Tá Seachtain na Gaeilge orainn. Or rather, bhi sé. Our two-week national celebration of the Irish language actually ended on Tuesday. But if you happen not to be either a biddable school kid, or an adult whose public-sector job requires paying occasional lip service to the language, odds are the event bypassed you entirely.
As a Gaeilgeoir, I derive no particular pleasure from admitting this. But as minority pursuits go, our first language now languishes somewhere between salsa dancing and Ultimate Frisbee, in terms of its popularity amongst the general populace.
And, of late, its role in our public affairs has bordered on farcical. Last week in the Dáil, Enda Kenny was criticised on both sides of the house for insisting upon answering awkward questions about American drone strikes in the Middle East entirely in Irish, despite the fact that that the TD posing the questions didn’t understand what he was saying.
Mick Wallace is far from our only public representative lacking a cúpla focal. Astonishingly, neither government minister currently charged with responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, nor Joe McHugh, Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs and Natural Resources, is conversant in the language, insofar as the public is aware.
Moreover, a clumsy Irish translation of the forthcoming same-sex marriage referendum text might have had the unintended effect of banning heterosexual marriage in Ireland, had the mistake not been spotted by a member of the public. (The Irish text would have superseded the English version in law, despite the fact that the vast majority of our lawmakers are not fluent in Irish.)
Not that journalists are in any position to crow. The Seachtain na Gaeilge 2015 media pack, designed to help us perpetuate the illusion that Irish plays a meaningful role in the mainstream discourse of our nation, included an interesting PDF document titled “Irish phrases for radio”.
Virtually every broadcaster in the land should have spent at least a dozen years learning Irish in school.
Yet some helpful phrases deemed worthy of inclusion were Hello (“Dia dhaoibh”), Goodbye (“Slan”) and Thank you (“Go raibh maith agat.”)
All this would be amusing if our government did not continue to spend about €1bn per annum promoting the Irish language through education, the media and public services. Irish has been compulsory in our schools since independence. Government policy has even sought to re-establish it as the lingua franca of the State. Yet at the last census, only 1.8 per cent of the population claimed to speak it on a daily basis, down from 15 per cent when that policy was instituted.
In Dáil debates last week, opposition TDs still insisted the Government should be doing more. Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan suggested every child in the State should be required to go through three years of immersive education in Irish to increase the number of speakers nationwide. Socialist TD Ruth Coppinger called for “a major investment of funds” in order to ensure the language’s survival.
Yet, speak to any an activist and they’ll usually tell you two things. First, that the Irish language is genuinely cherished by thousands of people, at home and abroad, and that the ranks of it’s admirers are growing every year. Second, that abolishing compulsory Irish in our school would doom the language to extinction. Now it seems to me that these statements cannot both simultaneously be true.
Those of us living outside of An Gaeltacht, who love the language, will continue to do so even if our children are not obliged to study it in school or university. (If they want to, they’ll study it voluntarily.) Love is not fostered through coercion. And those who argue loudest to the contrary usually have an undeclared financial, as well as ideological, vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Inside the Gaeltacht, meanwhile, Irish language policy has tended to operate much like the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inspectors roll into a town delivering speeches and handing out lollipops to children. They assume the natives will continue to do their bidding even after they have departed, as if the local inhabitants somehow aren’t subject to the same historical forces that shape the rest of our lives.
That is not a realistic strategy. Traditional Irish music and Gaelic games, in recent years, have not only survived, but thrived worldwide, with minimal State subvention.
Sure, neither had to contend with an adversary as pernicious or ubiquitous as the English language. But virtually all our politicians advocate pursuing our present failed policy indefinitely. Isn't the definition of insanity doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting different results? Patrick Freyne is on leave