Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge/Imleabhar 1/Uimhir 1/The Teaching of Irish

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Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, Imleabhar I, Uimh. 1
The Teaching of Irish
[ 12 ]


Any person interested in the study of languages and their literature, who, emancipating himself from common prejudices, makes a serious effort to cultivate a knowledge of the primitive and beautiful Celtic family of tongues, will have his attention at once caught by the best preserved of these, viz., the modern Irish. He will, in the interests of science and literature, regret the rapid disappearance of this venerable language, as well as the unfortunate apathy of those who at present are able to use it in adopting means towards its preservation. He will consider them as unreflecting persons in possession of a precious treasure who cast it from them through ignorance its value; for when once the use of a language is lost by a people, they never thoroughly regain it. To such a man, especially if he be an Irishman, the necessity for fostering the Irish language before it be too late will often form a subject of reflection, and the mention of its revival will always cause the liveliest interest. Every such person, therefore, must feel attracted by the discussion of opinions on the best manner of attaining a knowledge of and teaching the Irish language.

In order to clear the way for such a discussion, it seems in the first place needful to pass in review the principal, real or apparent, obstacles to the learning of the ancient tongue of the most western isle of Europe. These obstacles—most of which, [ 13 ]by-the-way, are more apparent than real—may be classed, nearly all, under two heads, viz.: 1st, those which originate in ignorance; and 2nd, those comprised in the modern term, “philistinism.” The great mass of ordinary people are quite ignorant of the general nature and peculiar characteristics and differences of different languages, and as they judge of all other forms of speech by that which they habitually use, and in which they think, they are unwilling, unless persuaded by the public opinion around them, to allow of the existence of beauty or merit in any tongue differing much from their own in sound or construction. To such narrow-minded I speakers of English alone, who have not been taught otherwise, Irish, if they ever hear it spoken, is an object of dislike or even of contempt. They are prone to despise or hate whatever they cannot understand. Of this description are many Irishmen who not only do not know anything of their country’s language, but are equally ignorant of her history and antiquities, and of the very existence of an Irish literature. Of course they know nothing of the value of the language and literature to philological science, or of the beautiful construction of the former and its use equally with Greek, German, or Sanscrit, as a training for the mind. In the same way, men who are classical scholars and nothing else, generally have a dislike for mathematics, while mathematical specialists usually detest the study of classics. Thus there are thousands who know of the existence of the Hiberno-Celtic only to dislike or depreciate it. On this class of persons, whether Irish or not, argument on the subject is thrown away. Disregarding the axiom that we must know something about a subject before we can pass judgment on it, their ignorance gives them a force of inertia proof against the appeals of science, patriotism, and intellect, and their crass prepossessions are impenetrable to the force of argument or the light of progressing intelligence. So we must needs leave them in their darkness, it being impossible to teach those who will not learn.

The second great obstacle to the learning of Irish is “philistinism.” By philistinism is generally understood that devotion to material gain and sensual enjoyments which makes money-grubbing the sole object of life, without regard to moral, intellectual, or artistic considerations. This money-grubbing, and the love of sensual pleasures—in short, that gross form of materialism so characteristic of the nineteenth century—these low and base motives, constitute the principal obstacles to the study of the Irish language. One hears continually in reference to this study: “Will it pay?” or “what shall I gain by learning it?”—just as if the goodness and value of everything were to be measured by the amount of money to be acquired by it. Religion, art, science, literature, patriotism, poetry, virtue—everything that is ennobling to human nature, would possess but little influence or charm if judged by this sordid standard. The man who essays to teach Irish must set his face firmly against this degrading philistinism, and must impress upon his pupils the necessity of taking into account the beauties of the language, and the advantages to the mind of the novel and fresh modes of thought developed in its construction and expressions. He must show how—

Bright-eyed Fancy hovering o’er,
Scatters from her pictured urn
Thoughts that breathe and words that burn.

But even those who are not absolute and thorough “philistines” are frequently repelled from the study of Irish by difficulties which are really only apparent, such as the difference of printed characters, the, at first sight, complex grammar, the unfamiliar articulations, and the scarcity of good elementary books and of skilled teachers. These difficulties we shall show to be very slight indeed, and easily overcome, when resolutely faced. But before proceeding to prove our point, we need merely allude to the numerous class of persons in this country who, animated by an irrational and unpatriotic spirit, would wish for nothing better than that the Irish language should be dead and forgotten, as is the Sumerian or Etruscan, and all Irish books and manuscripts sunk in the sea or consumed by fire. [ 14 ]Some Vandals there may be even yet who cherish the same unworthy feelings towards the Irish race as towards their language and literature. With such as these we have nothing to do.

“Non ragionar di lór, na guarda e passa.”

Let us now see what the other difficulties alluded to are worth. With respect to the Irish characters, they are only a form of the early mediæval Roman letters, and can be learned in half-an-hour. Any person who cannot make use of them will certainly be unable to learn the language itself. The grammar is not so complex as that of the Latin or Greek among ancient, or of German or Hindoostanee among modern languages, and when once the rules of Aspiration and Eclipsis are mastered, it is comparatively easy. The sounds are of course different from those of the English language, but so are those of every other tongue. Whatever articulate sounds the ear is accustomed toit will hear with plea- sure, and unaccustomed ones will at first seem disagreeable. Thus the English “th” in “length” is an abomination to most of the peoples of the Continent who do not possess it in their own tongues, the ll so much admired by the Welsh is unpleasant to the other inhabitants of Great Britain, and so on. Accordingly, the Irish aspirated c and g, the ng at the beginning of a word, the broad ll and n, the slender r and some other sounds must at first appear strange to the unaccustomed ear. To a person habituated to speak nothing but Irish, the English consonants sound harsh and uneuphonious, and in our opinion with much greater reason. We consider the Irish language, when properly spoken, as particularly sweet and euphonious, and much better suited for singing than any of those of the northern part of Europe, and we speak from considerable experience. These things should all be explained by the teacher to his pupil, and the ear of the latter should be accustomed, by frequent repetition, to the more peculiar sounds of the language. As Duḃaltaċ Mac Firbisiġ would say, thus should the foirceadlaiḋe act towards the fóġlaintiḋ.

The little use made of Irish in commerce and trade, it being colloquially almost entirely restricted to the peasantry in the west and south, the small number of modern books printed in the language—these do not constitute reasons why it should not be revived and still flourish, if proper means are taken for the purpose, nor do they take away from its beauty and scientific value. The same objections might have been made half a century ago to various other European languages which are now flourishing. These arc, therefore, obstacles to the learning of Irish which both teacher and pupil can afford to disregard. Slight obstacles, such as those we have mentioned, have been conquered in Wales, Belgium, Bohemia, Iceland, &c., and why not in our island? and of this we may be certain, that a language is a most distinctive mark of the intellectual independence of any nation, and the best guarantee of its continuance.

The teaching of Irish must be modified in its methods to suit two classes of learners—those who speak the language from their childhood, and those who have little or no knowledge of the spoken tongue. Of the former class it may be affirmed that they have been worse than neglected in an educational sense, and that every effort has been made to deprive them of the inestimable treasure of their native tongue. If the “National” system of education had been really national from its inception, Irish-speaking children would be taught first to read Irish as a preparation for learning English: and this it is not yet too late to put into practice. By this rational plan, instead of time being lost, much time would be gained, and the teaching would be comprehensible to the children, and approach towards completeness. For such children primers and spelling-books wholly in Irish should be prepared; and there is no reason why elementary geography and arithmetic should not be likewise taught in the vernacular tongue of the pupils. Such a course would not prevent these children learning English as well, and in a much more intelligent, satisfactory, and consequently quicker manner than is done at present—for instance, in the Arran Islands or in [ 15 ]Erris. We speak from the experience of similar districts to these, and we need only refer in confirmation of the above statements to the recorded opinion of Sir P. J. Keenan.

For those who study Irish as a non-vernacular (we would not say a foreign) language, the methods would suit which are now employed in teaching other modern languages. In adapting these to Irish, we must first obtain good elementary works. The three books published under the name of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language are excellent, as far as they go, but they do not go far enough. A fourth, fifth, sixth, and succeeding books are required on the same plan, taking pupils through the declensions and conjugations and the other portions of the grammar and idioms, as also books supplementary to the first three, containing more extended exercises on the contents of these latter. A modification of the methods of Ahn, Ollendorff, and Arnold combined would, we think, be the most suitable for these works. They should contain no unnecessary, diffuse, or scientific disquisitions; no visionary theories or philological hypotheses; no doubtful etymologies or strained explanations; but should be clear, concise, and, above all, correct and idiomatic in orthography and phraseology. Such works should be carefully written and revised, and not issued till well examined and corrected by persons possessing a practical knowledge of the spoken language and of its grammatical construction. Another series of elementary treatises, with fuller notes and explanations, should be prepared for those who aim at self-instruction in the language.

A person who does not possess a good knowledge of a subject cannot teach it efficiently. On the other hand, there is many a man knowing a subject thoroughly, and yet unable to communicate his knowledge easily and clearly to a pupil. Knowledge and the power of communicating it are two entirely distinct things, and the present state of Irish teaching is a very good example of the truth of this principle. Of the many thousands who speak Irish fluently and correctly, how few there are able to communicate their knowledge of the language to others, or even capable of rationally explaining the construction and meaning of a simple idiomatic phrase in their native tongue. Even most of those who can read and write as well as speak Irish, seem to be almost as helpless in this respect as the mass of illiterate persons. The remedies for this defect must be—1st, a careful study of the rules of Irish grammar and orthography; and 2nd, the acquiring of an acquaintance with school methods, particularly those used in the teaching of other modern languages. Our aim at present must therefore be two-fold—to produce good elementary books and trained teachers of the language. Anyone who can speak Irish, read English, and knows something of general grammar and of another modern language, will require very little effort to become an efficient teacher of Irish, if possessed of the ordinary mental qualifications necessary for every person who aims at teaching any subject whatever. Such a man can train himself by acting on the lines indicated above.