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!)