Kate Fennell in the Irish Times examining the Basque Country and the successful struggle for language rights in that Iberian nation after decades of persecution.
“Basque culture and language suffered repression under Franco’s regime; the region experienced huge emigration in the 19th century, losing at least three-quarters of its population to America; the language came to be regarded as only fit for peasants; Spanish became the language of sophistication and commerce; the cause became political and violent and the language a symbol of identity and freedom. The sentiment behind the phrase tiocfaidh ár lá is still cherished by many who want full independence from Spain.
In contrast to the Gaeltachts, however, the Basque Country is a wealthy, industrialised region; it already had a wealthy merchant class in the 1500s. Its language has been supported constitutionally by the autonomous Basque government since 1978 and is required for a job in the civil service. The exams are not a pushover. Most spend months and years preparing for them.
One other very big difference is that the equivalent of our gaelscoileanna – ikastolas – have been in existence since the 1980s and have proven such a success that in a private university in San Sebastian half the degree courses are offered through Basque.
A strong government policy and a pride in culture and language have obviously helped. Even the word to describe a Basque person – Euskaldun – actually means “Basque-speaker”, so identity is intrinsically linked with their language. Indeed, the Basque language is visible and audible on a daily basis in all walks of life. The conundrum, however, is that while the percentage of people who know Basque has increased the percentage who use it with other Basque speakers in everyday life has decreased.
Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam. If this is true, and I feel it may be, then there is still much work to be done to solve the riddle of how to strengthen any minority language effectively. The Basques have some of the answers, but not all of them.
We Irish, on the other hand, are in the Basque people’s bad books. The official word on the street is that “the Irish gained their territory and lost their language”, that “the Irish have no pride”. (This from the diehards of the language who have not yet done their research in Ireland as I did there.) The only way I found to counter that was to give them a good blast of the boggiest Connemara Irish I know, throw in a few almighty mallachts and send them on their way. It’s at least one way of keeping the sound of Irish alive.”
Yes but that response doesn’t answer the central accusation made by the Basques and many others: Ireland may have gained its independence but the Irish lost theirs. That is the reason why those interested in language rights view this nation as the template for what one shouldn’t do – not what one should do. And why we must seek a new Irish revolution, a cultural struggle not an armed one, for the hearts and minds of the Irish people. To reuse the well-worn cliché: not merely free but Gaelic…