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.
The result of this lunacy over decades is that we are now near the bottom of the Eurostat chart for languages. In schools in other European countries kids routinely learn one or two foreign languages from an early age.
Here learning another language (apart from Irish) is optional and kids don't start until they are in secondary school. Most of them take French, which is less important these days, and their conversational ability typically is poor when they finish school.
This comes at a cost both for the individuals and for the economy. We frequently hear about all the new jobs here in companies like Google, Facebook, etc., but what we don't hear much about is that these companies import young foreign workers with language skills to fill many of these jobs (in customer services, etc.) because they can't get young Irish people who can do the work. And with poor language ability, the young Irish who want to emigrate to other European countries are also at a serious disadvantage.
Some time ago the European Council's Language Policy division issued a report which urged Ireland to switch from what it called "an official but lame bilingualism" to a truly multilingual approach. In other words, they were telling us that our present concentration on Irish is disastrous for us.
Of course Irish language supporters don't accept any of this and say that children's brains are like sponges with an ability to soak up other languages as well as Irish. They can learn German and Chinese as well as Irish, they say. It's not one or the other.
But if you talk to teachers here, many say that Irish takes up so much school time there simply is not enough time and energy to give other languages sufficient attention. The reality is that there are only so many hours in the school week, and Irish eats up a lot of them.
No one denies the genuine enthusiasm that exists among a lot of people here for Irish, as shown by the growth in the number of Gaelscoils (these are schools which not only concentrate on Irish but teach all other subjects through Irish as well). That enthusiasm was reflected in the demonstration in Dublin in February this year by a few thousand Irish supporters who were demanding more state support for Irish in schools and everyday life.
No one questions their love for the language -- and the Irish language is beautiful as well as complex -- but they have a tendency to force their views on everyone else. The vast majority of people here don't share their enthusiasm and certainly don't believe that the widespread use of Irish, even to the point of replacing English altogether which is what some of the Irish language fanatics would like, is either desirable or a proof of how Irish you are.
The reality is, of course, that being native English speakers is a tremendous advantage to us in today's world. The global language of business and trade is English.
But having another language is also a big plus in today's world. Starting in primary school, our kids should be learning world languages like German, Spanish or Chinese, not compulsory Irish, which 90 percent of them will never use again once they have left school at 18.
As part of an Irish education we should replace "Irish" with Irish cultural studies which would cover music, dance, literature, art, some history and a few Irish phrases. Those who want to learn more of the language could be offered intensive classes in the Irish language, but it should never be compulsory for anyone.
Those parents and kids who love the language and want an education through Irish can be supported through the gaelscoils, which should be funded by the state on the same basis as all other schools here.
No one wants to deny their rights, but the rest of the population have rights as well. And at the moment the continuation of compulsory Irish is denying their right to choose what their children study in school.
At some point our gutless politicians are going to have to confront our national hypocrisy about Irish and start saying what everyone knows -- that Irish is never going to be brought back as the everyday language of the country. The powerful Irish language lobby will scream and call it anti-national and West British and so on. But at some point it will have to be done.
One of the reasons is the huge cost of supporting Irish at the moment, which runs into hundreds of millions every year. We all pay for it, the TG4 Irish television channel, the Irish language organizations, the special grants for Gaeltacht areas (where the reality is there is as much English as Irish spoken), the cost of providing nearly all state documents in both Irish and English, and above all, the astronomical cost of compulsory Irish in all schools (which is never properly calculated).
The big problem in all this is that there is no clarity in state policy on the language. Officially, the state still supports the notion that the language can be revived and that one day we will all speak Irish. Abandoning that fanciful notion is seen as anti-national and our politicians are afraid to confront it.
That is why we persist with "reviving the language" even though we all know it's pointless. That is why our children are still having Irish forced down their throats even though so many of them hate it. That is why everything from our driving license to our electricity bill comes in Irish and English, despite the costs involved.
And that is also why we had all this nonsense last week about the junior minister for Irish who cannot speak the language. Instead of telling the fior gaeilgoiri to get stuffed, Kenny has sent the unfortunate McHugh off to Irish classes for the summer.
The real question we should be asking ourselves is not why we have a minister for Irish who cannot speak the language. It's why we have a minister for Irish at all.
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