How Can The Irish State Ignore The Wishes Of 41% Of Its Citizens?

Tiocfaidh Ár Phéig
Tiocfaidh Ár Phéig

An article in the Irish Times by Seán Tadgh Ó Gairbhí examining the reaction of people in Ireland to the texting in the Irish language by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is well worth reading. As are the many Comments underneath. Some are positive. Some are simply depressing.

“On Monday night, Chris Hadfield became the nation’s favourite Canadian astronaut when he tweeted a picture of Ireland from space accompanied by a message in Irish – “Tá Éire fíorálainn!”

In charming us with a few judiciously chosen words of our native tongue, the commander was following the recent example of two more illustrious foreigners.

In May 2011, the Queen of England left our then president Mary McAleese open-mouthed in disbelief with a majestically delivered “Go raibh maith agat” and, just a few days later, Barack Obama had a crowded College Green in raptures with that riff on his can-do battle cry for the ages, “Is féidir linn”.

It appears that the sound of a stranger speaking Irish gives us a fuzzy feeling of self-worth, a feeling not to be had from, say, speaking Irish ourselves.

“Wow, I can feel the warmth of the Irish all the way up here. . .” Hadfield later tweeted, adding a “go raibh maith agaibh!” that ensured there was more Irish used in the International Space Station this week than most Irish people would use in a year.

Still, there was something genuine about the affection for the language evident in the response to Hadfield. Maybe this was because the commander’s tweet, for all its otherworldliness, was more authentic than either Obama’s or the banríon’s cúpla focal.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy not so far away called the Gaeltacht, Irish is dying as the language of the home and community. It is dying because that is what usually happens to languages like Irish, but it is also dying because of official neglect and a failure to take the measures needed to save it.

The most recent study in this area suggested that unless radical action was taken, Irish had only 15 to 20 years left as the primary community language in even the strongest Gaeltacht areas.

That was in 2007.

In response, three years later, in 2010, the last government published a 20-year strategy for the language. Three years on and the present Government has been slow in implementing that strategy. Instead, it has diluted what was already an overly aspirational plan by making several decisions that undermine it.

It is difficult to ascertain how many people really care about the preservation of Irish as no government has been willing to take a political gamble that the type of affection provoked by Hadfield’s tweet might be sincere.

This is despite the existence of plenty of earthly evidence that proves a considerable majority of us have a favourable attitude to Irish.

Would the public support a radical, well-resourced plan to save the Irish language? Would such a plan work? We might never know. Because it seems that, to adapt the tagline from the movie Alien, in the Gaeltacht, nobody can hear you scream.”

Exactly that sort of “gamble” was taken in Québec thirty-six years ago when the Parti Québécois provincial government introduced the Charter of the French Language (La charte de la langue française) in August of 1977. At the time of its introduction it was widely accepted in Québec and Canada that French would soon be a minority language, a language that would almost certainly disappear from the North American continent within the next 50 years. However the Charter and the positive attitudes engendered by its application reversed that situation. By 2011 the number of French-speaking citizens had soared to 80% of the population of Québec with a further 14% reporting various degrees of fluency as non-native speakers.

In Ireland the Irish language has the unique legal position under Article 8.1 of the Constitution of being both the national and first official language of the state. In contrast under Article 8.2 the English language is accorded the lesser status of being simply second official language. However the primary position of Irish is undermined by the anomalous Article 8.3 which permits the state to conduct any and all official business through either of the two official languages. Which is why we currently have a de facto English state in Ireland rather than an Irish one since the English language has always been the default option preferred by the political establishment.

One way we could change this situation is through an amendment of Article 8.3 of the Constitution, as I argued here. A carefully worded and thought-out amendment making Irish the default language of the state (which is clearly the intent behind Article 8.1) would transform the rights of Irish-speaking citizens and communities in this country.

As things stand over 41% of the population of Ireland declared themselves to have an ability to speak Irish in the 2011 Census of Ireland. That is 1.77 million people, a rise from 1.66 million in the previous census of 2006. Another rise was the number of daily and weekly speakers of Irish, 4.4% of the population or 187,827 people (making Irish the second most-spoken language). On top of this was the 613,236 who claimed to speak Irish less than weekly. Using these and other statistics from the 2011 census we can calculate that out of a total population of 4,588,252 people some 801,063 are speakers of Irish: that is people who speak Irish daily, weekly or less than weekly. That is the number, as unwilling as some Anglophone fundamentalists are to accept it, who speak Irish in Ireland. 801,063 people or some 17% of the total population.

In addition to that number there is another 24% of the population who either have some degree or knowledge of Irish or else wish to express their identification with it. To mark the language as their own. This is what happened in the 2011 Census and this is the 41% of the nation’s population that supports, wholeheartedly, the Irish language and the rights of Irish-speaking citizens.

As much as the militant extreme of English-speakers would wish it otherwise, with their knowingly untrue claims that Irish-speakers represent 1% of the population or statistical falsehoods about Polish being the second most spoken language in Ireland (2.6% of the total population, in fact), this is the unpalatable truth they fear so much. Irish-speaking citizens are not a majority, or even a particularly sizeable minority. But they are 17% of the population of Ireland. And together with English-speaking peers they make up the 41% of the population which supports our indigenous language and culture.

And it is time that they made their voices heard.

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