Is there anything more tedious than the Irish language debate?

Bank of Ireland has dropped the Irish language from ATMs. Níl Éamon Ó Cuív sásta

Bank of Ireland said 99 per cent of customers never used the Irish-language facility. Photograph: Getty Images

Bank of Ireland said 99 per cent of customers never used the Irish-language facility. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Myles na gCopaleen’s views on the Irish language and the movement for its revival were famously complex, with affection for the former tempered by a keen sense of the many absurdities of the latter.

But Myles was also fond of a good scrap. “Even if Irish had no value at all, the whole hustle of reviving it, the rows, the antagonisms, and the clashes surrounding the revival are interesting and amusing,” he told Irish Times readers in 1943.

He was responding to an editorial in the paper which suggested public money would be better spent on slum clearance than on saving Irish. More than 70 years on, the arguments continue, but they’ve long lost whatever entertainment value they possessed.

Is there anything more tedious in Irish life than the ritualised wagon-circling that accompanies every story about, on the one hand, the indignities visited upon our national language by shoneens and philistines or, on the other, the shameful squandering of public monies on pointless subsidies for Irish?

The remaining 1% will presumably miss being told in the tongue of the Gael that €10 notes are currently unavailable

This week, Bank of Ireland announced its new ATMs would no longer offer the option of carrying out transactions through the first official language. The 99 per cent of customers who the bank said never used the facility will no doubt be pleased that their automated experience will now be slightly more frictionless.

The remaining 1 per cent will presumably miss being told in the tongue of the Gael that €10 notes are currently unavailable.

But, to judge from the reaction in some quarters, the bank’s action ranked alongside the Plantation of Ulster in the annals of crimes against indigenous culture. Fianna Fail’s Éamon Ó Cuív took to Twitter to say that, while Bank of Ireland “came cap in hand for the taxpayers support now it’s refusing to service Irish speakers on their ATMs. Shame on them!”

Translating costs

The next day came reports that the cost of translating European Parliament documents into Irish was almost twice the price of your average European language.

The parliament’s budget committee had to vote on Wednesday to provide more money for the translation service, as the budget was “already pretty much spent” and an official report warned even more cash might be needed in the months ahead. “The parliament document confirms that the number of pages translated has exceeded all estimates,” Pat Leahy of The Irish Times reported.

Irish has been a full official language of the European Union since 2007, and will become a full working language in 2022. Until then, it is being gradually introduced into EU business, with estimates that almost 200 full-time jobs for Irish translators will be created when the language becomes a full working language of the union.

Tradition dictates that this is the point when the writer drops the pretence of objectivity and declares for one side or the other in The Great Language War. And, while the employment of 200 Irish-speaking graduates is not in itself a cause for complaint, the fact that they will be translating arcane legal documentation for the benefit of a tiny number of people who can all speak English anyway does beg the question of whether their skills could not be put to better use.

The freed up time would inevitably be devoted to the study of Mandarin or neuroscience

Like everyone, I have my own views on these matters. But, really, is there anything more jaded and tedious than the ritualised trench warfare on this particular subject?

Yes, clearly, in terms of what was envisaged by the founders of the State, the national project of language revival is a dismal failure. Census figures show the percentage of the population who are native speakers is dwindling even further.

On the other hand, there is a growing grassroots demand for Irish-language schools across the country, and some argue usage is much more widespread than Bank of Ireland’s 1 per cent would suggest.

Meanwhile, it’s far from proven that if we stopped compelling schoolchildren to learn Irish, the freed up time would inevitably be devoted to the study of Mandarin or neuroscience.

Frank discussion

It would be preferable if we could have a frank discussion as we approach the State’s centenary of what its role could or should be in supporting the language within the context of a mass globalised Anglophone culture and in a country where native Polish speakers greatly outnumber native Irish ones.

Fat chance. In fact, it may get worse. The translation expenses story was picked up in several quarters not renowned for their affection either for Irish culture or the EU, including the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express.

I take the view that the free expenditure of public money on a cultural pursuit is one of the few boasts this country can make

Meanwhile, in the Belfast Newsletter, UUP councillor Nicholas Trimble took the opportunity to bash those parties in Northern Ireland which favour the introduction of an Irish Language Act.

“With our health service and education system currently being forced to make unexpected cutbacks, is it really worth stopping the restoration of devolution for this?” he asked.

Back in 1943, Myles had a good retort for such rhetoric. “I may be a wild paddy,” he wrote. “But I take the view that the free expenditure of public money on a cultural pursuit is one of the few boasts this country can make.”

The last thing the Irish language debate needed at this stage was to be dragged into the zero-sum game of petty culture wars and whataboutery that passes for politics in Northern Ireland.

But now that it’s happened, there’s more reason than ever to take a break from the rows, the antagonisms, and the clashes and for once have a sensible debate on the matter. Don’t hold your breath, though.

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