I am often asked why I am studying Cork Irish. Isn’t it obvious that when you learn a language you learn the standard form of it? And then, if you’re still interested, you can delve into dialectal literature. So why am I not learning Standard Irish?
My key objection to Standard Irish–which I would prefer to refer to as Standardized Irish–is that this form of the Irish language, if it is a legitimate form at all, was devised by a government committee and is a mish-mash of elements found in the various real dialects of traditional Irish. Imagine if the various countries speaking English decided to standardize English by combining Cockney with Geordie and Scouse, a dash of Lowland Scots, and some of the Queen’s English on the way: that would not be a “standard” form of the English language. A real standard is based on the historically correct grammatical forms and exemplified in the writings of the best writers. So, with English, the elements of standard grammar are mostly clear, and they are exemplified by the writing of Dickens, Hardy, Austen and others.
In the case of Irish, the dialects have developed differently for centuries, but the form of Irish closest to the historically correct grammatical forms is Cork Irish, and the form furthest from them is Galway Irish. If we compare the situation with English, Cork Irish is analogous to Oxford English and Galway Irish to Cockney. The reasons for this probably include the cultural histories of those regions: in Cork a literary history was maintained all the way through, whereas most of the poets of Connacht were illiterate. The synthetic verb forms used in Cork Irish were once used throughout the whole of Ireland, or are derived from synthetic forms used throughout the whole of Ireland. That is not to say that Cork Irish is conservative in every respect. It would be unusual if it were, and in fact features such as the dropping of the relative form of the verb, the use of provincial forms such as deinim (derived from the original pre-standard do-ghním) and the supplanting of many historical nominatives by what were originally dative forms are among some of the innovations in Cork Irish. But the incidence of such things is much lower in Cork than elsewhere. Relatively speaking, it is the most conservative dialect.
In terms of literature, the Irish literary canon is much narrower than its English equivalent. There was almost nothing in print in Irish when the Gaelic Revival began, save the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, a couple of dictionaries and Bishop Séamus Ó Gallchobhair’s sermons. The Revival was a work of collecting and printing manuscripts as well as of producing new original works of Irish. A fairly substantial body of works was printed by the Irish Texts Society and hundreds of works of Irish published between the beginning of the Irish Revival and the introduction of the artificial Caighdeán Oifigeamhail in the middle of the 20th century. It would be idle to claim that all those works were in Cork Irish–Séamus Ó Grianna, writing from the Donegal Gaedhealtacht was one of the most prodigious authors of the period, and he certainly did not write in Cork Irish–but the Irish priest and author, Peadar Ua Laoghaire, was probably the most prolific author of the Gaelic Revival, and taken together with the output of Kerry authors the Munster contribution to the Revival was significant. In fact, all the Gaedhealtacht areas participated in the Revival, with no clear predominance, but Munster Irish was particularly influential in the Galltacht, where learners attempted to imitate the perceived “correct” Irish of Canon Ua Laoghaire.
The Caighdeán Oifigeamhail would not have been introduced had one form of Irish become accepted as the Standard for the island of Ireland, but an Irish Pronouncing Dictionary was produced, using Munster pronunciation, and the Christian Brothers’ Grammar largely disseminated a Munster form of the Irish language. One is struck by the passage in the early editions of that grammar book counselling learners of Irish not to imitate the use of muid as a personal pronoun. Whereas in Cork, the first person plural pronoun was sinn, but the conjugated forms of the verb itself (eg, glanaimíd) required no pronoun to be appended, in the West and North of Ireland, where the verbal conjugations had broken down, the verbal form was reanalysed as containing a pronoun: glanann muid, and the use of muid instead of sinn as a pronoun spread therefrom. This is an error of similar proportions to the use of “could of” instead of “could have” by many native speakers of English–while such usage is undoubtedly native English, it is scarcely educated usage, and the old grammar book advised learners of Irish not to copy similarly corrupt usages in Irish.
It is not a valid objection to state that each phase of a language’s history consists of a corruption of what went before, and therefore that all corruptions must be accepted. The key point is that in a linguistic culture, the educated often hold out against corruptions–“could of” would not be accepted among the educated–and only once the educated have finally yielded themselves has the pass been truly surrendered and the standard language changed. There are cases where two rival versions maintain themselves for a time–we can think of the use or non-use of “whom” in English–and no-one would dream of claiming that the use of “whom” could be decreed by the government to be a mistake from now on; for as long as significant numbers of educated people continue to use traditional forms, they cannot be wrong, even if, as with “whom”, it no longer feels right to insist on their usage.
In the case of Irish, a broad standard, allowing the use of traditional and progressive forms together could have been accepted, but the range of language that implied would have been much larger than would be the case in English. To allow everything from Cork Irish at one end of the spectrum to Galway Irish at the other (lower) end would have been a very broad standard indeed. The bullet was bitten: the government decided to create a standard language. The more artificial such standards, the less they are likely to be accepted–and, while the Irish government has been able to abuse its control of the Irish education system to ensure the use of its standard in the schools and media, thus ensuring that most Irish written today appears in the Caighdeán Oifigeamhail, the fact that four rival sets of textbooks teaching variously Munster Irish, Connacht Irish, Ulster Irish and Standard Irish, and sometimes more particularly Cork Irish, Kerry Irish, Cois Fhairrge Irish, etc, shows that there is a mismatch between the Standard and the language of the Gaedhealtachtaí, and that to that extent the Standard has not been fully accepted, especially by learners who want to learn to speak like Irish native speakers.
Whereas the first Republic of Ireland census showed that in 1926 Munster had the greatest number of speakers, the percentage of native speakers was highest in Connacht, and within Munster itself, Cork Irish had dwindled in relation to Kerry Irish. The prestige of Cork Irish therefore depended on its perceived “correctness”, and the authority of writers such as Peadar Ua Laoghaire. Within decades, Galway Irish had emerged as the majority dialect of Irish, and it was felt politically impossible to tell Galway native speakers that the Irish they spoke was incorrect. This was a question of egalitarianism: people in the East End of London do not claim to be offended when told their English is incorrect, neither do they insist that “ain’t” is correct in their districts where “am not” or “have not” stand elsewhere. Standard English is valid for every district, including those where Cockney is spoken, but the politics of the Irish language movement meant that it was difficult to explain to native speakers in some areas that their dialects had diverged from the written Irish of 1600-1950 owing to the fact that their ancestors were mainly illiterate–I wouldn’t recommend emphasising this point to the speakers of Cockney English either, but the facts in both cases are what they are. A further problem was the vociferous, almost spiteful, response of writers in the Donegal Gaedhealtacht to Cork Irish, which required a change in the standard to accommodate them; it is a delicious irony that the Standard chosen was not so close to Donegal Irish anyway. I am sure some people will try to tell me there was a literary tradition in Donegal in the 17th century–but those people did not write in the “Donegal Irish” of today, writing in fact in a form of Irish closer to Cork Irish. It is undoubtedly the case too that the dialects are of long standing: Uilliam Bedell’s Bible of 1684 (incorporating Uilliam Dómhnaill’s New Testament of 1602) shows evidence of more than one hand, including forms such as duaidh sé and d’ith sé in various parts of the New Testament. Yet the synthetic forms are also undoubtedly dominant in Bedell’s Bible, compiled in Connacht as it was by a committee of native speakers from various parts of Ireland (I believe Uilliam Ó Dómhnaill was from Kilkenny, whereas Muircheartach Ó Cionga, who worked on the Old Testament, was from Offaly).
Clearly there is enough here for arguments to continue until the end of time. But the outcome was that a rough Munster standard had been established in the pre-war period, with vituperative carping against it, particularly from Donegal. The logical thing to do would have been to make Galway Irish the Standard, considering its central location, and its numerical predominance in terms of numbers of speakers–but to require native speakers to study eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature not in Galway Irish (including the works of Peadar Ua Laoghaire) as part of their literary heritage in schools, just as children in the East End of London study Dickens and Shakespeare. One could have pointed to an area–“go to Cois Fhairrge! there you will hear the standard spoken!”–and one could have pointed to Gaedhealtacht writers from that county whose writing exemplified the new Standard. But the logical approach was eschewed. All native speakers had to be disobliged by the Standard, albeit not equally. Neither was a historical approach adopted: to accept historical forms as correct would have meant accepting Cork Irish in most cases, and the very purpose of the Standard was to move away from that. It was claimed that the most frequent dialectal forms were chosen, ie those of two of three dialects–but this claim was untrue, as there are frequent examples where this approach was not adopted. The use of the relative form of the verb is historically correct, used by two of the three dialects, and by the majority of native speakers, but was rejected–possibly in order to simplify the language? The use of some of the absolute/dependent forms of the verb (eg chím vs. feicim) is historically correct, used by two of three dialects, but was rejected in some cases (eg feicim) in favour of sole use of the dependent for this verb, as in Galway. Case distinctions such as vocatives and genitives were preserved, despite being patchily used in native speech, whereas the dative case was rejected, despite the fact that many of the datives are used in preference to the nominative in large parts of the Gaedhealtacht. In short, the claim that the most frequent forms were adopted can be shown to be false.
Neither was input from the public on the Standard allowed while it was being devised. James Dillon, leader of Fine Gael and brother of the Irish-language expert, Myles Dillon, tackled the Taoiseach on this, but was rebuffed. It was claimed that the Standard was only for the Dáil’s translation department, but then imposed so ruthlessly that some works of Donegal Irish were allowed to go out of print for years when the author refused to allow them to be re-edited into the Standard. Worst of all, it is now claimed that historically correct forms still found in the Gaedhealtacht, such as chím (used by 2 of 3 Gaedhealtachtaí), had become “incorrect” overnight, and were now discouraged in the education system. Historically correct forms still used widely in Ireland were now “provincialisms”–all because the government said so, and for no other reason. Forms that are scarce or hardly found in the Gaedhealtacht became the prescribed forms. For example, bhíomar was chosen over bhí muid (owing to the problem with muid), and there is some evidence this form was used in Clare Irish before it died out, but the forms bhíomair (not bhíomar) and bhí muid predominate in the Gaedhealtacht. Similarly táimid was chosen over táimíd and tá muid–I have heard that native speakers in Donegal occasionally pronounce the m slender and so táimid may be found, but it is not a dominant form anywhere in the Gaedhealtacht. In general, simplification and splitting the difference were the main approaches used in drawing up the Standard: it was not a codification of the Irish used in literature up to that point, and so could not be genuinely described as a Standard when it came out, but rather an attempted artificial Standardization.
Nowadays most Irish is written by non-native speakers, who are in most cases happy to use the government’s Standard, and the weaker Gaedhealtachtaí in particular have become more influenced by the Standard, at least to the extent that anyone working in the Irish-language sector has to be able to write the Standardized Irish. In the end, however, it is the native speakers in the Gaedhealtacht who speak the best Irish, and the Standard has not resolved the question of how to learn to speak like them. While the canon of literature in Gaedhealtacht Irish is small, there is much less great literature available in “Standard Irish”. A browse through the works in print (eg at http://www.litriocht.com) shows that books for children and trashy modern fiction (featuring drug abuse, lesbianism and other reputedly exciting themes thought likely to attract the young) account for the majority of current output. Standard Irish is the language in which European Union legislation is being translated into Irish, but is not a gateway to great literature.
I do not agree that learners should learn the artificial standard. They should, rather, choose a real dialect from the start. Textbooks such as Teach Yourself Irish by Myles Dillon and Donncha Ó Cróinín focus on Cork Irish and would prepare the learner for the works of Peadar Ua Laoghaire, works that are part of Ireland’s literary heritage, but most of which are not in print and hard to get hold of because they do not employ the “Standard”. I aim to transcribe some of those works on this site and thus make them available to all.
No-one should deride learners for learning a dialect–they are not trying to “set themselves up as dialectal experts before they are ready”–they are merely trying to learn right the first time. It is a recipe for confusion to say that they should first learn Standard Irish, and then learn the grammar all over again when they start reading dialectal literature. Don’t forget, none of your Irish ancestors used the Caighdeán Oifigeamhail–it is simply not part of your ancestral culture! Don’t do it!