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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 23 March, 2018

The case for ending state support of Irish language is littered with dubious 'facts'

For starters, we don’t spend €1.2 billion in preserving An Ghaeilge each year, says Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra

THE IRISH LANGUAGE debate is always framed as one between an emotional, romantic desire to preserve Irish against a rational, fact-based analysis that calls for an end to state support for An Ghaeilge.

Although questionable claims are made on both sides, some dubious “facts” put forward by those who oppose the state’s Irish language policy have gained a widespread acceptance in Ireland that they frankly don’t deserve.

One of the most obvious examples of this is the claim the Irish state spends €1.2 billion every year on the Irish language. This number was calculated by Dr Edward Walsh, the founding president of the University of Limerick. He reached this figure by prorating the proportion of the school week dedicated to teaching Irish in the school against the total budget for the school system.

The cost of Irish?

There are several problems with this, however. Firstly, it leads people to think that we could redistribute this billion euro if only we stopped teaching Irish. This isn’t true. It is a valuation of the time spent teaching Irish, nothing more. We could teach something else in place of Irish, but there is no billion euro that could instead be spent on, say, hospitals.

Secondly, one could use the same logic to make all kinds of misleading claims. Based on how Walsh calculated his figure for Irish, one could just as plausibly say that Ireland spends €600 million a year on poetry.

Thirdly, the figure itself is bogus. Walsh basically took the Department of Education’s budget of €8.7 billion and divided this by seven, to represent the one-seventh of class time he calculated was dedicated to teaching Irish. This produced the estimate of €1.2 billion.

The problem with this is obvious when you look at the Department of Education’s budget. It includes grants to third level institutions, transportation costs, employing non-teaching staff like cleaners and secretaries, building and repairing schools, and payments to people who were abused as children in years past under the care of the Department. In other words, things that have nothing to do with the teaching of Irish.

Yet all of these were factored into Walsh’s estimate for what the state spends on Irish. The €1.2 billion claim was never intended to be an accurate calculation, but rather was designed to provoke outrage about the state’s commitment to the Irish language.


Another related figure regularly put about is that tens of millions of euro are spent every year translating documents into Irish. Taken literally, this means at least €20 million euro per annum. Getting accurate information on how much is spent on Irish translations is very difficult, but we can make some estimates.

The Sun reported in 2012 that 63 public bodies spent €1.6 million on translations. This gives us an average of €25,000 per department, which we can multiply by 166 (to represent each government department and public body) to get a figure of around €4 million total. A lot of people might feel that this is still too much to spend. But clearly €4 million is a long way shy of €20 million plus per year.

A false history of the revival of Hebrew

One of the most interesting aspect of anti-Irish language argument is the invention of a false history about the revival of the Hebrew language. Whenever a debate about reviving Irish takes place, the example of the resurrection of Hebrew is usually brought up. And just as quickly, someone responds that the case of Hebrew is totally different and therefore not applicable.

Why is it totally different? Apparently, Hebrew was revived by the Israeli state after its foundation in 1948. As Jewish refugees from all over the world fled to Israel, they had no common tongue. Israel revived Hebrew to provide a single language for its new population. This version of the Hebrew revival is widely accepted in Ireland.

And it simply isn’t true.

The revival of Hebrew began in the nineteenth century, when Jewish refugees fleeing the Russian empire settled in Palestine. These refugees already had a common language, which was Yiddish. However, for ideological reasons, they decided to abandon Yiddish and start speaking Hebrew.

Yet why has a false version of this history become accepted in Ireland? Quite simply, somewhere along the way, someone found this particular set of facts to be inconvenient. So they changed them.

Road signs

Another myth when it comes to the Irish language is the idea that bilingual signs lead to more accidents on our roads. A good example of this kind of scare-mongering can be seen in a video released last year by Eoin Butler, entitled An Bhfuil Cead Agam?

Butler found a road sign in the Gaeltacht, written only in Irish, that warned motorists that children could be crossing ahead. He said this was “criminally stupid,” and the sign needed to be in English.

Of course, even if the sign was in English, there would be no guarantee that tourists or immigrants could read it. This is why an international set of road symbols exists, to warn motorists of upcoming dangers, regardless of what language they speak.

And what Butler neglected to mention was that two signs with the international symbol for children crossing appeared right before the sign he found. Of course, in order to decide whether the signage on the road Butler highlighted was inadequate, we should look at what kind of signs we normally expect to find in a school area outside of the Gaeltacht.

There is a lot of variety in what kind and how many signs might appear in a school zone. But the standard appears to be two signs with the international road symbol for children crossing, without any words in any language. In other words, exactly what appears on that road in the Gaeltacht, with an extra sign in Irish for good measure.

Criticise the Irish sign for being pointless tokenism if you want. But spare us the hysterics that it is after creating some kind of death trap.

The debate about Irish will doubtlessly continue. But let it be one based on facts rather than convenient fictions.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

We spend mind-boggling amounts of public money on the Irish language. Cén fáth?>

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Caoimhín De Barra

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