They wouldn’t, would they?

Junior Gaeltacht minister not fluent in Irish

Joe McHugh, TD. grianghraf: alan betson/the irish times

Joe McHugh, TD. grianghraf: alan betson/the irish times


As rumours circulated this morning about the imminent elevation of Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh to the post of Minister of State at the Department of the Gaeltacht, Irish speakers reacted with a mixture of bemusement and anger.

They wouldn’t, would they? They couldn’t, could they? Ní ligfeadh an náire dóibh…

Despite their reputation for being easily offended, Irish speakers have learnt to roll with the punches over the years.

By necessity they have become fluent in all known dialects of double-speak. When it comes to paying lip service to the language, our political classes have long since lost their capacity to surprise all but the most naive of Irish speakers.

Just last week the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste published a ten-page Statement of Government Priorities for the next two years. There was no mention of the Irish language or the Gaeltacht. The Irish language speaker is under no illusion about how the language is viewed by Government, and it’s been a long time since anyone made him feel like a priority.

But this was different. Nobody saw this one coming. Even as the rumours on twitter about McHugh’s appointment hardened into confident predictions, some clung to the notion that the correspondents in Leinster House must be mistaken.The idea that the Taoiseach would appoint a non-Irish-speaking “Minister for the Gaeltacht” seemed a bridge too far.

Ní ligfeadh an náire dóibh…They wouldn’t, would they? They couldn’t, could they?

Well, they just did and we now have a Gaeltacht minister who doesn’t have enough Irish to conduct a credible live interview about Gaeltacht affairs with RnaG or Nuacht TG4. The disbelief at the promotion of McHugh is, of course, no reflection on a capable, hard-working and respected public servant, but choosing to assign to him the Gaeltacht brief is a radical departure from a tradition that was seen as almost sacrosanct. The Minister with primary responsibility for the Gaeltacht and the Irish language – whether of the junior or senior caste – has always been fluent in Irish.

Our politicians have often shown great ingenuity in finding new ways to undermine the language while simultaneously professing their unceasing commitment to its promotion, but for sheer audacity and shamelessness Enda Kenny has now set the bar higher than anyone imagined it could go.

Until now, no matter what fresh calamity befell the language, at least the people of the Gaeltacht could sleep safely at night in the knowledge that when they turned on Adhmhaidin on RnaG in the morning the Minister of the Gaeltacht would be up and about defending the indefensible in their own language. Now even that comfort has been taken from them. The last pretence has been dropped.

“Lads, did ye hear the one about the Minister of the Gaeltacht who couldn’t speak Irish?” Essentially, that is what the Taoiseach is asking us while trying to keep a straight face.

Reports suggest that Joe McHugh will be taking Irish classes in his native Donegal this summer, but his plans to upskill will be of little use to him tomorrow morning. The Minister for the Gaeltacht is scheduled to answer oral questions in the Dáil at 9.30am.

There may be more interest than usual.

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