The Gaeltacht’s Sarah Palin moment

The worst thing about these rare occasions when Irish becomes national news is that it gives people a chance to dust down their ancient jokes and grievances

Sarah Palin. photograph: reuters/matt sullivan

Sarah Palin. photograph: reuters/matt sullivan


An Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s promotion of a non-Irish-speaking TD to the role of Minister for the Gaeltacht felt like a gratuitous slight to many Irish speakers, but the rationale offered for his decision has added insult to injury.

Since his appointment, Mr Joe McHugh has asked the people of Ireland to go with him “on a journey” as he attempts to learn the language, thereby turning an important ministry into a bad idea for a TG4 reality show.

The Irish-language broadcaster actually got there before the Taoiseach. Back in the mid-noughties, at a time when giddy journalists were bewitched by the idea that a young woman could be both pleasant looking and capable of reading the weather in Irish, there was a show called Ní Gaeilgeoir Mé.

Based loosely on the I’m-A-Celebrity-Get-Me-Out-Of-Here formula, Ní Gaeilgeoir Mé defied the fact that the letter ‘Z’ doesn’t exist in the Irish alphabet to assemble a list of celebrities who couldn’t speak Irish for a crash course in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Belfast.

The customary diet of live maggots was replaced by a diet of the cúpla focal, the wheeze presumably being that the whole sorry spectacle would cause muintir na hÉireann to reflect deeply on their complex relationship with Irish.

It was awful, but that hasn’t stopped Enda Kenny from resurrecting the formula. In the Taoiseach’s reboot, Joe McHugh has been sent on a “refresher course”, and the new Minister of State, having availed of the alchemy of immersion, will return in the autumn to answer his doubters in Irish that would make Seosamh Mac Grianna proud.

Immersion in the language is the answer, according to the Taoiseach, although the same immersive experience is scarcely afforded to our trainee teachers. Shortly after taking office, the Government scrapped the financial assistance for student teachers who are required to spend only a few weeks in the Gaeltacht before qualifying to teach Irish to the next generation of Irish pupils, one of whom may even someday rise to the office of non-Irish-speaking Minister for the Gaeltacht.

Speaking on Splanc on Newstalk last week, the new Minister of State (who has, apparently, already done two similar refresher courses) wasn’t nearly as optimistic as his leader, who had guaranteed the Dáil that Joe would be fluent in September.

Quite sensibly, the Minister of State said that it would take him a lot longer to become fluent. He had already signed ministerial documents, but only those presented to him in English, as he wouldn’t sign anything he didn’t understand. He has also praised the excellent translation service in his Department, but it is questionable whether translating Irish documents to English for the benefit of the Minister for the Gaeltacht is a sensible use of scarce resources.

Poor Joe McHugh. Last week, the newly-appointed Minister For Proving That You Can Turn The Cúpla Focal Into The Cúpla Ceád Focal In a Cúpla Seachtain If You Just Close Your Cúpla Súil And Believe For A Cúpla Soicind was reduced to pointing out to his critics that he grew up in a community that borders an Irish-speaking area.

All this made poor Joe, an able politician, sound like Sarah Palin, who was ridiculed for defending her foreign policy credentials on the basis that Russia is visible from “certain parts” of her home state of Alaska. True, but hardly a glowing reference for promotion.

Then Enda Kenny informed us that Joe “has the Irish inside of him”, making it sound like some mysterious foreign body left behind after an operation by a careless surgeon.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for the new Minister of State as he speaks about his great “grá” for the “language” or tweets that he is on his way to “Gleanncolmcille” to improve his “teanga Gaeilge” or explains to BBC4 that if he can “refresh” himself “and get there in a short period of time” it will send out a “signal” to people who have been “threatening” to speak Irish for years.

Of course there was no mention of the powerful signal his appointment sends to those people who have been carrying out the same threat for years by actually speaking Irish amongst themselves and to their children.

The sad thing is that Joe sounds like he would make an impressive Minister of State in a department where he wasn’t forced to deliver all these awful lines.

But maybe the worst thing about these rare occasions when the Irish language becomes national news is that it gives people a chance to dust down their ancient jokes, platitudes, and grievances about Irish.

You will find them on the bottom half of the internet and elsewhere, still making the same old arguments, as if for the first time.

They usually start by observing Sayers’s Law, which holds that in any discussion about the Irish language,sooner or later,someone will make a bad joke about Peig Sayers.

Then they will remind us about how the zealots have hijacked the language as part of their plot to force Irish down our throats, just as the teachers of yesteryear did before abstaining briefly from corporal punishment to instruct us in long division or the history of the Normans.

And still they rail against the deluded fanatics who refuse to abandon their dream of an Irish-speaking Ireland, when in reality most Irish speakers would settle for a bit more respect and, maybe, a Minister in the Department of the Gaeltacht capable of “going on a journey” with them in their own language.

Meanwhile, when listening to the Taoiseach or the Minister of State talking about having a “grá” for the Gaeilge, it is worth remembering that less than a year ago the State’s first Coimisinéir Teanga became the first ombudsman in Ireland to resign in protest at Government policy.

That same Government is committed to implementing a Twenty Year Strategy for the Irish language whose main objective is to increase the number of daily speakers of Irish to 250,000 by 2030. Set by a previous administration, that figure of 250,000 was always a bit fanciful, but, at this rate, the refresher courses in Donegal will be busier than ever in the summer of 2029.

Is Gaeilgeoir Mé, get me out of here.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.