The Official Languages Act will only serve to kill the language itself

Most native speakers of Irish probably find the English versions easier to understand, writes Victoria White

The Official Languages Act will only serve to kill the language itself

WILL Mihai Avadenei save the Irish language? Has the Romanian national who could not be convicted of drink driving because breath test results were not given to him in Irish as well as English done us all a mighty turn? Will his case finally convince us that the Official Languages Act (2003) is killing off what’s left of the Irish language?

The script could have been written by Flann O’Brien. The garda suspects Avadenei of speeding and pulls him over. He smells drink on his breath and brings him to Store Street Garda station where he is breathalysed and the mighty Evidenzer (alcohol test machine) reveals that Avadenei has 50 alcohol microgrammes in his breath, a full 28 microgrammes too many.

But Evidenzer makes this finding in English only and not in both “official” languages of the State. There is no suggestion that Avadenei has difficulty understanding English. There is no suggestion that he would have less difficulty understanding Irish.

There is, in fact, no suggestion that Avadenei has any Irish at all. And yet this week High Court Judge Seamus Noonan ruled that his breath test results report “wasn’t evidence at all” and could not be admitted.

Instead of a six month prison sentence and/or a €5,000 fine Avadenei has got off Scot Free. And so will possibly hundreds of others charged with similar crimes whose language rights have been impugned as a result of Evidenzer’s poor familiarity with Murfi agus a Chairde.

Hundreds of people who have committed the heinous crime of driving thousands of pounds of metal and inflammable fuel down the open road in a state of drunkenness — a crime which accounts for a third of all road deaths in this country — may get off Scot Free because of the interpretation of the Official Languages Act which was signed into law in 2011 in the Road Traffic Act.

Emergency legislation was rushed through on Tuesday to close the loophole so it will not let out any future cases. But Avadenei’s case has forced us to eye-ball our 12-year-old language law and it is not a pretty sight.

Why has no voice has been raised at a political level to spell out the idiocy of attempting to revive the Irish language by an Act of Parliament?

Stephen Fry trying his hand at speaking Irish in TG4’s Rós na Rún
Stephen Fry trying his hand at speaking Irish in TG4’s Rós na Rún

Why does no-one tell the plain truth that there is no-one driving a car on our roads who can understand Irish and not English; that there are no monolingual Irish-speakers left in Ireland apart from a few children raised in isolation and possibly a few very elderly people; that nobody is disadvantaged because they can’t communicate with officialdom in Irish; that there is, in fact, no practical need to translate official communications from English into Irish?

Worse than that, official translation does not help the Irish language. Quite the opposite.

Judge Noonan actually specified that the translation of the evidence in cases like Avadenei’s should be “identical” to the evidence in English.

Irish translations of official documents are translated word for word from English and can only be gobbledegook because they take their structure and syntax from English and are riddled with made-up words.

Most native speakers of Irish probably find the English versions easier to understand and this is not surprising because they have all been dealing with officialdom through English all their lives.

There have never been any native speakers of Officialdom Irish because officialdom did not speak Irish when it was the mother-tongue of large numbers of our people.

Even Daniel O’Connell, a native speaker of Kerry Irish, used English in his written communications. But none of these practical considerations upsets me as much as what officially translated Irish does to our beautiful language.

It robs it of its ring, its rhythm, its poetry, of everything which makes it different from English.

Daniel O’Connell
Daniel O’Connell

The guardians of “language rights” as prescribed in the Official Languages Act have gone at the language like the Taliban went at Islam and left nothing except lumpen duty and legal threat.

In so doing the rights of the rest of us are trampled upon. Should the tourism industry in County Mayo thank Language Commissioner for signs which say “Acaill” instead of Achill, for instance?

Achill, whose tourism was developed in the Victorian era by a Protestant missionary and where Irish had not been widely spoken since at least the middle of the last century?

Naming dramas have played out, as we know, in An Daingean and Béal an Mhuirthead which some of you might know as Dingle and Belmullet.

But there is, among some in the language rights movement, the idea that English is being progressed at the behest of a foreign power.

That was once the case.

But English is now ours and we use it because we want to. We have created, in the Language Commissioner, our own “tally-stick” and we put notches on it when we don’t use Irish. We don’t seem to realise that we are only punishing ourselves.

I love Irish. I am grateful that my mother was inspired as a child by a teacher who had been a member of the Gaelic League.

I am grateful for my national school education and a good teacher of Irish at secondary school.

I have done several Irish courses for adults and may one day do a degree. My children were educated through Irish.

I believe in compulsory Irish in our schools at least until Junior Certificate when a wider Irish Studies course could perhaps be developed as an alternative.

Yes, most of the criticism of the Irish language is simple philistinism. But I don’t accept that my criticism of the Official Languages Act comes through ignorance of the language.

Rather it comes through love of the language. And only love will save it now.

Hundreds of thousands of euro are spent every year buttressing the language’s official status — complete with its position as an official language of the EU, a title not yet achieved by Catalan which has over four million native speakers — while its use as a community language has tanked.

Since the Act came into force the rate of decline in Irish speaking in the Gaeltacht has speeded up and some predict it will have died as a community language by 2030, the year the harvest of the Act was to have been counted in the form of 250,000 Irish speakers in the State.

Hopefully no drink driver who escapes sentencing because of the workings of the Official Languages Act will fail to learn the lesson and go on to drink drive again. Hopefully no-one will get hurt or even killed as a result. The one certain casualty of the Official Languages Act (2003) in its current form will be the Irish language itself.

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