Friday, December 20, 2013

Not Minding Our Language

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The great man has moved on. In years to come, grandchildren will climb up onto the old people’s laps and ask “where were you when you heard the awful news that he was gone?”

“Who?,” you’ll say. “Nelson Mandela?”

“No,” they’ll say. “Seán Ó Curreáin.”

To describe the resignation of Ireland’s first ever Coimisinéir Teanga as a storm in a teacup is unjust to both weather and delph. Ó Cuirreáin’s resignation mattered in that world within a world that is the Irish public service, and even then in a very small corner of that.

To the country outside, the public that is passionate about saving the language, the public that pays lip-service to the language by singing the first three words of the anthem in Croke Park and the public that genuinely hates the language, Ó Cuirreáin’s resignation mattered not a jot. The world kept on turning just the same.

And that’s a pity. It’s to Ó Cuirreáin’s supreme credit that he did resign when he realised that there was nothing for him to do. Others in his place would have hung on like grim death, recognising a handy number when they saw it. So Ó Cuirreáin is to be celebrated for his patriotism.

What is to be regretted is that it came to this. That there isn’t sufficient vision to properly protect the language and hand it on for future generations, rather than see a slow race to the grave between those who would kill the Irish language by neglect and those who would kill it by incompetence, like pandas rolling over their cubs.

What is the job of the Coimisinéir Teanga? The Coimisinéir Teanga exists to ensure that the Official Languages Act is enforced. What does the Official Languages Act do? The Official Languages Act ensures that anybody who wants to conduct business of the state in the state’s first language, Irish, may do so.

So let’s think about that for a second. Remember back in September when the Government pulled the plug on the non-use exemption for motor tax and people had to queue for hours to register their vehicles before the Revenue took another slice out of them? Imagine queuing for that long, and then queuing some more until they found someone behind the desk who could speak Irish to you. You’d want to have thought of bringing a packed lunch before you left the house. And maybe a sleeping bag.

In an ideal world, of course you could do your business with the state in the first language of the state. In the real world, you’re grateful for what you can wrestle off them before whatever amenity it is you’re after is taxed, confiscated or otherwise disappeared.

The policy of mass translations and government jobs in perpetuity is a classic cub of the Tiger. The Government of the early 2000s, swimming in money, much preferred to throw great bags of the stuff at problems rather than work them out. Easier to set up a Coimisinéir Teanga to ensure you could apply for the pension or an pinsean as you pleased than to think about how differently the Irish think about their language now, the greater level of positivity that exists towards the language in the Galltacht, the area outside the Gaeltacht, and see if there’s any symbiosis that can be built between the two.

Irish will never return as the first spoken language of the country as long as English remains the de facto world language, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a huge role to play in the country. Unfortunately, finding out exactly what that role could be would be hassle; better to just write a cheque and forget about it for a while.

Therefore, we find ourselves in a situation now where the problem remains and there isn’t any money to throw at it. And now that belts are being tightened, the voices who are anti-Irish are suddenly getting louder about wastes of money on a “dead language.” The Government are unlikely to appoint another Coimisinéir Teanga – what would be the point? That will only cost them money and if Ó Cuirreáin couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone it’s hard to see the next man or woman doing it either. And in the meantime, the language is left to drift further towards the rocks.

Besides; ensuring the language is vibrant and well is not the job of the Comisinéir Teanga, and nor does it have anything to do with the Official Languages Act, 2003. That is a whole other can of worms.

The body in charge of the wellbeing of the language is Foras na Gaeilge, a cross-border body set up in December, 1999, as a dividend of the Good Friday Agreement. It is one of the more low-profile public bodies, to say the least, and far be it for a hurler on the ditch to assess what he knows little about.

But I do know this much: there is no received pronunciation in Irish. There is no dictionary in Irish, where Irish words are defined in the Irish language just as the Oxford English Dictionary defines English words in the English language.

There is a terminology board, whose responsibility it is to create words for things that haven’t existed before. Fighting over what is “pure” Irish and what isn’t is one of the things that scares people away from the language, but the current “correct” translation for tweet, as in the social media communication is “tvuít.” If that’s Irish, I wouldn’t like to hear Klingon.

So farewell, then, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, broken on the wheel of the nation’s hopelessly mixed-up attitude to its own language. I hope whoever takes over has more luck.