What Bank of Ireland’s English-only ATMs tells us about the Irish language

“Irish is dying, not because people can’t speak it, not because people don’t want it, but because it is easy to abuse”

Bank of Ireland’s removal of the Irish language option in new LATMs (lodgement ATMs) has been popularly condemned by the Irish public. Bank of Ireland (BOI) discontinued the service as less than 1% of people were choosing to conduct their ATM business in Irish.

With so few people opting to carry out transactions in Irish, it would be reasonable to ask why it is being labelled a disservice to the Irish people that the option was discontinued.

I heard the entire issue played out on the Luas recently. Two women, appalled by BOI’s decision, spoke at length of the disconnect between large corporations and the desires of the people they serve.

They were horrified at not being afforded the opportunity to conduct business in their native language, lamenting that they could not withdraw a tenner as Gaeilge.

As the conversation ended, both women disclosed that they had actually never availed of the service for fear of accidentally withdrawing their entire savings account by mistake.

This small cross-section of Irish consumer behaviour does not signify a grá for Gaeilge, but a lust for Irish. It’s a “friends with benefits” scenario. People like to see Irish occasionally, to try out something non-committal and different, but as soon as a decision as serious as interacting with an ATM is involved, the Irish public are back in bed with strong and stable English.

The bank’s introduction of LATMs means that customers can now avail of lodgement as well as withdrawal services. The introduction of this upgrade began in 2010, which simultaneously initiated the phasing out of the Irish language option. Many people were instinctively outraged by this.

It felt unpatriotic not to be disgusted that a national bank bearing the name “Bank of Ireland” would readily denounce the sacred Gaeilge to save a few cents. And yet, most Irish people have exactly that relationship with our teanga dúchasach: one where they will abandon it to avoid having to invest even the slightest effort or cost.

Of course, BOI customers do not speak for the whole population of Ireland. It is among BOI ATM users that fewer than 1% of people opted for the Irish service. It does however seem likely that as one of the four traditional major banks in Ireland, and the first to introduce an Irish language option in banking services, Bank of Ireland has a proportionate understanding of the wants of Irish consumers.

The new lack of Irish language representation in LATMs is the fault of the Irish public. The uproar in response to the decision is unjustified. It might be a fundamental right to carry out all business in Irish, the nation’s first official language, but if the public implicitly scream they don’t want it, where is the incentive?

The dwindling number of people interacting through Irish is not for lack of proficiency in the language. According to the last census, 190,276 people speak Irish every week. In contrast, 48% of students opted to take Higher Level Irish for the Leaving Cert this year, rising 3% from last year. Almost half of the next generation can speak Irish to the highest level asked by the state in secondary education.

Why, then, is there a mysterious disconnect between almost half of young people committing to a Leaving Cert in advanced Irish, and less than 1% of people choosing to use the language for simple transactions? The issue is not a lack of Irish speakers – it is people’s willingness to interact with the language as a living one.

Irish is dying, not because people can’t speak it, not because people don’t want it, but because it is easy to abuse. The road signs have Irish above them; everyone has the cúpla focal. Irish seems like a thing on the side that one can always indulge in. A satisfying friends-with-benefits relationship: it presents itself for the taking but doesn’t require any interaction.

Irish is being hung out to dry. It is the Irish public’s lack of serious commitment to Irish that will result in the extinction of our native tongue. People are incensed when the option to interact in Irish is withheld, but are just as quick to choose the alternative when it is provided.

It is not malicious abandonment, but continuing disregard that will result in its extinction.