Thursday 27 June 2019

Love/hate feelings for Gaeilge, minus the love

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

The journalist Eoin Butler recently made a short film with the producer Paul Duane about the Irish language, with particular emphasis on the failure of the concept of Compulsory Irish.

He illustrated his theme with images such as the road sign in Irish which warns motorists to slow down approaching a school - a sign which is clearly comprehensible only to local Irish speakers who already know that they are approaching a school, or to locals who don't understand Irish but who have been made aware of what the sign is saying.

So it is a total waste of time and money, and it gives schoolchildren a problem which they shouldn't have in a well-run society.

But leaving aside our old friend, the rich symbolism, when I see anything on the Irish language these days, I'm not really thinking about the language itself - which at this stage is not so much a language anyway as another of Ireland's Inside Tracks.

What fascinates me here, is how much our official attitude to the language says about so many other things that we do, or that we don't do, or that we should do, and shouldn't be doing.

So Eoin Butler's film itself is excellent, but I'm also thinking just how few journalists have come out with such a thing in recent years, in any form - as someone who has been writing about this for a long time, I note a new contribution as being a significant event in itself.

Soon, I think, there will be enough of us to form a five-a-side football team, or even to constitute a Gaeltacht community in itself, if we were so inclined.

But others have walked away from this too - there is this profound silence on the part of what might be called the Irish intelligentsia, or those in "the Arts" who seem astonishingly to accept the officially sponsored line on Compulsory Irish, to live with the lie in general.

There are individuals here and there, such as Donal Flynn, a retired chartered accountant, who as a public service has been producing elegantly written scholarly works with titles such as The Revival of Irish - Failed Project of a Political Elite.

But I am trying to think of the other scholars, the paid professors who have made a stand here. And there's not much coming to mind.

Again I do not wish to deal directly with the arguments about Compulsory Irish, because I don't believe there is any argument here.

I don't believe that any grown-up person could argue in favour of it, but it is that silence which is intriguing - intellectual dishonesty that is truly daunting in scale, especially when you recall that writers such as John B Keane were once among the more prominent opponents of this primitive form of coercion.

Writers at one point thought it was a very important part of their function in Ireland, to complain about such things.

Indeed you can make a solid case that it's this element of compulsion which has been the most damaging thing of all, that the notion of being officially made to learn the language is so alien to all our better instincts, we may grow to learn some garbled version of it, but at a deeper level that we hardly even understand, we will never stop hating it. There would seem to be no other reasonable explanation for our failure - nay our refusal - to engage with this language on anything other than a bureaucratic or a procedural or an institutional level.

More than a million of us may lie on the census form about our ability to speak Irish, which is regarded as our way of showing that we love it really, when all the evidence suggests that in fact we hate it.

And maybe this is the point at which the debate should be starting - an acceptance of the enormity of the lie that is the concept of Irish as our "first language"; then a contemplation of the underlying reasons for the colossal failure of that project with particular attention being paid to this question: has the State of Ireland over a long period of time managed to make the majority of the Irish people effectively hate this language which they no longer, in truth, recognise as their own?

And if they can do that, what else are they capable of, what falsehoods can they not entertain?

For example, if they've been simply pretending for almost 100 years that our first language is actually our second language, would this level of self-delusion be in any way connected to their reluctance to deal with certain "moral" issues, or to the fact that we keep going bankrupt?

And yet in these situations we note that "the country", as such, may go bankrupt, but that usually certain elements within it are perfectly fine.

Likewise this Irish language policy has not been a failure for what Eoghan Harris in another context calls Insider Ireland - there are people with all sorts of excellent jobs depending on it, there is indeed this famous "industry" that is doing fine, just fine.

It is getting bigger too, with the EU about to hurl many millions at the old translation-of-official-documents game.

It has been a failure only for the vast majority.

Sunday Independent

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