Ten Thousand March For Irish Language Rights

Ten thousand people march through the streets of Dublin protesting the lack of equal treatment for Irish-speaking citizens with their English-speaking peers, Ireland, 2014
Ten thousand people march through the streets of Dublin protesting the lack of equal treatment for Irish-speaking citizens with their English-speaking peers, Ireland, 2014

On Saturday the 15th of February up to ten thousand people took part in Lá Mór na Gaeilge, a demonstration demanding equal treatment in Ireland for Irish- and English-speaking citizens, not just in accessing the resources of the state but in society as a whole. In a parade through the freezing streets of Dublin thousands of men, women and children, Hibernophones and Anglophones alike, voiced their support for the constitutional and legal primacy of the indigenous language of their island nation in the largest rally of its kind in decades. Already follow-up events are planned across the country including a similar parade for the city of Belfast. With a few notable exceptions the demonstration received desultory reporting in the largely hostile Anglophone news media, the day’s events mainly reflected through live coverage on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Unsurprisingly the online observations from some Anglophone commentators plumbed the depths of bigotry with little attempt at editorial restraint or censure by the websites carrying their opinions. And the reasons behind the increasingly vocal hate-speech emanating from militant English-speakers? Ireland’s changing linguistic demographics, reflected in the rise from 1.6 million to 1.7 million people or 41.4% of the population declaring knowledge of the Irish language in the 2011 Census of Ireland.

Traditionally in post-Great Famine Ireland those who spoke Irish alone or in combination with English were individuals and families confined to relatively poor and geographically isolated rural communities on the western seaboard of the country. This was the inevitable result of many centuries of British colonial rule followed by decades of institutional neglect by the independent Irish state. However over the last thirty years the Irish language has taken root in a number of major urban centres, notably Dublin and Belfast. A growing generation of young working- and middle-class Irish-speaking men and women now enjoy levels of social prestige and financial affluence their rural counterparts or antecedents could never have dreamed of. With greater economic and social standing, more public visibility and naturally-held assumptions about equality under the law this new demographic have combined with pre-existing Hibernophone communities to demand the same treatment as their English-speaking fellow citizens. Where once the Anglophone elites could loftily dismiss Irish-speakers as “peasants” and  “country folk” those elites now find themselves being assimilated by the very people they formerly despised.

As with the north-east of Ireland, where some in the British Unionist community are unable to come to terms with changing population numbers, so some Anglophones in Ireland as a whole cannot come to terms with an increasingly visible, self-confident and self-assertive Irish-speaking citizenry. For too many this is a direct challenge to their identity and their near two-centuries old hegemony over Irish society and politics. As with militant Unionism they resort to ridicule, hatred or active discrimination. If the restrictions on the flying of the British national flag over Belfast City Hall were a sign of the way the political wind is blowing in the north-east of our island nation the sight of thousands of young men and women, Irish-speakers and English-speakers alike, marching in support of the Irish language is another sign of demographic change that we should all take note of. In 1885 the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell declared:

“…no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say to his country: ‘Thus far shalt thou go, and no further’…”

For Irish Ireland let this be their watchword. And for English Ireland let this be a word of warning.

187,827 people speak Irish on a daily and weekly basis.

613,236 people speak Irish less than weekly.

976,374 people declare an ability to speak Irish but not to use it on a regular basis.

1,777,437 million people in total, nearly half the Irish-born population of the state, claim the ability – and the right – to speak Irish.

Their march will go on.

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16 comments

    1. @Joe, agreed a very good demonstration. More to follow. But it needs to be built upon. A “Fighting Fund for Irish” to take cases through the courts is next. Litigate the opposition into submission (and we have seen the last few weeks how effective the threat of legal action is). Pickets on shops and retailers that do not provide Irish language signage on their premises on an equal basis with English language ones. Etc.

  1. It’s worth adding in the figures for North-East Ireland, where there are 64,847 fluent Irish speakers and another 120,051 people with some level of Irish.

    Bring on the 12th of April in Belfast!

    1. @Ciarán, thanks for that. Those extreme Anglophone critics who challenge the statistic of 1.77 million fail to see the positives in it. The support for Irish language rights it represents. And taking it on its own merits, even if half were exaggerating their fluency it still represents hundreds of thousands of speakers, fluent or otherwise.

  2. i was walking beside ‘T=Rex ó Sauras’ on Saturday and the thing that struck me was how young the crowd was. And today i came across a report that confirms just that. The people most hostile to gaeilge are the oldergeneration, whereas younger people view the language much more positively

    1. @Martín, yes it was very obviously a young crowd, and a far higher number of women than usually attends political events. A very good sign. Especially when one considers the numbers of young people who have emigrated in recent years, the very demographic that has the greatest fluency or support of the language. How many Irish-speakers now live overseas?

  3. I don’t believe that those numbers are real.
    Everyone has probably seen this – Manchán Magan is awesome 🙂 :

    He was not even able to order a meal at a restaurant properly – that’s ridiculous and sad at the same time.
    Nowhere in Latvia situation is that bad – even in areas where 90+% of population are Russians they’ll understand what I’m saying.
    And some people still think that my language is under threat.

    In Latvia we have the right to deal with the private sector in Latvian too.
    If something like that happened in Latvia to me – I could complain to the Language Commissioner and that restaurant would get a fine.

    1. Its not accurate to compare Latvia to Ireland concerning the use of native languages for different reasons ,mainly historical oppression. Our Celtic/Gaelic Racial, Cultural traditions , Catholic Religion , Gaelic/Irish language was brutally oppressed during different eras as conformance measure to English /British policy. Its more complex but this is a general explanation
      Latvian is spoken by 80 % of total population as a first language. The only threat to your language was not force but came from an influx of immigration from Russia 1940,s. The surrounding countries like Lithuania speak Latvian as both native languages are also similar.
      The mainly opposite scenario applies to Ireland and its an Island country. People saying your language is under threat have a reasonable fear and purpose . The Nationalist Latvian interested groups fear a reduction in your language also threatens National independence.

      1. The surrounding countries like Lithuania speak Latvian as both native languages are also similar.
        ——————-
        That’s not true – we can’t understand each other at all.
        ——————
        Gaelic/Irish language was brutally oppressed during different eras as conformance measure to English /British policy. Its more complex but this is a general explanation
        ——————
        Same thing happened in Latvia – only the Russians were a lot more brutal than the Brits.
        ————————
        Latvian is spoken by 80 % of total population as a first language.
        ————————
        We haven’t reached 80% yet.
        But most Russians speak it as a second language.
        They’re a big nation – more than 140m people – and yet – they learn a language that is spoken only by ~1,5m people natively.
        There are probably more Russians who speak Latvian than Irish who speak Irish.

        And anyway – the Brits left 90 years ago – that’s more than enough to revive a language.
        You are extremely lucky – Your country was not destroyed during WW2, you didn’t have to suffer under Stalin, Hitler and other Soviet monsters.
        Your grandparents didn’t have to travel to Siberia in cattle cars.

    2. @Jānis,

      Apologies late reply, very busy in my “other” job at the moment 😉

      In relation to the numbers of Irish-speakers, in the 2011 Census of Ireland 1.77 million people chose to identify themselves as speaking Irish. No one forced them to do so, there was no gain from it. It was an entirely voluntary act. While one may question the degrees of fluency one cannot contest the positive intent of 41.4% of the population (given that Irish fluency is higher in the under 30s, the very demographic that has emigrated in high numbers in recent years, and that a significant portion of the population is born outside of Ireland, that percentage is even more impressive, approaching in reality nearly half the Ireland-born population).

      Even if one doubts the numbers what percentage of the 1,777,437 million people are being false about their ability to speak Irish? 50%? That still leaves 888,718 people. The number of people who speak Irish daily/weekly/less than weekly is 801,063. Close enough to 50%.

      Irish is not spoken because speakers of Irish are inhibited from doing so through social, economic and cultural pressure. That certainly is sad. Fortunately the Latvians have a more favourable attitude to their language and culture. But then they never suffered a state-led policy of invasion, occupation, colonisation and extermination (physical and cultural) that lasted several centuries with continuous warfare. The tyranny and suffering under a few decades of the Soviet empire was bad – centuries under the British empire is beyond human description.

      1. But then they never suffered a state-led policy of invasion, occupation, colonisation and extermination (physical and cultural) that lasted several centuries with continuous warfare.
        ————–
        We did actually – Latvia was never an independent state until 1918.
        We got independence from Russian empire at about the same time as Ireland.
        Because of our favourable geographic location (“Window to Europe”) – our territory changed hands many times.
        It was invaded by Russian, German, Polish and Swedish empires.
        Hell, even Napoleon’s army went through on their way to Moscow.
        Sometimes when reading a history book I wonder – “how the hell I’m still a Latvian speaker” 😀
        I suggest you read a bit more about our history.

        When speaking about 20th century Ireland you can certainly use the expression “Luck of the Irish” unironically.

        1. I think I pointed out the fact some time ago, probably before we had Jānis on here, that both Latvia and Éire became independent at around the same time but that while Ireland remained largely away from the turmoil of 20th century Europe, out there on the edge of the Atlantic, neutral through WWII etc., Latvia was invaded by the USSR, Nazi Germany, and the USSR again, and spent about 50 years fully incorporated into the Soviet Union. Also surrounded entirely by countries speaking other languages, only one of which, Lithuanian, is at all closely related. On the face of it you’d expect Latvian to have almost vanished while Irish ought to be in a position more akin to Icelandic. I’m sure if we really understood these differences we’d be a lot wiser. How did the Latvians (and Estonians, and Lithuanians) retain their self-confidence despite everything that was thrown at them while the Irish accepted their rôle as dumb idiots?

          News of this demo is certainly a pleasant surprise, especially the youth element. Although I’m a bit puzzled as to what Gaeilge means to them, what there is in it for them. I ask out of interest, not an attack or criticism.

          1. @Marconatrix, the answer keeps coming back to the thoroughness of Britain’s colonial programme in Ireland reaching its zenith with the Great Famine of the mid-1800s (and many big and small ones before and thereafter). An Gorta Mór effectively cleansed the Irish-speaking population in such numbers that English-speakers outnumbered them many, many times over (Irish = death/exile/poverty. English = life/domesticity/affluence). Without the 2-3 million toll of death or emigration a substantial Irish-speaking population would have survived into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period when the resurgence/revival of national identities/cultures swept the intelligentsia and popular society as a whole across Europe. A lack of a large monolingual population stunted its growth in Ireland coupled with the monopoly by an Anglophone ruling class (with an illusionary Gaelic façade) of politics and finance in the years after independence.

            On those who marched last Saturday I suppose Irish represents for some a living language of family, friends and community. For others it is about national identity. For more still about civil rights, indigenous language rights, etc. The reasons are a mix I suspect. Though I am not a fluent Irish-speaker I was there. Around me, in the crowds, I heard fluent Irish, mixed Irish and English, English and even some French and Slavic speech (Polish or Czech I think).

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