Promoting Gaeilge means taking action

Gaeilge must be at the centre of decolonising efforts in our institutions and society

For the last several hundred years in Ireland, being an Irish speaker has not been an easy existence. Centuries of British imperial policy attempted to eradicate the Irish language and Gaelic culture from the face of the earth, going to extreme lengths to anglicise not only every square inch of the island, but also the very names of the people who lived and live on it. 

The deep psychological, sociological, and linguistic effects of colonialism still painfully reverberate across the world and the scars of indigenous communities from Alaska to New Zealand are trying desperately to heal what was lost while, at the same time, adapting to a rapidly changing world of technological innovation. 

Language, a fundamental part of the human experience, is at the very heart of this healing, and strengthening indigenous languages through digital and institutional means gives speakers of minoritised languages their long overdue dignity and respect.

After the foundation of the Irish State, Irish language provisions and policy were seen for the first time in the modern era. That being said, it could easily be argued that these original policies failed given their lack of direction and overall vagueness. After all, aside from Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) which offered only nominal protection, the first major protection of Irish language rights and services was only introduced for the southern state in 2003 in Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Official Languages Act). Since then, the growth of the gaelscoileanna movement as well as the presence of Irish on the European and international stages has seen improvement in the social status of the language, which consistently receives high levels of public support in surveys. In fact, 1.9 million people, more than 40% of the population, claimed to be able to speak Irish on the last census in 2022, with 10% of that claiming to speak it very well and another 32% speaking it well. 

This is despite the fact that the number of people who claim to speak Irish on a daily basis outside the education system continues to decline, little by little, every census. Irish speakers who do consistently use the language are often met with rude or dismissive responses in public or when attempting to use services entitled to them by law. Signage and resources in Irish tend to be in a sorry state with mistakes found sometimes every couple of words, and the nonchalance of the civil service and public bodies alike has received serious criticism from An Coimisinéir Teanga over and over again. Irish speakers are often forced to speak English or face contempt for somehow being difficult or elitist. Many Irish speakers feel guilty even asking for services as Gaeilge for not wanting to feel as if they are imposing on people, not to mention those who raise children through Irish, passing on the language in its most native form, being made to feel that somehow the child will be disadvantaged by speaking a language which is required in more jobs in Ireland every year. That is, of course, until the Oscars come around and An Cailín Ciúin is nominated for best foreign film or God forbid an American tourist mispronounces something when all of a sudden, Irish is important. This bizarre inconsistency of Irish people on the topic of the national language is a symptom of deeply rooted colonial legacy.

The Irish community often must strike a difficult balance between defending the dignity and rights of fluent speakers while also welcoming and accepting with open arms people with all different levels of Irish, some with only the cúpla focal”

As someone who speaks exclusively Irish every day with most of my friends, studies it as a course, is active in Cumann Gaelach, and serves as Oifigeach na Gaeilge for the Students’ Union (TCDSU), I am acutely aware of the wide range of emotional reactions to Gaeilge as a concept. The Irish community often must strike a difficult balance between defending the dignity and rights of fluent speakers while also welcoming and accepting with open arms people with all different levels of Irish, some with only the cúpla focal. And here in Coláiste na Tríonóide, we are very successful in doing so. After all, our Cumann Gaelach didn’t win Society of the Year at last year’s Student Achievement Awards Ireland for nothing. We have a very successful Scéim Cónaithe and thanks to years of campaigning from past students, a place to call home on campus in Seomra na Gaeilge. That is all wonderful. It is not, however, nearly enough.

The fact of that matter is that people and institutions can talk about how beautiful and amazing Irish is until they are blue in the face, but lip service without action is how the Irish state itself has overseen the decline of Irish since its inception. The promotion of Irish, or any language, requires concrete steps. It requires education through itself to be available to all students from the naíonra right through the ollscoil. Here in Coláiste na Tríonóide, the only course one can take through the medium of Irish is Irish itself. That must change and it must change fast. The most recent amendment to Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla in 2021 set a target to make at least 20% of civil service workers Irish speakers by 2030. How, though, can anyone possibly expect that these Irish-speaking professionals like lawyers, doctors, nurses, and more, that directly feed into civil service, will somehow materialise out of thin air? The appropriate steps must be taken to meet such targets by the entire educational sector, and Trinity, as Ireland’s premier university, must help lead the charge in doing so. When students who attend Irish medium schools are forced to attend university entirely through English, the chance of those same people being qualified for jobs through Irish greatly diminishes. This is a massive hole in the system and prevents Gaeilge from entering many professional atmospheres. Activists and academics have been sounding alarm bells on this very topic for decades but most of the time, they seem to fall on willfully deaf ears.

In terms of the colonial mindset, the excuses used in bad faith against Gaeilge by anglophones who pretend to be in favour of promoting it are often lacking in substance. One of my favourites is when a scapegoat is made of international students as an excuse not to use Irish. As an international student myself, I find this argument insulting to the intelligence of international students, many of whom are multilingual. According to College’s data, over 40% of students who take the free Irish language classes offered are international and I myself can attest to the international interest in Irish from the workshops I have done in Seomra na Gaeilge and the Pavillion Bar over the years. International students are not and never were the issue. The problem is a tendency in some corners of anglophone Irish society to look for any possible excuse not to give equal status to Ireland’s indigenous language. 

The great irony of most Gaelophobic arguments I hear is that they often come from people who would claim to be staunchly Irish and against the imperialist and discriminatory practices of the past. I’m sure many of them would be startled to hear that the very same arguments they use are espoused by the global right wing such as the Conservative Party in Wales and Scotland against Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, the New Zealand National Party against Māori, the Canadian Conservatives against indigenous languages and French, and Spanish Vox against Basque, Catalan, and Galician. These arguments come from a place of fear and hatred and, therefore, any effort to heal through decolonisation in Ireland must reject this by centreing the promotion of Gaeilge. Any less than that willfully ignores decades of evidence and data and further reduces its status to that of a second-class language. Wherever a service is offered in English, it must be available in Irish. The good news is that change is absolutely possible and that the Irish public continues to show more of the positive will toward Gaeilge needed to make it happen. Now it is time to put that good will to use and take action. 

Every single right the Irish community currently has has been achieved through extensive campaigns fighting tooth and nail. Successive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil governments have flat-out refused to listen and for ages opposed the creation of TG4, Raidió na Gaeltachta, Cearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta, Cúla4, and as recently as this year, Conradh na Gaeilge’s 2023 Plean Fáis for 2024-2029. Even ministers appointed for the Gaeltacht over the last decade have almost all lacked the ability to speak Irish upon appointment. Freedom of Information requests are also not complied with i nGaeilge. In 2014, the first-ever Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, quit his job citing a complete lack of government cooperation. In his statement to the Oireachtas, he stated that continuing in the role meant that he would be contributing to the government’s cur i gcéill, or pretend, regarding the civil rights of Irish speakers. The simple fact of the matter is that they do not care about us. 

It is a simply dumbfounding level of colonial gaslighting that somehow the indigenous language fighting for basic recognition is the problem rather than the imperial British state that tried to destroy it”

It is crucial to remember as well, that all of the above only refers to the 26 counties. The North has proven time and again to be an absolute black hole of human rights when it comes to Gaeilge as the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party stonewall all efforts to even achieve what has already been promised in legally binding commitments. Irish did not even become an official language in the North until 2022. One of the most vile accusations laid at the feet of our community in the North is that it is somehow sectarian to speak our own language. It is a simply dumbfounding level of colonial gaslighting that somehow the indigenous language fighting for basic recognition is the problem rather than the imperial British state that tried to destroy it. The children who grow up in Béal Feirste as native Gaeilgeoirí are not political operatives. They are people who speak their native language and deserve a state that will finally allow them to do so in peace.

Living as an Irish speaker is a fight. We struggle filling out forms that don’t exist in Irish or don’t make sense when they are; we struggle to get places in the general lack of gaelscoileanna and gaelcholáistí for our children; we struggle in publicly owned media to get paid as much as our anglophone counterparts. The fact that we have all that we do now is a testament to our passion and determination to be seen and heard and somehow the same people who bitterly oppose our demands usually end up talking about how fantastic our creations are years later. We, as a minority, have always had the burden of proving ourselves even when the law is on our side. All we are asking is to be met halfway. 

Irish language rights are Irish human rights and here in Tríonóid, our institutions from an Chlárlann Acadúil/Academic Registry to AMLCT/TCDSU need to reflect this with a renewed focus on a real, full future for Gaeilge that lays down specific targets and plans to reach them rather than cheap sentiment. The will for this change is there. We can do it. Ar aghaidh linn.