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More Irish than the Irish Themselves?

Some recent immigrants have decided that the best way to learn about Ireland is to learn Irish. They're a far cry from the traditional image of the Gaeilgeoir, writes Anna Heussaff

"Nelly Marivate is ainm dom," says one woman. "Is as an Afraic mé," says the man beside her. Both are participants in an Irish-language course for asylum-seekers and refugees.

Classes started in early October, since when a small group of people has gathered every Monday morning to learn a language most of them had hardly heard of a few years ago.
Some members of the class, in Galway, are already multilingual. Josphep Maina's first language is Kikuyu, one of the many languages of his native Kenya, and he also speaks Swahili and English. Lovina Nnadi speaks her first language, Igbo, to her young son, Patrick, as well as English, and growing up in Nigeria she learnt French and German too. Marivate and Merium Dike, both South African, have different native languages. So, for them, learning Irish is less daunting than it for for people used to the sounds of only one language in their heads.

Their reasons for spending an hour a week at the class are mixed. Most want to learn more about Irish culture, to understand the country they live in and hope to belong to. They see signposts in Irish and wonder what they mean. Marivate visited Connemara and wanted to be able to speak Irish to people there; others want to help their children with homework.

The class, which is organised and paid for by the Galway branch of Conradh na Gaeilge, is just one small example of the multiculturalism taking root in Ireland. People from a great range of cultural backgrounds have brought with them dozens of languages, to add to the big two we've had for centuries.

The future is full of possibilities of diversity and enrichment for all of us, but becoming multicultural isn't just about change in English-speaking Ireland. It's also about recent immigrants' attitudes and responses to Irish and about Irish speakers' reactions.

Multiculturalism is also about a changing image of who the people of this country are. Such change is not new; it could be said that it's been happening since the first migrant people arrived millennia ago. And this month, viewers of TG4's soap opera, Ros Na Rún, have been adding a new face to their image of Irish-speaking Irishness, with the arrival of a character played by Séamus Ã" Feithcheallaigh.

He grew up in an institution in Clifden, Co Galway, but spent periods as a teenager in a Gaeltacht summer college and with an Irish-speaking foster family in Clondalkin, in west Dublin. Ever since he's been used to people's surprise at hearing a black person speak Irish.

"I'm a Gaeilgeoir," he says, "it's part of my life, no more than for anyone else who grew up with the language. But I meet Irish speakers who assume that, because of the colour of my skin, they have to speak English to me. Of course, they stop being surprised once they get to know me. So I expect to get some similar reactions to my character in Ros Na Rún. I'm glad to say, though, that I'm not typecast in the series, as an immigrant doctor, for example. I'm just another Irish person, as I am in real life."

Ã" Feithcheallaigh is of the same generation as Paul McGrath and Kevin Sharkey, black Irish people who have been part of this country's life for decades. The fact that increasingly there are more Irish people from diverse cultural backgrounds is a natural progression, in his view, and it's just as natural that some of them will speak Irish.

Ã" Feithcheallaigh doesn't fit the stereotype of a Gaeilgeoir. That may be a challenge to those who like to think in little boxes; similarly, according to Piaras Mac Éinrí, Ireland's expanding multiculturalism is a challenge to a deep-rooted intolerance here. Mac Éinrí, who founded the Migration Studies Centre in Cork, says many Irish people are intolerant not only of colours and cultures from faraway places but also of home-grown diversity. The two can be linked, in his view.

"Every day," he says, "I come across people who can't even be bothered to spell my name properly. So how are they going to show respect to more unfamiliar names from other cultures and, therefore, to the people who carry those names?" Other Irish speakers echo Mac Éinrí's link between their own experiences of being treated as an exotic subspecies, or as a nuisance, and those of recent immigrants who are marginalised because they are seen as "different". Another common link could be the effort involved for families trying to bring up children bilingually in a sea of English. Then there's the provision of official information and services in languages other than English, not to mention cultural and language sensitivity - whether in Gaeltachtaí or amid Chinese, Romanian and other communities - in the health and education systems.

There are difficult questions to be asked, however, about links between Irish and multiculturalism. Should Gaelscoileanna, for example, many of which are oversubscribed already, reach out to new communities to enrol children whose background is not ethnic Irish? If they don't, will their pupils grow up in bastions of "whiteness", unrepresentative of the society around them?
On the other hand, when it comes to questions of status and resources, how could Irish, which is woven into the history and fabric of this country's life, be on a par with recently arrived languages?

And now that 6 per cent of the population are nationals of other countries, what about the requirement for Irish for certain jobs? Many immigrants ask, for example, whether all gardaí should be competent in Irish, or all teachers of children with special needs. This is not to sideline the needs of Irish speakers but to ask for flexibility in the recruitment of people educated outside Ireland, so that they are not automatically excluded.

There is plenty of debate on the horizon, which many Irish-language organisations and others are barely waking up to.

Meanwhile, Mac Éinrí argues that all immigrants should be offered short familiarisation courses, to give them an overview of Ireland's history, languages, cultures and workings. We can hardly expect people to "integrate", he says, without offering them a door to understanding how this society ticks.

It was just such a familiarisation tour of Galway, organised by the city's Refugee Support Group, that initiated contact between them and Conradh na Gaeilge. Participants were fascinated to find out about Irish, and, following shared workshops in African and traditional Irish music and dance, Nelly Marivate researched the level of interest among asylum-seekers and refugees in learning Irish. Not everyone was positive, and some asked why they should learn Irish when so many people native to Ireland don't speak it.

It's nothing new, of course, for foreigners from many backgrounds to learn Irish, through Conradh and other groups. What's striking is the range of forms taken by such contacts now. Then there's the sideways take on an outsider's experience of the language, provided by the award-winning short film showing in many cinemas. Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom tells the story of a Chinese student who determines to travel to Ireland, and who proudly masters the country's first official language before his departure. Comedy and confusion ensue when he tries to speak it on the streets when he arrives. A clever and engaging story in itself, it also throws our ambivalence about Irish into sharp relief.

The contacts made in Galway also provide a reminder of the global context of struggles for language survival. "My own language, Kikuyu, is spoken less and less by young people in urban areas," according to Maina. The same threat of extinction hangs over hundreds, even thousands, of other languages around the world. Indeed, contrary to that outdated stereotype of the Gaeilgeoir who sees the language as a bulwark against the outside world, many Irish speakers say they're motivated by a commitment to diversity and cultural freedom everywhere.

Finally, a small personal example of change. I grew up in an Irish-speaking family in Dublin a few decades ago. Chatting on a bus with my siblings often entailed bearing up to stares, whispers or exclamations from people nearby. Even when strangers heaped praise on us, as they frequently did, we could feel we were viewed as exhibits.

My perception is that these attitudes have changed subtly in recent years. When I speak Irish to my young son on today's Dublin bus, I no longer feel I'm stared at, because these days we're surrounded by people speaking Latvian, Russian, French, Portuguese. Being different, in whatever way, is a more comfortable experience when lots of other people are different too.

© The Irish Times
26th November 2003
Reproduced with kind permission

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