Back in the 1960s, singer Ronnie Drew used to joke at concerts that the Government had proposed all the books banned in Ireland should be printed in Irish as this would be a great incentive for the Irish people to learn their own language.
The proposal didn’t happen, of course, but it was an interesting one. The language wasn’t revived, but Ireland’s absurd censorship was lifted and people were allowed to read what they wished and not have the Government tell them what to do.
For this is the sting in Ronnie Drew’s joke, the ridiculous folly of the State trying to control people’s reading but also trying to force them to do something they didn’t want to, which was to learn Irish – just because the State said so and because it would make them ‘more Irish’, in a Éamon de Valera ‘dancing at the crossroads’ kind of way.
The Dubliners were an international phenomenon, but they sang in English and with wicked humour. Like James Joyce, they turned the language of our conquerors into something even more exuberant and lively. And yes, more Irish. They certainly didn’t feel less ‘officially Irish’ because they expressed themselves in English. And nor did James Joyce. He had already pegged the Irish language zealots early on, and poked gentle fun at them in his short stories and in ‘Ulysses’.
Not that Joyce didn’t respect Irish, just as Luke Kelly sang as Gaeilge. One of Joyce’s best friends was Padraic Colum, who was passionate about the language and whose work Joyce, a linguist, greatly admired.
But it’s all about choice, and that’s what Ronnie Drew and Joyce got and which our State hasn’t – for decades. Successive Irish Governments persist in the idea that making Irish compulsory will revive it when, in fact, the very opposite is the case. It is like making people go to Mass, a societal compulsion which sadly has driven multitudes away from the nourishment of spirituality – just as compulsory Irish and the often dogged nationalism behind it has driven away multitudes who should be enjoying this rich tongue.
Thankfully, Irish is actually thriving now, with the growth of clubs and gaelscoileanna and its growth in Northern Ireland. But it’s all about choice. And about enthusiasm and doing things willingly.
It’s not about putting all public notices and bus timetables in Irish, even though almost nobody is to be heard speaking Irish on the street any more – not to mention Government and council literature.
But the political establishment is content with this gesture, and we all go along with it. Firstly, because it is a convenient fig leaf, an illusion to console ourselves that we are a bilingual nation, proudly speaking ‘our native tongue’ (whatever that even means).
It also happens because of the Irish language lobby which, despite its small size, still has a strong hold over the political culture, or at least over Fine Gael and more especially Fianna Fáil. It is like the National Rifle Association in the US – no politician dares cross this cranky lobby and so we persist with the idea, for example, that the Gaeltacht areas are bigger than they actually are, or that Irish is a working language at the EU.
You cannot make people do what they don’t want to do. It is unfair and self-defeating. It is particularly unfair to do it with children, many of whom struggle with Irish in primary school. This is why it is good news that the Government is to allow more exemptions for these cases. But it is not enough and we should be looking at removing the compulsory aspect altogether.
Ireland is now a multi-cultural and diverse society, thankfully, and the days of a narrow definition of nationality are gone. It is about choice. And if the Irish language movement was confident of itself, and of what it represents, it would readily accept this.
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