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Dublin: 1 °C Sunday 15 December, 2019
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Column: We'll soon find out whether we lose our native language forever

Irish is my second language but it has opened up a whole new world for me, and deepened my understanding of what it means to live in this country. I recognise, of course, that I have been exceptionally lucky, writes Seán Mag Leannáin.

Seán Mag Leannáin

ACCORDING TO OUR Constitution Irish is our national language. Yet for, most people, Irish has little or no impact on their lives and they will never bother too much about it. Why then did it turn out to be different in my own case, and that I went on to develop a lasting interest in the language? Brought up in rural west Wicklow (far from any Gaeltacht or urban Gaeilgeoir background) I was definitely an unlikely recruit.

Looking back on it now I think it was a combination of two lucky factors that opened up Irish to me. While my parents had practically no Irish themselves they were favourably disposed – this was factor number one. The second lucky factor only kicked in during my final years in secondary school when for the first time in my life I had a teacher who was able to teach Irish as a living language.

As if by magic, what had previously seemed as dead as Latin suddenly began to come alive for me. The characters in Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s book Dialann Deoraí about Irish navvies in England could have been neighbours of ours from west Wicklow, and in the expressions they used in Irish more and more I could hear echoes with the Hiberno-English all around me.

That good experience enabled me to surmount the barrier which faces every learner of a second language, and especially those trying to grasp a minority language that is spoken by very few people. That barrier is, of course, is the reward worth the effort? – or, as we say in Irish, an fiú an tairbhe an trioblóid?

Irish opened up a whole new world for me

Irish will always remain my second language but I have to say it has opened up a whole new world for me, and has deepened my understanding of what it means to live in this country and to be able to partake in its multiple cultures. I recognise, of course, that I have been exceptionally lucky, and only regret that far more people did not have the same opportunities.

There is no doubt that Irish is now at a crossroads, and the next 10 years will determine if she lives or dies. I know from my own periodic visits to the Gaeltachts over the last 40 years that the language is now on its last legs in its traditional heartland. On the other hand, with the growth in Gaelscoileanna, the success of TG4 and other factors, there has been a revival of interest among a section at least of the urban middle class.

Another remarkable development is the way Gaeilgeoirí have made their own of the new social media – they’ve taken to Facebook and Twitter like ducks to water. But the question remains: can these virtual Gaeilgeoir communities with their global reach survive what looks like the inevitable demise of the real language community in the Gaeltacht?

The Gaeltacht has always been the tobar (well) from which the language drank, and the experts all agree that when it runs dry the game will be up for Irish.

Abject failure to provide services through Irish

How did the situation in the Gaeltacht get so bad, especially over the last 30 years? One undoubted factor has been the abject failure of the State to provide services through Irish even in the strongest Gaeltacht areas. In effect, a regime of compulsory English was imposed on native speakers.

With the unanimous support of all the parties in the Dáil, the Official Languages Act of 2003 was an attempt to deal with this issue by ensuring that public bodies over time would provide for services through Irish. To oversee the process Seán Ó Cuirreáin was appointed to the post of Coimisinéir Teanga (or Language Ombudsman).

Now 10 years on we find Mr Ó Cuirreáin resigning from his post in protest at the lack of political support for his efforts. There have also been disproportionately severe Government cutbacks in the Irish language sector. In the circumstances the suspicion arises that the political establishment itself has now decided to cut Irish adrift.

Despite the fact that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanáiste Éamon Gilmore are both fluent speakers, and that they both give frequent interviews in the language, the evidence continues to mount that there is now a new but undeclared policy afoot to dispense with whatever supports there have been up to this for the use of Irish by our civil service and other public institutions.

The latest example was the absence of any Fine Gael or Labour representative at the recent Oireachtas sub-committee meeting on the Government’s 20-Year Strategy for the Irish language. In what was his last appearance before an Oireachtas committee before his retirement later this month Mr Ó Cuirreáin gave a damning assessment of the present state of this Strategy which is supposed to be official Government policy.

The absence of any Government representative at the meeting can only be seen as a deliberate snub to Mr Ó Cuirreáin and his efforts to draw attention to the current sorry state of affairs.

It is against this background that a major demonstration (Lá Mór na Gaeilge) in support of the language is planned for Dublin on Saturday 15 February.  It will begin at the Garden of Remembrance at 2pm and we are promised there will be a festive atmosphere throughout with lots of music and craic.

The protest will be the first real test of whether the Irish language movement can succeed in garnering a significant level of support for their cause. While opinion polls may show a majority of people sympathetic towards the language, in practice few will extend themselves beyond this generalised good will.

In fairness to the movement, it is very difficult for them to get their message across in the English language media. In an era of government cutbacks, affecting especially the poor and marginalised, trying to make a case for Irish can all too easily be portrayed as self-serving and elitist.

The Irish language activist and writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain advocated an alliance of the language movement with the social struggles of the working class, but to most people this just sounds like some fanciful communist theory rather than anything they can relate to.

A more fruitful approach for language activists might be to seek the active support of politicians across all the political parties who are thought to be supportive and to target for negative campaigning those who are known to be opposed. The upcoming European and local elections could provide some opportunities for effective electoral interventions.

I hope to take part in the forthcoming demonstration in the company of my children and grandchildren. I want Irish to remain part of the public life of our society and over time to be supported to enrich the lives of others as it has enriched my own life.

This demonstration is in support of people’s right to use the language in their dealings with the Irish State. It’s really about the right of citizens to use Irish in public, and not to be restricted to its use just as a private language between family and friends.

It is widely recognised now that a language cannot survive unless it is given space to breathe in the public arena. The attitude to Irish among some commentators reminds me of what used to be a common attitude to gay sexuality – it’s okay between consenting adults in private but not to be seen or heard in public!

If almost 100 years after the 1916 Rising Irish citizens are to be deprived of the right to use Irish in their official dealings with the Irish state, you’d have to wonder was there much point in having a separate Irish state at all.  Ironically it seems as if the Irish language now has more official support at European level in Brussels than it has in our own country.

The protest on Saturday will give people an opportunity to demonstrate their support for Irish as she struggles to retain her perilous place in the public and cultural life of our nation.

Seán Mag Leannáin was a Principal Officer in the Civil Service for 15 years up to his retirement in December 2009.

Read: Language Commissioner quits, tells TDs Irish is being marginalised

Poll: Should we do more to promote the Irish language?

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Seán Mag Leannáin

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