The Basques have a saying in their language which means “The first and last words in Euskera” (Basque language): “Lehen eta azken hitzak euskeraz”. The Irish would do well to adopt the slogan or dictum for their own: “Na céad focail agus na focail deiridh i nGaeilge”.
The Basques developed their slogan (the word is from the Irish, slua-ghairm: to call the crowd/ multitude/ troop) in their movement to conserve their native language and spread it among those who had abandoned it. The Basque homeland (which was certainly once larger than it is now) is today situated on the north-west of the Spanish state and the south-west of the French one. Their language is considered an older arrival to Europe than all other languages extant upon the continent, to be not of Indo-European origin and so not of the same family group as any of the nearby Romance languages: Galician, Asturian, Castillian, Languedoc (Occitan), French, Catalan.
Within the territories they control, Spanish and French state administrations have dominated and suppressed all the languages other than Castillian and French; they have done so through official disregard, censure, shaming, even physical punishment and jail. But the Basques have struggled to keep their language alive and to spread it among those who have lost it. And they have been much more successful at doing so than we Irish have at doing the same thing with an Ghaeilge. The Catalans have done much better yet, certainly in Catalunya itself1.
So, why the slogan of “first and last words in Euskera” and what happens in-between? Is it intended like the “cúpla focal” (“couple of words”) of Irish politicians (and increasingly, not even that many), a kind of mini-lip-service? Not at all, its intention is restorative towards the language and is a practical measure which anyone can adopt — indeed we in Ireland should embrace it for our own language.
When we meet someone, we greet them and, in Ireland, the majority of us do so in English. Having done so, the rest of the conversation is likely to continue in English too. Taking our leave of them, naturally, we tend to do so in English also.
The impression on anyone within hearing of this exchange and so many like it is that Irish does not exist or, if it does, hardly anyone in Ireland knows it or, if they do, don’t use it in their daily life. Not far from the truth, one might comment. Indeed but the reality is that a lot more know the language (or some of it at least) than one might think.
Let’s return to that interaction touched upon earlier, when one person meets another. It could be a customer in a bar, restaurant or shop. One of them says “Hello”, the other replies likewise and from there onwards the verbal communication is all in English. Or another scenario, a friend or acquaintance of one, introduces another in English and both who are strangers proceed in English also.
Perhaps the customer and the shop assistant, waiter or bartender in the first example were fluent Irish-speakers or at least competent – none knows this about the other and they continue in the dominant language, English; each may return home later without having spoken a word of Irish that day. The strangers being introduced to one another by a mutual acquaintance, perhaps at work on in a social setting, may have a similar experience.
Suppose that instead the customer or person being introduced had greeted in Irish? The recipient of the greeting now has the choice, assuming some knowledge of the language, to respond likewise. Should this occur, they can now proceed to the limits of their knowledge of the language or of the situation in which they find themselves. Other factors govern the choice being made but we can discuss those later.
What of the impression on those others within hearing? They might be surprised or even astonished, impressed or embarrassed; however everyone is reminded that Irish exists, that it is a medium of verbal communication and some people in Ireland use it, even outside the shrinking Irish-language reserves.
Of course, that was perhaps only two people heard speaking it in a whole month or even a year. But what if more people did the same? Why, some of those who overhear might even adopt the same habit, na céad focail in nGaeilge! Gradually at first and then suddenly, everybody would seem to be greeting in Irish! Why, it might even be worth learning a little oneself! At least enough to reply and take the conversation a sentence or two forward ….
In addition, sometimes the experience flushes out other Irish speakers too. On the top deck of a bus heading into the city centre one day, I could hear some young lads at the back of the bus (where else!) speaking in Irish. I could tell that they were not fluent but one at least was doing reasonably well. As they passed me to get off in Sráid Uí Chonaill, I remarked in Irish to them that it was great to hear the language being spoken in public. While they stumbled over a reply to me, the main across the aisle from me addressed them also, in fluent Ulster Irish. What an experience that must have been for the young lads but certainly for us, two Irish speakers a few feet away from one another and totally unaware, until that moment, of the other’s existence.
What about the last words being in Irish – just a courtesy or a whim of some kind? Well, imagine one greeted the stranger, shop assistant, waiter or bartender in Irish and the reply came in English (which at the moment would probably be the case)? Thereafter the conversation flows in English but, as the Irish speaker is leaving, she says “Slán”. By now, the other has recovered a little from being somewhat wrong-footed by being addressed in Irish and furthermore, since the customer is leaving, is not worried about exposing what he considers to be his shamefully little knowledge of the language, so he replies also in Irish, “Slán”.
Of course, that situation was not momentous for the survival of the language but neither was it totally negative. The Irish speaker draws a little comfort from it. The other feels perhaps a little pride, is maybe even encouraged to respond in Irish should he see that person again or if some other addresses him in Irish. How hard can that be? He’d do it in Crete in Greek, in Spanish in Torremolinos or in Cancun, even though he can’t speak more than a few phrases from the tourist guidebook.
Of course, it is not the same. In the first place, the linguistic environment in Greece is Greek, in Torremolinos and Cancun, Spanish. Even migrant workers there will have learned the language. Not everyone around one in Ireland is speaking Irish in public, in fact, in most places, almost no-one is.
Secondly, there is no expectation of the English-speaker to be fluent in Greek or in Spanish. No expectation that the Irish person can speak Irish either, one might think. But actually, there kind of is. Inside the head of every Irish person there is the knowledge that this is their language and a feeling, buried deeply or lightly, that perhaps they should be able to speak it.
This feeling or knowledge can manifest itself in a reluctance to expose one’s limited knowledge of Irish to the perverse but understandable extent of refusing to speak it at all. Or of responding aggressively. Those are possible outcomes but so are more positive ones.
A person who has very little Irish may think: “But if I reply ‘Dia’s Muire dhuit’ and she lets loose with a flood of Irish, I won’t know what she’s saying and I’ll be mortified! Better to say nothing at all and not be so ashamed.” Of course, that is one choice. But it is not the only possible one. He could, instead, after she spoke to him some sentences in Irish he did not understand, reply in a sentence had learned off by heart: “Gabh mo leithscéil ach níl ach cúpla focal agam” (“Excuse me, I have but a few words”). She might in turn reply: “Go raibh maith agat, úsáid a bhfuil agat” (“Thanks, use what you have”).
In that kind of exchange, there has been a positive outcome for each participant. Not a huge step forward for the language in general but for anyone overhearing, a reminder that the Irish language does exist and that in this case, a person who did not seem know it well, still chose to learn a few words and use them. All of that goes to the credit side of the ledger in the psychological struggle for the maintenance and restoration of Irish.
An issue that is often raised with regard to speaking in Irish in the company of non-speakers, is one of politeness. It is generally considered rude to speak in a language that other people in the company do not understand. Strangely enough, people tend to think that more about people speaking Irish in Ireland than they do about people speaking French, German or Spanish among themselves here.
The issue must be faced. Neither of those languages is in any danger but Irish is – and in serious danger. Despite the growth of nurseries, primary and some secondary schools teaching through Irish, the actual daily use of the language is in decline. And the Gaeltachtanna — those areas where the language of the home has always been Irish – are shrinking at an alarming rate.
We need to find social strategies for linguistically-mixed company, whether it be occasional translation for the non-Irish speakers, or the tolerance of the latter – or conversing parts in Irish and parts in English. For the sake of the language we cannot allow the rules of politeness to deprive us of every social occasion to speak in the language other than some tiny domains hidden away somewhere, small groups of us meeting like conspirators in places where we are unlikely to meet anyone we know.
Another issue often raised is related to foreigners, whether they be migrants or visitors. I would say that the same rules apply. Most of those migrants have their own language as well and speak it among themselves, in public too. And they must surely wonder why we don’t speak our own. The children of migrants are learning Irish at school and many are competent, some fluent in it. Some of their parents know a few words too: a Nepalese in a bar serves me through Irish and a Pakistani in a shop thanks me or tells me I am welcome, in Irish also.
In the public library, you may wish to greet in Irish and hand the returned books towards them saying: “Isteach”; the likelihood of you being misunderstood is minimal. Then, with the books being removed, “Amach”. In the Post Office, you can ask for “Stampa i gcóir Sasana, le do thoill” or “Stampa i gcóir na hEorpa”. To the question “Payment by cash or card?” when you present your bill, you may wish to show notes and reply “Le h-airgead” or, displaying your card, “Le cárta”. Leaving the bus or the taxi, you could say: “Go raibh maith agat, slán”. Sometimes, you will hear a reply in Irish and it will probably lift your heart a little. And the world around you will hear a little too …. and wonder.
None of that on its own, of course, will save the Irish language. But I think it will help.
The pro-independence political parties in the southern Basque Country make their public speeches either totally in Euskera or bilingually, in Euskera and Castillian. It is the same with the majority Basque trade unions. Also with the feminist and environmental movements, those against repression, against animal abuse, etc. In their public discourse, all organisations and parties in Catalunya that are not specifically Spanish-unionist (and even some of those), use Catalan first in public and Castillian secondly, if at all.
None of Ireland’s political parties (mainstream or oppositional), trade unions or campaigns (other than those specifically for the language) does anything much to promote the Irish language and some are hostile to it. That means it is up to us as individuals – everything we do for it can help at least a little.
So, as the Basques say, the first and last words in the language.
Do ye likewise; go out and multiply.
1Catalan is spoken elsewhere than in Catalunya, for example in the Paisos Catalans (“Catalan Countries”) such as Valencia and the Balearic Islands, where it is not as strong as it is currently in Catalunya, also in part of Sardinia.