Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cúpla focail and more hypocrisy on the Irish language

Beautiful Gougane Barra in the Cork Gaeltacht, near the source of the River Lee (Photo: www.gouganebarra.com )

The Government today set out 13 key objectives in respect of the Irish language as it is due to become the 21st official working language of the European Union on January 1st. It is unfortunate that the revival of the language since independence has been a failed effort by both leaders and people. Apart from former teachers such as Opposition leader Enda Kenny, most members of our national parliament cannot speak the language and it is rarely used by members. So what the Government served up today is another cúpla focail and lots more hypocrisy.

The 13 objectives include;

  • Full implementation of the Official Languages Act and facilitation of the public's right to use Irish in dealings with the State.
  • Provision of a wide range of services to parents who wish to raise their children through Irish.
  • Continuous development of high-quality broadcast services through Irish, especially on TG4, RTÉ and Raidió na Gaeltachta.
  • Special support for the Gaeltacht as an Irish-speaking area.
  • Continuation of teaching of Irish as an obligatory subject from primary to Leaving Cert level while fostering oral and written competence.
  • Enhanced investment in professional development and ongoing support for teachers as well as in provision of textbooks and resources and in support for innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
  • Further development of all-Irish secondary education.
Speaking today, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that the statement marks "a major evolution" in national policy on the Irish language. A major evolution - yes if more lip service will serve any purpose. "The aim of 20th-century Government policies was to reinstate Irish as the main language spoken by the people, but the Government now plan to focus firmly on the practical development of a bilingual society where as many people as possible use both Irish and English with equal ease," Ahern said. Decades of lip-service and payments of grants has left the language in a parlous state. It is simply laughable that the Irish language would be used at EU ministerial level when most Irish politicians rarely speak the language apart from a few sentences if at all, at the start of a speech. Irish language content is also rare in the main Irish daily newspapers and it has never been a requirement to use Irish when communicating with public officials. So while this EU measure could be recognised as a belated recognition of an important part of Irish culture, it is sadly another example of what is wrong with the EU. Ahern may not even be able to speak Irish at an EU meeting, never mind one in Dublin but he welcomes a measure that at least until Ireland becomes a net payer to the EU Budget, will be paid in full by German, Dutch and British taxpayers.

Cynicism comes cheap, so here are views other than mine - the words of an official report that was presented to the Irish Government in 2002: The establishment of this Commission by the Government in the Spring of 2000 was a ray of hope to the people and friends of the Gaeltacht, people who for years have been concerned about the obvious decline and gradual extinction of the Gaeltacht. This Gaeltacht is all that remains of the large Irish-speaking community which was dominant in this country for hundreds of years, but has declined continuously in recent centuries. While the first major action taken by the Free State Government on behalf of the Gaeltacht was the establishment of the first Gaeltacht Commission in 1925, the proposals made by the Commission were not acted upon however, nor were the appropriate resources made available which would have been required in order to do so. Seventy-Seven Years Later... Taking into account the historical erosion of the Gaeltacht and the further decline in our own lifetime, the Commission is of the view that it will not be possible to maintain the Gaeltacht as an area in which Irish remains a community language unless a fundamental change occurs in the way Irish is treated and in the status of Irish in the rest of the country. Despite the progress made by individuals and language organisations it is not evident that any Government has the strategy or understanding to advance efforts on behalf of the language.

Although the Gaeltacht is the primary concern of this Commission, the issue of the Gaeltacht cannot be separated from the issue of the Irish language in the rest of the country. The Commission is not aware of any Government policy in which the Government’s view of the Irish language in contemporary society is articulated, nor of any vision that demonstrates that the Government has discussed the role of the Irish language in the life of the country. Neither does there exist any action plan containing measurable targets. The Commission is not aware of any such Government policy or plan. The Commission is of the view that the State is out of step with emerging world views on the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity. It is now recognised that every spoken language is a valuable resource which provides us with a particular world view – a view which is shaped by the past, which is precious and which stimulates creativity. The death of a language is recognised as an act of negligence which represents a world tragedy. If Irish is allowed to die, one of oldest languages in Europe and Ireland’s native language will be lost. The revitalization of Irish and all that goes with it is the sole responsibility of this country. If its just the intention to keep the language as a national monument, for use on ceremonial occasions and with the ‘cúpla focal’ being spoken from time to time, it is unlikely that Gaeltacht people will have much interest in retaining the language. It is as part of a national policy for the revival of Irish as a national language that the Commission feels that progress can best be achieved. The Commission also believes that a unique opportunity now exists to undertake this work in view of the Good Friday Agreement.

The aspirations that were served up today could only inspire a fool to believe that they will have any impact on the slow death of the Irish language.