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Ireland: Could election sound death knell for Irish language?

Leading candidate Enda Kenny has proposed ending compulsory Gaelic.

Ironically Kenny is fluent in Irish, as are the country's diplomats, civil servants and army officers, who use Irish for secure communications when on United Nations missions. The Fine Gael leader argues that the language would fare better if it were not imposed on high school students but rather adopted by choice.

His case has been bolstered by the success of voluntary schools created in the last two decades where Irish is the working language. Academic achievement in these schools is regularly higher than in national schools. There are 211 such schools at primary and post-primary level attended by 4,000 pupils and the demand for spots is growing.

The three main party leaders held the first-ever pre-election debate in Irish on the republic’s Irish language TV channel, TG4, last week. It was broadcast later with English subtitles. During the debate, Michael Martin, leader of the once-dominant Fianna Fail party, blasted Kenny’s policy, saying it would sound the death knell of Irish.

But there is no mistaking the anger at compulsory Irish among those who see it as a waste of time.

An article by Anna Ni Ghallachair in the Irish Times defending government policy provoked a small avalanche of negative comments. In a typical riposte, a commenter going by "Gary J Byrnes" wrote that the people who complained most loudly about Kenny’s proposals “are those with a vested interest in the language, who receive state handouts to keep foisting it on a disinterested population.”

The Gaeltacht regions, mainly in Kerry, Galway and Donegal, receive government subsidies to promote Irish and rely on the custom of large numbers of students coming each year to improve their Irish. Though small pockets of enthusiastic Irish speakers exist in Dublin, the low level of spoken Irish in the capital city is well illustrated by a popular anecdote concerning a young Chinese immigrant who learned Irish from the internet before arriving in the country.

In a Dublin pub on his first day he asked the young barman in fluent Gaelic for a pint of Guinness. Sorry, I don’t understand, said the barman.

“I know what he’s saying”, interjected an old man at the bar. “He wants a pint of Guinness”. “Why, Mick," remarked the barman, “I didn’t know you could understand Chinese.”