Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Quiet Road Girl Milk - What the Carlsberg Ad Tells Us About the State of the Irish Language

This is Seachtain na Gaeilge, that one magical week in the year when the nation’s lip service towards the First Language is extended – to about the tip of the nose and the point of the chin, as far as An Spailpín Fánach can make out.

The 2006 Census tells us that there are 53,471 people who speak Irish, daily, outside the education system, 97,089 who do so weekly, and a rather stunning 581,574 who do sometimes. Only 412,846 said they never speak Irish out of the 1,656,790 surveyed, which means, using simple arithmetic, that we have a population of one million Irish speakers in the state. One million! An Tomaltach likes to note how odd it is that, even though the Polish population here is smaller than 100,000 it is not at all uncommon to hear Polish spoken on the streets, while hearing Irish spoken in public remains a rarity. An Tomaltach doesn’t miss much.

It’s reasonably clear, therefore, that most people who claim to be Irish speakers in the census are talking through their hats, and doing so in English at that. In Seán Tadhg Ó Gairbhí’s review in Foinse of the recently published “A New View of the Irish Language,” edited by Caoilfhionn Nic Pháidín and Seán Ó Cearnaigh, Ó Gairbhí makes the point that if that 100,000 Irish speakers existed, there would be no point in discussing New Views of the Irish Language in a language other than Irish. His point is well made.

David McWilliams made the point in The Pope’s Children that the Gaeilscoil movement was indicative of the new role that the language will lead in the Ireland of the 21st Century, that paradise run by Hibero-whatsits, where the Budland of today is but a distressing memory. One of the signature moments of the TV show of the book of the newspaper column was McWilliams breaking into Irish himself while interviewing a rather startled Gaeilscoil principle. An Spailpín has grave doubts about the whole Gaeilscoil movement, especially in the capital; your constant quillsman simply notes how many columns McWilliams himself writes in Irish, and moves on.

The search for the true status of Irish in the nation in 2008 is a little like the search for Schrödinger’s cat. You may remember that, in creating his famous metaphor illustrating the sometimes counter-intuitive nature of quantum physics, Professor Schrödinger posited of a certain cat that may or may not be in a certain box, and the nature of the box is such that we can only tell by opening the box whether or not the cat is inside. Only thing is, opening the box offs the moggy. How then do we open the box without killing kitty? So it is with Irish; once we start asking the question people start lying to the questioner. It’s simple human nature.

Therefore, to find out the true status of the language in Ireland we have to surprise the nymph while bathing. We need to take a snapshot of the nation and the language while the nation isn’t looking, and thus find out how we really feel about the language.

And Carlsberg have done just that, with their Irish-in-the-nightclub ad that’s currently running on the telly. It isn’t so much the ad itself, but the public reaction to it, which seems – on anecdotal evidence alone – to be quite positive. We throw the shoulders back when we see it, and bask in a certain glow.

The ad, for those that haven’t see it, goes like this. Three young Irishmen are on holidays in some foreign city. They go into a nightclub, and shout three Carlsberg. The barman asks them where they are from, and they reply “Ireland.” The three boys are then asked to do something Irish – you know the way French people in bars here are always asked to do something typically French, like eating cheese or surrendering to the Germans? Or Germans are asked to invade France in the first place? Same principle.

Anyway, our three heroes put their heads together and they decide to speak Irish. So the leader turns around and says falteringly “An bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dtí an leithreas?”

His confidence builds then and he begins orating wildly to an eager crowd. “Agus madra rua. Is maith liom caca milis. Agus Sharon Ní Bheoláin! Tá geansaí orm. Tá scamall sa spéir. Tabhair dom an caca milis!”

The scene ends with our hero cutting a rug with the local talent. “Speak more Irish,” she asks him. “Ciúnas bóthar cailín bainne” he tells her, dancing away. She laughs seductively. Fade to black.

And that ad sums up everything the nation as a whole thinks about the first language right now. We like the idea of Irish, the idea of it being there, but is has no semantic meaning for us. It means nothing. Such word we have are only those we remember from school, in brief incoherent snatches. We like the language, in the same way we like that old fool of a dog that always chases parked cars, but fundamentally it’s a joke, not something to be taken seriously. “Ciúnas bóthar cailín bainne.” “Quiet road girl milk.” Gibberish. We think Irish is gibberish, and its only purpose is to give us another reason look down on foreigners, something we love doing all the time.

Somehow, eighty-seven years after independence, it doesn’t seem that much to be proud of.

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