EOIN BUT­LER

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

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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

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.

Clumsy trans­la­tion

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.

Gen­uinely cher­ished

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 rest of our lives.

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?

Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Pro­test­ers out­side Gov­ern­ment Build­ings fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment in 2014 that Joe McHugh TD was to be the new Min­is­ter of State for the Gaeltacht.

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