When he spoke in Auckland on Friday, during the fourth day of his State visit to New Zealand, President Michael D Higgins reflected on how our relationship with the Irish language has been defined by what he described as the “authoritative” nature of Irish language teaching in schools.
Hundreds of thousands of Irish people will agree with him, regretting that an early opportunity to embrace something beautiful and rewarding, to appreciate something if not unique then distinctive, had been lost because dreary, idealogical, compulsion can never trump heart-felt enthusiasm.
That compulsion was imposed by a particular strand of nationalism. The diktat was counterproductive.
That Irish-at-all-costs mindset was so pervasive, as Mr Higgins pointed out, that during Éamon de Valera’s time as Taoiseach “all the state servants change their names to Irish as if that was going to revive the subject”.
The language had been politicised and its universal celebration or rejuvenation seemed impossible.
Our language was often used as a tool by the kind insular, ourselves-alone nationalists that threaten Spanish and European stability today; the kind of nationalism behind the shift to the hard right in Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Brexit — and in America too.
That inevitably led to its concentration in particular corners of society, and excluded those who might embrace the language for its own almost spiritual beauty rather than as a political badge.
However, it is a testimony to the language’s enduring allure that so many people use it today as a cultural rather than a political form of expression.
That growing popularity may be the harvest of decades of gaelscoileanna influences. Our strengthening view of ourselves as Europeans and the marginalisation of violent-force nationalism play a part too as do the decade of centenaries celebrations.
It is unfortunate and in the cold light of day probably unsustainable, that such a modest revival demands the commitment of such tremendous State resources.
The figures must be startling — funding everything from teaching hours to bilingual road signs, everything from TG4 to translating official documents can hardly leave much change out of €1 billion a year. The great gap between investment and return suggests we are dealing with sacred cows rather than a viable social project.
Mr Higgins addressed the issue because New Zealand’s new government campaigned on integrating the Maori
language into primary schools and having it as an option in secondary schools. The failure of our mandatory system was recognised, and alternative policies will be employed.
“I remember in other times people foisted attitudes onto the language that really had nothing to do with the essential spirit. It is a language of life and, thankfully, it is being spoken more and more by young people,” said Mr Higgins.
He was right to recognise that it was hijacked. There have been myriad plans to save Irish but they have not worked.
Despite that, it would be ironic, and very welcome if the new multicultural, inclusive Ireland succeeded where the old, narrow nationalist Ireland failed and made Irish once again a living, breathing language for far more Irish people.
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