Is policy on Irish language self-defeating?

Eoin Butler, a Gaeilgeoir from Mayo, has put out a challenging video on Irish Government policy with regards to the Irish language.

Essentially, he argues, it’s nonsense.

The arguments made to explain the decline of the Irish language (to minority status even within the Gaeltacht) – essentially that it does not receive enough government support and that it is not taught properly, and that in any case any nation needs a language of its own – are flawed. In fact, he continues, its decline is for the simple reason that the Irish have made the English language their own (as a matter of fact), and indeed it is only being kept on life support to encourage tourism in areas of the country with no industry and artificially to maintain a translation service. This is an issue because it causes confusion over the law, and indeed is even outright dangerous (in the case, for example, of warning signs put in heavily touristy areas in a language no tourist will speak).

Objectively, it is very hard to argue with any of that (although I may challenge a little of it). However, Mr Butler’s point (remember, as a Gaeilgeoir) is that the whole issue is not dealt with objectively. My own view is that he needs to build on that point – human beings are not objective; and even less so when nationalism (or general “group-think”) comes into play.

This is the thing: every nation has its completely irrational aspects – but these aspects are deliberately distinct from any other nation, and thus form a national bond. England has lots of them, from the use of miles rather than kilometres to the odd terminology in its parliament. France has a linguistic issue of its own. Germany has a determination not to have upper speed limits. Almost any country of standing has them, in other words.

So, in my view, that is what this is about. It is an incredible aspect of human nature, particularly when combined as “groups” or “nations”, that we engage in “debate” on such irrational terms around particular subjects.

Put that “irrational national distinctiveness” together with the vested interests of which Mr Butler speaks and there is not much chance of change. What Mr Butler says about the likelihood of knowledge of the Irish language being enhanced by removing the compulsion to learn it is absolutely correct. But Irish Government policy is not about enhancing knowledge of the Irish language. That is probably where the “debate” needs to begin.

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4 thoughts on “Is policy on Irish language self-defeating?

  1. D’fhoghlaim mé Gaeige sa Tuaisceart agus sa Deisceart, mar is fearr liom ag foghlaim é sa Tuaisceart.

  2. Eoin’s video is full of misrepresentations and shoddy journalism. There is no basis for much of his argument. He claims that only a handful of people watch TG4 without subtitles but TG4 gets its largest audiences, for instance, for sports which has no subtitles. He claims that teaching Irish as a compulsory subject costs €1.2bn a year but this is again based on back of the cigarette packet maths rather than any serious investigation. He spends a lot of time criticising the placing of an Irish language ‘Aire, Páistí ag Trasnú’ sign near a school in the Gaeltacht as if people wouldn’t understand it (it also contains a universal symbol, in use in NI) but neglects to mention that there are two other signs, without the offending Irish words (offensive to Eoin it seems) nearby too. I could go on – it’s just another one of these tiresome anti Irish rants from a journalist who wants to get noticed by giving an already marginalised minority a bit of a kicking.

  3. Scots Anorak says:

    “Objectively, it is very hard to argue with any of that” — indeed, it is extremely hard to argue with something to mind-bogglingly counter-intuitive as the notion that the exclusion of a language from public life will magically result in its ubiquity.

    You do realise that there are people who make language revival their lifelong study? But, hey, why listen to them when there is a random guy with a chip on his shoulder on YouTube? I doubt that any accredited experts would support your “linguistic homeopathy” arguments. Being a moderately good practical linguist does not make you an expert on language maintenance or revival; neither does being a politician make you, on an area requiring so much study, a master of policy. These really are just the prejudices of the Greater Belfast dinner-party circuit regurgitated.

    If you want to know why language revival failed in the South, I can tell you: the Government was very good at giving people the opportunity to learn Irish and at pushing the language in practical cases where it also had a symbolic value. However, as a general rule it did not provide services through Irish or create enough spaces where there was a real incentive to use it. It gave extra points to civil servants and teachers who were fluent in Irish, but then let their knowledge wither on the vine. If you don’t believe me, ask a Unionist-leaning person from Gaelic academia in Scotland. They will say exactly the same thing.

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