The Journal carries an article on the Irish language from Ian Mac Eochagáin, a professional Russian-English translator. Or more accurately it carries an article debating the preservation of the Irish language versus its promotion. Personally I see this as a false dichotomy. There is essentially no difference between both positions: preservation is inherently bound up with promotion.
“THE NEW GAELTACHT Bill, currently at the second stage in the Oireachtas, is really nothing new in Irish-language legislation. This jumble of reorganisations and reclassifications will fail native Irish speakers for two reasons.
Firstly, it provides no linguistic definition of a Gaeltacht; and secondly, it does not differ between the realistic task of maintaining the current number of native Irish speakers (preservation) and the unrealistic one of turning English speakers into Irish speakers (promotion).
Nor is there any distinction made between maintaining the current level of Irish speakers in a given area and increasing that number. Tragically, this distinction has never been made in independent Ireland. Instead, central and local government have been agents of Anglicisation in the Gaeltacht, while millions have been poured into ‘promoting’ Irish among English speakers. ‘Promotion’ boils down to this: English speakers are encouraged, by various campaigns, to speak Irish to each other.
For one obvious reason, these campaigns never work: English speakers already have a language, English, to use with each other. Why bother, then, to ‘promote’ Irish among them? Far more useful would be to overhaul the teaching of Irish in schools so that English-speakers have a basic, practical knowledge they can use with native Irish speakers.
If Irish is to survive as a community language, then only preservation and not promotion must be concentrated on. This means ridding the conversation around Irish of such terms as “promotion”, “increased use” (among English speakers), “expansion”, and so on. All government-funded bodies devoted solely to Irish-language promotion should be closed down and the ‘promotion’ side of other bodies abolished.
Preservation means giving native Irish speakers the opportunity to interact with the state in their native language: at present, this opportunity is severely limited, as staff in government departments and local authorities speak Irish less than fluently. If Gaeltacht areas are given more autonomy, with native speakers staffing government offices and official information published in the local dialect and not the Dublin ‘standard’, Irish speakers can feel the state supports their language rights and their language will have a chance at surviving. Irish-speaking communities need the state to speak to them in their language.
Legislative change is needed in this area, but not of this kind. The first reform should be an amendment to Article 8 of the Constitution to give Irish and English equal status. The next should be a Language Act to replace all existing language legislation, which would spell out and provide for the rights of speakers of both official languages to State services and information, including, above all, a numerical definition of English-, Irish-speaking and bilingual areas.
The Bill before the Oireachtas at present is a haze of new definitions, plans and reports that all boil down to ministerial discretion and not linguistic reality. It must be opposed and replaced with a Language Act that will defend the rights of speakers of both official languages to services and information, on the one hand, and devote Irish-language policy exclusively to keeping the level of Irish speakers at its current level, on the other. Then we may have some hope of an Ireland of two equal languages and the guarantee of language rights for all.”
This whole argument stems from a largely defeatist point of view and certainly runs contrary to international experience. From Québec to Wales, Catalonia to Israel, other successful language revivals have taken a completely different route. Only in Ireland would we willingly suggest that we are incapable of emulating the well-charted successes of others. Even as the similar efforts we have in fact put into practice begin to bear fruit.
Furthermore the central theme of the article in The Journal is clearly self-contradictory in nature. By restricting the Irish language to a series of glorified “tribal reservations” the status and use of the language, along with those who use it, is purposely reduced. What of Irish-speaking citizens, families and communities outside of the “reservations”? What rights have they? Very few it would seem under this new arrangement.
Despite the superior legal position of the Irish language in the Constitution of Ireland as the sole national and first official language of the state, Irish-speakers have remained as second-class citizens with second-class rights across the last century of independence. In fact for most of the last ninety odd years the reality has been that Irish speaking citizens are little better off than they had been under eight centuries of British colonial rule and persecution. It is only in the last decade, with the recognition of their constitutional and legal rights, and the limited equality they have achieved through the Official Languages Act of 2003, that the siuation has been somewhat reversed.
Yet even that is under constant attack from anglophone supremacists within the state: in the civil service, the political establishment and the national media. Much of this anti-Irish agenda is driven by thinly disguised racism; an almost ethnically-derived hatred by some extremist English-speakers in Ireland of the indigenous Irish language and culture, and those who identify with both. The suggestions above would simply pander to, and ultimately surrender to, the language terrorists of English Ireland. If Irish-speakers struggle to achieve their legal rights under the present constitutional arrangements what hope would they have under one where their status was reduced even further?
Any moves to push the Irish-speaking citizenry of Ireland to the point of extinction, at the very moment of a reversal in that 150 year old trend (a trend that truly began with the holocaust of the Great Famine of the 1840s), is tantamount to an act of aggression. A deliberate, pre-meditated act of linguistic and cultural extermination.
It says much for the inferiority complex of the Irish people, or the thoroughness of Britain’s colonisation of our nation, that we lack such self-belief, such confidence in our abilities, our own language, culture and identity.
But it says more that so many Irish people would risk internecine conflict in our nation to finish what the British began eight hundred years earlier. For when all other peaceful options are taken away, when Irish speaking men, women and children and those who identify with the native language and culture of the Irish nation are faced with their own demise what choice will they be left with but to pursue non-peaceful options to protect themselves and their communities.
The experience of the “Northern Ireland” statelet, of decades of British Unionist misrule through the architecture of an apartheid regime, shows us what happens when ordinary people are driven beyond the point of any reasonable level of acceptance.
Since 2003 Irish-speakers in Ireland have slowly gained their constitutional and legal rights. They should not allow those rights to be taken away again by a handful of vocal or influential bigots and racists from anglicised Ireland. They should not allow themselves to be reduced even further to the status of third-class citizens with third-class rights under a new regime of persecution. A regime where even non-Irish nationals are treated with greater respect and regard.
Let English Ireland sow the wind if it truly wishes to do so. But let it know that it will also reap the Irish whirlwind.
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