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Irish, A Living Language That Others Are Seeking To Kill

There is no process of natural selection for languages, no evolutionary rule which dictates that one tongue is inevitably suppressed or supplanted by another. Languages don’t simply wither or fade away: they are killed. Man-made decisions and man-made actions lead to the destruction of languages and their associated cultures. Political, military and economic power is the determiner of what thrives and what dies. In the case of invasion and occupation, when the colonist seeks to replace the native, the latter rarely emerges from the clash without grave and perhaps terminal injury to their own perception of self. The loss of the greater part of the indigenous civilisation of the island of Ireland is proof of that. One of the last legacies of our pre-conquest identity, the Irish language, has been brought to its present parlous state, oppressed and dispossessed, through a long history of violence and the threat of violence. Centuries of linguistic terrorism have shaped its contemporary condition.

The primary objective of the 1916-23 revolution was the restoration of our nationhood in all its forms, cultural as well a political, yet no serious attempt has been made since the 1920s to seek the comprehensive revival of the Irish language. Instead the national tongue has been ghettoised within the education system, confined to classrooms up and down the country, while those who speak it as their daily speech outside the schools are bullied, shamed and harried into using English. As James Connolly noted in a similar context, what is the point of ending British misrule, of hoisting up the “green flag“, if all else remains exactly the same? From an all too familiar report by Harry McGee in the Irish Times:

“The Government has dropped a requirement that librarians employed by the State speak a basic level of Irish even in Gaeltacht areas, the watchdog for the Irish language has disclosed.

Coimisinéir Teanga Rónán Ó Domhnaill has said a working group at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government recommended earlier this year that the Irish language requirement was an unnecessary entry barrier that prevented librarians with no Irish or those with no opportunity to learn the language from joining the service.

The Department’s new arrangements for recruiting librarians make no reference to any Irish language requirement even in libraries situated in Gaeltacht areas, where Irish remains the common spoken language.

He said that the 20 year strategy on the Irish language had determined that positions must be created in organisations where Irish was relevant and necessary.

“I don’t believe that organisations are addressing that aim with any sincerity. He said it was lip service that applied when it came to recruiting people with Irish in the public service.

Mr Ó Domhnaill was outlining the work that has been done by his office in the past year. He said that his office had received 755 complaints, an increase of over 6 per cent.

He also criticised the language schemes in many public bodies and public companies, which had not lived up to the spirit nor the letter of the Languages Act. He said that some organisations with 700 to 800 people employed just one or two people with fluency in Irish to deal with citizens who wished to conduct their services in Irish.

He also said that second schemes published by agencies and authorities had actually lowered the commitments.”

What does it say about 21st century Ireland that the independent Irish state regards its native tongue with the same degree of contempt as the British colonial state which proceeded it? The cancerous “settler-mentality” which permeated all forms of government in this country before the republican revolution was never excised. Instead, successive administrations, regardless of party or ideology, allowed it to be institutionalised within the new state with little more than lip-service and token nods towards linguistic equality or renaissance. Despite the promises and legislation of recent years, in reality very little has changed since the heyday of anti-Gaelic discrimination in the early 1900s. If anything, the push-back from the embedded anglophone lobby in the public services and political establishment has made things worse. Some English-speakers note the animosity directed towards Irish-speakers, whether explicit or implicit, and act accordingly. It does not require open violence on the streets, physical assaults or vandalism, to define a racist society. It comes through more subtle and insidious means, challenges to personal identity, demands for change, excoriations against difference, restrictions on choice, denial of services and so on.

The current position of the Irish language in Ireland is the one that it has held for centuries: under attack, defending itself against persecution and animosity, falsehoods and lies, struggling to hold off those who seek its destruction. If anything that struggle has become all the more intense. The poisonous residue of settler racism towards any expression of Gaelic – of indigenous – identity on this island, no matter how open or pluralistic its nature, is so extreme that one is left wondering if the only method of countering it is the very method which brought it into being. To borrow another quote, this time from Jim Larkin:

Ní uasal aon uasal ach sinne bheith íseal: Éirímis! (The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise!)


14 comments on “Irish, A Living Language That Others Are Seeking To Kill

  1. Dara O Rourke

    Coincidentally , our librarian has just retired. She is well able to speak Irish. This was handy for our cómhrá etc. Thank heavens for the Gaelscoil movement. It’s like official Ireland has just given up on the languages.


  2. Breandán Mac Séarraigh

    Oibrím le comhairle chontae agus níl ach ceathrar dúinn sásta seirbhísí a chur ar fáil trí mheán na Gaeilge. Tá na céadta fhostaithe leis an chomhairle, mar a dúirt tú.


    • How much demand is there for your services? Do people know they can deal with the council tríd na Gaeilge? There´s a vicious circle here of course. If the service is ´invisible´ it won´t be sought out, and then it can be reduced/removed due to ´lack of demand´.


  3. Minority languages versus the anglophone world?


  4. As I said in one of my other comments. Treating Irish like an inferior language has actually made it so. People don’t learn it because it has no practical use and it’s difficult. It’s like a choosing beggar that’s playing hard to get.


  5. the Phoenix

    Say what you want about Israel they have done a remarkable job of reviving Hebrew which puts Ireland to shame. 100 years ago Hebrew was nearly a dead language spoken mostly by Rabbis. Today it is widely and fluently spoken by huge numbers of Israelis and it is the language of everything from government to pop culture. Ireland would do well to follow their example.


    • Their situation was different. The jews migrated to Israel from all over the world and they didn’t have a common language. That’s why it made sense to revive hebrew. It was foreign to everyone at the time and no immigrant group had an advantage.

      That’s not the case here. There already is a common language and it’s English – like that or not. There’s no reason for 2 English speakers to communicate in any other language.


  6. Ar aon chaoi is ceist fíor-thábhactach í. The recent revival of Gaeilge on the Isle of Man is an interesting phenomenon: they now have Gaeilscoileanna and it now also a subject to A-level. One of their leading activists Brian Stowell, who learned his Gaelg from the last living native speakers in the 1970s, claims that the ‘official’ compulsory nature of the situation is what is killing Gaeilge in Ireland. It’s worth thinking about. They have quite a few interesting videos on YouTube. It seems that Ireland took a middle route between the Manx and the Israeli models; ie the ‘official’ compliance allows a box to be ticked, while little is encouraged in practice. As regards the libraries, while the current Minister is certainly a let down where the language is concerned, it may be a move that is designed to make it a bit easier for more recent arrivals into the country to get a foot on the public services jobs ladder. Perhaps it is simply time, like the Manx, to forget about official Ireland, debates about how we got here, etc. and make an effort to speak it more often, even in a small way; at work, to your kids, in shops, outside the school gate, etc. Make an effort to use whatever Irish you have. People hearing it often provokes a conversation about Irish with others. Small steps I think may go further than anything else and help to undo past negativities by normalizing the sound of Irish in front of others. We also have the advantage here in Ireland (unlike in Man or Scotland) in that we have a very extensive literature as Gaeilge. I try to read some Irish most days as I am not a native Gaelgóir. I’d have to say that my grasp has enormously improved. Tá go leor aistriúcháin nua iontacha théis a bheith foilsithe freisin i 2015 agus i 2016. Táim féin tar éis ‘Danny, Seampín an Domhain’ le Roald Dahl agus leagan iontach den ‘Hobad’ le JRR Tolkien a cheannach ‘s a léamh. It’s important to bear in mind that all the political nationalism in the world will prove mostly pointless to the future of Ireland without a postive attitude, and a greater appreciation of the language. Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam! Beir bua!


    • “Perhaps it is simply time, like the Manx, to forget about official Ireland, debates about how we got here, etc. and make an effort to speak it more often, even in a small way; at work, to your kids, in shops, outside the school gate, etc.”

      in libraries too i guess. BTW, English language compulsion has achieved the anglicisation of Ireland up to the present and will continue doing so into the future. All my schooling up to inter-cert (showing my age) was compulsory, not just Irish, and most of the subjects i did for my leaving cert were not optional. i don’t think it is unreasonable for the state to be able to provide services in two languages. In switzerland they have to deal with four, and incidently that multilingual society is quite successful.


      • I highly doubt that a random policeman in Geneva will understand Romansh. Also most if not all Romansh speakers speak at least one of the other 3 official languages, because they have no other choice. So their language rights are a bit like Irish language rights here in Ireland. They don’t exist in practice.

        A truly bilingual society is one where everyone speaks both languages. Otherwise one of them will dominate. And we can perfectly see that in Ireland. Russian speakers in the Baltics have far more opportunities to use their language despite the fact that it has no official status than Irish speakers in Ireland.
        Laws and regulations don’t mean shit if people don’t care about them.


        • good point janis
          and fine gael don’t care a jot for the irish language, probably the opposite.


  7. Anecdotally a disproportionate amount of those doing librarian or archivist courses in Ireland are coming over from our sister isle. In practice this seems to mean someone fleeing London to escape to the idyllic western coast could apply for a job in An Daingean, An Cheathrú Rua, Gaoth Dobhair and if they have the qualifications couldn’t be denied that job, irrespective of complete lack of Irish.
    The librarian where I grew up always spoke to us in Irish and did her best to prod Gaeltacht kids towards the Irish language section, sparse as it was. Apart from the school it was probably the most “Gaelic” arm of the state we experienced as Gaeltacht kids 30 odd years ago.


  8. Graham Ennis

    As Frantz Fanon said: “When the “assimilated” natives of the country, can no longer think, except in the language of the conquerors, then they have won, and all is lost.


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