Irish Language Policy


Sir, - Here's a tough puzzle for your readers. Why is France called a French-speaking country? Don't know? Well, it's because there are whole communities there whose mother tongue is French and who speak and think in that language.

I ask this simple question because, whatever else it is doing, the current Irish language policy has nothing to do with making Ireland a state in which people communicate in Irish. At a time when the few remaining Irish-speaking areas are steadily succumbing to English, and when one can travel to nearly all parts of the country without hearing a single conversation in Irish, the idea that Ireland will one day be Irish-speaking must be beyond even the dreams of even the most purblind fanatic. The only way Irish will come off the UN list of endangered languages is by becoming totally extinct.

Instead of attempting the impossible we have opted implicitly for what might be termed cuplafoclarism, the objective of which is to show that our heart is in the right place though our head is somewhere else entirely. A word or two of Irish here and there, signposts whose Irish versions are never read, State agencies flaunting Irish names which conduct their business in English and, at the apex of this silliness, coins and stamps with the Irish version only of the name of the State - a version to which we object to when innocent foreigners use it. All this empty show coupled with a subtle but constant denigration of the mother tongue of the vast majority in this State.

All this would be an expensive but otherwise fairly harmless form of posturing were it not for far more serious aspects of the Irish language policy. For instance, instead of devoting most of primary school time to the three Rs we devote 20 per cent of the time to Irish, and then wonder why 25 per cent of adults end up as functionally illiterate. Our knowledge of modern European languages is lower even than the UK's. We discriminate in highly competitive school exams against those who do not take their exams through Irish. We demand knowledge of Irish for universities, State and semi-State sector jobs regardless of whether it is ever going to be used. To cap it all we, the selfstyled "good Europeans", discriminate against our fellow Europeans by demanding that, for certain jobs, they learn a language that we don't bother to speak ourselves.

Now that we have belatedly discovered that that other sacred cow, the Roman Catholic Church, stinks to high heaven, is there any hope that someone in authority will dispassionately examine the Irish language sacred cow? Or are we fated to let her graze where she will without anyone being allowed to say boo to her, regardless of where she tramples? Let's face it, sooner or later we will have to admit that the Irish language policy is going nowhere and that the only people who will speak the language are those who really want to - and there aren't many of those.

Finally, before your readers tell me, I know that my opposition to the current policy is because I am suffering from a post-colonial inferiority complex. Of course I am, quite unlike all those language enthusiasts, most of them of the armchair variety, whose main motivation for supporting the language seems to be that they fear - horror of horrors - that they might be mistaken for English. - Yours, etc., David Herman,

Meadow Grove,

Dublin 16.