Why minding our language is a priority

Opinion: Irish speakers assert the right to conduct business with the State in Irish because it is key to survival of the language


The thousands of Irish speakers who marched in Dublin last month for their rights weren’t looking for any special treatment.

The rights of Irish speakers are recognised in article eight of the Constitution and in the Official Languages Act 2003, while the rights of linguistic minorities are provided for in a number of important international documents including the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Unesco’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights.

Increasingly, it is accepted that the rights of linguistic minorities are basic human rights.

As someone who was raised through Irish in the Gaeltacht and is now trying to raise his own children through Irish, I understand the difficulties faced by Irish speakers.

While many bodies fulfil their obligations willingly and conscientiously, the reality is that basic services in Irish are often made available as the exception rather than the rule.

Indeed, the notion that Irish speakers are somehow arguing for their rights from a position of privilege is one of the many absurdities that feature in the debate about our national language. Speaking Irish or raising a family through Irish is not an easy option.

Irish speakers live, after all, in a country where the majority speak English, and in the battle to save a minority language, the odds are always stacked in favour of the majority language, especially when the majority language is one of the world’s dominant means of communication.

The provision of language rights helps make the fight for the survival of a vulnerable or endangered language that little bit fairer, as languages often live or die depending on their perceived status and the level of prestige they are accorded.

Powerful message
When the rights of a linguistic minority to interact with the State in their own language are recognised, it sends a powerful message from the powerful.

In a review of Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World a number of years ago, the author Jane Stevenson suggested it might be time to adapt the old joke that a language is a dialect with an army, when “the real key to survival is for a language to be a dialect with a civil service”.

Stevenson wrote: “A class of bureaucrats with the power to defend its monopoly can keep a language going for centuries, as can a set of scriptures, while conquerors come and go.”

This is why Irish speakers, including my predecessor as Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, have been calling for the recruitment of more civil servants with Irish.

Irish speakers are asking for the right to conduct their business with the State in Irish because the provision of such services is key to the survival of the language, and not because they take a perverse joy in ringing up public bodies only to be put on hold and then told that “the Irish speaker is on holidays”.

These demands are being made by parents struggling against the odds to pass a 2,000-year-old language onto their children in order to preserve what is an important part of both our cultural identity and global linguistic diversity.

Is it too much to ask that children in the Gaeltacht should enjoy the right to basic services, such as healthcare, in their first language, which also happens to be the first official language of the State, according to the Constitution?

While governments since 1922 have made more positive interventions on behalf of Irish than is sometimes acknowledged, official language policy has sometimes consisted of no more than pieties and plámás.

By indulging in empty rhetoric about the importance of Irish, while failing to grant it anything like the status promised by all the lip service, the Irish State, since its foundation, has sent out mixed messages about the value of the language.

The Official Languages Act 2003 and the establishment of Oifig an Choimisinéara Teanga, were important milestones in that they marked a break from the tokenism of the past by giving practical effect to the rights of Irish speakers. The full implementation of this legislation and the continued independence of the Office of the Language Commissioner are crucial to the future of Irish.

There will always be those who view all Irish speakers as fanatics, and there will always be, as the current President of Ireland once put it, “people for whom Irish is not half-dead enough”. These negative views about Irish don’t represent the attitude of the vast majority of the people of Ireland.

On the contrary, research shows that more than 90 per cent of Irish people have a favourable attitude to the promotion and protection of Irish. This continued support is cause for hope, as is the success of our Gaelscoileanna, the vibrancy of TG4 and RTÉ RnaG, and the modest increase in the number of daily Irish speakers outside the education system reported in the last census.

Increasingly vulnerable
Irish, however, is in an increasingly vulnerable position in the Gaeltacht, and experts predict that its days as the main language of the home and community are numbered unless radical remedial action is taken.

Such radical action will require a will that has not always been apparent in the State’s approach to Irish.

In the meantime, only linguistic Darwinists would regard as radical the call for basic rights made by those who marched in Dublin last month.

Rónán Ó Domhnaill is An Coimisinéir Teanga

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