What's the Irish for 'leave those kids alone'?


CAN IT really be Seachtain na Gaeilge arís? It seems like only inné that it was Seachtain na Gaeilge last year. And yet here we are again: Lá Groundhog. According to an Seachtain na Gaeilge website, on March 21st in Cork we can all go along to a session of bilingual flower arranging. Happy days.

There is also Bingo as Gaeilge, which sounds good fun actually, this Wednesday in Portlaoise. And then there’s the lecture to be given in Letterkenny, an Sathairn seo, entitled: “Our Culture agus Language”. The title says it all.

Creidim that it’s time we all took a closer look at the Twenty Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030. And that won’t take too long, because it’s kind of on the beag side.

If you look at the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht website you will see one of the aims of this complex strategy, which emerged from several commissioned reports that were paid for with your airgead, is neatly summed up thus: “To increase the number of people who speak Irish on a daily basis outside the education system from 83,000 to 250,000.”

What’s the Irish word for ambition again? I think we should be told.

You’ll also be glad to know: “The strategy promotes a holistic, integrated approach to the Irish language which is consistent with international best practice.” What’s the Irish for “that’s a relief”?

Come on, we’ve wasted enough time on this nonsense. It is one thing to be taught Irish by your loving family in a happy home, as most of the Irish-language enthusiasts quoted in the article Mise agus an Gaeilge, published in this newspaper on Saturday, appear to have been. It is quite another to have the educational opportunities of hundreds of thousands of Irish children squandered in hours of non-teaching of a non-spoken language. Is mór an trua é.

Too many Irish children leave primary school unable to confidently read or write their mother tongue – by which I mean English. And now we see the numbers of special-needs teachers drastically cut – while of course the pensions of our former taoisigh remain reassuringly high, but that’s another day’s obair – and our unfortunate páistí still being dragooned into this national charade. Let Des Bishop teach them in his own time, if he’s that pushed about it.

Meanwhile, the second language of this country is actually Chinese. Our children are speaking not Irish but some sort of sub-Valley Girl patois. A bright eight-year-old was recently describing her favourite story The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.It was about a girl, she said, who found another country when she went into a closet. Could that closet possibly have been a wardrobe, a caring adult inquired. Oh yeah, said the bright eight-year-old, it could. That’s an interesting cultural nóiméad, I would have said.

Then there is the whole translation scam, by which all official documents must be translated into Irish. As we all know, the number of people who will read these vital communications in Irish is so small it would be much cheaper to send them all to live in Switzerland, keep them in cocaine for the rest of their lives and phone them individually with each translation as it limps off the presses.

In this country now, the Irish language is not even a footnote. Its only chance of survival – slim – lies not in official approval but in becoming a private passion. The people who really love it, and speak it – as opposed to making a living out of it – know this. They find the jobbery and the graft surrounding the Irish language an embarrassment.

A cúpla bliain ó thinn I wrote that the Irish language was our equivalent of the hijab, the headscarf worn by orthodox Muslim women as a badge of identity and compliance, a figleaf to cover a web of unacknowledged weaknesses. But all of this was put much better by Michael Lewis, in the best article written about modern Ireland, in Vanity Fairin March 2011. This is the best reply to Seachtain na Gaeilge.

“The first thing you notice when you watch the Irish parliament at work is that the politicians say everything twice, once in English and once in Gaelic. As there is no one in Ireland who does not speak English and a vast majority who do not speak Gaelic, this comes across as a forced gesture that wastes a great deal of time.

I ask several Irish politicians if they speak Gaelic, and all offer the same uneasy look and hedgy reply: “Enough to get by.” The politicians in Ireland speak Gaelic the way the Real Housewives of Orange County speak French.

“To ask ‘Why bother to speak it at all?’ is of course to miss the point. Everywhere you turn you see both emulation of the English and a desire, sometimes desperate, for distinction. The Irish insistence on their Irishness – their conceit that they’re more devoted to their homeland than the typical citizen of the world is – has an element of bluster about it, from top to bottom . . . The Irish people and their country are like lovers whose passion is heightened by their suspicion that they will probably wind up leaving each other. Their loud patriotism is a cargo ship for their doubt.”