Wednesday 28 September 2016

The Irish language over the limit again

It's an epic of self-delusion, a comedy that never ends, but maybe Official Ireland wants it that way, writes Declan Lynch

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30

‎lustration by Jim Cogan
‎lustration by Jim Cogan

So a judge ruled that a breath alcohol statement was not a valid piece of evidence because it was written in English only. An Irish-language version was also required.

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And though emergency legislation has closed the loophole, the ruling may have an effect on other drink-driving cases currently before the courts.

There is no doubt about it, the old Irish language has many uses, not least in these delicate areas of bureaucracy. I'm sure there must still be some way of not paying your TV licence because they don't use the Irish version of your name on the envelope or because you're unhappy with the amount of time allocated by RTE every week for Irish-language programmes or just because you don't like the look of the fellow reading An Nuacht.

Yes, it has it uses. It can get you an extra 10pc in the Leaving, it can get you a big job or even a small job in the industry which has been created around it; and in various branches of the public service, it never did anyone any harm for people to 'Irish' up themselves.

It has its uses, just don't try speaking it. That is one of the few uses it does not have.

But then we know that. We know that in most of our lives it does not exist in any meaningful sense, which is why we chortle when we hear that they've found another use for it, this time in the esoteric area of road traffic legislation.

We know that if a guard asked us to step out of the car and actually started to talk to us in Irish, we would think we were hallucinating, with or without the aid of drink or drugs.

We get the joke because most of us have colluded in this great fiction for most of our lives, encouraged and at times coerced by the relentless efforts of all parties associated in any way with this project.

When we hear that RTE now has an Irish Language Action Plan - a five-year plan, of course - which is no doubt related to the Government's 20-year strategy, we realise that this weird national comedy will never end.

And when we are told that the action plan has "93 recommendations", we salute again their inexhaustible ability to hit us with a new punchline.

Yet for all the uses to which the language has been put, there are a few which have not been tried, which might be of some benefit to the people of Ireland and even to the Irish language.

We are looking here, after all, at what seems like an institutional failure of fantastic proportions, a national epic of wrong-headedness and self-delusion. We really need to be studying this, to be examining it without prejudice, to be trying to understand how such an incredible thing could have been happening for so long in a country in the developed world.

How did they do it? How did they arrange it so that millions of Irish people would be forced to spend so much time learning this language, yet would not have the ability or the desire to use it for any purpose for the rest of their lives outside of an institutional setting?

Are the Irish elites of several generations so staggeringly inept that they have somehow contrived to diminish an ancient language to such a level that it lives mainly as a vehicle for crude careerism in a land of lawyers looking for loopholes?

Having thought deeply on such questions for some time, I am starting to shift my position. Yes it has been an epic of wrong-headedness and self-delusion, but I have come to believe that there must be a kind of black-hearted genius at work, that they must have wanted it this way - that maybe Official Ireland is quite happy all round with the way things have gone.

They have fenced off a considerable area in which Gaeilgeoiri have advantages over those of equal or greater ability.

They have shown a dark ingenuity along the way, such as establishing an Irish-language TV station which doesn't require the viewer to know much Irish, if indeed any at all.

And they have embedded Irish in the bullshit formalities of public life, in a way that facilitates the great pretence, but which doesn't interfere with the orderly running of things, with anything that matters to them.

For all their five-year action plans and their 20-year strategies, they have maintained the compulsory Irish in schools, the removal of which is the only move that might make a difference - it would mean at least that the few people who would still do it actually want to do it. But it would also introduce an element of reality to the situation - and this is a project that can't take reality. So we may as well get on with it.

At the McGill Summer School next year, inspired by the disgraceful lack of Irish-language breathalysers, I hope to deliver a paper calling for the creation of an Irish Language Ombudsman (if, indeed, there isn't one already), a role for which I see a desperate need and for which I even have a certain individual in mind.

And a certain salary, with the usual increments, entitlements and emoluments - whatever they are.

Is mise le meas...

Sunday Independent

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