A FEW years ago, President Mary McAleese caused a stir when she failed to attend the prestigious Aga Khan Cup competition at the RDS, an event at which the President normally presides. Her excuse? She was attending an Irish language course in Donegal. Her decision did not go down well with those in show-jumping circles at the time, I recall, but I thought it a mightily impressive move. I found it inspiring that the President of Ireland considered her personal development in the Irish language more important than attending the country’s most glamorous show-jumping event. A lady with her priorities firmly in order, and not afraid to admit it, I thought.
I was reminded of Mrs McAleese’s stand last week when reading through the Government’s ‘Statement on the Irish Language 2006’. Published just before Christmas, I had intended to read it at my leisure between festive feasts and bad television over the holidays, but somehow didn’t quite get around to it. I could have, had I bothered to open it at all, because when I finally did settle down to examine it on a wet evening last week, the scrutiny was completed in less than 20 minutes.
The statement’s purpose is merely to outline what the Government hopes to achieve through its 20-year strategy for the Irish language, which will be developed over the next two years by Fóram na Gaeilge (consisting of relevant State departments, organisations that have a central role in relation to the Irish language such as Foras na Gaeilge, Údarás na Gaeltachta, TG4, Raidió na Gaeltachta and the voluntary sector).
The 35-page statement document details the Government’s vision for the Irish language, which includes increasing ‘on an incremental basis the use and knowledge of Irish as a community language’ and ensuring that ‘as many citizens as possible are bilingual in both Irish and English’.
Among the ‘objectives’ of the statement (and by extension the 20-year strategy, one presumes) is upholding the special status given to Irish in various acts such as the Official Language Act 2003 and the Broadcasting Act 2001, among others. Is this a sideways acknowledgement that these acts are currently not being upheld and are thus useless? ‘The Gaeltacht will be given special support as an Irish-speaking area’, the objectives section also declares. Has such support not always been in place?
Continuing the policy of compulsory Irish in schools from primary level to Leaving Cert is also promised as an objective, a clear indication that Fóram na Gaeilge’s remit will not extend to examining if this is the best thing for the language.
‘The use of the Irish language by the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces will be continued and developed’ we are also told. How this will be ‘developed’ given the new, multicultural direction in which these forces are going is not clear.
All initiatives aimed at improving the status of the Irish language are to be welcomed and perhaps this 20-year strategy really will be radical and will succeed in building a bilingual society, with Irish as the second – and used – language of the majority. But, on the basis of the ‘statement’, the signs do not look hopeful. It is hard to believe that this statement was not hastily thrown together to focus attention on the Government’s commitment to the Irish language due to its impending inclusion as one of the 23 official languages of the EU. Another routine genuflection in the direction of the Irish language. A let-it-not-be-said-that-we’re-not-doing-our-bit-for-the-language effort.
Official recognition of, and protection for, our native language is important for its survival. But not if it is tokenism. The Government – or the EU – saying that Irish is important does not make it so for the ordinary people of this country. With plenty of other demands on their time, Irish people will not think twice about the Irish language, much less about learning and speaking it, unless they are inspired to do so. This is one of those rare instances where words actually could speak louder than actions: through more members of the Government, and other national figures, using their native tongue instead of talking about how wonderful it is – in English.
Padraig Pearse’s words of a century ago still ring true today: ‘Don’t praise the Irish language, speak it.’ Mary McAleese gets it.