The Irish language doesn’t need a minister


Did you hear the one about the minister for Irish who can't speak Irish? Of course, you did. It's been all over the Irish papers and on IrishCentral.

But while we're all having a laugh, there's an underlying reality beneath the joke that is no laughing matter. We'll come to that in a minute. First off, in case you missed it, what prompted all the hilarity was that last week the new junior ministers in the reshuffled government were announced by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, and it turns out that the person appointed to the department that looks after Irish is unable to hold a conversation in the language. The unfortunate man is Junior Minister Joe McHugh from Donegal. Despite living near a Gaeltacht in Donegal (a tiny area in which Irish is supposedly spoken as an everyday language) McHugh's grasp of spoken Irish is so poor that he could not answer questions in the Dail (Parliament) in "the first official language."

When challenged in Irish by opposition deputies, McHugh had to admit that although he understood their questions he did not have the confidence to reply in Irish.

Cue mock shock and horror among the opposition, including fior gaeilgeoiri (true Irish enthusiasts) like Sinn Fein's Peadar Toibin and a few Fianna Failers like former Minister for the Gaeltacht Eamon O Cuiv, a grandson of no less an icon than founding father Eamon de Valera. A couple of those expressing "serious concern" were former schoolteachers, which is easy for them because Irish is a requirement for their old jobs.

The old clichés were trotted out, of course, including the well-worn line from 1916 hero Padraig Pearse: "Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam” -- a country without a language, is a country without a soul. It's typical of the mystical nonsense that Pearse liked to dream up, but we'll leave that for another day.

Outside the Dail, a few of the many worthies (the Irish language is a mini-industry) who get paid very nice salaries by the state to "promote" the language also voiced their disappointment. The national state-funded Irish organization (we're talking millions here) Conradh na Gaeilge even held a protest over McHugh's appointment and said his inability to speak the language was an insult.

The Irish language Commissioner Ronan O Domhnaill said it would be "much more preferable" if McHugh was a fluent Irish speaker. More preferable? Whatever about his Irish, O Domhnaill certainly needs to brush up on his English.

The way I see it, instead of being criticized McHugh should have been praised for his honesty (a quality that is in short supply among the opposition, most of whom -- excluding ex-teachers like the taoiseach -- can't speak Irish either).

The situation McHugh found himself in is one the vast majority of people here recognize because the vast majority of people here are just like him. They can't speak Irish either, apart from a few half-remembered phrases from school.

Irish, as you will know if you hail from these parts, is the Great National Hypocrisy. Out of a population of around four and a half million, an astonishing 1.77 million of us in the last census in 2011 answered yes to the question: Can you speak Irish?

Yet the reality is that most of us have only a few stumbling phrases and could not hold a real conversation in Irish to save our lives.

So why did nearly half of us claim to be able to speak it when we filled out our census forms? Because to admit to not being able to speak "our national language" is still seen as a kind of failure, or not being really Irish, ridiculous though that is.

Is an American less of an American because he or she speaks English? Is someone in Brazil less Brazilian because they speak Portuguese? Is a Mexican less Mexican because they speak Spanish, or are people in various countries in Africa less African because they speak French?

Of course not, despite Pearse's romantic view. You don't have to be able to speak Irish to be a true Irishman.

But the idea that you do has been a core national belief since we achieved our independence 90 years ago and began to build the Irish state. Replacing English with "our own language" was seen as a key part of creating a national identity.

That belief has led to frustration for generations of Irish children ever since, thanks to Irish being a compulsory subject in all schools here. From the moment they start as four or five year olds in primary school here all children have to spend hours every week learning Irish.

In most schools every child has at least one Irish class every day. And it continues into secondary (high) school right up to when they leave the school system at 17 or 18.

Despite this most Irish kids have very poor Irish, or very little Irish, when they finish school. Because it's compulsory they start to resent the language early on and as they get older they realize it will be useless to them in later life, in comparison with an ability to hold a conversation in French or German, or Spanish, or Chinese.

Irish is still a compulsory subject in the Leaving Certificate (high school diploma) curriculum. In recent years kids no longer have to pass Irish to get their certificate and in fact a lot of them don't even bother sitting the Leaving Cert Irish exam paper. But they still have to spend all their school years studying it because it is compulsory.