A mass Basque nationalist demonstration in Bilbao, 2012
A mass Basque nationalist demonstration in Bilbao, 2012

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…

10 comments on “A Tale Of Two Languages

  1. The Irish people never cease to amaze me.

    Some time ago I heard this conversation at work – two developers (both are Irish) were working on a translation system.

    Dev1: “To test this new feature you should add a language that we are not going to use [on production].”
    Dev2: “Ok, I’ll add Irish”.


    • Oh, that sounds familiar! 🙂

      I suppose it shows the subconscious inferiority complex of the Irish. No one despises the Irish more than the Irish themselves.


  2. I think the Irish are falsely vilified of ‘getting it wrong’ in terms of language planning. I mean, yes, we all know what’s still wrong but I think people tend to forget that the Republic was the first time in history a state tried it’s hand at reversing language shift. In 1922 we probably new more about astrophysics than language shift. The well-intentioned but ultimately doomed measures put in place to bring back Irish seem naive to us but that’s almost 100 years on. In the meantime we’ve had Israel and the kibbutzim and a (comparatively) huge body of research on biligualism and language shift. Things were very different when the Basques, Catalans and Galicians got home rule and I have no doubt they side-stepped a lot of the pitfalls the Irish had fallen into.
    What one can of course slate is that it is taking Ireland so long not only to recognize the mistakes in language planning but to do something meaningful.


    • True, Akerbeltz, but surely the greatest failure was one of implementation? All the constitutional, legislative and policy potential was there but nothing was done with it (and at a time before mass communications when something could have been achieved with far greater ease). Instead the state took the opposite tack. What is needed is root and branch reform. And that begins with the building blocks of the state itself as I argue here.


      • I get the sense that they thought what they were doing would indeed return Irish to the status of being the primary language – “teach it as a subject and once the next generation leaves school fluent in Irish, we can then make the switch” is what I think they were aiming for. Of course in 2014 looking back we think this to be hopelessly naive but that’s a hundred years on. Like medieval cures for the plague, which were at the zenith of medical thinking then but seem oh so silly to us.


        • But yes, in 2014 and knowing what we know now, massive reform is needed.


          • I’m sorry, I cannot agree that it was a issue of knowledge or lack of it. There was no requirement on any organisation, government, voluntary or commercial, to provide a service in Irish. How was the transition to be made as the children (education free only to age 14) and young adults left the education system?
            Meanwhile the Gaeltacht areas were undeveloped and backward and suffered disproportionately from emigration to the cities, especially Dublin, and abroad, especially to Britain and to the USA.
            Neither the ruling class nor the state leaders had any intention of making Ireland bilingual in Irish and in English, not to even mention monolingual in Irish.
            I repeat that the advances in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (Rath Cairn Gaeltacht, car insurance documents in Irish, Radió na Gaeltachta, Gaelscoileanna,TG4) were all won through hard struggle, voluntary work and very often indeed, civil disobedience.


            • I tend to agree with rebelbreeze. The language was ghettoised in the education system and left to live or die there (mainly the latter). No attempt was made to facilitate its use outside of that milieu. On the contrary it was actively discouraged. The failure to restore Irish, or at least create a truly bilingual state, was de Valera’s greatest political failure bar none. He simply wasn’t up to the job.


  3. Interesting and I share her sentiments but Kate is incorrect on a number of counts.
    In the Southern Basque Country:
    The ikastolak, primary and secondary level, are supported by the CAV Basque government, in which areas they are overwhelmingly the main school model. But the situation is very different in the fourth province, Nafarroa (Navarra), with its “three linguistic regions” fixed and no support for any attempt to extend the language.

    There is no university teaching through the Basque language.

    Adult learners get next to no government help and EHE and others raise thousands of euro every two years with the sponsored Korrikak (runs) for the language.

    It is NOT necessary to know Basque language for the vast majority of government and local government posts. There are very few posts requiring the ability to speak Basque. Users of hospital, doctor, public transport, housing, sanitation, banking, insurance and shops take pot luck on whether they can get a service through the language or will have to use Spanish. The police and courts usually only deal through Spanish.

    In the Northern Basque Country:
    The Basque language has long been legal but the French state does not give any recognition to the Basque language and no support for schools etc. The Basque provinces there are subsumed within a department containing other areas and so there is little chance of local authorities voting funds to Basque-medium education.

    I agree that the issue in Ireland is and long has been implementation of policy along with support for the Irish-speaking areas to combat high emigration of native Irish speakers and immigration of non-Irish-speakers. The funding of the Irish language organisations made them subservient and meek. Most Irish language gains have been made by community action and civil disobedience. The Gaeltachts continue shrinking at an alarming rate and are predicted to disappear within 20 years.


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