Popular perception of Irish in Ireland
I've known for a while that in Ireland, many people are turned away from learning Irish because it gets "forced down their throats" in school. But I recently learned something else, that apparently many Irish people see it as being the language of what we call "hicks" in America. So while English is thought to be the language of prestige and sophistication, Irish is thought to be the language of the uneducated backwater folk.
How true is this? And is this perception changing so that it feels less like the ability to speak Irish is an undesirable trait?
Among the Irish people we met when we were in Ireland, using Gaelic was considered a way of separating the natives from the tourists.
"But I recently learned something else, that apparently many Irish people see it as being the language of what we call "hicks" in America. So while English is thought to be the language of prestige and sophistication, Irish is thought to be the language of the uneducated backwater folk."
This is unequivocally untrue. There may be a slight undercurrent of anti-Irish sentiment amongst people who never adapted to the language and never understood why they were learning it but such a view as above is simply not the case for the majority of the population.
I think most Irish citizens wish they could speak Irish and feel they have been let down by a failed educational standard. MikeNolan6's comment is pretty much correct but not quite - there are "Gaeltact" areas where only Irish is spoken, but you won't find them in any of the usual tourist destinations, which means that the only people speaking Irish there tend to be the non-natives.
Being able to speak Irish is definitely not looked down upon; most of us are envious of people who were brought up as fluent; most of us were taught it for thirteen years in school and can get by conversationally; some of us have a passion for a language that we cannot speak. It's certainly not an undesirable trait.
No, I understand that may have sounded unclear. The vast majority of Irish citizens have been brought up speaking English. And the vast majority of tourist destinations are actually primarily English speaking places, like Dublin, Kerry, etc. The Gaeltacht areas account for an extremely small land mass of the country; the native Gaeltacht speakers even smaller than that.
While most people can speak Irish to some degree because they are taught it in schools, the vast majority of us were brought up with English as our first language, meaning if you hear Irish being spoken in, say, Templebar, it's usually always a tourist because no Irish citizen would be speaking Irish there. Does that make sense? Whilst the tourists don't go to where Irish is spoken (i.e. the Gaeltacht areas).
As a Scot living in the west of Ireland for some forty years I've never found anyone looked down on for speaking Irish. My own grasp of Irish isn't great but I always use the pleasantries like please and thank you and ask for thing in Irish when I know how. The problem is that since so few people are really fluent that English gets used first.
Irish is thought to be the language of the uneducated backwater folk. How true is this?
In answer to this I should point out that our President Michael D. Higgins is fluent in Irish and was a professor of sociology in Galway university.
The first part of your comment is certainly true. In my day (60+ years ago) you could get 100% in all (8, maybe 10) subjects in you State Exams but you failed the whole exam if you failed Irish. And you would have to repeat ALL the subjects again, not just the Irish. While Irish is still compulsory that rule no longer applies but in talking to the children/grandchildren of my friends in Ireland in 2015 I found 1 in about 12 had a word of Irish. The Irish extremists/politicians killed the language after Independence by that compulsion. If they had made it optional and marketed it as a sign of our freedom from Britain it would have bought into the Nationalist culture that was popular at the time. No one in my family spoke Irish in at least 3 generations so it caused a bit of confusion when I was told as a kid that I was less of an Irishman if I didn't speak the language. Having said that I was fluent in irish when I left school but lost it all because there was no one (other than fanatics) to speak it with. I'm amazed at how much has come back since my Canadian partner has started to learn it. However we've abandoned Duolingo, it doesn't teach conversational Irish. She was at Basics 2, Level 5 and all she knew was stuff about men,women and children drinking water and milk and eating bread and rice. I abandoned Chinese for the same reason, after weeks all I could say was hello and no. When they stated to teach numbers out of order it was the last straw. I don't need to be able to read or write the language, I don't intend to write the Great Chinese Novel nor read Confucius or Mo Yan in the original. As to the second part of your post, Dublin people always looked down on country folk. It had nothing to do with the ability to speak Irish. One hopes that has died out by now.
Historically (post-famine) Irish was seen as a backward language associated with poverty and that contributed massively to its decline. That is most certainly not the case today. As has been mentioned, the overall standard is very poor despite Irish being taught in primary schools and being a compulsory subject at 2nd level. Again, the forced nature and rote learning has turned many people off (including myself) over the decades - now I'm trying to relearn the language on my own terms. With regard to language revival, Irish is always highlighted as an example NOT to follow - Hebrew, Catalan etc. would be good examples. The frustration among the general public is that, despite 13/14 yrs of learning it in school, I would say the vast majority of people would really struggle to hold a half-decent conversation. See this funny clip that many Irish people can relate to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydSNgr97gSY