It happens, every once in a while, when dealing with the Irish language that you have to do a double take. Last week was certainly one of those moments when the Environment and Social Committee of the British Irish-Parliamentary Assembly issued a report into indigenous lesser-used languages (ILMs) on these here islands. Those languages include Welsh across the water, our own sweet Irish and Cornish, a language with no native speakers. (We will return to that later.)
The chair of the committee was Lord Alf Dubs. A Lord, you say? It is far from lords that most Irish speakers were raised but Lord Dubs, and his committee, certainly had much of value to say:
“If our respective governments are serious about the revival and or expansion of indigenous languages, there is a need for increased support for them in all BIPA jurisdictions. In TV, radio and the provision of public services in indigenous minority languages, these languages need to be given the space to live. Policies to support them should not just be imposed from above.
“We’ve heard how all of this can spark pride in communities and an interest in one’s own history and provide a gateway to the acquisition of further languages. All of these will provide a net benefit to our societies.”
There is nothing there that many Irish speakers would disagree with. And yet, looking just at the actions of the government in Dublin and the State it controls, while Lord Dubs was taking his turn to bat for Irish, the government was continuing to take a hurl to its shins.
Just as this report was being launched, the former Language Commissioner, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, was quoted on the Irish-language media site, tuairisc.ie, criticising the fact that there is now no Language Commissioner, as his replacement, Rónán Ó Domhnaill, has moved on to pastures new. For Ó Cuirreáin, the lack of commissioner and the delay in advertising the position would have serious repercussions for current Irish-language legislation. The office, while still staffed, could not function effectively without a commissioner, he believed.
(It should be noted too that Ó Cuirreáin, the State’s first Language Commissioner, had himself resigned from the post due to his dissatisfaction with government inaction in the area.)
Just as bad, Ó Domhnaill’s final annual report showed just how bloody minded some local authorities could be in providing the sort of Irish-language services that Lord Dubs seems to think important and then there are the plans of the Education Minister Norma Foley to cut back on the teaching of Irish at primary level and the seemingly never-ending debate over the direction of the development agency Údadrás na Gaeltachta and the decision of the former Justice Minister Helen McEntee in 2021 to remove the Irish-language requirement to join the Garda Síochána as it was “a barrier to more diverse recruitment” and, pause for a deep very breath, it leaves you wondering just who is going to listen to Lord Dubs and his plea for “space to live”.
There are many issues here but let us take two, the first is Irish and its place and value in the education system. Irish, like religion, you feel, is just a wee bit too metaphysical for the current government. All that “tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” stuff relies on people actually knowing what a soul is and valuing it. Irish is just not, well, utilitarian enough for the current Irish State and those who curate it. The State, as they see it, is merely an economy, something that has to be fed workers quickly and continuously to achieve economic growth.
Indigenous language? An ancient culture and its community? M’eh.
Perhaps, more fundamentally, this government, and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for many a long year, have ignored the fact that Irish is the language of native speakers and that there is a moral duty to protect and support the people who speak that language from birth and who have over generations, miraculously, kept it alive – so far.
(I know, I know, I used the word ‘moral’ when talking about politicians.)
So, in the space of a couple of years, this government has failed to fill in judicious time an important position within the Irish-language sector (not even bothering to replace the guy who replaced the guy who resigned), decides to cut back on teaching Irish and, outrageously, describes the language of native speakers as “a barrier”.
How is that for sparking pride, an interest in one’s own history and providing a gateway?
Why would anyone in the Gaeltacht want to raise their children to speak Irish with such an attitude? Who blames people, who do not live in the Gaeltacht, doubting the worth of learning Irish?
It is right and fitting that the language is promoted and taught outside the Gaeltacht. It is right and fitting too that those groups who are in receipt of public funds are subject to scrutiny to see if they are delivering value for money and are efficient. (That is certainly a story for another day.)
But let us be blunt. No native speakers means no Gaeltacht. No Gaeltacht means we are the same as Cornwall. No one wants to be Cornwall.