Raj Khan:Pedaling the Language

December 30, 2010


We Irish are a proud lot. We can be found in the four corners of the globe, draped in our tricolors, belting out the Fields of Athenry and swelling with pride at the thought of the nation we delight in. From the stands in Saipan to the front rows of the Eurovision song contest we will go to extraordinary lengths to voice our support for the boys in green be they of the footballing, artistic or any other variety. But one area we shy away from showing any affection towards is our language.

Purged from our national psyche by the English and beaten back in by the Christian Brothers 41.9% of the population said they spoke Irish to some extent in the most recent census. But only 10% of those were fluent speakers, two per cent  of whom spoke it as a first language. There’s been an attempt to sex it up with the arrival of the Sheoiges and Sean Og O Halpin on our screens as well as several shows that looked at the challenges of learning or speaking the thing(In the Name of the Fada, No Bearla). But the scars left by Peig Sears and the modh coinníollach run deep and it regularly finds itself on the defensive from those who want to cut the funding set aside for its continued survival.

But despite talk of its less than robust health(which dates as far back as Daniel O Connel) the opposite is perhaps more true. Irish language primary schools are attracting record numbers of children as their English language counterparts close while in 2007 it was recognised as an official language of the European Union creating work for translators both at home and abroad.

One person doing there bit to create awareness of the possibilities that await Irish speakers is Raj Khan(27) , a native of Bangladesh, who is literally getting on his bike to spread the word on the benifits of having “the cupla fochail”. On November 17th he’s starting out on a three week cycle tour of Irish universities spreading awareness of the opertunities that are out there for people with a profieciency in the language as well as promoting his-and his chief sponsars Foras na Gaeilge’s- vision for its future.

Beggining at IADT in Dun Laoighre he will travel to Cork, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Derry and Belfast, cycling for up to eight hours and covering a distance of around 100 kilometers per day. He will speak for on average 20 minutes before opening the floor up for questions.

This is his second stab at peddling his wares to the nations student body. His first attempt was late last November. “Once I had the idea I was eager to get up and go,” he says. “But Foras na Gaeilge were keen to make sure that I had a proper plan in place. Who was I going to speak to, where was I going to stay, what exactly was the message I was delivering.”

Among the issues he discussed was the need to establish a Gaeltacht and Culturlann in every major city and town, the need to create more bunscoils to accommodate the demand and most importantly changing the way Irish is thought in schools. “There is a lot of anger and a lot of passion out there. The teaching issue seems to be the biggest problem. I don’t know how many times I was told I shouldn’t be wasting my time cycling around the country, I should be in the education board changing it.”

Raj came to Ireland with only  €100 in his pocket in 2002 intending on the briefest of visits before heading to Milan to attend the prestigous fashion school Istituto di moda Burgo. Decamping to London after six months he realized that he missed our culture too much and returned after only three days. While working as a courier in 2004 he was given a package with an Irish address on it.  “I thought it was written in Hebrew,” he says. “It got me to thinking, after spending two years in any other country, wouldn’t I have encountered their national language a lot more? The more questions I asked about the subject the more hostile people seemed to get. I’ve never been to any other country where people are so negative about their own language! “

Thankfully for Raj the package was to be delivered to Foras Na Gaeilge, the governing body of the Irish language who handed him some leaflets about where he could avail of free classes.  He started attending Ionad Buail Isteach na Gaeilge, an Irish language drop in centre once a week where he conversed with Romanians, Nigerians, French and Belgians. There were no Irish in the class. “Even my teacher was foreign,” he says.

He started drinking in the bar of the Conradh Na Gaeilge where he met other young native speakers with a passion for the language. They co-opted him into their struggle to get Irish recognized as an official European Language in the EU. “It was the first time that I realized that there were people out there who cared about the language and who were doing something to insure its survival.”

One of the people he met was Rossa O Snodaigh a member of trad group Kila who got Raj to lecture passing Dubliners on their lack of love for their native language from a speaker’s corner he ran in Temple Bar every Saturday and who educated Raj about the struggle to keep Irish alive. “Day after day I kept going deeper and deeper and deeper until one day I stopped thinking of it as being your language and started thinking about it as being my own.”

It was around this time that he came up with the idea of cycling around Ireland to do his bit “I kept thinking ‘If I had money I could open a culturlann. Or if I had money I could open a TV station.” But he didn’t have any money. Yet he could cycle for hours. “So I said, feck this, lets just use my bike.”

While Foras na Gaeilge agreed to cover the cost of his accommodation -and his bike and skins were provided by Cycleways, he still managed to drum up debts of over €2000. “ I had to leave my job as a courier to go on the tour but I still had to pay my rent and account for my daily expenses such as food and drink.”

Raj was keen to learn from the mistake made by other speakers who he feels didn’t do their issue justice as they never engaged with the people they’d come to lecture.  “By day I’d cycle from one place to the next, talking to the media and the students. But in the evening all I did was party. I’m still friends with the people I met at my talks and when I go back to Galway, Cork, Carlow, etc I call them up and hang out.”

He had many reminders of his mortality along the way getting caught up in floods in Cork (where he was rescued in a raft by the civil defense), thick fog in Derry and a run in with the PSNI after he cycled onto a motorway in Belfast. “It was 50/50 whether they would arrest me or not but when I told them what I was up to they thought I’d probably call Gerry Adams so they just gave me a lift instead.”

Cycling hung-over most days he was struck by the amount of epitaphs he crossed on the road-at least one every ten kilometers. “It was very emotional when you are passing remembrances to someone’s wife, husband, brother, sister. The epitaphs makes you think of mother earth-Where am I going to go when I die, what is the Milky Way? The black hole? I don’t do drugs but it was almost a mystical experience.”

He doesn’t seem to be put off by the risk of getting into debt again and has made no contingency plans to prevent this happening. “I’m not an organised person to be honest. I’ll do this cycle as long as I can and someday it will have a good impact. Debts are just debts. They’re not Sean Fitzpatrick style debts and they’ll be worth it in aid of the greater good.”

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