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This piece was written in response to a column piece entitled 'The Irish Language' by Gavin Cassells in the University Observer 21/12/20. We do not write this response out of indignation that a column on the topic of Irish was written, but merely as a counter argument to opinions and assertions offered. As the seanfhocal goes, ná nocht d’fhiacla go bhféadair an greim a bhreith (Do not bare your teeth until you can bite).
“It has been a long time since I was forced to learn the Irish language in school”
The language Gavin uses in the very first sentence of the piece is telling; "forced to learn". I am sure learning many things feels "inauthentic" to a 5-year-old. Schools are about "forcing" our youth to learn things they would rather not learn; Maths, literacy, etiquette, cooperation and yes, Irish. We teach things because we believe they have value and are important for children to learn. We are free to debate the importance of Irish in this position, but to pretend Irish is in some unique position of being “forced” upon children is asinine.
“I knew that English and Maths had value, my lived existence was in English, more of the culture I interacted with in books or on television was in English”
For a column called “at least two sides”, this has to be one of the weakest points in the piece. At the same time that Gavin claims to examine both perspectives, he makes an argument based exclusively on his own experiences and his lack of interaction with the Irish language. The problem with this approach is that it is entirely ignorant of the thousands of people who speak the Irish language every single day. There are plenty of thriving Irish language communities throughout this island, but because Gavin has never interacted with any of them, he acts as though they simply don’t exist.
In some debates, this could be forgiven, but any discussion on the status of the Irish language disproportionately impacts Gaeltacht communities. For them, their lived existence is in Irish, the culture they interact with is in Irish. Maybe it is inconvenient to Gavin’s worldview, but there are people in Ireland who speak Irish every single day and are proud to do so. If you are discussing an issue that impacts Gaeltacht communities more than any other group in this country, the least that you could do is acknowledge them. But most of all, determining whether something has value or not based on your own narrow set of experiences is wrong, because it ignores those who are most affected by the issue.
“The vast majority of the citizenry can barely speak a word of it”
Gavin doesn’t support this claim with any facts or census statistics, because it is inaccurate. It takes all of about 15 seconds to Google the number of people who can speak Irish in the Republic of Ireland. The 2016 Census will tell you this number is 1.76 million or 40% of the population. Without even including the many speakers in Northern Ireland, we can see that a large number of people voluntarily claim the ability to speak Irish. In some counties, like Galway and Clare, this number is nearly 50%.
You might question whether these statistics reflect the true status of the language or you might think that the failure of the census to distinguish between a fluent speaker and a competent learner is a mistake. But Gavin doesn’t even ask these questions, he just makes a baseless statement.
“and for many of them, the primary shared reference point with respect to the language is the shared misery of having had to do it in school.”
This “misery” can be supported by anecdotal evidence, but not borne out by fact. Online polls and surveys have consistently returned a figure of around 70% of Irish people in favour of Irish with a further 6-7% expressing fluency in the language. A 2018 Kantar Millward Brown poll found 40% of Irish people wanted more opportunities to speak and learn Irish. The ERSI has found 5% of people have attempted to improve their Irish and a further 10% have tried more than once. Mac Gréil and Rhatigan’s 2008 survey found a 93% positivity rate towards Irish versus a measly 7% who wished to see it discarded. It is clear that the vast majority of Irish people have a positive disposition towards Irish, despite their supposedly miserable school experience. In fact it appears many have a sincere wish to re-learn or indeed improve their Irish.
“I am tempted to go further and say the Irish language has been co-opted by nationalistic forces like Sinn Féin and Aontú which seek to emphasise our differences rather than what binds us to the world”
Gavin says “I am tempted to go further” – not only is he tempted, but he goes there and draws the absurd parallel between proponents of the Irish language and Sinn Féin and Aontú supporters. Firstly, this claim is entirely unsupported. Gavin doesn’t tell us how the language has been co-opted by these mysterious “nationalistic forces” and he provides us with no evidence or examples of how this has transpired.
Secondly, the great irony of Gavins point is that one of the few things that all Irish political parties hold in common is a nominal dedication to the Irish language. Practically every single party mentions promoting the Irish language in their election manifestos. Sure, the governing parties are notorious for failing to fully enact these policies or deliver on promises, but the idea that Sinn Féin and Aontú are uniquely supportive of Irish isn’t just laughable, it’s wrong.
“It just should not be mandatory”
Firstly, the claim that removing mandatory Irish will aid the language is simply not credible. Making a subject optional damages its take-up. When the UK removed foreign languages as a mandatory subject, take-up fell to 40%.
Conversely, does mandatory Irish actually cause this supposed animosity? By the same token, the same amount of people are “forced” to learn maths and English. Why do we not see the same hatred leveraged against Sylvia Plath or quadratic equations as we do against Peig?
Likewise, never being a compulsory subject has not saved other minority languages; languages such as Scots Gaelic face similar, if not worse vitriol. Despite never having to interact with the language in their entire lives, many Scots expend considerable time and energy to denigrate the language at every turn. This reveals the truth behind the veneer of the compulsory Irish argument; that it has nothing to do with “compulsory” and everything to do with “Irish”. The factors that cause such strong feelings against Irish (and Scots Gaelic) are complicated and varied, but compulsory study is not a significant one.
“Subsidise teaching adults the language. Support publishing new Irish language literature”
Foras na Gaeilge, Conradh na Gaeilge, Glór na nGael and many others already offer various subsidies and supports for adults learning Irish, using Irish in the home, starting businesses through Irish, creating works in Irish, immersion courses in the Gaeltachtaí and much more.
Gavin offers the same vague aspirations we’ve heard for 100 years. But whatever you believe is the step forward, if you genuinely believe Irish should be preserved or indeed “revived”, the removal of Irish from a large segment of the educational system is clearly a step backwards.
“That same self-harming rhetoric of Brexiteers”
“So, how do we save the language without alienating a good proportion of the population?”
“There’s plenty that can be done if people have a non-antagonistic attitude to the language”
The above three points, made by Gavin at different parts in his column, are included together because they embody the hypocrisy of his piece. Gavin mentions his own desire to see the Irish language preserved, but it becomes increasingly difficult to believe this is a sincere objective of his. Gavin suggests that if “people have a non-antagonistic attitude to the language”, plenty could be done.
But if we go back to Gavin’s third paragraph, we’ll see Gavin compares proponents of the Irish language to Brexiteers. Gavin seems to be doing a pretty good job of “alienating a good proportion of the population”. Gavin preaches of the need to be inclusive and non-antagonistic, yet at the same time he writes an entire column on the Irish language without mentioning the Gaeltacht areas, makes unsubstantiated claims about the number of Irish speakers and attempts to draw a link between the Irish language and Sinn Féin and Aontú.
Gavin made up his mind about the Irish language a long time ago. He tells us that since the age of 7, he has hated the language and “all things Oirish”. In his mind, the Irish language belongs to the past, it is a political tool of nationalists and hardly anyone speaks it today.
The only thing that is out of date is Gavin's own opinion on the Irish language. His arguments represent old-fashioned and pessimistic views that are far from the reality of the many vibrant Irish language communities that exist today.
From his column, it is clear Gavin seems to think that Irish is not popular in this day and age. If this is the case, I would ask him why a recent poll by Kantar Millward Brown showed that half of the public were in favour of sending their children to a Gaelscoil if it were available in their area?
If Irish is so passionately hated by the masses, why do two thirds of the public believe the Government should do more to promote the language?
Or why does 80% of the population support Irish medium education being made available to every child if it is their choice?
The polls show that there is a wealth of goodwill towards the Irish language. Most people wish they could speak better Irish, they regret not having learned more of the language at school and want their children and the next generation to have a greater opportunity to become immersed in Irish.
An indigenous American proverb that I have always liked goes “we did not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrowed it from our children”. Just as it is our responsibility to look after the environment and pass our planet on to the next generation, we must also preserve our national language. We did not inherit the language from those who came before us, but borrowed it from those who will come after us. Further removing Irish from people's lives would leave future generations without what Manchán Magan calls “the sublime beauty and profound oddness of the ancient tongue that has been spoken on this island for over 2,000 years”.
To weaken the status of Irish in our education system would be to deny future generations of something that has been a cultural treasure of this island for centuries. It would be to take that which is not ours to take.
Scríofa ag Shane McAuley agus James Knoblauch ar son an Chumainn Ghaelaigh, COBÁC
Written by Shane McAuley and James Knoblauch on behalf of the Cumann Gaelach, UCD