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.