Irish Times opinion-writer and occasional poet, Rosita Boland, giving the legacy of colonialism on this island nation a respectable, modern face through the pages of the Irish Times:

I can’t speak Irish. I can’t read it either. And I definitely can’t write Irish.

This is a disgrace, considering all those hours over all those years I spent on the subject, throughout primary school and then secondary school: I finished my school career with only the most shamefully tenuous grasp on a language I had studied for years.

But it’s not my disgrace that I can’t speak Irish.

No indeed. The disgrace lies with “official Ireland” which took seventy years to pass legislation giving the Irish language any worthwhile legal status within the institutions of the state. The disgrace lies with “official Ireland” which took seventy years to pass legislation permitting Irish-speakers to seek – though rarely receive – services in their own language from the institutions of the state. The disgrace lies with “official Ireland” which took seventy years before it was willing to permit the Irish language to expand beyond its deliberate ghettoisation within the education system.

Not even the most passionate Gaeilgeoirí could describe Irish as a useful language to have outside Ireland. It might be fun to chat to another Irish-speaking person abroad – if there are two of you, and you are both fluent, and for some reason do not want other people to understand what you are saying – but nobody could describe it as a useful way of communicating with local people.

Doesn’t the same criteria apply to Danish, Dutch, Polish, Latvian and a hundred other languages? If global utilitarianism was the sole qualification for disregarding Irish then Boland would be arguing for the world to speak Esperanto (or Anglo-American English, which is what most of these “useful language” arguments really come down to).

Nor could anyone say that Irish is a necessary language to have in order to navigate your way through a day’s work or leisure in Ireland itself.

It is also a deeply wasteful government practice to spend so much money and resources on making so many official documents bilingual. What is the point being made by doing this? What practical purpose does it serve? Doesn’t everyone in Ireland who speaks Irish also speak English, even though the reverse is not true at all?

This claim may be on firmer ground, that the Irish language is not a requirement for living in contemporary Ireland, but why decry any attempt to permit those who wish to live through Irish to do so by providing a bilingual state? If they can speak English, then they should speak English, not Irish, even if they can speak Irish?

This is simply a Hibernian variation of the self-fulfilling argument that forms the “logical” basis of most institutional discrimination. No one speaks Irish in Ireland so why should we teach Irish or provide services in Irish? But, hold on, some people do speak Irish in Ireland. Yes, but they also speak English therefore they should always speak English. Which brings us back to… No one speaks Irish in Ireland so why should we teach Irish or provide services in Irish?

I did not like having a language I had no interest in being forced on me as a child and teenager; as an adult, I like even less having my national identity pinned to a language I never use and cannot speak.

However, forcing the English language on Irish-speaking children and adults by denying them the space, the milieu, in which they can live, work and play through their own language, from the cradle to the grave, that is acceptable because it is the language that Rosita Boland and her coterie speak, and speak exclusively?

Centuries of anglophone surpremacism weighs heavy upon us, and being an individual of artistic or creative merit is no guarantee of immunity to its pernicious allure. At the end of the day, whether Boland likes it or not, Irish-speakers matter too.


32 comments on “#IrishSpeakersMatter

  1. What language did the King of the Netherlands use in addressing the European parliament recently? His own although as this video shows he could have used German, English and perhaps other languages but he chose his own…

    …I wonder why!

    President of the Parliament, A German, welcomed his visitor in Dutch as well. A courtesy and respect which this Ms. Boland would deny people who live their lives through Irish in so far as the State allows.

    The President of France speaks his National Language yet he to has good English. I wonder why?

    Is it a waste of space that the EU has 28 legal languages more than one of which are spoken by very few people indeed? Ms. Boland would appear to think so if we follow the logic of her arguments.


  2. First of all, I would like to say hello from Scotland. I have recently discovered your blog and I have been learning a great deal of the history of Ireland and its people. Being raised in a Unionist home, I was aware of a great antipathy towards Ireland. This ran through much of Scottish society.
    Alex Salmond has spent years cleverly and subtly pointing out the ties between our countries, so much so that those of us on the pro independence side view Ireland as our sister nation.

    I had naively thought that hostility towards Gaelic as unique to Scotland and that Irish would be making a recovery, supported by the establishment. How wrong could I be?

    Gaelic in Scotland was once referred to as Galloway Irish and Heilans’ Irish which in many ways is a more accurate description. I am geniunely shocked by the situation the Irish language finds itself in today.


    • On the whole, the RoI has largely self-identified itself with Gaeldom, and officially, at least, supported a revival of the Irish language. What has not been overcome is the antipathy towards speaking the language that many have, or rather, there has not been a full community-led mass adoption of Irish as the daily language of home, work, and play. I don’t think one can lay the blame on the State for this, for all their sins. Most of our leaders have been fluent in the language and supportive of Gaelic traditions. The language aspect is improving of late, even as the Gaeltachtaí diminish… People are choosing the language, but what we are missing is a more militant advancement of the language like we have seen in Catalonia. Not just language rights, per se, but making it the first language that comes out of your mouth.

      This blog is great, and its author has produced some fine articles from a Republican perspective, but you do need to read other sources to get balance as much of what you read here reflects the politics of the six counties where unionism is still holding out. I love reading the Scottish papers to see how you are thinking about independence and Gàidhlig, because as our sister nation, I understand this country more by looking at your experiences. The recent move of the SNP to crossing sectarian lines and embracing the Highlands is wonderful, as we just do not have an equivalent here. We would do well to blend our various strains of nationalism into a non-toxic variety of all-island national self-determination, that is also left-of-centre like the SNP. I suppose what we are missing here is the legacy of the industrial revolution and deindustrialisation, outside of Belfast, which in Scotland has helped the SNP hoover up the Labour vote.


  3. Are you saying that the native English speakers should all learn (or be forced to learn) Irish just to be able to provide service in that language to native Irish speakers in the rare case when they actually meet one? Seems like a huge waste of time to me because I’ve yet to meet one in person.
    Native English speakers don’t need any other languages to communicate among themselves – they already have English.
    If the language is not a necessary part of the Irish national identity and has almost no other practical usefulness then I can’t see any other reason why anyone should be forced to learn the language.


    • That´s a bit rich coming from you, Jānis. It´s like a person in good health criticising a sick person for being ill.
      Think back a few decades to the time when Latvia was still part of the USSR. Everyone had to know Russian, didn´t they? But not everyone (i.e. Russians and other foreigners) knew Latvian. Therefore, by your logic, Latvian was useless and pointless. No?


      • Everyone had to know Russian in order to communicate with the occupying power. That doesn’t mean that people loved the language, identified with it or chose to use it to communicate. My parents were born and educated during the darkest period of the occupation when people thought that the USSR will not go away any time soon. (60s-70s) They have native-level Russian language skills, but for some reason Russian is not spoken in my family at all (except when swearing 😀 ).


        • Yes, but the difference is worth exploring because most of the reasons for not supporting Irish could just as easily be applied to Latvian or any other language of a fairly small country. That is : it´s only spoken by a few people who are mostly bilingual in one or more major languages; it´s no use once you go abroad for work or study; it´s literature and culture are largely unknown in the wider world and no-one cares anyway … You know how it goes …


          • What do you mean by “supporting”?
            Teaching the language to kids? Or learning it yourself in order to speak with that language’s native speakers.

            In Latvian case:
            The Latvian language is usually taught by ethnic Latvian parents to their kids as their 1st and native language.
            Ethnic Russians and other foreigners usually learn it as the 2nd language in school in order to be able to function in the Latvian society. (And that happens ONLY because the Latvian language has relatively large number of speakers – those Russians would not learn it otherwise – it’s useless to them and not part of their identity)

            Livonian is more comparable to Irish. It’s an important part of the culture and history of Latvia. It has also affected the language that I speak (Latvian has many Finno-Ugric loanwords). It’s sad to see it go. But I’m not going to learn it. It’s a difficult language and it’s a complete waste of time to learn it, because there aren’t very many speakers left.

            Looks like that most Irish view the Irish language in a similar way.

            So yeah – a language doesn’t have to be one of the most widely spoken languages to be considered useful. It however needs to have critical mass of speakers in a particular area so that it can function as a living language. While most parents normally teach their native language to their kids – if a language can’t be used as a default means of communication anywhere – it’s unlikely to attract new L2 speakers.


            • As I understand it, the Livonian community was completely fragmented and destroyed. If this is true then there is no body of people who self-identify as Livs and so no practical use for the language. It´s simply an interesting linguistic fossil, like Old Prussian etc. OTOH where a distinct community does exist and the language is well recorded, a revival is quite possible. Manx is perhaps the best local example :


          • The best example actually is Hebrew. It went from a complete death to being spoken by millions of people as their first language. The Jews did something right while the Irish totally failed at their attempts to do the same thing.

            There still are some people who identify as Livs btw – one of our former MPs for example. They have their own cultural organisations that organise various events for people who are interested in Liv language and culture. Those organisations also receive some funding from the state.
            But yeah – very few people are involved in all that – most Latvians aren’t interested in that language or culture.

            Unless something changes – the Irish language will be in the same situation in a few decades.


        • Dara O Rourke

          What is the Latvian for ‘ appalling barefaced hypocrisy’ I wonder? Rather like immigrants to Denmark who refuse to learn the language of the host nation on the grounds that they already speak English…..being from the former British Empire.Still , not everyone has such a narrow and self regarding approach : I know French woman with quite good Irish , for example.


  4. Honestly I still can´t understand how anyone can go through all those years of Irish lessons at school and be able to claim they can´t understand the language.

    I had only about half as much ¨School French¨ in which I had little interest after the first year, and indeed ended up getting thrown off the GCE course and not taking the exam. I´ve no particular interest in France, its culture etc. and I´ve never been there and probably never will. Yet, when very occasionally I´ve needed to access material written in French, admittedly on subjects I´m familiar with, I can generally muddle through and extract the necessary information.

    Does the lady realise that to outsiders like myself she´s simply confirming the ¨Tick Paddy¨ stereotype?

    (Maybe she´d been watching that Welsh program I linked to on a previous thread, it´s very much in the same mould)


    • I would say she falls more in the petulant adolescent strop stereotype. To still be rebelling against what she was forced to do as a teenager speaks of lingering immaturity. When I was 14, I did not want to do many things that I accept now as an adult… because I now know better.


  5. ar an sliabh

    “I did not like having a language I had no interest in being forced on me as a child and teenager…” says it all. The avowed lack of interest in the language is an avowed lack of interest in the heritage. Denying any knowledge of the language is a simple and purposeful lie. Feeling that a major part of one’s heritage is “forced” upon one is a sign of a distinct dislike for all of one’s heritage. The statement made further down the line that she disliked her national identity “pinned” to the language, shows either complete ignorance for the correlation of language, culture, and national identity or the association of her identity with a different nationality entirely. Her background as an artist, especially a poet, makes her true colors even clearer. No true artist, unless he or she absolutely despises that particular culture, would be immune to the allure of the language of a culture rich in the art of his or her field. I would go as far as to venture to say that Irish – Gaelige, Gaelic, Welsh, and all the languages in that realm are ones with the most impressive poetry of any (not that I am biased at all – sarc.). Too bad it is her own culture and heritage she so despises.


    • Careful now – by your logic most people on this island aren’t Irish. Because even the people who are ready to kill in the name of Ireland don’t speak Irish and don’t see it as a necessary part of their identity.


      • ar an sliabh

        Nowhere did I say she was not Irish. Most Irish (although many do) do not despise their heritage. The overwhelming majority of those willing to kill for Ireland see the Irish language as a major part of their identity, even if they are less than fluent in it. I would say for any of our dedicated patriots, the language is not severable from our identity. Looking at some of your past posts, that is apparently not all that different from Latvia. I guess you just like to play the devil’s advocate.


        • I suppose I have to plead ¨guilty as charged¨ to that also 🙂

          What you need to understand is that the Irish situation regarding language is very difficult for us foreigners to get our heads around. Looking around the internet last night, I came across one or two articles similar to the one under discussion here. It soon became clear from people´s comments that there is (or at least was until quite recently) something altogether odd about the way Irish was taught (if that´s the right word) in your school system.

          Now I can understand there might have been some odd ideas floating around soon after independence, but what I can´t see is why after a few years, or a couple of decades or whatever, you didn´t change over to teaching Irish like any other ´foreign´ or second language. Your schools seem to be able to teach French etc. so that pupils feel they can speak those languages, and if you were really short of ideas you could have sent teachers over to Scotland and Wales to see how they manage to teach their languages to English monoglot kids (and adults including parents).

          I can only conclude that the whole business was never approached rationally, but rather has got wrapped up in some sort of nationalistic mythology. The result seems to have been that several generations (just like the lady who wrote the article) were badly alienated from Irish language and culture. Which of course is yet another Irish tragedy.

          Tell me things are better now? Insibh dhomh gu bheil cùisean na´s fheàrr a-nise?


          • ar an sliabh

            No, no nationalistic mythology. The only mythology about is the one perpetrated by those who are just so very unhappy about being born on the “wrong island,” and who in their endeavour to be more British than the brits themselves, just want to benefit the rest of us by making us a “little England” (pardon the pun). From despising the language and history all the way up to and including being the only people in the world to honour the dead of their genocidal tormentors who died in the process of tormenting them (a bit like former concentration camp inmates honouring SS guards who fell while murdering them). The alienation is brought about by an ideology begun during the occupation of Ireland that constantly harps on everything Irish being backward, rudimentary, primitive, stone-age like, and that the “farm animals” are destined to be brought to a better life as slaves of the British Empire, and the continuation thereof by those hoping to reap some sort of “loyalty reward” for it (alot of “agus” in there. sorry). There are a lot of people still traveling in that rut, which is a tragedy indeed, but things are indeed looking up as our newer generations are much more comfortable with being Irish.


    • By her logic, my distaste for ice hockey makes me less a Canadian. One does not have to espouse all aspects of a culture to actually be part of the culture. Maybe she is talking about a cult?


  6. Derek Ó H

    It was a really backward and unenlightened opinion piece. Some poet that sees no value in the main element of Irish culture.
    A recent study showed 63% of students favour compulsory Irish in school. Unbelievable considering the Anglophile nature of contemporary discourse. I’d like to see the percentage who would vote for Maths, Shakespeare, Religion! Maybe schoolkids are a more enlightened bunch than some in the media.


    • There was a question on the Times´ site asking the readers (in Irish though) if they´d like to speak Irish better, and 3 out of 4 voted Yes. Not unlike your student figure above.

      Interesting? Hopeful or just more wishful thinking???


  7. Derek Ó H

    Time will tell. Hopeful. As an t-Uachtaráin said this year, it took enormous energy over centuries to demote the Irish language. The process of re-normalising the language is complex and will go on beyond our lifetimes. Thankfully there are new people coming through with every generation who love and speak the language.


  8. As chance would have it, this just turned up in my in-box. It seems quite relevant to the discussion here (IMO at least) : ¨On Language Learning and Decolonisation of the Mind¨ Mmm … I like that last phrase.


    • Oh, just realised the above was a re-blog. For the comments go to the original site :


      • A fascinating read. Good to see the insight from a semi-outsider in terms of Scotland. Again it is that issue of decolonising the mind before one can do the same with the language or the milieu in which the language should exist.


        • Yes – the Irish made the Brits withdraw from most of this island. But you didn’t get them out of your heads. And 100 years after the Easter rising we see the result. One of the richest countries in the world that willingly throws away its culture and language and has replaced them with those of their neigbour.
          If I was an Irish speaker I would not think that this country is independent at all.


  9. Somewhere I posted a link to a very anti-Welsh-Language program put out by the BBC recently … aah this one :

    Generally the Beeb just brazen it out when criticised, but in this case they have actually apologised fully :

    Wonders will never cease! Who knows the Irish government might actually decide to back you language seriously one day soon … though I wouldn´t hold my breath …


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