Scouting and the Irish Language


In an increasingly homogenized world, where cityscapes in particular all look, (barring a few unique buildings), largely identical, there is a feature of life in an Irish city that can place the visitor definitively.

Post boxes in Ireland are green and with the seamless (for now at least) links across the border into Northern Ireland, sometimes one of the only visual cues that the jurisdiction has changed can be the change in colour to red on these pieces of street furniture.

Road signs in Ireland are in kilometres (its miles in Northern Ireland – another of those ‘visual cues’ that the jurisdiction has changed and perhaps the one that should be more immediately apparent, especially is one is driving), but this is a feature that Ireland has in common with most EU countries.

The buses in Cork are red and white, as they are in Galway, Limerick and Waterford. In Dublin, they are (for some inexplicable reason) yellow and blue (what was wrong with Green?), so the sight of a yellow double decker can often be the first sign for a homesick Dubliner that they are once again nearing ‘the Pale’, following an expedition to the provinces.

However the common thread that binds these cities together and truly differentiates them from equivalent cities in the UK or Europe, at least to the casual visitor, is the prevalence of the Irish language. It’s on those buses (An Lar – City Centre); it is on road signs, street names and it features prominently in all interactions with government services from the casual visit to the Post office to the (usually more complex) enquiry at the tax office.

It is present in the lives of most people from a young age, when it is taught to children in school and like the inevitability of a dental check up, stays with us all the way through school, until we are free to choose our interaction and frequency/intensity of same with it on our own terms, once out of second level education.

It inspires strong views. For some, it is an extension of nationality. For others, it is an inextricable part of being patriotic (the implication being that those who view it differently are of course, not patriots).

For most, it is on a par with Bewley’s famous café in Grafton Street or the National Library – not really on the agenda, not regarded as particularly relevant. But faintly recalled with some degree of fondness and liable to provoke a storm of protest, were it to be abolished.

Some think it should be let die off with no government intervention, regarding it as a relic of De Valera’s (misquoted) ‘dancing at the crossroads’ image of a now irrelevant and for most, long forgotten Ireland.

So how does it fit into Scouting?

Some groups (very few) choose to run their entire programme through the Irish language. Others use it for parts of the day-to-day operation of the group; for example drill/marching commands (does anyone still do drill?).

In some groups notably in Cork, the Macoimh programme was used (is still used?) in place of Cub Scouting and involved the use of the Irish language.

Nationally, various badges are available in both Irish and English language, for members to choose based on preference. But overall, the relationship with the Irish language in Scouting Ireland today, does come across as being a bit ‘Dublin Bus’. That is to say, it crops up mostly on signage and clothing but is more symbolic than integral.

This makes a degree of sense. Virtually all Irish citizens and the overwhelming majority of non-Irish residents in the state speak English as a mother tongue or a fluent second language. Irish, in part because it is mandatory for most school children to learn, is often, like school uniform, discarded at the earliest opportunity once outside the school gate; it tends to remain there permanently too, when a young person walks out that gate for the last time into the wider world.

There are those who love the language and lament it’s decline, given its strong role in our national heritage and the many expressive and unique phrases it contains, some of which have found their way into everyday use.

There is also a tiny minority of ‘language police’ – obsessive about Irish as a language and deeply offended by English being used. This vociferous group tends to take deep umbrage at any perceived slight or snub to the native tongue. This obviously has the effect of irritating most people but it also makes those less obsessed supporters of the language nervous of doing anything, lest they be lambasted for ‘getting it wrong’ or causing more offense somehow…

The net effect that these lobby groups have is legislative inertia. Politicians are terrified of rocking the boat on the antiquated way the native tongue is promulgated, so the language remains force-fed to kids through the school system and remains doggedly present on the front of buses and on road signs, but largely unused in daily life.

The language police extend their reach overseas too. EU bureaucrats now translate thousands of documents into Irish following its belated recognition as an ‘official’ EU language at massive cost. Most copies of these documents will of course remain unread. Far better surely to have used this energy (and those funds) to champion an agenda of positive proliferation among Irish citizens?

Those of us who maintain even scraps of Irish can find it useful for making private exchanges with another speaker, in places (or on topics) where speaking English might not be ideal – when on a train to Beijing or when sitting in a hotel lobby in Dubai – for example. But caution is required. An acquaintance of theirishscouter did exactly this in a bar in Singapore one evening, only to discover (to his horror) that the subject of the (not altogether tactful) comment he was making was also an Irish speaker.

Could Scouting do more to support greater use of the Irish language in daily life? Our near 50,000 members hugely out-number the handful of people on the island who speak the language in their daily lives in preference to English and rivals the 80,000 who have the ability to do so.

Would a programme module designed to encourage more use of Irish at the weekly section meeting, on camp and activities, help young people to apply the language that most of them learn in school? Would it give adults an opportunity to dust off their patchy vocabulary? Could Scouting be the catalyst for making the Irish language more about fun and daily use – less about obligation and symbolism?

Perhaps the government would support this initiative? It could even be trialed in a given County or Province.

It is probably one of the biggest gaps in the Irish education system that most young people leave school with just one language in which they can converse competently. Kids in mainland Europe typically know at least two languages by the age of six (frequently three or more by age twelve). Many kids in the Middle East and China equally know and can speak fluently at least two languages before they leave primary school.

Learning and mastering a second language when young can greatly increase the ease with which another language can be picked up later.

Theirishscouter, working in a multi-national (and multi-lingual) environment never ceases to be painfully aware that, apart from below average French (mostly acquired post-schooldays), very basic Arabic and pigeon Irish, English is the only language in which he can converse with any degree of fluency.

European and Asian colleagues effortlessly switch between several languages, sometimes without even resorting to their mother tongue. It can all be rather embarrassing. (British, North American and Antipodean colleagues are generally similarly disadvantaged)

In a world where more and more Irish people undertake at least part of their studies and increasingly spend part of their career abroad, perhaps Scouting can play a real and positive role in cultivating the skills of youthful and potential polyglots in Scout groups around the country.

A great first step however could be the native tongue. Scouting could singlehandedly boost the number of Irish speakers in the country and in doing so achieve what the education system and the lobby groups have so far had rather limited success with.

Any entity that can take a task (like collecting firewood) and turn it into not just a fun activity but also a character building experience is arguably equipped to do the same for an underused language.


Photo credit: The Irish Examiner

3 thoughts on “Scouting and the Irish Language”

  1. As Always an excellent post
    BUT what is Scouting ?
    Over the last 15 yrs for adults we have become a much more Bureaucratic organisation – Forms & Courses and more forms.
    For Youth aspects of The One Programme is becoming more like school.
    Anything that makes scouting more so like school (having to speak Irish ) can not be good. If a majority of Youth spontaneously ask their leaders to start speaking Irish that’s very different.
    Keep Writing

  2. The use of Irish is always going to be. controversial in Ireland, its like Irish music and dance – while most people harbour a certain sense of national pride in their national heritage and culture (particularly when abroad) – just like the shamrock on the tail of an Aer Lingus plane in a foreign land – not many have much interest in having a dose of it daily at home in Ireland.

    The one thing we have learned from nearly 100 years of trying to force and cajole Irish people into learning and using their former mother tongue is that the more you force it on most people the more they resent it.

    To the majority of Irish people, Irish is a foreign language just like French, Spanish or Latin.

    We must resign ourselves that the only people who will use the language – like any other language – are those who actually want to. And if they don’t want to, they get annoyed at subtle efforts to slip it in subtlety into their daily lives.

    We must move away finally from the ‘Irish good, English bad’ mentality that is part of the colonial hangover and let go the guilt complex of the ‘Queens language’. It was good enough for Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, O’Casey, Synge, Behan – we are masters of the English language and it is part of who we are, our modern mother tongue, we should embrace it rather than feel guilt for using it.

  3. Back in the days before scouting became a form-filling administrative exercise, there was a simple book of proficiency badges that could be attained, with clear criteria to achieve in order to do so.
    One of the badges in that little book (Passport to Scouting, or something like that, was it?) was a Gaeilge Badge. Any scout with an interest could apply for it and would have to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency to receive it.
    It was a simple system that everyone could understand and never forced anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do.
    Could a simple badge be reintroduced for Gaeilge?
    Or would that open Pandora’s box?

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