Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Response to criticism of ‘An Bhfuil Cead Agam?’

inverin sign
Below is a compendium of answers I’ve given in response to questions, accusations and denunciations the An Bhfuil Cead Agam? documentary has elicited on Twitter. All of it is accurate to the best of my knowledge. And I’m sure if I’ve slipped up anywhere… the language lobby will be far too polite to point it out.

But first, let’s recap. In An Bhfuil Cead Agam? I stated that the notion Irish is our first language is patently false and frequently a source of havoc in our public life. I described Pearse’s oft-quoted “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” maxim as a nonsense.

I said the common assertion that Irish somehow “isn’t taught properly” is without foundation. (Click any word in this sentence if you doubt how pervasive that particular myth is.) I said that many designated Gaeltachts are bogus and that, even in Gaeltachts where the status is closer to being merited, Irish still isn’t always that widely spoken.

I said most children do not want to learn Irish and that their parents appear, by and large, to see no benefit in their doing so. I said that even native Irish speakers have much higher vocabularies in English than they do in Irish. I said that translation services are an extremely costly waste of public money, and that language activists often have undisclosed conflicts of interest in this area.

I said that, besides Hebrew, no other language has ever been rescued from the jaws of near extinction, as our present policy envisages we might yet revive Irish, and that nothing like the conditions that facilitated the rise of Hebrew in modern Israel exist here or are likely ever to do so in the future.

I said all of that in the video and, of the hundreds and hundreds of angry responses we received, not a single person challenged any of it. Here are the issues they did raise…

• “Irish translations of our laws don’t supersede the original English.”
Sorry, but they do. Article 25.4.6 of the Constitution states “In case of conflict between the texts of a law enrolled under this section in both the official languages, the text in the national language shall prevail”.

• “There was no census in 1921. Where did you get the figure suggesting 15% of the population spoke Irish at independence?”
From page 10 of Glanville Price’s book Languages in Britain and Ireland, published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2000.

• “1.77m people speak Irish – it’s never been more popular!”
Yes, according to the 2011 census, 41% of the Irish population do indeed claim to be able to speak Irish. However, that census question is interpreted so loosely that people who can say “Dia dhuit” and “Go raibh maith agat” and not much more beyond that tend to tick Yes.

I’m not aware of a definitive criteria for determining who can or can’t speak a language competently. What I suggested on Twitter was to ask what percentage of Irish people, if they witnessed a newsworthy event on the street in Dublin or London or Paris or Berlin, would be able to provide an eyewitness account in Irish and field questions about same on a live news bulletin up to broadcast standard on TG4 or RnaG.

This is a real life, practical judgement call journalists in those newsrooms have to make every day. If a journalist from one of those organisations wanted to provide an estimate here based on their experience, I would defer to them. But I would be very surprised if it amounted to more than 4 or 5% of the population.

Considering 100% of us are obligated to study the language for 13 years, that’s a pretty damning indictment of the status quo.

• “You’re prejudiced against the language.”
Not so. I have a lot of affection for the language. I just don’t think kids who’d prefer not to learn it should be forced to do so. For the record, I’m also opposed to making attendance at Sunday mass compulsory. Does this make me anti-Catholic?

• “Why didn’t you speak to [insert name of badhran-tapping sage who would have set us straight]?”
We tried to get this documentary made through normal channels. We failed. So we self-funded it. Ninety per cent of what you see was shot in one day during the summer by Paul and I with no crew and no budget. The rest were reshoots which, for scheduling reasons, had to be filmed in Dublin at 10 o’clock the morning after the All-Ireland final. (Hence my cracked voice and, ahem, somewhat weather-beaten appearance.)

• “The graph at the beginning is wrong.”
Yes, it’s totally wrong. The mistake was made by someone who contributed their time and their talents to getting this documentary made free of charge. I wasn’t aware of the graph until after the video went online. There was probably still time for me to have spotted and corrected the error before it went live on The Journal. But unfortunately, I was too busy fixating – like the great Larry Sanders – on my own appearance, my own delivery and whether my ass looked fat or not.

• “The €1.2 billion figure quoted seems high.”
The €1.2 billion figure includes the amount the state spends paying teachers to teach Irish in the education system. It was arrived at by estimating the percentage of school time devoted to the subject and prorating annual state expenditure on the school system. Crude, yes. But until someone devises a better method, it’s the best we have to go on. (Incidentally, it does not include the any of the tens of millions spent on translation services, a figure we are as yet slowly piecing together through FOI requests. )

• “But if mandatory Irish were scrapped that money wouldn’t necessarily be saved.”
Finally, we’re getting to the heart of the matter. The limitations of a short web video didn’t really allow for an in-depth discussion of the ramifications of scrapping mandatory Irish. I was keenly aware of the fact that I’d had to let this very pertinent detail go unmentioned. When the video was published, I rather expected a deluge of people in my timeline making exactly this point.

As it turned out, however, only one single person out of hundreds picked me up on it. And of course, he was right. If mandatory Irish were scrapped tomorrow, most of that money would simply be spent teaching kids other subjects. My response is that those funds are currently going to waste, forcing students to study a subject they can’t/won’t/will never learn.

The same money could be spent far more productively teaching Irish to kids who actually want to learn Irish, while teaching others subjects they are more motivate do learn and will have some use for in adult life, be it art, music, IT or Mandarin Chinese. Identifying and eliminating waste is a saving….. So if people missed that rather important point, what the hell did they focus on instead?

Oh, sweet baby Jesus… the amount of attention this received online beggars belief. So I’ll respond at greater length than I have on other issues. Yes, to judge by photos several people have posted, there does appear to be a second “Leanai ag trasnu” sign, also only in Irish, but including a small Children Crossing symbol, about fifty feet in front of the one we stopped and filmed at. Neither Paul (the director) nor myself noticed the second sign on the day. If we had, I’d have mentioned it in mitigation.

But we’d still have included that segment in the documentary. And I’d absolutely still have used the words “criminally stupid” to describe Irish language-only safety signage on a busy tourist road. Why? Because, as I noted in the film, and Declan Lynch pointed out in the Sunday Independent today, of all the thousands of motorists traversing that route (who don’t already know there’s a school ahead), many, many times more are likely to speak English than speak Irish. And all of those Irish-speakers also understand English. So it’s really a no-brainer.

At the service station across the road from where we shot, all of the handwritten signs announcing special offers on various products were in English only. Now I guarantee you it’s not tourists who are buying tins of biscuits and bales of briquettes at the petrol station at Inverin. Its locals. Obviously, a lot of those locals will be Irish speakers. But some won’t. So I would guess management opted, for simplicity’s sake, to go with the language everyone understood rather than the one only some people did.

Indeed just about any organisation faced with a similar choice tends to do likewise. The Conradh na Gaeilge website, and Gaeltacht subsection of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs website, both default to English – presumably because both want their message to reach as wide an audience as possible, and English is the language most people understand.

Irish language programming on TG4 always carries English subtitles. (Indeed much of the programming – and all of the advertisements – on this Irish language TV channel are in English.) What’s more, I would ask any Irish speakers reading this, when you have guests to your home who don’t speak Irish, do you switch to English to accommodate them, or do you continue speaking to them in a language they don’t understand? I’d assume it’s the former rather than the latter.

So, I suppose, what boggles the mind really, is how the same people who can be so reasonable and pragmatic on such a broad range of relatively trivial issues would suddenly adopt a hardline stance over a road sign that might potentially save a child’s life? It doesn’t make any sense. If I’ve learned one thing from the reaction to this documentary it’s just how many people care so deeply and so passionately about the Irish language. That’s a very impressive thing and it bodes well for the future. But no cause is ever well served by fanaticism.

If the sign deserves to be there, it deserves to be there in English. Over and out. End of conversation.