There is a new commissioner in town

Rónán Ó Domhnaill starts his stint as language lawman

Rónán Ó Domhnaill – Coimisinéir Teanga/Language Commissioner

Rónán Ó Domhnaill – Coimisinéir Teanga/Language Commissioner


So, we have a new Comish in the form of Rónán Ó Domhnaill and he is already dipping his toes in the waters by attending an international gathering of language commissioners in Barcelona. (What is the collective noun for a gathering of language commissioners? Gaggle? School? Brigade?) (Yes, other countries have more than one language and many offer those languages some measure of protection under the law.)

It was undoubtedly smart of the Government to give Ó Domhnaill the nod as new Coimisinéir Teanga/Language Commissioner; he is young, intelligent and able and his appointment goes someway to removing the sting from the departure of Seán Ó Cuirreáin in protest as what he saw as the Government’s failure to protect Irish-language services.

Still, there is no doubt that Ó Cuirreáin’s shock resignation in December set the linguistic fur flying and that the shock still lingers. The row over his resignation was understandable. Ó Cuirreáin was a popular figure, committed to his duties under the Official Languages Act and was well able to navigate the political currents that coursed around the language question during his 10 years in office. Nonetheless, it would be a shame if his resignation obscured what he had to say in his annual report for 2012. 2012 was, he dryly informed the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions (Wednesday 04 Dec, 2013), “not a vintage year for the promotion of the Irish language in the public sector, and for every one step forward there appeared to have been two steps backwards”.

He dealt with 756 complaints from people who had difficulties in accessing a state service through Irish and three quarters of the statutory language plans with state bodies had expired without renewal by the end of 2012. New schemes had been introduced but he was concerned about the quality of some of them and he was worried that state bodies were unable to deliver effective services in Irish. This want was particularly troubling in the Gaeltacht where, too often, compulsory English (my term) was the order of the day. In his 30 years working in the Irish language, Ó Cuirreáin said he had never seen confidence and morale so low. It would be a “travesty” he said were Ireland to lose its “linguistic sovereignty – a cornerstone of our cultural identity…”

Many Irish speaker believe that the Government has not been overly active in fulfilling its duties – and a cúpla focal from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, while always welcome, does not disguise that fact. A little meaningful political leadership could do so much to address the issues Ó Cuirreáin raised. Indeed, some worthwhile political direction would do much to challenge the cynicism amongst those who speak the language and those who don’t.

Therein lies the great paradox of contemporary Irish-language matters – that great schism between the “tá” and the “níl”, a schism that is made even more profound by the number of people who work and live through Irish. Never in the history of the language have there been so many educated speakers, from both the Gaeltacht and outside. A meeting in the “sector” will include more BAs, MAs and PhDs than you could shake a big bata at. Never have there been so many schools, books and links between Irish speakers in Ireland and across the globe. This is a golden age, in many ways, for Irish. Yet the Gaeltacht slides into oblivion and “for every step forward, there are two back”. (It should be a dance, something to replace The Walls of Limerick .)

There are other implications to Ó Cuirreáin’s resignation which continue to raise cause for concern. There is a North/South aspect to language development that was affected and which continues to be affected. After all, if the folks in Dublin are not interested why should the folks in Belfast bother themselves either? There are many good people in the North who have done their best to promote the language honestly and have done so through many a long year of voluntary action. Their case is not helped by Dublin’s indifference.

Further, there is an east-west issue between Ireland and Britain. Many Irish speakers, sooner or later, find themselves heading to Scotland’s Gaeltacht to find out more about their sister language. It is one of the ironies of the language debate that those ignorant of Irish seem to believe that Irish speakers are insular and anti-British. Far from it. The pull of language brings many to the Highlands and Islands and to Wales. (Go to Wales and marvel at the bilingual signage. You will be amazed and a little ashamed.)

Many Irish speakers know more about British culture than their monolingual English compatriots do. However, it is not the Britain of the Home Counties but another Britain, a Britain with voices that predate the political state and speak of an older Europe.

That language arc, fractured but just about functioning, that stretches from Munster to Connacht to Ulster to Scotland and down into Wales is something of great value. It is something to be treasured and it is something that this Government can keep safe – with more effort.

Let us wish Rónán Ó Domhnaill all the best in his new role and hope that he has some luck in changing the dance to “two steps forward, one step back”.

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