ireland, you’re unlikely to hear someone on the streets of Ireland saying “Conas atá tú? (How are you), the way you might certainly catch the same greeting a short hop across the Irish sea: Sut wyt ti?
Several years ago I found myself in a pub in central Dublin one evening, having flown into the capital earlier in the day. “Go raibh maith agat” (thank you) I said as a pint of the black stuff was placed before me. The only response was a puzzled look. It may have been in the same place that the barman told me of a Chinese man who decided to travel somewhere in the world, only he didn’t know which country to choose. So he spun a globe, closed his eyes and place a finger on the orb as it slowed: Ireland, a small island on the westermost flank of Europe, would be his destination, and the impending traveller, thinking it was an Irish-speaking-only nation, set about learning gaeilge, until he was fluent.
When he turned up in the sodden Emerald Isle and opened his mouth — speaking his new language — no one knew what he was on about.
Sometimes somethings, and some parts of our culture, are best off left to die out. Because no amount of resuscitation will bring them back to life.
Tá fáilte romhat/Croeso (you’re welcome).
- Title photograph, of Cardiff Central railway station, by William J. Furney.