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.