McHugh’s rusty Irish not the biggest challenge facing him

Analysis: Minister’s struggle may not be with language but an uninterested Government

After a week of sustained criticism for his lack of Irish, the new Minister of State for the Gaeltach Joe McHugh has begun a refresher course in Irish with the highly-regarded Liam Ó Cuinneagáin at Oideas Gael in Glencolumbcille in Co Donegal.

McHugh’s lack of fluency in Irish is not a reflection on him (he should really have been promoted years ago) but on the Government’s poor record in relation to the Irish language.

Indeed, having fluency in Irish provided absolutely no guarantee that the language would be protected or preserved.

McHugh’s predecessor Dinny McGinley is a native speaker with mellifluous Donegal Gaeltacht Irish - but poor budgets and indifference at senior levels in Government to the language ultimately meant he was an ineffectual minister.


McHugh is from Carrigart, an area of Donegal where Irish is still spoken, although not widely nor on a quotidian basis.

He would have grown up with the language and I have no doubt that by the time he leaves government, his Irish will be on a par with a few of the non-native speaking Gaeltacht ministers from the past.

Paradoxically, the sting of inadequacy may spur McHugh on to higher levels of focus, energy and motivation - there are few more effective politicians than one who has something to prove.

In sum, his struggle may not be with the language but with his own Government. It is headed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny who speaks effortless Irish but who has shown little evidence of commitment to the language in office.

As one native speaker with an interest in the future of the language remarked: “Kenny has Irish in his head but he does not have it in his heart.”

The record that McHugh inherits is patchy at best. The guiding policy is the 20-year strategy for Irish, published in 2010 by the previous government. Its aim is to increase the number of daily speakers of Irish from 83,000 to 250,000 by 2039.

And the strategy sets out an ambitious series of targets and milestones to allow that lofty aim to be achieved.

The Government inherited the strategy but did commit to implement it. But the evidence of implementation so far is that it is minimalistic and fitful. The die was cast when in the run-up the election Kenny suggested ending compulsory Irish for the Leaving Certificate.

He said there were other ways of preserving and teaching the language but did not specify any.

Since taking office, the evidence has been of a policy area that is very low on the priority list. The Government made a big play about a Cabinet Committee chaired by Kenny on the Irish language.

But for example it has only met twice this year and there are no details of anything, if anything, decided. Sure, the Government did publish the Gaeltacht Act, which redefines the Gaeltach and gives new responsibilities to Udaras na Gaeltachta.

But elsewhere there has been indifference. Government agencies and departments have done little to fulfil their obligations towards Irish.

Brendan Howlin introduced new rules which will effectively decrease the already pitifully low (about 1 per cent) number of Irish speakers in the civil service.

Former language commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin said it would take 28 years for the level of Irish speakers to reach 3 per cent. In fact, so frustrated was Ó Cuirreáin that he resigned from office in protest.

One of his gripes was that it was impossible to say if the strategy was being implemented. Dinny McGinley made a great play of the fact that the Taoiseach allocated €500,000 extra to implement the strategy but that, in relative terms, is a drop in the ocean. Besides the Act; some groundwork on strategy, and increasing by a week the time student teachers can spent in the Gaeltacts, little has been done in the first four and a half years of the strategy.

Of course, McHugh can’t be expected to turn it all around in 20 months.

But if he can improve the outcomes as much as he improves his Irish this week it will be: “tús maith leath na hoibre”!