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Published: Irish Times, 19 March 2015

Our first language now languishes somewhere between salsa dancing and Ultimate Frisbee

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Tá Seachtain na Gaeilge orainn. Or rather, bhi sé. Our two-week national celebration of the Irish language actually ended on Tuesday. But if you happen not to be either a biddable school kid, or an adult whose public-sector job requires paying occasional lip service to the language, odds are the event bypassed you entirely.

As a Gaeilgeoir, I derive no particular pleasure from admitting this. But as minority pursuits go, our first language now languishes somewhere between salsa dancing and Ultimate Frisbee, in terms of its popularity amongst the general populace.And, of late, its role in our public affairs has bordered on farcical. Last week in the Dáil, Enda Kenny was criticised on both sides of the house for insisting upon answering awkward questions about American drone strikes in the Middle East entirely in Irish, despite the fact that that the TD posing the questions didn’t understand what he was saying.

Mick Wallace is far from our only public representative lacking a cúpla focal. Astonishingly, neither government minister currently charged with responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, nor Joe McHugh, Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs and Natural Resources, is conversant in the language, insofar as the public is aware.

Moreover, a clumsy Irish translation of the forthcoming same-sex marriage referendum text might have had the unintended effect of banning heterosexual marriage in Ireland, had the mistake not been spotted by a member of the public. (The Irish text would have superseded the English version in law, despite the fact that the vast majority of our lawmakers are not fluent in Irish.)

Not that journalists are in any position to crow. The Seachtain na Gaeilge 2015 media pack, designed to help us perpetuate the illusion that Irish plays a meaningful role in the mainstream discourse of our nation, included an interesting PDF document titled “Irish phrases for radio”.

Virtually every broadcaster in the land should have spent at least a dozen years learning Irish in school.
Yet some helpful phrases deemed worthy of inclusion were Hello (“Dia dhaoibh”), Goodbye (“Slan”) and Thank you (“Go raibh maith agat.”)

All this would be amusing if our government did not continue to spend about €1bn per annum promoting the Irish language through education, the media and public services. Irish has been compulsory in our schools since independence. Government policy has even sought to re-establish it as the lingua franca of the State. Yet at the last census, only 1.8 per cent of the population claimed to speak it on a daily basis, down from 15 per cent when that policy was instituted.

In Dáil debates last week, opposition TDs still insisted the Government should be doing more. Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan suggested every child in the State should be required to go through three years of immersive education in Irish to increase the number of speakers nationwide. Socialist TD Ruth Coppinger called for “a major investment of funds” in order to ensure the language’s survival.

Yet, speak to any an activist and they’ll usually tell you two things. First, that the Irish language is genuinely cherished by thousands of people, at home and abroad, and that the ranks of it’s admirers are growing every year. Second, that abolishing compulsory Irish in our school would doom the language to extinction. Now it seems to me that these statements cannot both simultaneously be true.

Those of us living outside of An Gaeltacht, who love the language, will continue to do so even if our children are not obliged to study it in school or university. (If they want to, they’ll study it voluntarily.) Love is not fostered through coercion. And those who argue loudest to the contrary usually have an undeclared financial, as well as ideological, vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Inside the Gaeltacht, meanwhile, Irish language policy has tended to operate much like the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inspectors roll into a town delivering speeches and handing out lollipops to children. They assume the natives will continue to do their bidding even after they have departed, as if the local inhabitants somehow aren’t subject to the same historical forces that shape the lives of the rest of us.

That is not a realistic strategy. Traditional Irish music and Gaelic games, in recent years, have not only survived, but thrived worldwide, with minimal State subvention.

Sure, neither had to contend with an adversary as pernicious or ubiquitous as the English language. But virtually all our politicians advocate pursuing our present failed policy indefinitely. Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting different results?

April 1st, 2015.

16 Responses to “Our first language now languishes somewhere between salsa dancing and Ultimate Frisbee”

  1. Justin Scannell Says:

    Tá rud éigin dearmadta agat san alt seo. Tabhair buille faoi thuairim cad é!

  2. Will Says:

    Irish, like so much else in the Republic of Botched, has been turned into a money wasting gravy train. When a language has to be imposed on a people it can not by any stretch of the imagination be called “their” language. It does not matter what that language is or what it’s origins are. Billions are being wasted on what has become a farce based on an expensive political illusion.

  3. Justin Scannell Says:

    So you would somehow have a more positive view of the language if it wa

  4. Justin Scannell Says:

    Finger slipped. Sorry about that. Now where were we? Ah yes; would you have a better view of the language if it wasn’t the recipient of money? Think hard about your answer, and try to anticipate my next question

  5. Eoin Says:

    Not sure Will is going to see your reply Justin. But I’ll answer if you like. I’d say, yes, I’d be better disposed toward Irish if it didn’t consume such gargantuan sums of public money to so little effect.

  6. Justin Scannell Says:

    Better that I talk to you, since this is your site after all! Given the language debate as I know it, which predates Irish independence by the way, I’m inclined to doubt that anyone’s views positive or otherwise would be different

  7. Will Says:

    Hello Eoin
    You should have received an email on this subject regarding warehousing. It was from a hotmail address. Do you have any other way of being contacted?

    Do you by any chance know Mr C Murphy, he of the play The Guarantee and many fine freelance articles?

    Will

    PS; Justin, if you want a question answered you need to do more than come up with one that looks like a bar stool barrister’s clumsy attempts to lead.

  8. Eoin Says:

    Hi Will

    I did get an email about warehousing. Hadn’t got around to replying because (a) inundated with correspondence and (b) was consulting with director, researcher etc. about how to respond.

  9. Justin Scannell Says:

    Any sane and/or decent person would resent being compared to a lawyer, Will. So naturally, I’ll take the analogy as a compliment. Presumably Eoin’s comments are a fair representation of your own views on the matter, so I’ll accept replies from either of you.

    By the way, I already knew what the answer to my question was going to be. Just to ensure that the two of you don’t get the impression that all I want to do is mess around, my next question was going to be: do either of you know anything about the history of the language debate in Ireland?

  10. Eoin Says:

    Enlighten us, Justin!

  11. Justin Scannell Says:

    Alright, basically Irish was neglected by the Catholic education system with the foundation of Maynooth (just after the French Revolution). The RC Church founded the college and forbade preaching in Irish, something Protestant organisations didn’t do. Daniel O’Connell went along with this, and argued for Home Rule in English to Irish-only voters. For the newspapers, you understand.

    In 1878, the Roscommon Liberal MP Charles Owen O’Conor Don, direct descendant of our last proper High King and Catholic quasi-unionist whose family dodged the Penal Laws, persuaded the British Parliament to stick Irish on the curriculum for Catholics. This was done on an optional after-school basis.

    Up until that point, it was only mandatory in St. Columba’s, the most expensive and Protestant school in the whole country. Boys there needed it to get into TCD here, and Oxbridge across the water. Since very few ordinary people could afford full-time education, not many people took advantage of optional Irish at any rate.

    20 odd years after O’Conor’s achievement John Mahaffy, an extremely distinguished Professor of Classics at Trinity, tried to get it off the curriculum altogether, using arguments similar, but not identical, to your own. He went up against Douglas Hyde and lost. You and I are simply carrying on the same discussion, but I think you may gain the upper-hand in the long run

    Let’s put a more recent perspective on this. In the blurb for your short film, you criticise how Irish is taught. My Irish teachers were top notch, so generalisations at this stage are pointless no matter what you believe. Chew on this, however; Patrick Hillery shut down every Irish-immersion college bar one (a Protestant one of course) whilst he was Minister for Education.

    It could be argued that bad teaching practices are all his fault, but if the Irish people were so annoyed, why did they make him President? Hell of a way to treat a scapegoat, don’t you think?!?! Thanks to politicians like him, Gaelscoileanna will have to struggle to get competent teachers.

    To your credit, you haven’t given out about the schools a

  12. Justin Scannell Says:

    Alright, basically Irish was neglected by the Catholic education system with the foundation of Maynooth (just after the French Revolution). The RC Church founded the college and forbade preaching in Irish, something Protestant organisations didn’t do. Daniel O’Connell went along with this, and argued for Home Rule in English to Irish-only voters. For the newspapers, you understand.

    In 1878, the Roscommon Liberal MP Charles Owen O’Conor Don, direct descendant of our last proper High King and Catholic quasi-unionist whose family dodged the Penal Laws, persuaded the British Parliament to stick Irish on the curriculum for Catholics. This was done on an optional after-school basis.

    Up until that point, it was only mandatory in St. Columba’s, the most expensive and Protestant school in the whole country. Boys there needed it to get into TCD here, and Oxbridge across the water. Since very few ordinary people could afford full-time education, not many people took advantage of optional Irish at any rate.

    20 odd years after O’Conor’s achievement John Mahaffy, an extremely distinguished Professor of Classics at Trinity, tried to get it off the curriculum altogether, using arguments similar, but not identical, to your own. He went up against Douglas Hyde and lost. You and I are simply carrying on the same discussion, but I think you may gain the upper-hand in the long run

    Let’s put a more recent perspective on this. In the blurb for your short film, you criticise how Irish is taught. My Irish teachers were top notch, so generalisations at this stage are pointless no matter what you believe. Chew on this, however; Patrick Hillery shut down every Irish-immersion college bar one (a Protestant one of course) whilst he was Minister for Education.

    It could be argued that bad teaching practices are all his fault, but if the Irish people were so annoyed, why did they make him President? Hell of a way to treat a scapegoat, don’t you think?!?! Thanks to politicians like him, Gaelscoileanna will have to struggle to get competent teachers.

    To your credit, you haven’t given out about those schools as far as I know, but I wish all they had to deal with was getting slagged off. They have enough difficulties getting recognition from the government, teachers’ unions and religious authorities as is. A certain Labour minister for education suggested a few years back that all Gaeloideachas parents are racists.

    You might say that you have no problem with Irish immersion education per se and that you’re more bothered about its official status. But when you think about it, those institutions give a new meaning to the term ‘compulsory Irish’. I went to an English-speaking school, and Béarla is the language in which I best express myself. Unlike a lot of my classmates, I grew to love Shakespeare, especially that notoriously anti-Gaelic propaganda piece, Macbeth! The less you hear about my ‘efforts’ at maths, the better.

    We only did Irish for 40 minutes a day on average. In a self-respecting Irish-immersion school, as you well know, only one language is allowed, and it isn’t Navajo. At least no one gets beaten there for speaking English. Mind you, that’s how most Irish children learned English back in the good old days. Compared to others, we had it easy. If you were to suggest optionalising English and Maths, however, I would have some sympathy. That, at least, would give students a bit of choice.

    As for the arguments about the use of Irish by the state media, I’d rather have it than otherwise. In the end of the day, our government should present all facets of Irish culture in a positive light. The Irish people have embraced the GAA and traditional music, but after the Famine, most of them gave up on the language. If they hadn’t done that, or at least made an effort to remain bilingual, you and I would be talking about something else.

    In other words, and there’s no kind way to say this, they can blame no one but themselves. Funny, when you think about it, an Ireland that speaks English and devalues its own language is the RC church’s greatest legacy, yet we claim to be a secular society. Does this hold the record for the longest post on your website or what!?!?!?

  13. Justin Scannell Says:

    Once again, feel free to ignore the first effort I made to write this. Still trying to get used to my smartphone

  14. Will Says:

    Ireland is a secular society? I must have been out that day protesting the blasphemy law or hanging baby shoes on a railings and bemoaning the fact a foreign religion is running 90% of the schools and hospitals….anyway…

    Like I said, a discussion of Irish is not about language or even what did or did not happen pre quasi-independence.

    It’s about how corruption, incompetence and cute hoorism can lead to millions being wasted all under the cloak of the romantic fiction that Irish is “our” (speak for yourself) national language.

    Irish people have demonstrated overwhelmingly that they have decided not to speak Irish and that they will never ever again speak it in any significant numbers on a daily basis.

    This is the 21st century: it’s time to free people to make their own choices and to drop all compulsory requirements for Irish. It’s time to stop wasting money translating signs, bus timetables and government documents from English into another language for no logical reason.

    Don’t worry, we won’t tell all those dead people….

  15. Justin Scannell Says:

    Gentlemen,

    You’re both probably thinking that I’ve nothing better to do than torment you both, and I’m also going to liberate myself from the same notion, so this will be my
    final post. The point I’ve been trying to make over the past few days is that it is the Irish people’s attitudes to the language which have driven the language debate
    since before Catholic Emancipation. With the greatest of respect, all the changes you have suggested have done nothing to address this matter, as far as I can see.
    Whilst Eoin has ably played the role of genial host, Will seems to have done most of the talking here, so it’s his arguments that I’m refuting. My last post was some
    714 words long, and his response to it has consisted of the following:

    (i) Looking at roughly 5% of my points, but offering no hard evidence to back up such denials. This is no skin off my nose, because such evidence doesn’t exist in any
    event.
    (ii) Ignoring the other 95% of my points completely.

    So I’m going to finish off by going through his post from yesterday and answer it as best I can. If I was having this same discussion with anyone else in the country,
    the same thing would happen, so don’t take my criticisms personally. It is not my intention to get you to immediately change your minds on this subject. My objective
    has simply been to identify certain matters of importance, without which the language debate would be an exercise in futility. Neither of you may have consider these
    matters before, granted, but I just want to put them in writing so that you can’t say that you haven’t been warned. Eoin has made it very clear that he wants, above
    all else, an honest and open debate on the language issue. If he’s as fair-minded as I suspect him to be, he knows that a debate means confronting opposing arguments
    head-on. Hopefully, I’ve done that here.

    Will Says:
    October 19th, 2016 at 2:35 pm
    Ireland is a secular society? I must have been out that day protesting the blasphemy law or hanging baby shoes on a railings and bemoaning the fact a foreign religion
    is running 90% of the schools and hospitals….anyway…

    My answer:
    Ireland is becoming a more secularised society because fewer and fewer people are taking their views from the pulpit, the best example of this is the gay marriage
    referendum. Perhaps some of our politicians are still terrified of the bishops, but the populace isn’t. The same can be said for the divorce referendum of the mid-90′s.
    Rightly or wrongly, the Irish people thought, spoke and acted for themselves. How many of your acquaintances/social circle are observant Catholics?
    I’m hardly accusing your good self of being a holy Joe, but I did point out that the RC Church has been the primary anglicizing influence in our beloved country.
    Your use of the phrase “a foreign religion” is nice. After all, it established a foreign language; and let’s not forget the fact that the only pre-Christian religion
    we have the slightest clue about is one created by Gaelic society.

    Will Says:
    October 19th, 2016 at 2:35 pm
    Like I said, a discussion of Irish is not about language or even what did or did not happen pre quasi-independence.

    My answer:
    All discussions concerning language policy are framed in 19th-century discourse. I made the statement, and you haven’t disproven it. Just because we’re having this
    enlightening discussion on a website doesn’t mean that our ideas are modern.

    Will Says:
    October 19th, 2016 at 2:35 pm
    It’s about how corruption, incompetence and cute hoorism can lead to millions being wasted all under the cloak of the romantic fiction that Irish is “our” (speak for
    yourself) national language. Irish people have demonstrated overwhelmingly that they have decided not to speak Irish and that they will never ever again speak it in
    any significant numbers on a daily basis.

    My answer:
    Any aspect of human culture strongly rooted in this country is deserving of the possessive pronoun “ours”. So it’s official; Newgrange is yours and mine. Ditto for the
    wonderful Cahir Castle in Tipperary. You get the point. We are the custodians of all culture (be it human or otherwise) associated with the nation. If any aspect of
    culture in a country is neglected or mistreated in way, it reflects badly upon us. To paraphrase Séamus Heaney (a seminal English-language poet who didn’t bash Irish,
    funny that) we are more than just a credit rating. Your statement here has helped me to demonstrate the Irish people are ultimately responsible for the language, or
    at least that they should be. If Irish gets optionalized and survives any way, they get the credit. On the other hand, if it loses its compulsory status and dies out,
    it will be their own fault, period. They will lose the privilege of blaming the government for a failing language policy. If they are prepared to accept this risk and
    the responsibility that goes with it, I wish them the very best. Can you be sure that they will demonstrate such wisdom, and if so, where is your evidence? Eoin hinted
    at the corruption and criminal activites with regards Irish in publicity literature for his film. This is a point I cannot answer until I see the evidence for myself.
    If the evidence can’t be shown in an 11-minute film as he has said, perhaps the best thing to do would be to outline it in a simple online article (something he’s no
    stranger to). Assuming that his sources of information are valid, and his research is impartial and objective, this shouldn’t be a problem, but let’s see the evidence
    first. Simply alluding to, and dropping hints about, such affairs will not convince any but those who want to be convinced.

    Will Says:
    October 19th, 2016 at 2:35 pm
    This is the 21st century: it’s time to free people to make their own choices and to drop all compulsory requirements for Irish. It’s time to stop wasting money
    translating signs, bus timetables and government documents from English into another language for no logical reason. Don’t worry, we won’t tell all those dead people….

    My answer:
    Placename signs have been bilingual since the foundation of the state, and as far as I can tell, this is one aspect of language policy which has remained admirably
    consistent. Personally, I think it an intellectual impoverishment that the vast majority of people living, say, in Dublin probably don’t know the origins of the city’s
    name, and yes it is Irish in origin. Don’t trust anyone who gives credit to our Scandinavian friends. Some Scottish campaigners against bilingual Gaelic-English
    signage have chosen a novel form of protest – firing guns at the signs. Will Ireland reach that stage? Your reference to the concept of choice is intriguing. In my
    previous post, I argued that the only logical move, in the case of optionalizing Irish, is to do away with the very idea of a mandatory subject. The fact that you did
    not acknowledge this point, let alone dispute it, says a lot. If your suggestions are adopted, will people have the choice to send their kids to a Gaelscoil? It’s
    possible that I might have asked you that question already, but you haven’t answered it. Should a person make this choice, will they be able to find competent teachers,
    and how will such people become suitably qualified? Link that back to Patrick Hillery’s policies that I made earlier. When you think about choice, do you have a contingency
    plan for people who might want to make choices that you disagree with? Needless to say, you’re shooting yourself in the foot because you might want such an education for
    your own children somewhere down the line. By taking away other people’s choices, you’re taking away your own. In essence, the basic thrust of your argument is that
    you won’t interfere in the right of an individual to use Irish in the home, but that they don’t have the right to have government documents translated into Irish upon
    request. In other words, give Irish the ‘Grandpa in the attic’ treatment, and keep that sucker in the home. What you’re arguing for is that people with a Gaelscoil
    background do not have the right to use the language in a practical and useful manner outside the school when interacting with the state, thus rendering the formative
    years of their lives a complete and utter waste of time. That is the logical reason for bilingual government services. You cannot have an English-only state, and claim
    to respect Irish-immersion rights at the same time. It’s all or nothing.

  16. Will Says:

    Hello Justin
    The reality is this: 95% of the Irish people are ignoring 95% of your points.

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