Connect to share and comment

Ireland: Could election sound death knell for Irish language?

Leading candidate Enda Kenny has proposed ending compulsory Gaelic.

Ireland irish language gaelic 02 18 2011Enlarge
Signs in Irish, or Gaelic, and English greet passengers arriving at Dublin Airport. (Conor O'Clery/GlobalPost) (Conor O'Clery/GlobalPost)

DUBLIN, Ireland — Language rights can tear countries apart. We only have to look at Canada or Belgium.

No surprise then that when a leading politician questioned the role of Irish in the nation’s schools in the middle of a general election campaign, he stirred up deep passions.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny proposed in his election manifesto making Irish optional rather than compulsory in schools. As Kenny is almost certain to be the English-speaking country’s next taoiseach (prime minister), this has alarmed the minority of Irish language enthusiasts.

Debate in the run-up to Friday's general election has focused on how the parties intend to deal with nation’s catastrophic finances. But in the first big street demonstration of the campaign outside the Irish parliament last week, hundreds of students staged a silent protest against the end of compulsory Irish, many with their mouths sealed with red tape to indicate their view of the effect on the ancient language.

The proposal was, however, welcomed by thousands of Irish people who bitterly resent being forced to learn a difficult language at school that they feel is of no use to them in their daily life or careers.

Irish, or Gaelic, a Celtic tongue dating back to the sixth century, is the first official language of the Irish republic. Widespread until the 19th century, it is now spoken or understood by an estimated 350,000 people from a total island population of more than 6 million. The national language is in everyday, natural use only in declining zones in the west and south known as Gaeltachts, which tend to be poor and subject to emigration, and in isolated city communities. National road signs and official documents are written in both Irish and English but Gaelic is largely ignored in commercial signage, unlike in Quebec, Canada, where strict language laws require French to dominate English at practically all levels.

Attempts by successive Irish governments since independence in 1921 to revive the language have failed spectacularly, according to Adrian Kelly, author of a 2002 study “Compulsory Irish – Language and Education in Ireland.” In the book he argues that emphasis on Irish has led to intellectual and educational wastage because it weakened students’ achievements in other subjects.

This view has been countered by domestic and overseas scholars such as Jocelyn Wyburd of the University of Manchester who has researched the decline in language learning in England.

“Students will vote with their feet because they can,” she said. “…make Irish optional and watch it wither.”

The failure of attempts to revive Irish is due partly to a traditional emphasis on the language as a cultural heritage rather than a living organism. English is the lingua franca of the country and all daily newspapers are in English, though most carry columns in Irish. There is one Irish language online daily newspaper called Nuacht24.

Irish people avidly follow readily available British television programs and sporting events, and cinemas provide a diet of American and British movies.

Another factor making people hostile to compulsory Irish is the fact that for centuries emigrants have tended to head for English-speaking countries, including Britain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Irish was perceived by many as the language of the kitchen and English as the language to get ahead.