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Opinion: The new Gaeltacht Minister has hit the ground running – despite not being fluent

Joe McHugh has vowed to “fully immerse” himself in the language and tweet his progress. It’s an approach many politicians could learn from.

Seán Mag Leannáin

THE NEWLY-APPOINTED Minister for the Gaeltacht Joe McHugh was busy last week brushing up on his Irish at a summer school in the Donegal Gaeltacht, and we Gaeilgeoirí didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse the Taoiseach (himself a good Irish speaker) comes along and appoints a Minister for the Gaeltacht who doesn’t have fluent Irish.

Looking on the bright side we could say that the new Minister has hit the ground ag rith (running). On his first day back at school Joe tweeted that he was on his way to Gleanncolmcille and looking forward greatly to ‘feabhas a chuir ar mó teanga gaeilge.’ And in an interview on RTÉ with Seán O’Rourke the following day the Minister said he has started reading Irish language books to his three young children as a way to “fully immerse” his family in the language.

The new Minister has appealed to the public to join with him on his journey of ‘relearning’ the language. He has declared his intention to keep people informed on his progress and to send out tweets with useful phrases that can be used in everyday situations. We can certainly commend the Minister on his willingness in this way to keep his copybook open for all to see.

An excellent example 

It’s an example which could have been followed by others. It’s not so long ago since we had a Minister for Finance who didn’t have a bank account. Surely it would have benefited him greatly to have gone back to school to do a crash course in sums and economics after taking up his appointment? Likewise we’ve had Ministers for Health who would, on the face of it, have benefited from a crash course on diet and health.

The patriot Thomas Davis famously said ‘educate that you may be free’ and at last here we have a Minister who is prepared to practice what the Young Irelander preached.

Cynics no doubt will poke fun at the Minister’s efforts. He’ll annoy some for making too much progress and others for not making enough. Already he has divided our national broadsheet papers, the Independent calling him an inspired choice while a Times editorial referred to him as ‘a tongue-tied’ Minister.

The anti-Irish brigade will be drawn out of the woodwork with their usual tales of woe. Their lives were ruined by Christian Brothers trying to leather the language into them when they could have been learning French or German or Mandarin Chinese.

Then there are those who would now be high up in the civil service if it hadn’t been for compulsory Irish (they don’t seem to have heard yet that Irish was abolished as a requirement for every single post in the civil service over 40 years ago!). Then there are all those trolleys in the hospital A&Es which would have been cleared long ago if it wasn’t for the millions squandered on Irish.

And, of course, anyone who wants to speak Irish in public is accused of being a fanatic, or even worse, a language fascist. Most, but by no means all, of the anti-brigade will concede our right to use Irish among ourselves. How gracious of them!

Irish is now at a crossroads 

And, mea culpa, mea culpa, we Gaeilgeoirí will always rise to the bait, and match these monolingual airheads insult for insult, masla le masla.

I think we can all agree, though, that Irish is now at a crossroads (crosbhóthar cinniúnach). The balance seems to have shifted inexorably from native speakers in the Gaeltacht to urban-based learners of Irish as a language of choice.

Joe McHugh may not realise it but it could be that he has just fired the first salvo in the latest phase of a cultural war which began when Douglas Hyde founded Conradh na Gaeilge back in 1893.

Seán Mag Leannáin was a Principal Officer in the civil service for 15 years up until his retirement in 2010.

Read: Why are some foreigners being “ridiculed” for learning Irish?

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Seán Mag Leannáin

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