The Irish language is not part of us – it has to be learned

Opinion: No amount of campaigning can transform the situation of a weak language

According to an old joke circulating in the Department of Foreign Affairs, if somebody spoke French well they were sure to be posted to China, while Chinese speakers would probably end up in Turkey.

The same spirit seems to have informed Enda Kenny's decision to appoint Heather Humphreys and Joe McHugh, neither of whom speak Irish well, to ministerial posts in the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs.

Predictably enough there was the usual flurry of protests from Irish-language organisations and Sinn Féin Deputies. Their reasoning is that the State recognises Irish as the first official language, and encourages its citizens to speak it. At the same time the State has deprived its public servants and Gaeltacht citizens of the opportunity to use Irish when communicating with the Minister of State. Once again there is a yawning chasm between statements of intent and actual practice.

Kenny was quick to calm the fears of the Irish-language lobby. McHugh, he told the Dáil, actually is an Irish speaker, all appearances to the contrary. “He’s got the language inside of him, but it’s rusty.” After a crash course in the Gaeltacht he “‘will be fluent in the language”.


This reply incensed his critics even further, but the attitude it expresses is not at all uncommon among the populace.

There is a widespread belief that Irish is somehow encoded in our DNA, and all that is needed is to discover this language gene, and we’ll all start speaking Irish as competently as we speak English.

The bad news for Kenny and for the Irish people is that Irish is not “part of what we are”. It is a language that needs to be learnt from scratch.

Furthermore, it is a difficult language, and one for which few modern teaching-materials exist.

The situation is not helped by the fact that the last handful of native speakers are nearly all bilingual, and prefer to use English for official purposes and when talking to non-Irish speakers.

And, finally, like our fellow Anglophones in Britain and America, we Irish are not renowned for our ability to learn other languages.

‘Too much grammar’

There is no shortage of theories about why we don’t speak Irish: “‘the Christian Brothers”, “800 years of British oppression”, “too much grammar”.

In a way the reasons are unimportant. The fact is that most of us don’t speak Irish with any great degree of proficiency. That applies to the enthusiasts just as much as to those who hate Irish. One of the placards carried by a protest group had the inscription “Níos deirge, níos feirge”, which is not comprehensible from a linguistic point of view.

That is not to say that Irish cannot be learnt. Every year a few dozen students graduate from third-level institutions with an impressive command of the language, and I know many foreigners who speak Irish really well. But most people simply don’t have the time, dedication and plain linguistic ability to achieve that level. No disrespect to McHugh, but a few weeks in Glencolmcille is unlikely to release the inner Gaeilgeoir in him.

The controversy raises some important questions about the role of Irish in our society. For most people, including TDs, Irish is part of our cultural identity; indeed, it is no accident that Gaeltacht Affairs is in the same portfolio as Arts and Heritage. The language is something we have inherited from previous generations, like round towers or dolmens, but by the same token most of us would as soon live in a round tower as speak Irish on a daily basis. It has a symbolic function, but is not seen as having a practical value.

A minority takes article 8 of the Constitution seriously, maintaining that it has a right to State services through the medium of Irish. What is interesting about this group is that it consists for the most part of non-native speakers, people who have decided that Irish is an important part of their identity, but whose first language is English.

This is a rather uncomfortable fact. One can sympathise with a native speaker of say Flemish in Belgium demanding that their children be schooled in their native language, but it is more difficult to grant victim status to a native English speaker from Dublin demanding the same service for their offspring. The fact that something is enshrined in the Constitution does not necessarily mean that it is morally justified.

There is also a more practical issue at stake. Suppose I wish to bring a lawsuit against the State. As an Irish speaker I can demand to be represented in the first official language. But I think I’d be more interested in the barrister’s legal qualifications than their linguistic talents.

In other words, one can enact legislation guaranteeing language rights but one cannot ensure that people will learn a language and speak it, and, more importantly, that they will be able to communicate efficiently in that language.

Symbolic recognition

Since its foundation in 1893, Connradh na Gaeilge has campaigned for the symbolic recognition of Irish in public life. It has succeeded remarkably well – Irish has a presence now in education, in State documentation, and on the airwaves that was unimaginable 100 years ago. But no amount of campaigning or legislation can turn a weak language into the main means of communication for a country that is comfortably ensconced in the Anglophone world and global economy.

In a few days the recent Irish language row will have disappeared from public view. However, like many of our other problems, it will continue to irritate both politicians and society as long as we refuse to review our attitudes towards Irish and its place in our lives. We have revised many points of our Constitution in the last 40 years. Instead of trying to scrape the rust off his Irish over the school holidays, maybe the new Minister of State could take a long hard look at article 8? Dr Aidan Doyle is a lecturer in Irish and linguistics at University College Cork