An Invisible People With Invisible Rights

An Ghaeilge! Irish rights are civil rights!
An Ghaeilge! Irish rights are civil rights!

An Coimisinéir Teanga or the Language Commissioner is a legal officer of the Irish state. His or her role under the Official Languages Act of 2003 is to ensure the equal provision of public services to the nation’s Irish-speaking and English-speaking communities. This partly fulfils the government’s constitutional duty to protect the civil rights of those citizens who use the country’s national and first official language: Irish. A few days ago the person carrying out that role, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, resigned from his office following a decade of combating a culture of anglophone discrimination inside the state. In a speech to an Oireachtas committee the commissioner expressed his concerns about the antipathy to Irish-speaking communities evident throughout the public services and the intentional starving of those communities of government resources.

Given the flurry of media publicity around the resignation one might reasonably suppose that most monolingual English-speaking journalists and opinion writers would be well informed on the subject. However it seems that being informed is one thing, disseminating Hibernophobic propaganda is another. Ian O’Doherty in his regular column for the Irish Independent newspaper takes misinformation to a whole new level:

“…the head of Teanga, one of the main Irish language groups in the country, has resigned in a huff because there aren’t enough civil servants who can speak Irish.

Now, I know that Seán Ó Cuirreáin, as the acting head of a body devoted to the Irish language has every right to be peeved about the lack of a working knowledge of Irish, but that’s not the point.

The point is that, presumably, the only way for his concerns to be allayed would have been for the Government to pour more money down the endless toilet of the Irish language and send more civil servants off on a language training course.

I very much doubt anybody, apart from the few cantankerous souls who stubbornly insist on costing the State money by demanding special accommodations for the language, really cares one way or the other if someone in Spiddal has to use their English name. I don’t mean to sound uncaring or inconsiderate here but . . . no, wait, I do.

…TG4 is by far and away the most inventive and innovative broadcaster on this island.

But I still don’t think it’s the Government’s job to fund it, or any other as Gaeilge boondoggle, for that matter.”

The fact that O’Doherty has little to no understanding of the situation, that he thinks a legally-appointed official of the state is the head of a lobby group called Teanga, say’s it all. Taken with his evident wish to see Irish-speaking citizens being discriminated against by their own government while grudgingly admitting that the Irish language public service broadcaster TG4 is superior to its English language rivals, it is evident that it’s bigotry not reason driving his views. However there is some succour from the wretched bile of the anglophone supremacists as displayed in today’s unexpected editorial from the Irish Times:

“It speaks volumes about the Government’s apparent lack of interest in its own policies towards the Irish language that the State’s first ever Language Commissioner, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, has chosen to resign his post early rather than carry on watching while the Government continues to shirk its obligations towards Irish speakers.

Mr Ó Cuirreáin has been measured and constructive in his duties as Language Commissioner and his concerns for the language are well-merited. His blunt assessment is that the Government’s lack of action in providing services in Irish for the Gaeltacht and adequate capacity in public administration may be seen as “a fudge, a farce or a falsehood”.

It is widely accepted, by both Gaeltacht communities and academics, that the language is in dire straits in its traditional strongholds. It will not survive unless people are given adequate reason and encouragement to speak it. Yet it seems that the Government expects the people of the Gaeltacht to save the language simply because they have just about managed to do so until now.

The truth is that the people of the Gaeltacht cannot keep Irish alive simply by dint of being native speakers. They need and are entitled to services in their own language from their own State. Mr Ó Cuirreáin has rightly noted they have been obliged to use English in their dealings with State agencies and that this should not be allowed to continue. That it has gone on for so long is not only an affront to the people of the Gaeltacht but a damning indictment of so many governments over so many decades.

That there are people in Ireland who wish to speak Irish, both in the Gaeltacht and in urban areas, is not in doubt. That they have rights in this regard too is not in doubt, particularly since the enactment of the Official Languages Act in 2003.

That it takes the resignation of the Language Commissioner to remind the Government about those wishes and rights is simply shameful.”

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25 comments

  1. A very sad state of affairs. To think the Irish fought for their independence from the Anglo-British state only to end up in this situation. I hope this incident proves to be a major national scandal and embarrassment to the Government, and frankly, to every ‘proud’ Irish man, woman and child. More than that even, I hope it proves to be the definitive turning point that secures the future of the Irish language once and for all.

    1. So do I, Neilyn, but from the reaction in the Anglophone media and government (the minister for education has dismissed the whole affair and government PR hacks are spinning against the former Language Commissioner) I suspect the situation might well worsen. Having tested public opinion and got away with it there is little deterrent now to even deeper discrimination. The Anglophone lobby who control the civil service in Ireland have succeeded in destroying the Official Languages Act and the Language Commissioner.

      1. I’m sorry to hear that Séamas. If the incumbent Government is simply ignoring existing legislation perhaps it’s time for all concerned parties to get together and sue them. If they’re proposing to scrap the existing legislation because they’re confident a clear majority of the public no longer support it, they need to furnish the evidence and explain what rights Irish speakers will have with the state in the new scheme of things.

  2. It seems to me that the same economic forces that have had in interest in eradicating Irish (an ALL indigenous languages) are still at work. As classical colonialism shape shifted into neoliberal globalization and/or “neo”colonialism, so-called “decolonised” states continued down the same path of economic exploitation and cultural genocide, while striking a blow to language revitalization precisely because language became de-politicized. Irish being the poster child of this phenomenon.

    I know some lament the “politicization” of Gaeilge, especially in the North of Ireland, but perhaps pre-colonial languages wither by nature in neocolonial situations. Is the Irish State not doing enough? Or has the illusion of independence been the “fluoride in the water” so to speak. To the rest of the world that is paying attention, Ireland looks like a 3rd world country, and native Irish speakers fit into what we on Turtle Island call the 4th world. A colony within a colony.

    I mean, if An Teanga is accepted as something “neutral”, doesn’t that ignore the reality of it’s relationship to colonialism and the ONGOING colonialism perpetuated by the neoliberal economic regime? Speaking an indigenous language will always be a political act, like it or not. What ever happened to the RECONQUEST of Ireland?

    1. Excellent points there. Language revival, by its very nature, is political. Language rights, by their very nature, are political.

      The problem with Irish is the lack of politics! Either we live in a democracy with democratic rights or we live in a dictatorship. Those who attack Irish language rights for being “political” are simply trying to dis-empower those who speak Irish. They are trying to depoliticise the Irish language movement in order to crush it.

      Language rights are civil rights!

  3. From reading a sample of the comments on sites around the internet, it would seem to me (admitedly an outsider) that the major scandal is the fact that a vast effort has gone into teaching Irish in schools over several generations, with very little positive result, indeed often with negative results in terms of attitudes to the language. Even compared to say, teaching French to English kids. I was actually surprised to discover that Irish is often taught from a relatively early age, and continues throughout most of a child’s schooling, much longer than the average foreign language course. Clearly something has gone very badly wrong here and a blind eye has been turned to it for decades. That is surely the real scandal.

    Why should citizens be expected to fund a process that is not working? Why should kids be subjected to methods that clearly don’t engage their interest and don’t provide them (in most cases) with a usable skill? There is absolutely no point in embarking on a language course unless at the end of it you expect to be able to hold a normal conversation or read everyday books and articles. Anything less is a waste of everyone’s time and money. There is nothing weird or mystical about Irish from a purely linguistic standpoint, it’s just one more small modern European language, so why can’t you teach it?

    Not a rhetorical question really, but a practical one. Why hasn’t anyone apparently addressed the issue and figured out what you’re doing wrong? And you wonder why no one understands the Irish 😉

    1. Marconatrix makes an important point when he refers to the apparent ineffectiveness of the whole system of teaching Irish. There is however no simple answer to this. There were/are a range of factors involved – negative parental attitudes, poor teachers who did not themselves know Irish, the different dialects encountered in the course of learning Irish at school over a period of 13 to 14 years, poor or non-existent language planning at state level, an elitish or exclusivist atttitude on the part of some Irish spearkers in the past and in some cases its cynical use for their own career advancement. But probably the biggest factor of all was the lack of a coherent state policy in relation to Irish as seen especially in Gaeltacht areas where the action of state agents on the ground were in blatant contradiction of the official rhetoric. But having said all this the system has not actually been the unmitigated failure that is often suggested. Well over a million people claim to have a working competence of Irish and most people end up with at least a rudimentary knowledge of it at the end of their school careers. See also my own blog at http://wp.me/p49hg7-n. Go raibh maith agat.

      1. Yes indeed, smagl, it is a miracle that we have any knowledge of Irish at all given the situation over the last nine decades. Yet at the last census 41.4% of the population identified themselves as speaking Irish, regardless of their actual levels of knowledge. And the 58.6% who stated that they had no knowledge of Irish at all (is that even possible?) includes 544,357 non-Irish nationals or people born outside of Ireland.

        Fact: the number of Irish-born citizens identifying themselves as Irish-speaking almost equals the number of Irish-born citizens identifying themselves as not Irish-speaking. That is the true measure of public opinion.

    2. All true but the biggest scandal is that of a state which deliberately ghettoised its own national and first official language in the education system. You may speak it in the schools but don’t dare do so outside of that environment! That is why Irish language teaching has failed. Confining the language to the classroom (and just one class at that).

      Things will never progress until that ghettoising is reversed.

  4. The problem is not in the state (which actually uses the language), but in PRIVATE SECTOR (which does not use at all).

    99% of the time I deal not with the state, but with the private sector – my workplace is 100% English speaking – you cannot see or hear Irish anywhere and my colleagues do not speak it. Also in all shops everything is in English only – labels, prices, product descriptions, etc.

    Last time I dealt with the state was when I applied for my PPS number and sorted out my taxes – and that’s it – even if Irish speakers are able to do that using Irish – that does not make any difference.
    Because after that they need to go back to the private sector which does not use Irish at all.

    1. Good point, Jānis. Personally I see an incremental process, beginning with the state/public services and then moving to the private sector over a period of years.

      However in a state-heavy nation like Ireland where so many people are employed directly or indirectly by the state bilingualism is a start – and indeed a right for both language communities.

      I had a discussion a few days ago about the Irish language and the private sector with a fairly angry Anglophone who informed me that “forcing” non-Irish nationals to speak Irish if Ireland was an Irish-speaking nation would be “racist”. It would also deter foreign workers moving to Ireland to work which would also be “racist”. When I asked if France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden or Finland were “racist” for expecting immigrants to speak their languages I was told that was different. When I then asked about spending money on translating Irish government documents into Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, etc. for non-national residents he said that was justified and not to do it would be “discrimination”. But he opposed Irish language translations for people who “should” speak English anyway!

      I’ve almost given up expecting any logic in these discussions 😉

      1. But he opposed Irish language translations for people who “should” speak English anyway!
        ————————
        But the private sector in this country is behaving that way.
        Everyone assumes that you are an English speaker.

        I’m working for an IT company.
        We have an in-house developed tool to store the list of our employees.
        And guess what – they do not even bother to put in Irish names correctly.
        They just strip off all the fadas – despite the fact that the database is perfectly capable of storing them – we store Chinese translations there too 😀 .
        I was like – wtf – when I saw that.
        That’s a small thing sure, but it just shows the attitude.
        That just shows how much the absolute majority cares about the Irish language.

  5. Russian language in Latvia is thriving – despite the fact that it has no support from the state – except for the Russian schools in which 60% of the subjects are taught in Latvian.
    Why?
    Because it is used in private sector everywhere.
    You can get practically any service in Russian.
    Despite the fact that government is officially monolingual – private sector is bilingual because of basic economic laws of supply and demand.

    So forget the government, language commisioners or whatever.
    Get the language in the private sector – advertise in Irish, put up shop signs in Irish, translate product descripitions, etc.
    Change should come from the bottom up, not the other way around.

    1. To me that’s a rather back to front comparison. No doubt if Soviet rule had continued Russian would in time have dominated and Latvian would have become invisible, just like Irish in Ireland. Indeed if what you say is correct it’s a great pity. To transfer what you’ve written to the Irish context I’d have to write, “The English language in Ireland is thriving … it is used in the private sector everywhere. You can get practically any service in English … advertises in English, put up shop signs in English … change should come from the bottom up …”
      Well, in Ireland that’s exactly what has happened, yet you don’t seem to like it very much.

      1. I agree that comparison was not 100% fair.
        That was just an example – how a language can survive without support from the state.
        And that’s what Russians are doing to keep their language alive.

    2. Some good points, Jānis, though it should be pointed out that Russia has spent considerable political, economic and financial effort in supporting the Russo-Latvian minority, and in the future may well foster a form of Russian separatism in the Baltic state.

      It is also the case that the Latvian state is trying to pursue a policy of social “integration” by encouraging greater use of Latvian amongst the Russian and other linguistic minorities. This has long been a source of tensions.

      My own view is that both the public and private spheres must be coupled for language revival to be successful but that it must happen in the public sphere first, as a legal right (as indeed the Russian minority in Latvia argue and pursue in court).

      I think everyone recognises (inside and outside Ireland) that the Official Languages Act of 2003 has successfully raised the profile of Irish and of Irish-speakers. The effects have been positive in many areas. However there is now a “kickback” from the Anglophone extreme, a feeling that things have gone too far. That is where a lot of this animosity and hatred is coming from. It was ok for Hibernophones and their language to be invisible but now that they are visible…

      1. It is also the case that the Latvian state is trying to pursue a policy of social “integration” by encouraging greater use of Latvian amongst the Russian and other linguistic minorities. This has long been a source of tensions.
        ——————
        But it’s working – I think that we are doing something right.
        Russians are actually learning Latvian – most of them are fluent speakers.
        It’s interesting that almost 1/3 of Latvian speakers are not native – quite a feat for such a small language..
        Even people who voted against Latvian independence from Russia now are fluent speakers.

  6. The major, rarely mentioned problem in teaching Irish is class sizes and the range of students in so-called “mixed ability” classes (that money-saving idea beloved of accountants in the Department of Education).

    While, for instance, practical subjects such as art and science classes can proceed with 15 students per teacher, an Irish teacher has to try and teach a class of up to 30 students at secondary level. Even relatively easy-to-teach subjects like English can often only have 15 students in each class thanks to schools dividing the class between a PDE student/trainee teacher and the paid teacher. English PDE students are ten a penny; Irish PDE students are almost as rare a duck’s eggs, unfortunately. These class sizes are lunacy, and nobody seems to be mentioning it. In the current mantra where “mixed ability teaching” is advocated as the best way to teach a class, this insanity and futility becomes even more pronounced, especially when the range in many “mixed ability” classes is enormous – from students with ADHD to students who are genuinely struggling with English to students who come from deprived homes and who bring a myriad of problems out in school classrooms, to students who are very smart. That range is a huge problem, a range I’ve never heard acknowledged by the “mixed ability” advocates, whose philosophy is based on keeping financial costs low rather than on effective teaching.

    Imposing a burden on teachers to find a balance that will teach all 30 students in such a class is the real, unspoken crime. That Ruairí Quinn came out a few months ago and claimed classroom size was not important would turn the stomach of any teacher who knows what he/she could do if classes were both streamed and much smaller. Then, we’d see huge changes in results. At present far too many kids are just enduring classes where they’ll never learn because they find languages generally difficult and cannot possibly receive adequate attention in the current education policy. The chislers, Irish teachers and our language are all being short-changed. Most kids *are*, despite the lies, hugely positive towards learning Irish but they need more help with it as it’s usually not the language at home. As their needs are neglected in class their attitude changes with the years. What a disheartening sight.

    The sole intelligent thing this state has done in recent years regarding Irish is to increase the marks for the Oral to 40%. With the Aural, it’s now 50% of the Leaving Cert Irish exam. In this move away from literature to emphasis on the spoken language they have not, of course, increased resources to Irish teachers (e.g. smaller classes where students can practice their Irish with a fluent speaker, or even intensive Gaeltacht courses specifically for existing Irish teachers who need to brush up on their Irish). The Department has merely shifted the burden on to the Irish teachers. Indeed, while years ago the Department required that qualified Irish teachers showed that they’ve spent at least 3 months in the Gaeltacht, in practice the Teaching Council of Ireland *never* asks for evidence of this nowadays. They just don’t care. Náire orthu go léir.

    1. Some excellent points, Aodhán. I would add that treating Irish as simply another subject in English-medium schools is doing serious harm to language acquisition. Most children regard any form of rote learning as an onerous task, whether English, Maths, History or anything else. An interest or love for learning comes much later in life, if at all. There is an in-built antipathy to classroom learning amongst all children of a certain age. Unfortunately Irish is lumped in with that, just more homework to do when you’d rather be doing something else.

      Irish needs to be part of the school’s general culture, part of its weft and weave, not just a subject to be resented. That is why Irish-medium education succeeds in teaching Irish while English-medium education fails in teaching Irish.

      Indeed, I think that was part of the recommendations from the panel of international experts the government hired and then promptly ignored a few years ago. They asked for a report to “fix” Irish, didn’t like the “fix” and so binned the whole thing.

      Typically Irish!

          1. Oh yes, I remember reading a summary a few years ago. It seemed pretty unambitious given its time scale, nearly a whole generation, and the dire need for some really positive action.

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