Taoiseach and Irish groups locked in that old céilí dance
One step forward, two steps back, around, around and around we go
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. photograph: alan betson/the irish times
The Irish for ‘honeymoon’ is mí na meala, the month of honey. By my reckoning, new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s honeymoon with Irish speakers lasted about 24 hours. His use of Irish – quite passable – on Wednesday when he became Taoiseach was noted by many Irish speakers, widely reported on and welcomed.
His decision to appoint Donegal man, Joe McHugh, to be both Chief Whip and Minister of State for the Gaeltacht drew a glowing press release from the Irish-language advocacy group, Conradh na Gaeilge. They welcomed the appointment, saying it was a step forward.
By Thursday, they had to modify their praise. The Taoiseach’s plan to drop the word ‘Gaeltacht’ from his new Department of Culture was not so welcome and was a “source of concern”. (It was the first time since 1956 that the word ‘Gaeltacht’ had not been given some departmental recognition.)
Former Minsiter of State for the Gaeltacht, Seán Kyne, let it be known on social media that he had raised the matter with the Taoiseach and former Gaeltacht minister, Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív, also decried the decision. Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín, TD, said that the Taoiseach was “diminishing” the importance of the Gaeltacht and the Irish language.
In the meantime, Irish speakers were beginning to wonder how Joe McHugh would find the time to be both Chief Whip and to advance the cause of the (non-existent) Gaeltacht and the Irish language in general.
All this was, of course taking, place against a widespread distrust of the Government’s commitment (or lack thereof) towards the language during the Kenny years.
The journalist Breandán Delap recently wrote an article in the magazine Comhar that Kenny’s term had created an “inhospitable atmosphere” towards Irish. Kenny had, paradoxically, been the Taoiseach who had spoken most Irish while in office but had also managed to do the most damage to the language since the foundation of the State.
Kenny’s language legacy, wrote Delap, was a tenure that saw the appointment of a Minister of State for the Gaeltacht who did not speak Irish (Joe McHugh is back!); the resignation of a Language Commissioner, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, due to a lack of support; the further erosion of Irish in the civil service; and the withdrawal of various financial support schemes.
Delap concluded that Kenny failed in “his moral duty” to make sure that the language was better off when he left office than it had been before he took power.
There are few Irish speakers who would disagree with that assessment from a journalist who is not given to hyperbole or hysteria and is held in very high regard by his peers.
Perhaps, in that light, it is no surprise then that so many Irish speakers are so desperate for a bit of love from the new Taoiseach. Perhaps, equally, it is no surprise that the signals have been so mixed. Afterall, the linguistic landscape which Varadkar inherits is one which he helped shape. His willingness to use Irish while in office will be welcomed. However, what did he do before becoming Taoiseach to argue against the cuts and the “inhospitable atmosphere”?
Not mentioning the Gaeltacht in the new Deparment of Culture will disturb many Irish speakers, both in the Gaeltacht and beyond. (No Gaeltacht? No language!) Against that, the new Taoiseach did undertake a Certificate in Professional Irish course with Gaelchultúr, an Irish-language education provider. That shows some personal commitment.
Nonetheless, the misteps might suggest to many Irish speakers that they will be locked once again in that old céilí dance with the new Taoiseach and his Government: one step forward, two steps back, one step forward, two steps back and around and around and around we go.