What Cromwell couldn't kill, we will
The persistent neglect of Irish will lead to its eventual demise, writes Marc Coleman
More savage than the famine and more merciless than Oliver Cromwell, the persistent neglect of the Irish language by successive governments may be about to achieve what these two scourges tried but failed to do: The effective death of Irish as a living language. Even if it wasn't spoken by a majority, the language's existence and the ability of most people to speak some Irish made us different. It infused the way we spoke English, gave spice to our music and gave us our mentality.
With estuary English spreading across every suburb of the land, Ireland is now culturally no different from London than Yorkshire. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Belgium can raise their children to speak two languages perfectly. Why can't we?
The resentment of many against the Irish language is understandable but it is tragically unjust and wrong. So are the arguments used persistently against the language. Yes, learning Irish is a drag. But so is learning mathematics, French and English. To listen to some who complain against the language, you would swear they had been forced to learn it at gunpoint. The opposite is true. In the 19th Century, children were beaten or starved if they spoke Irish and colonial government policy was to exterminate it; current educational requirements pale by comparison.
Yes, we don't use Irish at work, and English is the language of commerce and employment. But neither do we use geography, or higher level mathematics, or history. Those subjects don't define who we are. The Irish language does. Moreover it can and should exist side-by-side with English.
Last week, Eamon O Cuiv, the minister for the language, set that goal out as what the government hopes to achieve. "I believe we can create a bi-lingual society and that is the object of government policy". English will always be the language of commerce and in a world where it dominates business, that is no bad thing. But as English becomes more widespread, it is dumbing down, and so is the cultural capital built around it. Just as I believe the English need to concentrate on reviving and defending their language and culture -- which I respect -- so do we," Mr O Cuiv explained.
"As for the complaint made by Fine Gael's John Deasy that money is wasted on translating government policy documents into Irish, it is as daft as the person making it. Too much money is wasted on policy documents, full stop. But Irish is an official language of the State: Neither it nor English -- the other official language -- can be blamed for the public sector's document diarrhoea. In failing to understand this point, Deasy illustrates why his party hasn't been elected for a quarter of a century. FG's new education spokesperson Brian Hayes has the smarts to correct Fine Gael policy: If he doesn't, Fianna Fail will be in government for a long time to come," he said.
Sadly, that may not help the Irish language. In fairness to Eamon O Cuiv, he has worked with Galway County Council to ensure that housing estates in the Gaeltacht contain a critical mass of Irish speakers. He is also targeting the attainment of a critical mass of 300,000 Irish speakers within the next 20 years. This is crucial. In the Eighties, people were reluctant to buy mobile phones because they weren't sure there would be anyone else to talk to. But when the number of mobile phones reached several hundred thousand, buying one went from being an agonising choice to a no-brainer.
For over a millennium, Hebrew as a spoken language was on its last legs. Now, thanks to a concerted effort to revive it, it is a flourishing language with some five million speakers. The key to this was reaching a critical tipping point of several hundred thousand speakers.
The problem is that where O Cuiv is succeeding, other parts of government policy are failing. Hebrew's success was the policy of immersing young children in it. But despite never learning German at school, my German is almost fluent because I lived in Germany and was surrounded by the language when my mind was like a sponge. By contrast -- despite six years of learning it in school -- my French is terrible.
The policy of immersion is the only hope for Irish. But a circular issued by the Department of Education and Science now proposes to introduce 2.5 hours of English language teaching a week by no later than the second term of junior infants. It runs contrary to all the best international practice, not to mention most academic evidence. Not just in Israel, but also in Wales, French-speaking Canada and the Basque region of Spain, total immersion has led to the revival of nearly extinct languages.
Worryingly, this policy has support on the opposition benches, particularly from Labour party chairman Brian O'Shea. With a fluent Irish speaker as leader, Labour is in a unique position to take up the cudgels on behalf of, rather than against, the language. Its position of vying for votes with Sinn Fein makes that even more important. But, like Fine Gael, Labour is content to do well only in opinion polls: It doesn't want to win elections. If a party of the left should be doing anything, it should be protecting the Irish language against the cultural erosion of a capitalist economy. Before the economic boom, parents of children in the Gaeltacht knew their children would receive education completely through Irish. Now, like Cromwell's Roundheads, some incomers and fifth columnists want to end this policy. To add insult to injury, they are pricing young Irish speakers out of the property market. Instead of defending their rights, the Department of Education utters the usual consensus babble about "respecting the rights of all the people". All the people except Irish speakers, that is.
The long and short of it is that the Government needs to do more -- much more -- if it is to stop Europe's oldest language from disappearing, and our identity with it. The Gaeltacht must be ring-fenced, requiring those who live there and buy property to speak the language, just as we expect immigrants coming to Dublin to speak English. Tax incentives should be introduced for those who wish to correct the education system's failure to teach Irish by taking Irish classes later in life.
Yes, I'm a free market economist. But some things come above it, and defending our national culture is one of them. I'm also very pro-European, and here I have to enter another caveat: In June the EU Commission wrote to the Government expressing concerns about conditions for planning based on residency, bloodline, local employment, agricultural activities and linguistic ability. I have voted yes in every referendum on strengthening our links with Europe and have worked for seven years at the European Central Bank. But I am deeply concerned about this letter: Brussels has no right to meddle in our Government's policies towards preserving our culture and heritage. With Ireland about to have a referendum on the EU treaty, the Commission should avoid any action -- however well intentioned -- that alienates its friends in the pro-European camp. Let that last sentence be read very, very, carefully by those with responsibility in Brussels.
Marc Coleman is Economics Editor of Newstalk 106 to 108. His new book, 'The Best is Yet to Come', is out in December.