Yet again, don’t believe everything that you read in the press. Or at least, what you might read in Ireland’s anglophone press. Despite the newspaper headlines on Friday, President Michael D Higgins did not claim that the teaching of “compulsory” Irish in the education system was a “mistake”. According to numerous media reports, shared widely on social media and lauded by the usual anti-Gaeilge suspects, the former Labour Party TD made this judgement in a question-and-answer session at the University of Auckland, during his ongoing state visit to New Zealand. However an official spokesperson for Áras an Uachtaráin has confirmed that the reports were false, and that Higgins was actually referring to the anti-colonial arguments of the former president, Douglas Hyde, who believed that Irish needed to replace English as the sole vernacular of the island. This once popular linguistic goal is one that the current president has long voiced opposition to, favouring a bilingual solution to the revival of our indigenous tongue.
The truth, of course, is that the historical ghettoisation of Irish in our education system has succeeded in its intended purpose: removing the country’s native language from public life beyond a few token or ritualistic measures and gestures. This has all but killed Gaelic as a living, community tongue, one that was supposed to attain an equal legal and social footing with English in a newly independent Ireland. Irish-speakers are reminded of this hypocrisy every time they try to communicate with the State in its supposedly national and first official language, when they find themselves treated as second-class citizens with second-class rights. They are rebuffed, rejected and ridiculed by a culture of institutional discrimination which has pervaded the civil service since the 1920s. A culture which purposely forces embarrassed, inhibited and frustrated Hibernophones to become compliant Anglophones. Meanwhile the all-powerful English lobby spreads false news to justify its bigoted campaign to reduce and lessen the status of Irish, hoping to confine its speakers to a dwindling handful of linguistic reservations. Thus fulfilling an ethnocide began eight centuries ago.
The problem is not that we have too much Irish. It’s that we have too little. When the political and cultural leaders of Israel, Catalonia and the Basque Country launched their language revival projects in the late 20th century they all looked to Ireland as a template for what one should not do. They adopted polices which brought their respective tongues into the heart of society, of government and of business, making them advantageous or essential. As the novelist Colm Tóibín explained in a recent article for the Irish Times, the Catalans succeeded in their linguistic restoration when they decided that:
…the only way Catalan as a language would survive was total normalisation and immersion… In the years between 1939 and 1975, however, the use of Catalan in public was banned by Franco. In those years it became a private, family language.
This began to change in the 1980s, with Catalan radio and television, with the publication of a daily newspaper in the language. Many books were translated, and lessons in schools and lectures in universities were given in Catalan. Slowly, it became possible to live and work in Catalonia without having to bother too much about Spanish.
[They had] …an almost scientific approach to restoring the full and extensive and, if possible, exclusive use of Catalan in the public realm. The project was to make it the first language of Catalonia. Spanish would be there too – all Catalans are bilingual – but it would essentially have a secondary role.
And that is the ambition of President Micheal D Higgins for Ireland. To develop and encourage a bilingual island nation, where Irish becomes the primary language and English the secondary one. Which includes Irish and English classes in our schools.