Autumn Conferrings 2006
Devere Hall, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC, 12 MFómh 2006
Professor Seán Ó Coileáin, Roinn na Nua Ghaeilge, UCC
My theme will be "Irish in the University and in Society". I hope you may indulge these my parting remarks.
All of us here today, in whatever capacity, stand in a complex relationship to the Irish language. My situation (now coming to an end), as Professor of Modern Irish and Head of that Department, is not essentially different from that of any of you, in that we must all make our own accommodation with the ever-changing reality that is Irish identity, and in that the Irish language is still and likely to continue to be an important if not essential part of that identity.
If I were to ask how many of you would willingly relinquish all knowledge of Irish or readily accept a situation in which your children would not be taught the language for at least some period of their formal education, I think that very few of you would be prepared to do so. We can say this much with confidence, because the question has often been asked in conducting language-attitude surveys, and invariably the great majority of those surveyed were not prepared to contemplate their connection with Irish being finally and completely severed.
Yet equally - and herein lies our dilemma - there would be very few of us who can visualize a situation in which Irish would be the common - or even a common - spoken language throughout the country at any time in the future. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that even the Gaeltacht areas are becoming increasingly attenuated in terms both of language richness and extent, as at least some of the present generation of speakers make the same language choice made on our behalf by our own great-grandparents or by their parents some generations ago. Yet, even if the Gaeltacht were to disappear entirely, which will not happen in my lifetime at least, this will not resolve the language dilemma. Rather, it will continue to be for each generation to say what its relationship with the Irish language will be or must be.
A generation or so ago, the matter would have seemed clearer, or at least the rhetoric surrounding it would have been more compelling. So, for instance, in the White Paper of 1965, the last comprehensive statement of Government policy with regard to Irish, it is thought necessary to give solemn assurance that, while:
"Irish must have primacy as the national language and every effort will be made to extend and intensify its use, nevertheless, for a considerable time ahead, English will remain the language chiefly used outside the Gaeltacht for various purposes.... It would also be unrealistic not to recognize that, because of our geographical position and the pattern of our economic and social relationships, a competent knowledge of English will be needed even in a predominantly Irish-speaking Ireland."
This concern that a knowledge of English be maintained in an Irish-speaking Ireland strikes us as ludicrous today, as though its demise could have been seriously contemplated - if indeed it was - as recently as 1965, when I was an undergraduate student at UCC. We have learned a great deal about the sociology of language and not a little about ourselves as a people in the interval. Later statements of language policy have been more muted, so muted, indeed, in recent times as to be scarcely heard at all. From the perspective of a university department, such as mine, the considerations are more individual, more private, relating to the fulfilment of deep psychological and educational needs, as well, of course, as academic standards.
Such language policy as it now obtains in the Irish educational system, not merely at third level but at second level also, is largely determined by the Irish-language matriculation or entry requirement of the National University of Ireland which first came into effect in 1913, some years before the achievement of political independence, and which has been maintained to the present, despite the removal in 1973 of the corresponding State requirement that, to be awarded the Leaving Certificate, one had first to obtain a pass in Irish as part of the examination.
While this divergence might not have seemed significant in the context of the early seventies when the national University (comprising UCC, UCG, UCD and Maynooth) had a virtual monopoly in the area of third-level education, and a corresponding influence on the educational system as a whole, this is no longer the case. Not alone is Trinity now fairly in the mainstream, following the removal of the Catholic ban, but two new universities have since been created (Dublin City University and the University of Limerick), and there has been an explosion of other third-level institutions (notably the Regional colleges which, in turn, have become Institutes of Technology) none of which is constrained in its recruitment by an Irish-language requirement. The time may well come when a largely unsupported National University of Ireland may have to reconsider its own position on the matter, for instance if it appeared (and I know of no firm evidence of this so far) that it was losing out in terms of either the number or quality of students applying for admission. I have no doubt that, if the NUI requirement were to be removed - and the relationship of the National University to its constituent universities, including UCC, is now in question - the Department of Education requirement that students take Irish as part of the Leaving Certificate course, but need not pass the subject to have the certificate conferred on them, would be shown to be largely ineffectual, and indeed inoperable in practice.
It might not be overly pessimistic to say that the consequences would be calamitous for the status of Irish not only in the educational system but in society as a whole and utterly demoralising for those for whom it was the first or became the chosen language of their everyday lives.
I think of the words of Máirtín Ó Cadhain reflecting on his life's work, on what it meant for him to be a writer and on the medium in which he wrote. I translate:
I am as old as the Hag of Beara, as old as Newgrange, as old as the giant elk. Two thousand years of that filthy sow that is Ireland are going about in my ears, in my mouth, in my eyes, in my head, in my dreams. A man who wrote in a minor language, if it can be called a language at all, Hugh Mac Diarmid, said it better:
The great rose of all the world is not for me
For me the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sweetly and breaks the heart.
Few if any of us could claim that the Irish language could have that force or meaning in our lives. But I feel that there is a very real sense in which all of us would be diminished by its loss.
Perhaps I have spoken too much in terms of formal requirements, which, important as they may be, merely provide the framework by which more dynamic and vital developments may be allowed to happen. And much has happened: for instance, there has been the burgeoning of a creative literature in Irish and the cultivation of a modern critical idiom comparable to anything in English that would not have been possible but for the educational system, particularly the universities, and here University College Cork, can take particular credit.
Alongside the official structures - and this is what gives one most reason for hope - is the phenomenon of the Gaelscoil movement seems to have taken everybody by surprise, even those directly involved, by its momentum. Far from being imposed from above, this movement has often found itself challenging the official system in demanding education through Irish in a manner reminiscent of the popular campaign, which led to the infant National University adopting the Irish matriculation requirement in 1913. It were as though, at a time of great change, when such things were thought to be firmly in the past, some deeper hidden instinct had suddenly re-asserted itself. And such instincts are generally a surer guide than any number of official policies or formal requirements. If so, the future of the language is guaranteed.
There is now, in addition, a new sense of national pride and self-confidence a sense, for instance, that we can support our own people rather than be forever scattering them to the four winds, that allows us once more to look to our past and to our future.
Following a steep decline in the 1980s, the number of students taking Irish at UCC has surged dramatically in the 1990s and into the new millennium, a pattern repeated in the other universities. In addition to the B.A., students may take Irish towards the B.Comm. and BCL, and the level of demand for these courses is reflected in the high points' requirement for entry.
The Universities' Act, 1997, prescribes that each governing authority shall "have regard to the promotion and use of the Irish language as a language of general communication and promote the cultivation of the Irish language and its associated literary and cultural traditions".
The Governing body of University College Cork, had no need of such urging and, twenty years before the passing of the Universities Act, had in 1977 adopted a bilingual language policy, based on the principle that "bilingualism is an acceptable concept to most Irish people and to some extend both Irish and English are part of the fabric of modern Irish society".
Similarly, in terms of scholarly activity, it is most rewarding to work in a congenial environment at the very centre of one's area of study, with library and archival resources readily available on the one hand and the living speech of the Gaeltacht on the other. Even graduate students quickly find themselves working on material that has been scarcely touched before, such is the abundance of the sources; there is the excitement and confidence that this newness and new-found authority bring.
I offer all of you who today join the graduate body of the National University of Ireland my sincere congratulations, knowing that you will prove worthy of its long and honourable traditions. The future is yours to decide.
Gabhaim buíochas libh go léir as éisteacht chomh foighneach liom agus guím gach rath oraibh sa tsaol atá romhaibh.