Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

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Published: The Journal, October 6 2016

An Bhfuil Cead Agam?


WITH THIS SHORT film, director Paul Duane and I are hoping to accomplish the near impossible.That is, to start a conversation about the Irish language that is rational, unswayed by emotion, dogma or any political agenda, and informed by the facts as they are, rather than how we might wish them to be.

Like every Irish kid, I was required to study the language for thirteen years in school. I needed Irish to secure a place in university. So I spent a couple of summers in the Gaeltacht and learned it well enough to get an honour in my Leaving Cert. And there, pretty much, ended my engagement with the language.

A couple of years ago, on a night out with a mixed group of friends and strangers, the subject of Irish came up. No one at our table could speak it with any degree of competency, despite all our years of study. Why was this, we wondered? The near unanimous consensus seemed to be that Irish isn’t taught properly in our schools. But when I asked how it might be taught differently, the replies I received were muddled or contradictory.

So I offered my own off-the-cuff suggestion. Maybe the real problem was that, fundamentally, we hadn’t wanted to learn Irish, because we had no practical use for it.

Going forward, I suggested, might it not be a more productive use of schoolchildren’s time, as well as the State’s resources, if only students who genuinely wanted to study Irish were taught the subject? And if kids who’d prefer to study art, or music, or IT, or Mandarin Chinese, were allowed to study those subjects instead?

Honestly, if I were a beauty pageant contestant advocating world peace, I could not have felt that I were venturing a blander suggestion. But the table was aghast. Most immediately noticeable was the vitriol I faced.

People didn’t just disagree with me. They felt personally affronted. I mean, to the extent that, when I was returning from the bathroom a few minutes later, I overheard one of my friends assuring the group that I was being deliberately provocative and hadn’t really meant what I had said.

More striking still was just how the flimsy the furious arguments hurled at me, in favour of mandatory Irish, turned out to be when subjected to any scrutiny. The takeaway, for me, was that I had stumbled upon an issue Irish people engage with emotionally on a gut level, while checking their brains in at the door. And given the mind-boggling sums of public money at stake, this notion rather intrigued me.

Ultimately, it became the departure point for this short film.

In An Bhfuil Cead Agam? I highlight the absurd, expensive and (occasionally) criminally irresponsible lengths to which we go in this country to avoid recognising awkward home truths about our first language. I debunk some of the myths that have impeded honest debate about the language, and ask who benefits from pursuing policies that have already clearly failed by any measure.

The piece is a polemic and I make no apology for that.

The notion that Irish language policy, as presently constituted, is sound and fit for purpose is one of the basic operating principles of our entire education system, civil service and public broadcasting apparatus. One short YouTube video explicitly outlining an opposing viewpoint does not seem a disproportionate reaction to me.
What we left out

Paul and I set out to make a six-minute video. We ended up going twice that long. And even still, there were mountains of material we were forced to omit. Like the time the Department of the Gaeltacht was caught using Google Translate on its website. Or the DJ hired to present an alternative music show on Raidió na Gaeltachta who was allowed to play music in any language other than English. Or the myriad links between Irish language activism and the for-profit Irish language translation services industry.

All of these will feature in a full length documentary we hope to make at a later date.

Finally, I should state that our original plan for the closing section of the video was to shoot it outside Croke Park on a big match day. When that proved unfeasible, on very short notice, we were forced to relocate the grounds of my local GAA club. I should hope it goes without saying that the views expressed in this film are mine, and mine alone, and in no way reflect the views of Ballyhaunis GAA.

So by all means, call me a traitorous West Brit sleeper agent – or whatever else you want to – in the comment section. Just leave those good people out of it.

See also: Response to critics of ‘An Bhfuil Cead Agam?’

October 15th, 2016.

6 Responses to “An Bhfuil Cead Agam?”

  1. Lane Says:

    Hi Eoin. Interesting video, and nice to hear someone speaking Irish with a bit of fluency. Agree with some of what you say here, but not with the idea there is no room for improvement on the teaching side. I have spent time thinking and even writing a little about what was difficult about Irish as I remember learning it at primary and secondary school (can send you a link if you wish). While I’d go along with the notion that ultimate usefulness was regular and frequent point of debate among school friends and put some people off, I do think some things about the method deserve reconsideration. Irish lessons started a bit soon for the kids I was in school with who began it at 4 or 5 when many of them were also learning to read and write in English, so by the age of 8 they had a kind of residual confusion and a conviction the entire language was impossible. A starting age of 8 might make a huge difference. I had already begin (very briefly) on French before coming to Irish, and that was useful because it meant the idea of having to learn nouns and verbs and all that was not new to me. I got a B in the leaving and am in need of revision now, but remember enough to be flummoxed by some of the google-Irish on Dart signs, which might make a fun addition to a full length documentary. Anyway best of luck with your video & documentary!

  2. Hugh Says:

    Hi Eoin

    Enjoyed the video, I do think that the truth would lie somewhere in the middle. I do think the mandatory teaching of Irish is a double edged sword.

    I have to admit to an outsiders view though. As I was born and brought up in England.

    My Dad’s family is from Northern Ireland: a few have made a real effort to learn Irish even though they weren’t taught in school – however there is a political dimension there. I think that the extent of Irish being known to even the most basic level in the Republic has encouraged nationalists to embrace a desire to learn the language beyond a simple cultural interest.

    My mum’s side of the family though are in the Republic Mayo/Galway. They love the GAA but don’t speak much Irish. Only tending to resort to it when on foreign soil as a bit of an exclusive thing.

    I did a bit of family research some time ago. My Great great grandad from Mayo in the 1911 census spoke Irish and came from Ballaghaderreen. My Grandad didn’t know his dad also spoke Irish. As a further cliche I thought it a duty to learn Irish but it is so alien to me here in Britain. Even the structure. It has been slow progress.

    Basically I think some sort of mandatory basic introduction to Irish is essential and a useful aid to someone trying to learn the language themselves. I know my family around Newry has always had a sporadic relationship with the language – In the 1930s they were founding members of the local GAA club. But they always did struggle with the language beyond the basics.

    It’s difficult because I think the mandatory education helps people more distant from daily usage, provides the language toolbox maybe not immediately but they can pick it up in the future, but it also drops the cold dead hand of schooling onto the subject. In the Gaeltacht it delivers a dull state version – turning the very thing people loved into something very uncool and dull.

    So I guess I am somewhere in the middle, you point out a number of areas where reform seems to be absolutely necessary.

  3. Lane Says:

    Unconnected. Eoin, is that you driving around Alabama in the winter issue of the Dublin Review? A lot of petrol. I have a little piece starting the next page…

  4. Eoin Says:

    Hi Lane, yes, that’s me. I read yours too. Very good. Is it a standalone story, or extract from something longer?

  5. Lane Ashfeldt Says:

    Thanks Eoin. It is complete story, but maybe a bit like your own piece, the way it ends the reader is free to elaborate… Talking of readers, am giving away a copy of TDR – see link above. or find it on twitter @ashfeldt

  6. Wil Says:

    This guy appears to be disputing some of the figures concering the cost of keeping this Zombie language on it’s feet.
    http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/fake-facts-irish-language-debate-3220676-Feb2017/?utm_source=facebook_short

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