The Gaeltacht’s Sarah Palin moment

The worst thing about these rare occasions when Irish becomes national news is that it gives people a chance to dust down their ancient jokes and grievances

Sarah Palin. photograph: reuters/matt sullivan

Sarah Palin. photograph: reuters/matt sullivan

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 12:42

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s promotion of a non-Irish-speaking TD to the role of Minister for the Gaeltacht felt like a gratuitous slight to many Irish speakers, but the rationale offered for his decision has added insult to injury.

Since his appointment, Mr Joe McHugh has asked the people of Ireland to go with him “on a journey” as he attempts to learn the language, thereby turning an important ministry into a bad idea for a TG4 reality show.

The Irish-language broadcaster actually got there before the Taoiseach. Back in the mid-noughties, at a time when giddy journalists were bewitched by the idea that a young woman could be both pleasant looking and capable of reading the weather in Irish, there was a show called Ní Gaeilgeoir Mé.

Based loosely on the I’m-A-Celebrity-Get-Me-Out-Of-Here formula, Ní Gaeilgeoir Mé defied the fact that the letter ‘Z’ doesn’t exist in the Irish alphabet to assemble a list of celebrities who couldn’t speak Irish for a crash course in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Belfast.

The customary diet of live maggots was replaced by a diet of the cúpla focal, the wheeze presumably being that the whole sorry spectacle would cause muintir na hÉireann to reflect deeply on their complex relationship with Irish.

It was awful, but that hasn’t stopped Enda Kenny from resurrecting the formula. In the Taoiseach’s reboot, Joe McHugh has been sent on a “refresher course”, and the new Minister of State, having availed of the alchemy of immersion, will return in the autumn to answer his doubters in Irish that would make Seosamh Mac Grianna proud.

Immersion in the language is the answer, according to the Taoiseach, although the same immersive experience is scarcely afforded to our trainee teachers. Shortly after taking office, the Government scrapped the financial assistance for student teachers who are required to spend only a few weeks in the Gaeltacht before qualifying to teach Irish to the next generation of Irish pupils, one of whom may even someday rise to the office of non-Irish-speaking Minister for the Gaeltacht.

Speaking on Splanc on Newstalk last week, the new Minister of State (who has, apparently, already done two similar refresher courses) wasn’t nearly as optimistic as his leader, who had guaranteed the Dáil that Joe would be fluent in September.

Quite sensibly, the Minister of State said that it would take him a lot longer to become fluent. He had already signed ministerial documents, but only those presented to him in English, as he wouldn’t sign anything he didn’t understand. He has also praised the excellent translation service in his Department, but it is questionable whether translating Irish documents to English for the benefit of the Minister for the Gaeltacht is a sensible use of scarce resources.

Poor Joe McHugh. Last week, the newly-appointed Minister For Proving That You Can Turn The Cúpla Focal Into The Cúpla Ceád Focal In a Cúpla Seachtain If You Just Close Your Cúpla Súil And Believe For A Cúpla Soicind was reduced to pointing out to his critics that he grew up in a community that borders an Irish-speaking area.

All this made poor Joe, an able politician, sound like Sarah Palin, who was ridiculed for defending her foreign policy credentials on the basis that Russia is visible from “certain parts” of her home state of Alaska. True, but hardly a glowing reference for promotion.

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