In Ireland we have the insane situation where a nation with its own native language has named the features of its landscape in that native language yet in our daily lives we are frequently forced to use the often bizarre Anglicised versions of those native names to suit the prejudices of some vociferous bigots in the Anglophone community. It’s as if we still live under the mandate of the foreign colonial rule that gave us those Anglicised names and that Anglicised community of English-speaking Irish people. To call it anachronistic madness is to put it mildly and it is indicative both of the status of Ireland’s Irish speaking population as second class citizens with second class rights and of the colonised mind-set of a minority of the English speaking population.

When the day comes that Irish people can use their own native names for their own native villages, towns and cities, without reference to some foreign inventions from our colonial past, then we will have truly achieved our independence. But in the meantime we are not alone in our struggle towards progress and modernity, as this article from the Inverness Courier aptly illustrates:

‘IT is difficult to walk around Inverness and not see some evidence of the ancient language. Whether it is on a road sign, or on the side of a public building, Gaelic is prominent. But for many native speakers and those trying to increase the status of the language, Scotland lags way behind many other countries.

It is an issue close to the heart of Inverness Courier columnist Roddy MacLean, who is trying to counter the negativity surrounding the promotion of Gaelic and the critics who question its value, particularly at times of austerity.

The Inverness-based journalist, broadcaster and educator has published a booklet on Gaelic signs and maps to highlight how much further Scotland must come to catch up with other countries, such as Wales and Ireland.

Gaelic, he argues, has suffered discrimination and a “second rate treatment” at the hands of state institutions for centuries and he describes the general view of Gaelic when he was growing up as an “anachronism”. However, he always vowed the language would be a central part of his life — his father and grandfather were native Gaelic speakers on the west coast of Scotland.

But it was a trip to Ireland in 1982, which really highlighted the gulf which existed. “As I walked onto the green land of Èirinn I saw what was effectively ‘my language’ staring down at me from signs,” he writes. “Not only was Dublin signposted, but so was Baile Atha Cliath. Gaelic signs abounded. It hit me like a punch in the midriff. I felt angry, filthy angry, that Scotland had betrayed its heritage in such a callous manner.

“The Irish had taken ownership of their country and their language. We had not. No longer was I going to accept Gaelic being hidden away like a dirty secret in Scotland. For Ireland in 1982, read Scotland in 2010.”

Using the example of signs and maps, Mr MacLean notes the issues which exist in Scotland – from national organisations advertising bilingually in Wales, but not Scotland, to signs in places of special cultural significance to Gaels, not automatically bilingual.

“Even where authorities have accepted the validity of bilingual signage in a bilingual community, there are still issues to be resolved,” he adds.

Using examples, Mr MacLean notes the difference in signage across the country – from the Gaelic above the English, to Gaelic below the English, to each language appearing in a different font, size or colour.

“There seems to be no national consensus on these matters and this can be a source of frustration for the non-Gaels in our community,” he said. “They are not able to locate ‘their’ language (English) by just glancing at a sign, knowing where it will be.”

Without uniformity, he argues, mixed messages are being sent on the acceptability of each language.

He also doesn’t buy the well-rehearsed argument that bilingual signage is a waste of public money.

“I would contend that the acceptable of bilingualism should be automatic,” he continued. “Visit a hospital in Wales and you’ll see it. I very much doubt that the Welsh health authorities have sacrificed clinical excellence in creating bilingual signage — they have simply built bilingualism into their thinking and planning, so that Welsh language signage is not seen as an extra expense.

“We need the same mindset here, and not just in the health service. Gaelic on signage should not be viewed or counted as an extra expense, it should be seen as a fundamental aspect of delivery on the remit of the organisation.”

And it is not just about promoting the status of Gaelic for native speakers, but, he argues, is important for non-speakers too so they can engage with the land.

“It is a founding language of our nation, it has been spoken by Scots throughout the entire history of Scotland, it remains a living language, it covers vast areas of our landscape and maps and it has a unique culture associated with it. For those features alone, if nothing else, it ought to be valued.”

However, he remains optimistic. New research by the Scottish Government shows 81 per cent of the public feel it is important that Scotland does not lose its Gaelic language traditions. The report, Public Attitudes Towards the Gaelic Language, also indicates 65 per cent think more should be done to promote Gaelic in Scotland. “There is, ahead of us, a generation of Scots who will hold the Gaelic language in the sort of esteem which the Welsh have won for their language in Wales,” he writes.’

I wholeheartedly agree with Roddy MacLean’s views on the status of the Scottish language in times past but I similarly share his hopes for the future.

In Ireland we are still struggling with the legacies of our colonial past, as I mentioned above, a struggle that manifests itself in almost every area of our lives, even, as in Scotland, with something as seemingly innocuous as road signs. But as the designer Garrett Reil points out:

‘The Government’s Statement on Language promises equal status for Irish but the reality of our road signs effectively renders it a secondary language.

In the Official Languages Act 2003, (Section 9) Regulations 2008, special care is taken to ensure Irish is principally prominent in signs…

(2) The following provisions shall apply to a sign in the Irish and English languages placed at any location in the State by a public body:

  1. the text in the Irish language shall appear first,
  2. the text in the Irish language shall not be less prominent, visible or legible than the text in the English language,
  3. the lettering of the text in the Irish language shall not be smaller in size than the lettering
  4. of the text in the English language,
  5. the text in the Irish language shall communicate the same information as is communicated by the text in the English language.

But the legislation provides an ‘opt-out’ for road signs. Irish is described as “a fully fledged modern European language” in the Government’s Statement on Language(1827kb PDF file) Surely, a modern and living language should not be ‘ghettoised’ and Irish place names deserve to be read as easily as English.’


Indeed, the placement of the Irish language on road signs across Ireland clearly indicates its secondary status, indeed the implication that it is a language foreign to Ireland not least by the use of Italics:

‘“Italic is sometimes used for secondary information, as in France. I haven’t seen that anywhere else. More often it is a light [weight] beside a regular, or medium roman that is given this job. [See] Schiphol airport and several other airports, such as Reykjavik, Iceland.” Gerard Unger (Reil 2006)

Unger’s comment about ‘secondary information’ is incisive, the Irish language appears devalued by setting in Italics. In general typographic use – italics are employed for very specific purposes – most commonly for a use of a foreign language expression.

“Foreign words and phrases… should be set in italics unless they are so familiar that they have become anglicised and so should be roman.” (Economist 2000)

In terms of signage where stress or differentiation is required, Bold type is preferred.

“In single or few words, style in typography is less of a discriminating factor than weight” (Spencer et al. 1973a)

Furthermore, italics are best avoided for use in signs (Barker & Fraser, 2000). And, any solution which employs different type styles for each language, is likely to cause dissatisfaction on grounds of prominence…

“Using different font styles within a given typeface – using a different font for each language – will inevitably make one version less legible than the other.” (Welsh Language Board 2001)’

It is quiet obvious that the standard orthography of Irish road signs contributes to degrading the status of our national language even further, and favours the English language as being of higher importance. As Reil shows this is more important than it would initially seem:

‘…it is notable that motorway signs become a visible expression of national identity. I would argue that this even more the case in countries with dual-language signs. Margaret Calvert, co-designer of Transport mentions this unintentional by-product in relation to the design of the UK’s signs…

We never thought of it as a corporate identity, because a corporate identity is not just signs, but if you see it everywhere, it is part of the look of Britain. For me, and this is speaking of London, it goes with red buses and black cabs. (Poynor et al. 2004)

This element of identity goes far beyond a simple visual phenomenon in bilingual jurisdictions like Ireland. The ‘accidental’ nature of the design of our road signs to date has not been a positive in terms of identity, making Ireland the butt of humour and longstanding visitor complaints (Bord Fáilte 2000), rather than a leader.

Clearly, our bilingual signs do not follow best practise. But, our road signs are one of the most visible statements we make about the importance of the Irish language, becoming part of our ‘linguistic landscape’ (Puzey, 2007). As such, in a time where we are committed to improving the use of Irish and have affirmed its constitutional status as our first language, there is an opportunity to lead the way. This would go beyond the matter of language and affirm Ireland as a design and research-focused economy.

Surely, a modern and living language should not be ‘ghettoised’ and deserves more than a faux celtic rendition of a few typographic characters. Likewise, Irish place names surely deserve to be read as easily as English.’

It is clear that we need to reassess the whole way we look at our national landscape. While some favour placing the Irish language in the position of prominence with the English following behind, I would argue for a more radical and modernist approach of simply dropping the Anglicised names altogether and returning to the original Irish names. To put it simply, Irish names for an Irish landscape. If we can, with the stroke of a ministerial pen, change from miles to kilometres, smoking to non-smoking, pounds to euros, and the hundred other changes made by government that we all accept and live with, then surely it is possible to return own native language for our own native landscape?

Either that or we will forever live in some bastardised, Anglo-American West Britain.

1 comment on “Welcome To An Irish Ireland?

  1. caithfidh mé a admháil, ní dóigh liom go mairfeadh sé i bhfad sula bhéimis uilig cleachtaithe go leor leis na ainmneacha gaeilge, gan bhearla ar bith ar na sraideanna. ach ní chreidim go mbeadh achan duine eile sásta – bhí siad ag déanamh gearáin i ndaingean an bhliain seo caite, sílim…


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