Abandon Irish as an official language?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Mar 20 17:35:52 UTC 2005

>>From the Irish Times,     March 20, 2005

Comment: Alan Ruddock: Abandon Irish as an official language and watch
it flourish

    The teaching of Irish in the republic's schools is a stunning example
of systematic failure. According to Sean O Cuirreain, the Irish language
commissioner, the average school-child endures 1,500 hours of tuition as
Gaeilge over a 13-year period, yet emerges with nothing more than a few
words, soon forgotten, and a heartfelt dislike of the language they have
been force fed.

    Not surprising, then, that O Cuirreain says that there is a widespread
lack of ability or fluency in the language . . . among so many employees
in the public sector, which is a matter of no little concern to me,
especially in the light of the investment which has been made in the
teaching of Irish in the educational system of the country.

    He estimates that the cost of teaching Irish is €500m a year and
wonders whether the state is getting value for money. Quite rightly, he
wants a comprehensive and impartial review of every aspect of the learning
and teaching of Irish, and wants to ensure that children leave school with
a reasonable fluency. This is essential if we are serious about promoting
Irish in every aspect of national life, including public administration,
he says.

    Well, heres a thing, Sean: were not. As a society we are prepared to
pay expensive lip service to the Irish language, we are happy to force our
children to waste their time learning it in a way that has demonstrably
failed, and we are happy to indulge a few other tokens, such as subsidised
Irish language television and radio stations and the often-garbled cupla
focal at the start of major speeches by our political leaders. But in no
way are we serious about promoting Irish in every aspect of national life.
Nor should we be.

    The abject failure of government policy since the creation of the
state has meant the number of Irish speakers collapsed from about 250,000
to 20,000.  According to a report two years ago, the number of
Irish-speaking families with children at school in counties Mayo, Cork,
Waterford and Meath was just 53.  Throughout the entire Gaeltacht regions
there were just 2,143 families with school children who were using Irish
at home.

    This, then, is what more than 80 years of independence, 80 years of
forced learning and faux regard for the ludicrously titled first official
language has delivered. What is most astonishing, though, is that even now
our politicians do not want to recognise the policy for the disaster that
it is, and so we continue to clutter up the school curriculum with an
approach to Irish that is a waste of time and money.

    The Irish language, as all the statistics reveal so grimly, is
effectively dead and it is impossible to believe it can ever be
resuscitated. O Cuirreains role as a language commissioner is as much a
nonsense as the Official Languages Act that brought his post into being.
In his first year, O Cuirreain has handled just over 300 complaints from
people who have been upset by their failure to get a bus pass or a
speeding ticket or a reply to a letter in Irish. Some had more serious
issues speech therapy for Irish speakers is almost nonexistent, though it
is not exactly prevalent for English speakers either. But most of the
complaints border on the irrelevant.

    Dealing with them, however, is far from irrelevant. Under O Cuirreains
leadership there will be a rolling programme of compliance with the
requirements of the languages act across every public body in the state.
Every significant publication will have to be produced in both Irish and
English, and to the same standard. Those who hope to reduce costs by
producing a monochrome translation of a glossy annual report will be
slapped hard by O Cuirreain.

    Public bodies will have to ensure that they employ enough fluent Irish
speakers to provide a full alternative service for those who want it. They
will also, O Cuirreain says, have to produce a language scheme when
requested to do so by the Department of Gaeltacht Affairs. Almost 40 of
them, ranging from the office of the president, to the director of public
prosecutions, Dungarvan town council and the Department of Finance, have
until the end of this month to submit their schemes for approval.

    And all for what? To ensure, presumably, that the rights of the tiny
number of people who speak the language fewer than half the number of
immigrants who come to this country each year are not trammelled. The
policy is mad:  it involves an inestimable expenditure of time and money
so that the romantic and flawed notion of a bilingual nation can be

    Ireland is not bilingual. We are an English-speaking nation, have been
from the moment we gained independence, and were for a century before.
Nothing O Cuirreain does will change that, and neither will anything in
the Official Languages Act. Far more serious, though, is that nothing in
the current policies will help preserve the language. If preservation had
been at the heart of government policy for the past 80 years, rather than
the moronic policy of indoctrination, then Irish could be in a far
healthier position today.

    The objective now must be to direct what resources we can afford at
helping it survive in those few pockets of the country where it still
flickers.  This can be done by abandoning the policies that have so
marginalised it for generations.  The Irish language has no place as a
compulsory subject on the school curriculum and should be dropped from
national primary schools. The absolute priority of the primary school
system should be to deliver literate and numerate children into the
secondary school system, something that we do not manage to achieve at the

    Irish should be an elective subject thereafter, attracting pupils who
want to learn the language to be taught by teachers who have a genuine
interest it.  With a reworked curriculum and a change in attitude and
teaching methods, those children would have a chance of leaving school
with a competence in and affection for it. The success of gaelscoileanna
and gaelcholaiste proves that when the language is chosen rather than
imposed, children respond.

    Irish language schools consistently perform well academically, are
staffed by enthusiasts, and attended by children whose parents, by making
a conscious educational choice, are more likely to provide a home
environment that encourages learning. Their success and popularity
demonstrate that Irish can be taught effectively under certain conditions,
and that it would be more likely to thrive than wither if it became a
subject of choice and not compulsion.

    The Irish language should have a cherished place in our history and
there is a responsibility on each generation to ensure that it survives
until the next, but that responsibility requires a firm grasp of reality.
Irish is not, and never will be, the first official language of this state
in anything but name. It is not a living language in more than a few
thousand homes across the country. To say that is not to deny its
validity, or to denigrate its existence, but simply to state a fact.

    Its steady demise is sad, but it has been driven to extinction by a
combination of misguided policies and a political colonisation of the
language that has alienated more than it has engaged. The language, once
as much part of the fabric of Ulster Protestants as Ulster Catholics, has
been used to create cultural divisions where none existed and is still
used by some as a symbol of divisiveness and cultural purity, rather than
as a language with a rich and varied heritage.  Those who have used it for
their own narrow political ends have hastened its fall, just as those who
decreed that it be forced down the throat of every schoolboy and girl
ensured that it would be loathed, not loved.

    It is time to remove Irish as the first official language, to abandon
the wasted hours of compulsory learning and the silly attempts to ensure
that everything in this small country must be produced in duplicate, let
alone the even sillier campaign to have Irish nominated as an official
European language.  If Irish is to survive, then it must be freed from the
albatross of compulsion; it must be cherished, not imposed. Money is not
the issue: far more important is that we move away from policies founded
in delusion and often repugnant notions of cultural purity. Only then can
we structure sensible life-support for a language that is an important
part of Irelands multi-faceted culture, but which has been crushed by the
weight of a failed ideology.

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