The Irish language - Throwing good money after bad?

The Irish language has played a central role in shaping our culture.

Its influence is so deep-rooted that it has nurtured Hiberno-English — an Irish solution to an English imposition. Because of our history it, like other suppressed languages, has been afforded a political status, an assumed patriotic integrity, replicated in other countries once colonised. Whether this is permanent or even relevant today is an open question. Despite that, and despite the great emotional and almost spiritual attachment some Irish people feel for the language, it has not been central to Irish life for over a century.

Nevertheless, the 2011 census recorded a 7.1% increase in the number of self-declared Irish speakers. Some 1.77m people said they could speak Irish. However, and this seems more pertinent, only 1.8% used it every day outside of the education system.

This marginalisation was highlighted yesterday when An Coimisinéir Teanga launched his annual report in Galway. Coimisinéir Seán Ó Cuirreáin revealed that gardaí are to get a laminated card carrying useful phrases in Irish. This follows instances where a garda competent enough in Irish to deal with the public through Irish was not immediately to hand.

It is estimated that we spend something around €1bn a year just teaching Irish. Other programmes add to that cost. Foras na Gaeilge supports 19 Irish promotion organisations with state funding. Television service TG4 got €32.75m in current funding from Government last year. Its audience stands at something around 2% of the population. Raidió na Gaeltachta has, it is believed, an even smaller audience though official figures are not available. It may be assumed that funding for RnaG pushes the bill for Irish language broadcasting towards the €50m mark for just these two outlets.

Gaelscoileanna have been enthusiastically supported though whether this reflects a commitment to the language or something else is uncertain. So successful are they that they may be the source of a new urban Irish apparently incomprehensible to some native speakers.

Though Irish was afforded official language status by the EU in 2007 a recent report suggested the language had been spoken just nine times by ministers at EU meetings in the last two years. In the EU parliament Irish took up just 0.23% of the speaking time during plenary sessions up to May 2012.

Even if the country was not bankrupt this litany of failure would have to be considered. That we spend as much as the current round of Croke Park talks hope to save on teaching Irish every year — €1bn — seems at least irrational in today’s circumstances.

Economic criteria should not be the primary consideration on this largely cultural issue but maybe it is time to be less reverential, less deferential on the subject. After all, the facts speak for themselves — if Irish was as important to people as some would suggest it would not need huge, ongoing subvention to register the tiniest blip on society’s radar, it would be almost self-sustaining if not regenerating. Current policies have failed and it’s time to ask why we keep throwing good money after bad. Doing that would not be an attack on Irish just an admission that the vast majority of the population seem to be at best indifferent on the subject and that the billions we have spent on trying to popularise the language have been largely wasted.

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