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Why forcing Irish on all makes most of us gag

March 21, 2011

MOST people are fairly impressed with the way our new Taoiseach is getting off the mark on tackling various pre-election issues.

But at least one of his policy proposals has already been spectacularly abandoned. That’s the promise to remove the compulsion to take Irish as a Leaving Certificate subject.
In one way it’s easy to see why Mr Kenny dropped the idea like a hot potato: the squawks, yells, huffs and puffs were deafening… all delivered in English, of course, as is the wont of the language police when they’re saying something they want understood; no sense protesting in our sacred native tongue, since the majority of people would neither hear nor understand. Their yelling was so deafening that Fine Gael probably thought the issue could lose them the election. So they listened to the travellers on the Irish language gravy train rather than to the population at large: and dropped the policy.

An Coimisineir Teanga, Sean O Curreain, whose office was set up to implement the provisions of the Official Languages Act, issued his annual report last week. It contained records of 700-odd complaints from people who found themselves unable to conduct their business through Irish with State departments. The Coimisineir was particularly pained because according to the last Census of Population, he points out, there are 72,000 people in Ireland who use Irish “on a daily basis”. I find that a fascinating statistic. Because another statistic from the report shows that only 1.5 per cent of the administrative staff of the Department of Education could provide a service in Irish. When you put those two statistics together, it would seem that the department has been singularly unlucky in being unable to find employees with a working knowledge of the language. Or could it be that the 72,000 people who use it “daily” are a figment of somebody’s imagination? Maybe even their own? After all, as Mr O Curreain himself points out, young adults are leaving school after having completed 1,500 hours of language tuition over a 13-year period … and they still can’t speak or write Irish.

We have just completed our annual hypocrisy fest called Seachtain na Gaeilge, in which everyone is “encouraged” to use what Irish they have. But despite being out and about as much as the average Irish citizen, I didn’t hear a solitary word of Irish spoken. In fact I, who cannot speak, write, or understand Irish, spoke the most Irish I heard last week: twice, in the company of friends, I said “Slainte” as I raised a glass. I frequently say that, because I don’t like “Cheers”. If that makes me one of the 72,000 Irish people who use the first official language “on a daily basis” we’re even more delusional and hypocritical than I believed.  Admittedly, listening to and watching RTE during Seachtain na Gaeilge, you’d think that the entire country was going around with its collective nose stuck in a copy of Buntus Cainte or whatever the current text book is. But then RTE follows the official line, so presumably it shares Coimisineir O Curreain’s delusion that there are 72,000 bi-lingual people in the country. (There may well be, but Irish isn’t one of their two languages.)

I remember a well-known broadcaster who doesn’t go in for hypocrisy telling me on one occasion that his then teenage children demanded that he enter them on the Census form as Irish speakers, because they thought “it was a nice thing to be”. He refused, not being one to tell lies on official forms, and he knew very well that they couldn’t construct a sentence between them. Maybe his honesty was less than universal, and that’s why the census listed 72,000 people who use Irish “daily”.  The bullying response to the Fine Gael proposal to make an act of faith in the Irish people as having a genuine fondness for the language, was both sad and interesting. The Nationalist Thought Police howled with one voice that it would be a death knell. So this core of our national beating heart will die out unless it’s forced on people? Nobody will opt willingly to learn this beauteous tongue? But haven’t we been told for generations that a love of the language was one of the markers of what made us Irish? And didn’t thousands, nay, millions of us suffer dungeon, fire, and sword to speak it? Or was that the Rosary?

What was really happening when it looked as though Fine Gael might actually have the courage of its convictions, was a convulsion among the people who’ve been on the financial pig’s back for years thanks to the compulsory nature of Irish in the education system and the public service. I used to feel guilty about my cynical belief that the various Mna na Tithe in the summer Irish schools were probably down on their knees storming heaven for their teenage visitors to be found uttering a forbidden English word. Because the kids are sent home in disgrace… but their fees aren’t refunded. Nice little money-making scam, I thought. And I was right: the language police even came out and admitted it: the Bean a Ti would be out of business, they shouted; under the Fine Gael proposals nobody would study Irish if they didn’t have to, much less visit the Gaeltacht during summer holidays. I recall receiving a letter on another occasion when I wrote about linguistic hypocrisy, in that case the outrageous expense involved in having all EU documents translated into Irish as an “official language” of the Community. My letter came from a civil servant. Who did I think I was, he wanted to know? He knew people who had terrific jobs with terrific salaries: they were official translators of documentation into Irish. It was their full-time job.

Enda Kenny (with his immaculate Irish, and obvious love of the language) and Fine Gael generally, were clearly naive even to imagine that they could square up to the sacred cow of the Irish language. If they’d stuck to their guns they would certainly have lost the votes of those who are making a load of money out of the language. But the sad thing is that Mr Kenny didn’t have the wit to realise that these people may shout a storm, but they’re ridiculously few in number. Effectively, the breaking of the Fine Gael promise is chickening out on an opportunity to revive the language. Because it hasn’t occurred to any of them that the language isn’t the problem: it’s having it shoved joylessly and leadenly down people’s throats that makes it hated. And yes, let’s tell the truth: there are more people out there who loathe Irish than love or speak it. And it’s compulsion that did it.

Sunday Independent – Emer O’Kelly