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Kevin Myers: Let's debunk the myth of Irish as a living language, it now represents failure and a national disorder

Some phenomena exist solely as cultural tautologies, contradictions in terms whose intrinsic flaws are largely unobserved by their participants.

The Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that begins with champagne cocktails: the Noise Abate-ment Society AGM that opens with a Sex Pistols concert; the Islamic Suicide Bombers' Christmas Bar-Mitzvah that begins with prayers to the Virgin Mary for a long and peaceful life. And not least of all, the recent TV debate in Irish, in which Labour and Fianna Fail ominously warned that people might not be able to understand Irish if Fine Gael's voluntary language proposals became policy, but which had to be pre-recorded and subtitled in order for the audience to understand it. Welcome back to the Irish joke.

Moreover, so poorly is Irish spoken generally that this was the first ever such debate in the history of the State. Yet the Fianna Fail and Labour leaders clearly subscribe to the public fiction that the Irish language is alive and well. It's not. It's green around the gills and it reeks.

Only a widespread psychiatric disorder would maintain the myth of a living Irish language. This fantasy actually predates the foundation of the State. The 1911 census shows huge numbers of young people in Dublin with Anglophone parents reporting an ability to speak Irish, though all they probably had was a Christian Brothers doggerel-Gaelic.

Independence turned this delusion into a state dogma, which Fianna Fail then transformed into a Constitutional Declaration of National Piety. Many politicians still declare that compulsion in Irish is vital to keep the language "alive" -- but usually do so in English, either because they wouldn't be understood if they spoke in Irish, or because they can't speak it themselves.

The status of the Irish language as a lodestone of illogicality was amply revealed in a recent statement on the issue from Pádraig Mac Fhearghusa, of Conradh na Gaeilge. He said: "Recent research has shown that of the adult population, born in Ireland and of all levels of education, over 9pc are fluent or very fluent in Irish ... Yet in the Department of Education, the proportion of staff who can provide a service through Irish is down now to 1.5pc."

In other words, fluency in Irish within the department is just one-fifth of what it is amongst the general population. Which indicates that either the department actually filters out Irish speakers during recruitment, or that it advertises vacancies only in Urdu and Mandarin publications, or that (perhaps most likely of all) 9pc of the population is not really fluent in Irish at all. In fact, the figure is probably less than the 1.5pc in the department, and considerably fewer than the numbers of authentic Urdu or Mandarin speakers here.

The "restoration" of spoken Irish is the greatest single economic and cultural project in the history of the State. Not merely has it also been the greatest national failure, but it has also revealed a national disorder; the acceptance of a consensual falsehood across society, from the intimate disclosures of a census form to the public formulation of national policy.

Hence the 2006 census, in which 1.6 million people allege that they "have" Irish, which is a simple lie. A more realistic assertion is that 72,000 (in other words, a nearly-full Croke Park) speak Irish every day, but that's still not true if it's meant to imply that Irish is their primary language of communication. Irish is not even the main spoken language in the Gaeltacht any more.

That Irish is now primarily a political and commercial artefact was revealed in the hysterical response to Fine Gael's proposals. Concos, which co-ordinates Irish language summer schools, reacted as if the Fine Gael policy was to BAN Irish, and lamented the alleged €60m financial "losses" that would be incurred by the Gaeltacht generally and in particular the 672 Irish-speaking homes that take in students. (Untrue, of course: young people will still go to the Gaeltacht, if only to simultaneously lose their virginity and contract pneumonia).

The Concos logic is apparently that every student in this Republic should spend 1,500 hours learning Irish, or 15pc of total teaching time, at a cost to the state of €500m a year, so that 672 boarding houses in the Gaeltacht are kept in business. There are simpler ways to run soup kitchens. But this is what happens when you politicise "culture": language becomes the only commodity available in a false marketplace dominated by hysteria, self-delusion and coercion.

So Enda Kenny could have been far louder in proclaiming the virtues of abandoning the disastrous policy of compulsory Irish. There are votes to be got that way. Moreover, he should have given the Fine Gael position much more thought and preparation.

Irish is constitutionally the official language of the Republic, so maybe it won't even be lawful to remove it as a mandatory subject without a referendum. And by God, if you think there's been some gross hypocrisy over the language thus far, just watch how dirty it gets when the Gaelgoiri and the "cultural republicans" of post-terrorist Sinn Fein face the prospect of losing their precious shibboleth.

Irish Independent