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A monument to our national failure

March 3, 2014

The Saturday Night Show (RTE1)

THE Irish language is a crucial national resource. There is no doubt about that. It stands there as the most towering monument of almost everything that has gone wrong in this country.

And if we could see it in that light, and if we studied how we managed to create such a thing, and if we resolved to do everything in a completely different way in future, it might nearly have been worthwhile.

In that sense, the recent resignation of the Irish Language Commissioner, mainly on the grounds that the State is no longer supporting the language, is obviously a good thing.

His objection to the way things are done these days, suggests that there has been a change of attitude on the part of the State. And any change is self-evidently bound to be good, or at least better than whatever was there before.

Unfortunately, the role of Irish Language Commissioner itself has not been abolished. But we are indebted to the old one for his complaint that due to the lack of civil servants who are fluent in Irish, it is now compulsory for most Irish speakers to speak English in their official dealings.

Yes we can carve that one on the monument, if we can find a bit of space. We who have had to do compulsory Irish or face the most serious consequences, are now invited to empathise with people forced into compulsory English on rare and relatively trivial occasions. Yes, it is a good one.

Undaunted by the immensity of this tragedy, Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh took the fight to Brendan O’Connor on The Saturday Night Show. Indeed quite a lot of people are taking their fights to Brendan O’Connor these days, with the result that The Saturday Night Show is becoming like The Late Late of ancient mythology, when everyone seemed to be fighting, and Ireland was the better for it.

Blathnaid went on a march recently, asking as an Irish speaker to be supported, “because I’m supposed to be supported”.

O’Connor mentioned little tokens of support such as the education system and the TV station, but Blathnaid still felt that she wasn’t being supported as she’s supposed to be supported.

It seems to have escaped her attention that these measures which she feels might ameliorate the situation, such as giving people jobs in the civil service because they speak Irish, have been tried. Dear God, they’ve been tried – indeed way back the Irish language movement came close enough to destroying RTE itself, with its efforts to make it an Irish-only service.

While that would have involved an element of positive discrimination, it would have been positive only for the privileged few, the Irish-speakers who did well for themselves, if not for the language that they espouse. For Ireland in general, this form of institutionalised discrimination has not been positive. It has been negative.

Just about everything that the Irish State has done about the Irish language has had a negative outcome, resulting in a failure so colossal, it is becoming apparent even to the language enthusiasts, who respond by urging the State to keep doing the things it used to do, only more so – Blathnaid would like the entire primary school system to be converted to Irish.

And yet we have such an opportunity here, to teach the world the lessons of this catastrophe – not just the superhuman scale of the failure in itself, but the way that the official bullshit in this area has flowed freely into so many other areas, feeding our sense of self-delusion, our ability to tolerate the ridiculous on an enormous scale.

If we can engage in a solemn process to ascertain the number of Irish speakers in this country, and we arrive at an official figure of roughly 1.7 million, it is hardly surprising that our numeracy skills in general and our maturity in dealing with certain unavoidable realities, have been found wanting. Yes we have created a monument here.

And if Blathnaid wants to chip away at that mighty structure, she might start by organising another march, starting in Parnell Square with a call for the abandonment of compulsory Irish in every conceivable form.

Perhaps then we can feel the agony of our gaeltacht brethren forced into paying their property tax in English – we don’t know how they do it.