Why I Hate “No Béarla”

Before I start, I’ll just mention that, although I can’t stand how Manchán Magan does the series, I watch it every couple of months. It’s very interesting and good practice for listening to Gaelic!

I think I’ve mentioned “No Béarla” before. For those who don’t know, it’s a TG4 series starring Manchán Magan, a native Irish speaker, blundering around Ireland speaking just Irish as he tries to prove it’s a dead language.

Which is a bit of an oxymoron, really – how can it be dead if he’s speaking it?

And surprisingly, it’s a fairly modern series – 2007 – despite what Manchán’s haircut, clothing, and car, seems to indicate. But maybe that’s just Ireland.

Anyway, his whole attitude really bothers me. He goes at it with the mindset that no-one speaks Irish, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary slapping him in the face, he finishes the series by stating that Irish is dead.

Yeah, right.

Maybe to someone used to living in a Gàidhealtachd (Gaeltacht, in Irish), the amount of Irish spoken in Dublin or Belfast seems non-existent, but speaking here as someone living in Australia, it’s anything but!

All over Ireland, and even in places like Dublin, Manchán is wandering around, speaking in Irish. Mostly he asks variations on, “A bheil Gaeilge agad?” or “A bheil Gaeilge moirbh?”, but sometimes he asks more complex things, like, “Can I have fizzy orange juice and chips, please?”. At least 99% of people respond. In English, yes, but they respond in a way which indicates they understand it, their responses appropriate to the question. How many of these people are passive speakers of Irish – people who understand it perfectly, but are hesitant to speak it for one reason or another? If they were pressed, and if there weren’t a camera, they’d probably eventually respond in Irish.

But no, Manchán decides very quickly and with finality, None of these people have any Irish whatsoever. “Níl focal Gaeilge.”

Even when he’s in Galway, happily hiring a bicycle in Irish and visiting the TG4 headquarters, he’s determined to prove that no-one in the city speaks Irish. How does he do this? By singing bawdy lyrics on the street like a busker. Since no old ladies come over to clobber him with their handbags, this, according to Manchán, is clear evidence that no-one speaks Irish.

The fact that no-one ever really listens to what buskers are singing obviously never occurs to him.

And he doesn’t earn any money from his busking, either.

A bheil Gaeilge moirbh? Chan eil! Tha esan (tha Manchán) a’ bruidhinn ann an Gaeilge. Tha mi a’ smaoineachadh nach bheil i moirbh – tha mi a’ smoineachadh gu bheil i bheò – airson tha mòran dhaoine a’ bruidhinn as Gaeilge na chlàr, agus tha h-uile duine a’ tuigsinn an uair a bha Manchán ag radh rudan daibh ann an Gaeilge. Caist ma-tha: a bheil Gaeilge moirbh? Chan eil gu dearbh! A bheil Manchán pessimist? Tha gu dearbh!

Anyway, I’ll finish by sticking in Series 1 of “No Béarla”.


17 thoughts on “Why I Hate “No Béarla”

  1. I think hes quite negative honestly but it is interesting to see the sights. Im personally a french acadian(First canadian french settlers) and Irish and micmac. And I would love to learn Gaelic!

  2. Tom Graves says:

    Having spent a lot of time in Eire, I can tell you No Bearla doesn’t exaggerate at all. Irish has the same status as the Atlas Lion – extinct in its natural state – surviving only in zoos. Sure there are speakers, but too few use Irish as their daily language. If Irish were alive and well, you wouldn’t even need to debate the issue. Go to Finland, go to Iceland, go to Estonia. Walk down the street. What language are people speaking? Their own. Do the same in Eire. 98 out of 100 times, the language will be that of the conquering English. No Bearla is a lament, not a condemnation.

  3. Rachel says:

    My complaint isn’t with what you see itself. Never having been to Ireland myself, I have to take the footage at face value and accept it as the truth. What bothers me is that throughout the episodes, you can see people speaking Irish (although admittedly a minority) and understanding Irish (most of them), and yet Manchán still says that no-one speaks it and it’s dead. Maybe it seems that way to him – from what I understand, he grew up in an Irish-speaking family and went to Gaelscoileanna. But it doesn’t seem that way to me. It might go that way, since everyone seems to be a passive speaker (understanding but unable to speak), but it ISN’T YET. That’s my problem. I live in a state (of Australia) which has signage in Cornish in some parts, and Cornish is deader in Australia than it is in Cornwall – even though people from those areas have surnames like Trenorden and Curnow. (Come to think of it, how can someone have the audacity to say that Irish is dead when one need only look over a small stretch of water to Cornwall or the Isle of Mann and see a truly dead Celtic language – with less support than Irish, too, but a whole lot more hope). I live near a town which is proud to call itself German, and yet the only German you’ll find other than a few token signs is in the old folks’ home – Barossadeutsch is already considered a dead dialect by most. The Kaurna language, the indigenous language of my area, has only one native speaker, and maybe a dozen learners. That’s a dead language. Irish isn’t.

    (That all said, I think the way people go about preserving Irish is wrong. They need to encourage it in its natural state, where it still exists, rather than letter in English-speaking settlers to those areas and forcing the language on schoolkids in Dublin. Gaelic has far fewer speakers and received greater persecution [if you don’t believe me, there were a couple of decades there where people were shot on sight on suspicion of being a Gaelic-speaker], and yet is growing more rapidly. Some wowsers may object to the funding that goes to it, but at least it’s growing naturally – schools and universities in the Islands providing education in the language, Gaelic-speakers moving into major cities and bringing their language and Gaelic-medium schools with them – People are just glad Gaelic is still around and spoken, rather than bemoaning how few people speak it.)

    • Mary says:

      You’re absolutely right that people were shot for speaking Gaelic. Two of my Grandfather’s teachers – one who taught Latin and one who taught ancient history, were taken out and shot for speaking Irish. Now that might seem like ancient history – it was in the late 1920s, but people are still bruised by it.

      And I don’t think Irish is dead at all. I speak it (yes, with an English accent) and my son speaks it (also with an English accent.) It was important for me that my Grandfather was not the last person in our family to speak Irish.

      And for the record, I keep my written diary in Irish, I write my recipes in Irish, I argue with my Dad in Irish, and we gossip in Irish about how bad English rugby is compared to the Irish game, and how even worse American football is against either. My son texts me in Irish. His English girlfriend has picked up a few expressions (endearments mainly, they have been going out since they were fourteen, and my son is a romantic.)

      If Irish was dead you wouldn’t have English girls knowing how to say ‘I love you’ in Irish, or ‘thank you for the roses’ or understanding ‘you’re beautiful,’ or any of the other little linguistic gifts he gives her.

      So no. Irish is not dead. It’s beautiful, and it’s going to continue. It’s being taught in schools far better than when my Dad was growing up. Watch this video if you don’t believe me.

      So, yes to the original poster – you are quite right. Irish is not dead at all.

  4. Mike says:

    Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge (I am learning Irish) – and I find the series very useful to hear some actual spoken language with subtitles to aid understanding.

    It’s obvious that in most of Ireland, very little conversational Irish is left alive. What was interesting though was that despite a few pockets of hostility, most people just reacted with bemusement and a lot had a go at helping. Given that the last non-English-speaking Irish native expired in around the 60s, I reckon he got a fairly tolerant response overall, since his determination to speak only Irish and no English could have been seen as provocative by those who would know perfectly well that he’d have good English too.

    What it really highlights is the catastrophic failure of the government’s insistence that all schoolchildren get 12 (or is it 14 years) of the language taught in schools, yet it all it seems to have done is leave them either disliking or despising the language. What a terrible waste of time and money that policy has proven to be!

    The Irish-only schools that are springing up show that there are people who want to preserve the language and when there’s a generation (like Dara Ó Briain and others) for whom it’s pretty much their first language, then we can hope for a change. To see how to make it fun, take a look at the music videos from TG Lurgan, a summer school for kids who are interested in the language. And for a really interesting watch, see how the comedian Des Bishop did, going from nowhere to delivering stand-up comedy gigs in Irish after only a year of effort – both are easily found on youtube. The band Seo Linn is a spin-off of the Lurgan work (or maybe vice versa).

    It’s probably best to see Manchán as part of a growing subversive element trying to reverse that bad government approach to language teaching – because something desperately is needed to make sure that a language which is probably still best considered as endangered, doesn’t die out in a generation. Without major provocation, politicians will sit on their hands preserving the status quo.

    Oh, and it’s a *really* interesting language, very different from the Germanic and Romance families. Just don’t try to learn pronunciation from the spelling.

    For a poignant watch, try ‘Yu ming is ainm dom’ again on youtube, which has a laugh-out-loud moment towards the end.

    There’s some evidence that the work that Manchán and others have been doing may be starting to reverse the decline. I certainly hope so.

    Finally – possibly THE funniest thing I’ve seen yet this year is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNFfDirBE6w – turn on the subtitles in either language. Then try the English version.

    Tóg é bog é 🙂

    PS: No Bearla (No English) is an amusing linguistic trick. Most unusually, Irish totally lacks words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’, they just don’t belong in the grammar. So the title of the programme mocks itself by actually containing some English.

  5. Rachel says:

    Okay, so maybe I was a little harsh. It just bothers me that what I’m seeing on the show and what Manchán is saying are (to me) two completely different things. Yes, Irish is in strife. Yes, it’s probably not going as well as it could be. Yes, it’s sad that you can’t do everything through the first official language in all parts of Ireland. But it’s not dead.

    Mike, I’ve already seen most of that stuff on YouTube. I got through the Gaelic stuff (there’s not much of that) very quickly, so I’ve watched a lot of the Irish stuff, too. I do quite like “Yu Ming is Aimn Dom”, but I don’t get “Cáca Milis” (from the comments below, I don’t think anyone does). One of my favourite shows to watch on YouTube at the moment is the Turas Húicéara series. It’s interesting to see them visit Scotland and Mann and see the conversations where one is speaking Irish and one Gaelic or Manx. I am annoyed, however, that they went to Skye and went to some highland games but didn’t visit Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic-only university.

    I did try to learn Irish for a bit. I went along to the Irish Club on Mondays (Irish Language [And Slow Music] Night) because I figured, if the language is similar enough that I can understand it, it’s similar enough for practice, right? And it was, to an extent. It was a little challenging, but quite fun, even if I was always told that I sounded “too Scottish”, as I said, the language is quite similar. Once you get used to pronouncing “aw” for “á” and “w” for “bh”, there isn’t too much to trip you up (except you say, for example “an-maith” instead of “glè mhath”.

    I just got fed up with the attitude I got there – like “If you’re not Irish, you’re not good enough to be bothered with”. So, yes, I’m roughly 1/4 Irish… but it’s six or seven generations ago on a side of my family that’s far more in touch with its (equally distant) Cornish heritage than its Irish. However, I’m more than 1/2 Scottish, spent time there when I was little, grew up in the Scottish expat community here, and speak Gaelic. So I identify as Scottish and that just wasn’t good enough for the people at the Irish club. I don’t mind them. They’re nice people, generally, and the language is all right. I just couldn’t deal with their flack every week any more.

    Irish isn’t too different from Romance and Germanic languages. I mean, they’re all Indo-European languages, and in fact they’re all Indo-European languages from the same sort of area. There are similarities in strange places. For example, a lot of the vocabulary is similar to Romance language vocabulary (leabhar = lilber, bò = bovem), while some grammar seem reminiscent of German such as making plurals with -(e)an (German plurals are very often -(e)n) and having lots of cases, which Latin had but modern Romance languages don’t. (Older languages, like Latin and Gaelic, are always more complicated.) But, of course, it’s very different in some other ways. Like the verb always going first, and having a vocative case, and all sorts of sounds that don’t commonly exist outside Celtic languages. And it’s surprising how much Gaelic/Irish there is in English. I don’t mean just a few words, little grammar points, too. Like how we use the present continuous tense far more than any other Germanic language (Gaelic doesn’t really have a present continuous tense, but they use the verbal noun construction which is very much like it for just about everything. “Tha mi a’ smaoineachadh = I am (a-)thinking”).

    Oh, and you make a very good point about the language lessons. Well, having done compulsory language in primary school (Italian), I can understand how it fosters an intense dislike of the language (I suppress a shudder every time I hear Italian. I don’t have a good reason for it, but those primary school lessons killed any interest I might have had in the language). But what I don’t understand is how someone can learn a language for twelve or fourteen years and still not be able to hold a good conversation in it. (Like Des Bishop said). See this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXrjouPxuAo. Meanwhile, in Australia, one of the most obstinently monolingual places I’ve ever been (and lived, and grown up in), you learn a second language for five or even two years in high school and still manage to hold a 15-minute spontaneous conversation in it for part of the final exam. Yes, some people forget the language almost immediately, but they’re still proficient by the end. Perhaps the difference is that language isn’t compulsory after Year 9 in most schools, and there’s the option of two or three even in Year 8, so kids actually want to do the subject. I don’t know. I just don’t understand how one can learn one language for 12 years and not be able to speak it.

  6. Rachel says:

    BTW, do you know if the second season can be found anywhere on YouTube? I know there’s the first episode, but I think it’s just disjointed little clips of the rest.

  7. Bill says:

    Irish is one of the languages available to be learned on Duolingo, which is a fantastic way to learn a language (at least to know it well enough to understand most texts and to get a lot of vocabulary. Speaking it requires a different kind of training). It’s interesting that Wikipedia says there are currently 140,000 native speakers of Irish but in Duolingo there are 1.15 million people learning it! Hope that helps bring it back to more mainstream usage. It’s definitely one of the next languages I’m going to learn there.

    • Ala says:

      What you wrote in your post is actually Scottish Gaelic not Irish Gaelic

      • Rachel says:

        Tha, tha fìos agam… or, as an Èireannach would say, “Tá fíos agam”. Tha Gàidhlig Albannach agam… agus tá mé ag tuig Gaeilge Éireann. I’m swapping between the two in the post… much as I (try not to) do when I’m at an Irish-language event. My rant is in Gaelic because at the time, my knowledge of written Irish was limited to a few phrases only (there are actually a few sentences in Irish in the rest of the post).

  8. Catrìona says:

    Chan eil mi cinnteach nach robh fios agad mu thràth, ach tha blogger Gàidhlig ann air a bheil mì-inntinn gu math coltach ri Manchán: http://iolairelochtreig.blogspot.com/

    (Saoilidh mise gu bheil deagh phungan aig na dithis, co dhiù. Dè an adhbhar a bhith ag ionnsachadh mur eil Gàidhlig nàdarrach gun blas na Beurla ann? Agus ‘s e rud dìmeasach a tha ann an dèanamh prothaid air chosg mhìon-cànanan mar a tha BBC Alba an-diugh.)

  9. Alex Ogle says:

    Rachel, I agree with you that No Bearla is overly pessimistic. I found the series fascinating but was shocked by the ending. A language is only truly dead when people give up on it and stop speaking it! However, I still think the series is important. It’s interesting and if nothing else, it shines a spotlight on the harsh realities of the situation, and it’s important for people (esp politicians) to understand what the reality is. But to declare the same language you’re trying to advocate for to also be dead is ridiculous. Even if it’s meant to shock people to action, I think that level of pessimism is just counter-productive. It plays too much into the hands of those who already think the death of Irish is not a bad thing, and demoralizes everyone else. So in the end, I have pretty mixed feelings about the series.

  10. Alex Ogle says:

    One of the things I’ve always found absolutely baffling is the attitude of so many Irish people toward Gaeilge. As an American of Irish descent, I cannot understand the level of indifference. Many other minority languages survive because the ethnic/cultural groups that speak them have endured persecution or colonialism which then spurs a strong desire in the community to reassert cultural and national identity. Speaking the minority language then becomes a passionate act of identity, rebellion, and pride. It becomes a way to say that despite what the colonizer says, your culture is NOT inferior. This is how places like Catalonia and the Basque country have sustained their languages. What I can’t understand is why Ireland isn’t also this way. The Irish have endured an incredible amount of persecution and colonialism at the hands of the British, even into the 20th century! Think about that! That’s only a few generations ago! Why aren’t the Irish people still furious about this? Why aren’t they still furious about what was done to their culture? And why aren’t they using that fury to re-assert their identity? Including with their native language? Why do places like Quebec and Wales have so much pride in their languages while the Irish seem to have so much less? Maybe I’m misunderstanding something but this is what it looks like from an outside perspective. Maybe an Irish person can help me understand.

  11. marymicari says:

    I am learning Irish in America were there are no histories of being shot for using it. I understand how it must be frightening and almost impossible there. Afterall it is not used at home, not passed on. I find here that thousands are interested in the culture, language and ancestry. There are meet ups, classes and tons of events in NYC as well as other cities. I hope that now, ten plus years after this show aired it is changing there.

    • Rachel says:

      I think so. I still haven’t been to Ireland, but just yesterday I was at an Irish-language social picnic in Melbourne at which was mostly young people (20s) and mostly Irish expats, fluent speakers, many of whom learnt at Gaelscoileanna but some of whom just learnt it at English-medium school. So I think the language situation over there must be pretty good of there are young people coming to Australia, even from non-Irish-speaking places like Baile Átha Cliath, who speak Irish that well.

  12. John T says:

    Keep in mind that there is a difference between passive and active knowledge of a language. A person may understand the Irish spoken to him (or at least, recognize that what is being spoken is Irish) without knowing how to respond back. It may not just be a matter of shyness.

    As for the narrator, maybe I’m wrong but I’m interpreting the show as a sort of call to arms for Irish speakers to do something before it’s too late. When he says “It’s not relevant” or whatever, I think that’s just to provoke a response from people. The man works for an Irish-language channel after all.

    • Rachel says:

      Perhaps that’s his purpose, but if so, that’s not how it seems to come across. I’ve heard him described as a “known rabble-rouser”, so I think he’s just trying to annoy people rather than incite them to do something.

      For the first part of your comment, I understand there’s a difference between passive and active language-havers, but honestly even passive knowledge is a lot. As I’ve said, I’m in Australia, and I’ve met a lot of learners both of Scottish and Irish Gaelics. There is SO MUCH difference between a Scottish expat or an Australian-of-Irish-descent learner and an Irish expat learner, and it’s all because of the passive knowledge. I see people arrive at classes claiming not to have a word of Irish, maybe they only had it for a few years in school, and within a few weeks you can see them having a basic conversation, within a few months they can be comfortable socialising, and that’s just with one evening a week and the will to do it. Meanwhile the learner who grew up in Australia (or Scotland, if it’s Gaidhlig) spends a year just trying to work out what’s going on with the alphabet, why the verb’s at the front, why the preposition keeps changing… the one raised in Ireland is at such an advantage with the passive knowledge and can do small-talk at the end of the first night.

      So, yes, at first someone like this probably won’t know where to begin to form a sentence in reply, but it doesn’t take much prompting for the knowledge to surface. But even if it does, they’re not going to let it come out of the mouth with a camera in the face that’ll broadcast it on a Irish-language TV channel.

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