The Ballymaloe Revolution

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

    Let's jump back to pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, when it was still considered weird to go on a shopping trip to New York to save money. 

    The Ireland of the 1970s to 1990s looked to the UK and America for validation. Not for everything but for lots of things. We watched American and British TV and imported products from these countries with the same vigor with which we exported people to them. 

    Most Irish products and cultural peculiarities were just not cool. This is thoroughly connected to our past as a poor and agricultural country. We used to rely on our coloniser for everything. This left us with serious dependency issues. 

    Think of a dependent person. Dependent people are not confident; they need others validating them constantly. It is hard to carve out a personality of your own when this is the case. You imitate and emulate, you do not draw upon ideas from within. You can't - you're lacking the prerequisite conviction to do so.

    And countries are no different. These are but collections of people. Ireland, the country, was not so sure of itself, so it began to look to the UK and the US for cues on how to talk, dress, act and what to buy. 

    Charlie Haughey came from a low-income household. When he became powerful, he spent openly; he had the wine, the mansion, the shirts. His supporters liked this. Buying expensive foreign products was a sign of success - he had broken through Irish poverty. The ill-gotten luxuries actually cleansed him, in the eyes of many. It was an aspirational life, despite the bribing etc. Would that be possible now with a leader? It is far less likely. Ireland has changed.

    The Confusing Times - 1990s to 2000s

    As we progressed through the 1990s, The Celtic Tiger arrived. This was an in-between phase. We got more money, but we didn't have it for so long. It was disposable cash that came and went quickly. We tried not to let on, but we weren't so sure what to think of it all.

    Confusing times indeed

    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:

    Person A 
    Comes from a family who have had high-paying jobs for generations, and has had their high-paying job for 30 years.

    Person B
    Comes from a low-income background. They got a high-paying job and it is their first year collecting their new paycheck.

    Person A is actually rich, while Person B has a lot of disposable income but is not rich. 

    Ireland is person B. We got the stuff, but like person B, we still had insecurities of the bad times hanging over us. We spent the money in as many directions as possible, enjoying the ability to spend as much as the fruits of the expenditure [1], looking to the exciting modern world, or just blowing it, because there were a lot of bad times, and why not enjoy the party? But we didn't really embrace the homegrown cultural stuff, like our language and Irish food, because that had to do with farming and the non-fancy tweed and poorness, and that wasn't the new us.

    American brands spread across the Atlantic.

    Other countries were richer than us, and there was just more going on in them, so we looked to them. It was far more attractive to ape America than to embrace our own traditions and culture. America was all that was modern and forward looking. 

    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

    Perceptions now:

    • 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 & republicanismMost 1st preference 2020 votes. [2] 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

    Perceptions now:

    • Irish: Gaelscoils, Irish names, Pop-up Gaeltacht, Duolingo popularity [3]

    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 [4]. 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.

    You can't speak Irish anymore. 

    Any time you try to put a sentence together there are too many holes in your vocab. Too many knots in your grammar. It is too embarrassing. You can push some words out. But your brain is screaming at you, telling you not to do it for you may fail and that is scary. So you don't try any more.

    Wasted Energy

    The amount of lost speaking ability is a disaster for the education system. That is 14 years of Irish language education that disappear almost without a trace. Few avenues exist through which you can speak Irish, so after you leave the school gates on a warm June day, you don't. 

    To put it starkly, there is a churn-rate of >95% in the Irish-learning journey. It has a 95% churn rate on the macro and individual levels.

    a)  Macro: Out of everyone who learns it, 95% stop speaking it after school
    b)  Individual: The individual speaking ability drops by 95% over their lifetime

    Everyone learns it, then after everyone leaves secondary school for the last time, most drop it. And because they stop practicing it, they stop being able to speak it. 

    Our education system is a massive leaky bucket waiting to be fixed. We have good intentions in that we keep filling the bucket. But we don't recognise the faults of the bucket, and we persist endlessly in filling it, without looking at the preponderance of holes in the bucket.

    Muzzy Mór. He wanted to save us, but he was never enough. That we must do ourselves.

    The Irish state brings us pretty far in helping us with Irish. Yes there are issues with the curriculum, we all know its faults. But we do need to meet it halfway. We need to speak it more. Fluency in a language doesn't come without trial and error. We have to speak it just a little every now and again, keep it up a bit, and we will have another language for life. 

    The Beginning of the Beginning

    I'm tackling this problem myself, or I have just begun to. I don't know what the future holds for me in this domain, but I'm going to give it a good go, and that's all I can promise. I have a solution, energy, not a lot of funds, and time. 

    My solution is an online Irish speaking group called Gaeilge Gym. I did not write this article just to shill the group. This idea of a more modern Ireland becoming more friendly to Irish has been rummaging around my head for a few years. It was the whole process of launching the group, of putting something into the world that stirred up the desire to flesh out my thoughts with the keyboard. This year the time has finally come to follow my conviction. That is why I have launched the online community - the goal of which is

    To increase the amount of active Irish spoken in Ireland

    But first I'm starting small. The group started in January with one hour-long meetup per week. That has now doubled. Irish people meet online and speak about a theme I provide for one hour. There is a leader but there is no teaching and there are no lessons. It is designed to be as frictionless as possible. I want to lure you in with the simplicity - show up and speak about the topic. It's still a little intimidating, but you get over it pretty quickly. It's fun and rewarding. 

    The website is totally in English. I want to remove any pretense around the language. I don't want people to feel embarrassed by not understanding something before they're even in the door. Shoo em in before they can back out, give them a little nudge, and they are speaking Irish like it was 5th class all over again.  

    This is the piece in the Irish learning puzzle that I can see is missing: people stop speaking Irish after school. That is why they lose their learned Irish. The community is fixing this - you can now speak Irish for two hours per week at a low cost. It is the minimum viable way that I can solve a larger problem. But doing the minimum can be effective if it is attacking the problem directly. 

    Gaeilge Gym can work in a couple of ways. The more difficult way is to catch people mid-later on in life and help them resuscitate their Irish. This is the most common way Gaeilge Gym will operate for now. On people like myself.

    The easiest would be to catch people coming out of school and college, when people have just stopped speaking Irish and before they forget too much. By offering Gaeilge Gym at this point, I'm inserting the community at the current end of the typical Irish learning journey and extending it. This is about 25% into their lives. If Gaeilge Gym is successful, your Leaving Cert year will not be the end of your Irish journey. You'll just be 25% into your Irish speaking journey, 25% into your life. From here on you'll be maintaining your Irish, giving it Vitamin C tablets and the odd dose of Calpol instead of CPR. Nurturing over resuscitating. 

    To invert this, look at what you can gain - it will give you 60+ extra Irish speaking years. 

    An dtuigeann tú? I'll draw it out. 

    The Irish Learning Journey

    Let's look at this Irish learning journey visually. What stunned me is just how short a typical Irish persons journey is. All that learning and knowledge squashed into our heads that early! But by mid-twenties most people will consider their Irish a lost cause and will never speak it again. 

    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 [5] 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:


    When you look at the country as a whole, speaking a second language is a massive additive exercise. There are about 250,000 students in secondary school at any one time. About 1 million people have gone through secondary school in Ireland in the last 20 years. If even 1/3 of them kept up Irish, there would be 330,000 extra active Irish speakers in the country. That is a lot of Irish language websites, groups, communities, YouTube channels etc. Not to mention their children speaking it. This is about the population of Iceland, a country with its own unique language. 

    There is also a biological argument for speaking another language. It improves your memory, your decision-making skills, problem solving skills, skill-learning-skills and is "seriously great for your brain."[6] Now not all researches are in agreement on this, but a chance at making you smarter and more successful does not sound so bad. 

    So learning a second language enlivens the nation and augments the mind. But also just makes your life richer. Like, more satisfying. I came across this lovely Seanfhocail the last day:

     "Is siúleach scéalach" 

    The one who walks or travels (from village to village) is the storyteller. It is a wonderful phrase. Sure we all know a scéalach. 

    And we're missing out on a ton of stuff like this, or like just ag caint as Gaeilge, and we know we are.

    We are now the culture of low-tax, expensive coffee, gratuitous athleisure gear, and new-but-shite buildings. Which is fine, and I swill out of that cocktail myself regularly. Try and stop me. However, eventually you realise the inescapable truth: all those things can be striped away. And they might. What cannot, and has not, in 1,500 years, is Irish.

    The revolution continues.


    You can follow me on Twitter : @_ronanmc 

    If you want to speak and keep up your Irish, join us here: 

    It's great fun, and there is a 7 day trial, so you can try it out for free. 

    [1] The phrase "there are no pockets in coffins" comes to mind here. Try telling this to someone from the continent. They will look at you as if you had two heads.

    [2] SF got 24.5% of 1st preference votes in 2020

    [3] There are 5.6 Million Irish Learners on Duolingo

    [4] Calua is a short story written by Sean Mac Mathúna

    [5] Ned's is a pub on Inis Oirr. How I miss it. 


    Thanks to Morgan for reading a draft of this post.