Or, how a relish gave us permission to love ourselves and our language.
Ireland has gone through a revolution. It has changed our attitudes about ourselves and has opened the gateway to a fuller nation. A nation that can now better embrace its strengths and admit its faults.
The starting gun for this revolution was shot in Ballymaloe. This wasn't done by a well-born family in East Cork donning their barber jackets and getting their pastel-coloured pants scuffed in guerilla warfare. It was signified by something they made - Ballymaloe Relish.
You might think that sounds odd but it isn't. This all makes sense. Ballymaloe Relish has allowed us to be proud of ourselves, and not to be embarrassed by our Irishness. On top of this, it has set the scene for an Irish-speaking resurgence. But what exactly does fancy ketchup have to do with the Irish language? Everything, as it turns out.
To explain my theory, I'll bring you through the Ireland of the 1970s to 1990s, then the Celtic Tiger period of 1990s to 2000s, and finally from the 2000s to now.
The Dependent Child - 1970s to 1990s
The Confusing Times - 1990s to 2000s
Celtic Tiger Ireland talked a good game, but it had a mighty chip on its shoulder, and there was something niggling away inside its head. It can be explained the following way. Imagine there are two people:
Comes from a low-income background. They got a high-paying job and it is their first year collecting their new paycheck.
The Celtic Metamorphosis - 2000s to present
The 2000s to present held high highs and low lows, and after it all we started to feel a bit more at ease with ourselves. Quite a few good jobs started to come to Ireland. A couple of years back I took a Sunday night flight from Munich to Dublin. On the flight were not hungover stag parties terrifying the rest of the passengers, but instead the plane was filled with German tech workers flying back to Dublin for work. People coming to us for work. That is pretty mental! If you look at even our recent history, you quickly see that this was not always the way.
We started to accept that we can make things and produce things and do things on our own. It's not that we don't listen to American songs or buy British food brands. We do. But we also listen to far more Irish songs and buy more Irish foods. We have more of our own stuff that we consume and share and comment on and critique. Other countries have had their intra-national shared experiences around this stuff, and we're now getting more of it too. Purchasing habits and behaviour are a good litmus test for this attitude.
Look at these 4 areas in particular, and then we'll look at Irish afterwards. What was the perception of these in the 1980s?
Perceptions in the 1980s:
- Trad Music - Old men in pubs
- Food - Guinness & Tayto. Very few Irish brands, 6 Michelin-starred restaurants
- Sinn Fein & republicanism - IRA, archaic attitudes
- Dress - Aran jumpers are scruffy, tweed is for farmers
- Trad Music: The Gloaming, Mary Whallopers
- Food: Ballymaloe, Mic's Chilli, Irish craft beers. Irish food is premium and better than other food, 21 Michelin-starred restaurants
- Sinn Fein & republicanism: Most 1st preference 2020 votes.  High status among <30 year-olds.
- Dress - €500 Aran Jumpers, Cillian Murphy + tweed, Avoca blankets
But what changed?
The status around these activities has changed, and there is something important to note about status:
- People move away from low-status activities.
- People move toward high-status activities.
In the 1980s, these activities were either low status, or as in the case of Trad Music, mainly had status in rural Ireland, but not in the cities. They have gradually become high-status elements in Irish life, and in the cities as well.
It is now not only acceptable that people appreciate these activities, it is preferable. Sinn Fein really are very popular now. You'll get many a Twitter like and follower if you promote their critiques of government policy. The Gloaming's sold-out concerts in the National Concert hall were non-trivial boasting material in the office the morning after. Your guests swoon over woolen multi-coloured blankets that cost €180 in Avoca. Status, status, status.
Maybe some day a French president will fly back €000s of Avoca blankets in diplomatic bags for themselves?
Do not conflate something having a high status with thinking the majority of the populace actually engaging with that thing. It is the perception of such activities that matters. Only a minority of a country will play an instrument, but it is still a high-status activity. Only a minority of people will vote for Sinn Fein, but they are increasingly young and educated and well regarded. Dabbling ("I was a vegan for a while"), or sometimes merely discussing a high-status behaviour ("this packaging is so wasteful") is enough for its sheen to rub off on you. And so it is with Irish-made, -baked, -brewed, -played, and now -spoken.
A Few More Focail
The perception around Irish has tracked this change. In the 1980s Irish was the language of emigration, Sean Nós, damp and musty prefabs, of tragic poems you had to analyse in school, and prayers you had to sing.
Let's look at the Irish language in terms of perception in the 1980s.
Perceptions in 1980s:
- Irish - Poverty, "no point", forced learning, Peig
The much-maligned Peig
- Irish: Gaelscoils, Irish names, Pop-up Gaeltacht, Duolingo popularity 
TG4 Website February 2021
When did this change?
Enter Stage, Comrade Ballymaloe
Ballymaloe Relish breached this new territory for us. It launched in supermarkets in the 1990s, but in the 2000s it really took off. I remember distinctly when it arrived in the house, and my surprise when I liked it. A new Irish brand and it's nice? It's better than the alternatives? It was nice having something homegrown and new. It looked and sounded premium as well. And everyone else seemed to agree. It was Irish, it was tasty - it was ours. This was no small glory.
At ease, comrades, you will need your energy for the coming battles
Families across the countries bought it in no time, and it was soon featured in kitchens across the country. It swept through the nation, one moistened sandwich at a time, and our newfound confidence along with it. The zeitgeist kept advancing until we were emboldened to re-invite Irishness into other aspects of our lives, making its way through music, politics, dress, and eventually reaching the Irish language.
As Ireland got richer, Ballymaloe was spread with reckless abandon, and we got more confident, Ireland got more comfortable with our language.
As Ireland gets richer again, we will speak more Irish, not less.
This is my theory. It is not a surety. But I think it is worth fleshing out and ruminating over. I'm trying to whittle down an idea here. There is no point getting too precise as I don't know exactly where this is going to end up. But I do sense a change, and as I hone in on the direction, I thought I might as well bring you along the ride with me. And I think Ballymaloe Relish helps me illustrate this movement that I sense going on.
Most presume the opposite of this theory is true. They would say to you that Irish is dying, and that the richer and more cosmopolitan we get the less need for it there is. But I believe by breaking negative, low-status associations with the language, we have been allowed to embrace it again. This paves the way for us to speak it more in the future.
As goes Ballymaloe Relish, so goes the nation.
But there is one big issue still holding the Irish language back.
The Leaky Bucket
The Irish education system is the ultimate leaky bucket. For Irish teaching, there is a huge amount of work put in at the start, but it comes to little at the end. We all go through ~14 years of learning Irish, but then, right after secondary school, people stop speaking it. There are a huge amount of resources put into every pupil to help them speak their native language. But after secondary school, most simply never speak it again. This is bad for two reasons:
1) It is sad
2) A lot of energy goes to waste
You go to primary school, full of curiosity. You spend 8 years learning Irish, absorbing more than you realise. Your Irish is building.
Then you go to secondary school and you are taught more Irish. A lot of the classes are focused on literature, and not on speaking. These are boring for most. But for many whose speaking level has increased, the progress is noticeable. You don't get to use your Irish a lot, but you are gaining something special.
Then you leave school. Nice one! Off to college or into the workforce, travelling or bumming around - getting on with the business of living. Life is to be lived, certainly not stuck inside learning about Calua . No more annoying Irish classes! But something gets lost. You mostly don't notice it, except when you try to speak it the odd time. Then you realise how bad your Irish has gotten.
You changed jobs, moved houses multiple times, found and lost and found love, and swapped one continent for the other. Lots of exciting life-things happen and you are lucky for it. Grateful on top. Then a chance to speak Irish comes up on holidays and you want to reply but you choke - you can't - it's gone.
The Beginning of the Beginning
The Irish Learning Journey
You have prematurely ended your Irish journey. This is the norm in Ireland. But keeping it up, if you had it that is, would not have been very difficult relatively speaking. Now it is hardly true that everyone becomes fluent in Irish during school. It is also not true that most even enjoy it. But for those that do, or those for whom even a little push extra in the right direction would have set them off, it is a tragedy to lose their bilingualness. For those, these are the lost years:
Let's compare this to what would happen if you kept it up. Either with Gaeilge Gym or by moving out the the Arann Islands burning the ear off someone in Ned's  for a season or any other acceptable way. A lifetime of Irish! A lifetime of being bilingual. It is an oddity that Irish people who speak Irish don't think of themselves as bilingual. They do not use that term to describe themselves. But they are. And therein lies the rub: so many are so close to this, but they just don't realise. We don't appreciate it, and the fog of post-colonial embarrassment is too much. But it could be so great:
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Thanks to Morgan for reading a draft of this post.