Irish language ‘being driven to margins of society’

Fine Gael and Labour condemned for not attending Oireachtas language committee

Irish language Commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin has said the Irish language is being continuously driven out to the margins of Irish society in a process accelerated by the inaction of Government, the civil service and the public sector.

Mr Ó Cuirreáin announced late last year that he would be stepping down from his position as Coimisinéir Teanga in February because of Government and public service inaction in preserving and promoting the language.

The commissioner used his last appearance yesterday before the Oireachtas sub-committee on the 20 Year Strategy for the Irish language to make a comprehensive and wide-ranging condemnation of the State and Government’s dispensations towards the language.

No TD or Senator from either of the Government parties, Fine Gael or Labour, attended the meeting attended only by parliamentarians from Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, as well as independent Senator Ronán Mullen.


Sinn Féin senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh said the absence of even a single member of a Coalition party was telling of Government indifference to the plight of the language.

In his presentation, Mr Ó Cuirreáin was highly critical of the Government’s record on the Irish language.

“The neglect in promoting the language scheme element of the Act has resulted in severe restrictions on the progress which might have been made. I believe there is no possibility that the new system being introduced to increase the number of civil servants fluent in Irish will succeed.”

The commissioner has calculated that the scheme would take some 28 years to increase the number of fluent speakers in a core Government department for Irish to just 3 per cent from its very low present rate of 1. 5 per cent.

In relation to the strategy he said nobody, including himself, knew if it was being implemented. This was because no independent audit or review was being conducted, and its progress was measured by self-assessment.

“From the experience of my office in auditing the language schemes of State bodies, little value or importance can be attached in reality to self-assessment,” he said.

He gave as an example a claim by the Revenue Commissioners that a third of all their press releases were being issued in two languages. But when his office checked, it emerged that they were being issued only in one language. And then, once a year, it was getting four months’ worth of press releases translated in one go (long after their period of usefulness or topicality had expired) in order to cut down on translation.

He cited two prominent language academics from NUI Galway. The first, Seosamh Mac Donnacha, has described the strategy as a “dead document” and said the sub-section of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht that dealt with the Irish language was at the bottom of the power chain in its own department, which itself was at the bottom of the power chain in Government.

The second, Dr John Walsh, said the 20-year strategy was “now like a corpse, and the Irish language is more marginalised than ever in the civil service”.

While acknowledging that some progress had been made in the past 10 years since the enactment of the Official Languages Act, Mr O Cuirreáin also pointed to the fact that 10 of the 16 Irish language officers nominated to implement the Act across Government departments don’t actually speak any Irish themselves.

Mr Ó Cuirreáin also referred to comments made by retired senior civil servant Seán Mag Leannáin, who said there was “growing evidence that there is a strategy afoot to do away with what’s left of Irish in the public life of the country”.

He said the State had two simple choices - to look back at Irish as our lost language, or forward with it as a core part of our heritage and sovereignty.

“It is with heavy hearts that the people of the Gaeltacht and the Irish-speaking community in general will approach the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in two years time if our national language is to be merely a symbolic language... that is pushed aside, marginalised and left in the halfpenny place in the life of this nation.”

Mr Ó Cuirreáin also said that “notwithstanding those within the State sector who support the language, there are stronger and more widespread forces in place that have little or no concern for the future of our national language”.

Mr Ó Cuirreáin said that the State was not providing services through Irish in Gaeltacht areas “without terms and conditions”. As a result, the State was effectively saying to Gaeltacht people: “Speak Irish among yourselves, but don’t speak it to us!”

He believed this lack of language rights was creating uncertainty and that “the support required for the Irish language within this country’s public service should not and could not be viewed as an optional extra. Language rights are permanent rights; they are not concessions or privileges granted at times of prosperity.”

As a native speaker from the Donegal Gaeltacht, he cared about the future of the language and its traditional home but it did not appear to him that any "significant actions or worthwhile, practical steps have been taken on the ground to address the scale of the language emergency in the Gaeltacht…".

The Government's Gaeltacht Act had been enacted but had not been greeted with any great joy amongst those it was aimed at. The Act had changed the structure of the development body, Údarás na Gaeltachta, and had "placed liability for language planning on Gaeltacht communities who never sought that responsibility.

“Economic planning would not be left to such local communities, nor would they be given responsibility to decide locally on matters concern housing, roads or the environment. But when it comes to the language, well, that’s another story!”

The committee is to consider seeking the presence of the Minister of State and senior civil servants at the next sitting to address failings in the provision of State services to Irish speakers.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.

Pól Ó Muirí

Pól Ó Muirí

Pól Ó Muirí is a former Irish-language editor of The Irish Times

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times