In the early 1990s, a friend of mine got a job building a new Tube line in London.
At the interview, the rather gruff employer told him that he only employed men from Connemara, Kerry, and Donegal. “So, where are you from?” he asked the young man from Galway.
“Connemara,” he replied, and it was only really a white lie as Bearna, on the western fringes of Galway City, is right on the edge of the Connemara Gaeltacht.
On the following Monday morning, when he turned up for work, he realised the reason behind the employer’s unusual stipulation.
To a man, every single person working in the tunnel deep under the bowels of the British capital spoke Irish. From 7am until the close of business each day, he never heard a word of English, as the ‘hard’ men on the site worked valiantly to extend the London Underground.
My friend became extremely fit, thanks to the back-breaking work, and perfected the Irish he had honed in an all-Irish school.
|An Ghaeltacht: where our native tongue has survived|
For a year, the experience gave him a wonderful glimpse into the Irish emigration experience, which had gone on for a couple of centuries.
How many men and women from these parts had set sail on the ‘coffin ships’ for Australia or America without a word of English to their name?
They lived in Irish ghettoes, drank and went to Church together, and some of them never really assimilated into the culture of the country they had emigrated to.
My friend lasted a year on the huge site, before another friend – after losing his job as a chef – convinced him he was crazy after trying it out for just one week. Both of them subsequently moved back to Ireland.
I thought of my friend’s back-breaking job this week, when a strange issue of “racism” against Irish-speaking players raised its head following a club Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) game in Co Galway.
An investigation is underway into allegations that a referee told a team from the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking area) not to speak Irish during the game.
The GAA has confirmed that an investigation is on-going into complaints made by the Na Piarsaigh/Ros Muc GAA club following a game against city side Salthill/Knocknacarra.
Na Piarsaigh, from Rosmuc in the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht, made an official complaint following comments allegedly made by the official during the game which took place at the coastal village of Rossaveal.
Broadcaster Sean Ban Breathnach, who is from the Connemara Gaeltacht, told the Connacht Tribune that players who spoke Irish were often abused by supporters on the terraces or opposition managers, rather than rival players.
“You hear things like ‘Go back to the bog in Connemara’,” he said. “It’s this attitude that if you’re from Connemara, and speak Irish, you are thick. It’s abuse. It happens.”
He alleged that referees sometimes asked players for their “real names” when they were not satisfied with the Irish language version of their names during GAA games.
Former Galway All-Ireland winning midfielder Sean O Domhnaill said it was an issue within Galway GAA club football, even though the county boasted the biggest Gaeltacht (or Irish-speaking area) in the country.
But he said GAA players from Connemara viewed the Irish language as an advantage, as it allowed them to communicate with each other on the field. Often, their opponents would not understand a word they were saying.
“There are things I’d be able to say and the opposition wouldn’t know what we were saying,” said O Domhnaill. “Of course, they are going to tell you to shut up. But when they do that, you know you’re winning. For me, speaking Irish was always an advantage, and we used it to our advantage.”
Galway GAA County Board Secretary John Hynes confirmed that a complaint was made by the Na Piarsaigh / Rosmuc club, and by one of the club officials.
He said that the inquiry into the matter would be concluded in 10 days.
|A club football game in Galway|
Photo: Connacht Tribune.
One of the great things about living in Galway is that Irish is still a ‘living’ language in a way which is so different from Dublin, Cork, or Limerick.
It’s not unusual to hear two women from An Spideal discussing the cost of living ‘as Gaeilge’ during a chance encounter in the pedestrianized Shop Street area of the city or to hear an enthusiastic debate about sporting matters on the Go Bus home after a weekend in Dublin.
I regularly hear young lads from Connemara conversing in Irish in the changing-room at my gym, and I love to compliment them on how wonderful it is to hear the language being spoken in such a natural context.
And the great thing is they don't feel any sense of shame, or inferiority complex, about speaking in their native language.
It wasn’t always that way. In the 1950s, men from Connemara used to line up on the main street of an East Galway village in order to get a day’s work as farm labourers in one of the nearby villages.
If they built up a rapport with an East Galway farmer, they would work and stay with his family for months on end.
And it was not uncommon for the East Galway children to make fun of the Connemara men’s poor command of the English language, as though speaking the first language of a country which had been colonised was something to be ashamed of.
Connemara is now one of just three main Gaeltacht areas across the country, including parts of Co Kerry and Co Donegal, where the Irish language continues to be used as a “living” language on a daily basis.
It is estimated that there are now just 40,000 to 80,000 “fully native” Irish speakers across the Republic of Ireland, which has a population of 4.75 million. Many more would have some understanding of the language.
The history of the Irish language is invariably linked with the turbulent political history of the island as a whole.
Two million of the five million people estimated to be living on the island of Ireland at the end of the 18th century were monolingual Irish speakers.
Famine, epidemic, and emigration decimated the rural poor in the 19th century, when many native Irish speakers set sail for North America. Entire rural communities were wiped out in the Great Famine between 1845 and 1849.
The number of Irish speakers declined from one and a half million in 1851 to just 600,000 by the end of the century.
The establishment of the State National School system in 1831, when Ireland was part of the British Empire, prioritised the teaching of English and forced Irish speakers to teach their children at illegal “hedge schools”.
A notorious “tally stick” was used by teachers to beat children who were caught speaking Irish, and this was endorsed by many parents who felt that Irish was of little economic use to their children in an era of mass emigration.
By 1891, when only 3.5% of Under-10s spoke the language, Irish “appeared on the verge of extinction”, according to scholar Mairtin O Murchu.
The foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893 and the obligatory teaching of Irish in schools following independence in 1922 have helped to revive the language.
The 2011 Census, released by the Central Statistics Office (SCO), showed that Polish had overtaken Irish as the third most spoken language in the country.
It seems such a shame that in 2016, through ignorance, people still feel a need to belittle those who have kept our ancient language alive through centuries of oppression or discrimination.
Opposing players and referees should marvel at the fact that young sportsmen still speak the native language with such a wonderful ‘blas’, rather than ridicule a national treasure which is in danger of extinction.
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