Why minding our language is a priority

Opinion: Irish speakers assert the right to conduct business with the State in Irish because it is key to survival of the language

Mon, Mar 24, 2014, 01:01

These demands are being made by parents struggling against the odds to pass a 2,000-year-old language onto their children in order to preserve what is an important part of both our cultural identity and global linguistic diversity.

Is it too much to ask that children in the Gaeltacht should enjoy the right to basic services, such as healthcare, in their first language, which also happens to be the first official language of the State, according to the Constitution?

While governments since 1922 have made more positive interventions on behalf of Irish than is sometimes acknowledged, official language policy has sometimes consisted of no more than pieties and plámás.

By indulging in empty rhetoric about the importance of Irish, while failing to grant it anything like the status promised by all the lip service, the Irish State, since its foundation, has sent out mixed messages about the value of the language.

The Official Languages Act 2003 and the establishment of Oifig an Choimisinéara Teanga, were important milestones in that they marked a break from the tokenism of the past by giving practical effect to the rights of Irish speakers. The full implementation of this legislation and the continued independence of the Office of the Language Commissioner are crucial to the future of Irish.

There will always be those who view all Irish speakers as fanatics, and there will always be, as the current President of Ireland once put it, “people for whom Irish is not half-dead enough”. These negative views about Irish don’t represent the attitude of the vast majority of the people of Ireland.

On the contrary, research shows that more than 90 per cent of Irish people have a favourable attitude to the promotion and protection of Irish. This continued support is cause for hope, as is the success of our Gaelscoileanna, the vibrancy of TG4 and RTÉ RnaG, and the modest increase in the number of daily Irish speakers outside the education system reported in the last census.

Increasingly vulnerable
Irish, however, is in an increasingly vulnerable position in the Gaeltacht, and experts predict that its days as the main language of the home and community are numbered unless radical remedial action is taken.

Such radical action will require a will that has not always been apparent in the State’s approach to Irish.

In the meantime, only linguistic Darwinists would regard as radical the call for basic rights made by those who marched in Dublin last month.

Rónán Ó Domhnaill is An Coimisinéir Teanga

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