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Column: Are Gaeilgeoirí being oppressed?

A debate has been ongoing about what place the Irish language has in our society. As someone who speaks Irish, I know how hurtful stereotypes about speakers are, writes Maitiú de Hál.

Maitiú de Hál

FOR THE PAST number of weeks, a debate has been ongoing about what place the Irish language has in Irish society. All sides from the moderate to the extreme have been aired in the media, with one article in particular being flagged for using “hate speech”.

There are those who would view such a claim as a disingenuous ploy by the Irish language community to curry favour and to tug on people’s heartstrings invoking the same emotions felt when discussing South African apartheid or the Montgomery Bus boycott.

As an Irish speaker, I want to make it quite clear that I am not grooming myself to be the next Rosa Parks or Rodney King. Although our cases are not comparable, the current campaign shares a common thread with campaigns against racism, homophobia and all other sorts of prejudice. That is – respect.

Every human being on this Earth deserves respect, tolerance and not to be judged by ill-informed prejudice.

Creating a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’

“Hate speech may be defined as expression which is likely to cause offence or distress to other individuals on the basis of their association with a particular group and/or incite hostility towards them.”

By this definition, broad generalisations by journalists, bloggers and trolls alike that accuse Gaeilgeoirí of the basest of motives are hate speech. Characterisations that we are stubborn, fanatics, “Gaeilgeoir Grenadiers,” “an indulged minority,” “Nazi Gaeilgeoirí” and “Gaeilge Taliban” fall into this territory. Commentators have not thought twice about uttering  that raising your children with Irish is tantamount to “child abuse” and that we “should try living like the rest of us then.“ Utterances such as the latter create a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and only serve to divide and alienate.

Is it more “Irish” to speak it or to resent it because of the frustrations of a compulsory subject? Can one be frustrated by the school curriculum but still love their language? Can “Irishness” be quantified? Or should it really matter when such speech is hurtful no matter if directed to an ethnic group or to the speakers of a language?

We can be dismissed as an “other” but not protected as an “other.”

But is it really hate speech as we understand it? That is Oxford’s definition and I will leave it to your own judgement. However, I will say that this speech is hateful. As someone who speaks Irish, stereotypes such as those above are hurtful. There I said it. A grown man, hurt. Hurt by the opinions of those about whom I should not care. I should give these statements as much thought as those who uttered them, easier said than done.

I recognise my privileges

I am a white, heterosexual man in his (late) twenties brought up Catholic who speaks English. I have an education, a good job, a car, a roof over my head and am in steady relationship. Seeing as we are talking about definitions, see above for privilege.

I can see how claims of mistreatment by the government would fall on deaf ears. I will never know what it is like for someone whose skin colour means they will be stopped by police for the second, third and fourth time in one day. Unlike Panti, togha mná, I will never be “standing at the pedestrian lights … checking myself” because of my sexual orientation. I will never know what it is to be a woman, a refugee, or (hopefully) poor.

What I do know is that awful feeling that can come over me when it comes up in conversation that I am an Irish speaker, being asked what my name is in English or being berated for all the evils inflicted on Irish school children from 1922 until present day. I know what it is to be verbally abused in the street and at work. Go back to your own country. Stop speaking that dead language.

This is a feeling which reduces you to that awkward “other.” You are no longer Maitiú. You are a stereotype, pigeon-holed for convenience and dismissed as delusional,  a fanatic RA-head, hell-bent on singing seannós at a séance at Newgrange to resurrect Dev, Peig and Cú Chulainn and inflict your senseless, archaic, irrelevant culture upon a country that  is just getting by. A country trying to pay the bills, the mortgage and the social charge.

While this may not be the case in most people’s minds, the fear is that it might be. This dictates my behaviour and I think to myself, ‘Does this person before me hold those views? Do they think so little of me? Have they derided me as at worst a fanatic, at best a harmless “enthusiast” who doesn’t know anything about the “real world”?’

Must I forfeit my right to be an Irish speaker to retain my privilege as an English speaker?

Irish is part of my identity

Irish is my primary language. I use it in my professional and personal life. To speak English to many of my friends would be as alien to us as it would be for many to suddenly start speaking Irish to each other.

I am part of it and it is us.

While at college, I became well versed in language legislation, in particular the Official Languages Act 2003. I became aware of services that were to be provided through Irish. After getting over the awful feeling that I may be unfairly judged by an already over-worked public servant as a nuisance, I began to request such services.

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I was reared with manners. I wasn’t about to give up on them for Irish. Whenever I have requested services, I have done with the utmost respect. Most of the time, I have been gladly accommodated. On other occasions, I have been scolded, shouted at, discouraged from using Irish or ignored. In my experience, this has been not been for any practical reason, but ignorance and prejudice, probably informed by hurtful things said in the media.

That is why we need a Coimisinéir. That is why we need reform.

As someone who has studied the Act, I can request to communicate with the State in Irish with confidence. However, even to me, government practice is discouraging to a citizen who wishes to avail of a service promised by government policy. Reluctance to supply has meant drop in demand, instead of vice versa.

According to Seán Ó Cuirreáin, (resigned Coimisinéir,) the infrastructure needed for the provisions of such services would be “cost neutral.” Such a demand is not one for more of our limited resources, rather a change in policy.

Deep personal bonds

Current practice misleads Irish speakers into thinking that they are not entitled to services yet many non-Irish speakers are led to believe that we receive everything for which we ask.

In spite of these obstacles, Irish speakers continue to exist but the contexts in which we can exist as such are being eroded by our fear of antipathy and apathy of the State and of a very vocal minority in the media.

What has sustained our language as a living one is the deep personal bonds between us which have been forged through family, social, educational and professional relationships. We are representative of an entire spectrum of different classes, ages, nationalities, colours, creeds and sexual orientations. You always see us, you just might not hear us. While some may ask why weren’t we all out on the streets for something else. We have been. At different times, at different places and with different people. And still, we came out on Lá Mór na Gaeilge. To us, it is that important.

What will you come out for?

Maitiú de Hál is originally from an Clochán Liath, Dún na nGall. A former visiting Fullbright scholar to the US, Maitiú has engaged in research of sociolinguistic interest. He teaches history and Irish in Dublin.

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Maitiú de Hál

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