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.