Free State Failures:
The Irish language occupies a schizophrenic place within the policymaking and public consciousness of the 26 counties. While institutionalised at an educational and legislative level and generally supported by the public at large, the language barely registers within the mainstream of Irish life. Despite multiple revisions and a watering down, the Irish language curriculum remains a calamity where students engage for 14 years in a glorified box ticking exercise resulting in them being more likely to have a Pavlovian dislike of the language than a fluency by the end of the process.
The reason behind this is up for debate and it certainly has a societal element, but the facts validate the claims in the early days of the Irish state that outsourcing the language revival to schoolchildren alone rather than Irish society at large is doomed to failure. It is and remains a national embarrassment that despite Irish independence being won in the Republic on the back of a cultural and linguistic revival – as soon as autonomy was achieved this same revival was allowed to fall to the wayside to the extent that the language is in a worse condition than it was in 1922.
The residual Gaeltachtaí along our western seaboard, while justifiably romanticised by revivalists of the past and present, offer very little to stem the tide of youth emigration from the region or even stop the trend of holiday homes and English speaking homeowners swallowing them up. In retrospect the concept of a Gaeltacht and the subsidies that went with it is similar to the fate of Irish within the education system. While well intentioned, it helped to ghettoise the language using the power of the state and killed any local attempts at language revival.
The picture however isn’t entirely bleak, Gaelscoileanna have ensured that 6% of Irish school children are taught through the medium of Irish. TG4, created through the actions of radical groups like Coiste ar son Teilifís Gaeltachta, ensured that Irish gained some degree of currency within the broadcasting world. Apps like Duolingo help pick up the slack where the education system fails. Even the recent trend of pop-up Gaeltachtaí have partially created urban safe spaces in which the language can be spoken in a social setting. What is noticeable however is that the main success stories of language promotion nearly always come from non-state actors.
The Northern Dimension:
On the other side of the border Irish finds itself at a focal point in an emerging culture war post-Brexit. The proposed Irish Language Act (Acht na Gaeilge) is aimed at giving Irish recognised status within the 6 counties akin to the Republic, providing for rights around education, signage and governmental services through the medium of Irish. Naturally considering the inherent tribalism of northern politics this has unnerved and been rejected by much of the unionist community, with the DUP leading the charge against it.
Proponents of the act highlight similar legislation around the United Kingdom for indigenous languages such as in Wales. They could however learn the lesson from south of the border that the patronage of the state, much less the British state, in promoting the language could easily act as a millstone around the neck of the language – dealing the deathblow to it. So far opponents of the act on the unionist side of the commentariat have ignored the more salient republican objections to it.
The British state has and continues to be a roadblock in the development of Irish political and cultural autonomy. The notion that simply begging the same British state for subsidies using equal rights jargon can bring about the fundamental changes required for Irish to flourish is absurd if not degrading. Similar to the recognition of Irish as a working language in the European Parliament, the act, if passed, will merely engender a new bureaucratic class in which to enforce it rather than create the right conditions for Irish to grow as a commonplace language within the six counties.
The True Meaning of ‘We Ourselves’:
Despite the positive public energy for the language accumulated in campaigning for the act, clamouring for largesse off the British government will ultimately end in failure. As appreciated 100 years ago, Irish will only be revived going hand in hand with genuine Irish political autonomy plus national self-confidence. Certainly not by demanding scraps off the British government.
This article is not a roadmap to reviving Irish but rather a critique of the current trajectory of championing the language under the banner of ‘civil rights’, with the end goal being receiving subsidies and paid positions from the British government. Irish and the Gaelic tradition in general are perhaps the most radical tools at the disposal of Irish people seeking a cultural revival in a globalised world.
As noted by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, the promotion of Irish has been most successful when positioned on the outside of both the state and political power in general, organised at a local level. By enfranchising the language within the six county state we potentially kill off the countercultural appeal of the language and tradition, risking a repeat of the same tired mistakes of the 26 counties.