Joe McHugh has been the nearest thing Dublin has had to a Minister of State with responsibility for Northern Ireland. He’s made the most of his parliamentary role as Chair of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and co-chair of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly.
As Harry McGee points out, “he should really have been promoted years ago…”
As the newly appointed Minister of State for the Gaeltacht he’s getting stick for not being fluent, and operating under another Ulster based Minister who is also not fluent in the Irish state’s official language.
McHugh’s home area is itself an indication of just how perilous the language is in or near its home base. Officially, it is in the Gaeltacht area. To all practical purposes, the actual Irish speaking area starts up the road in Downings and, I suspect, is only thickly found amongst older folk up towards Melmore Head.
It’s the same all over Donegal, which was at independence the largest contiguous tract of primary Irish speakers on the island. Just across the Blaney bridge in Fanad, where my own family is from, only the local Irish medium schools (which arrived two generations too late to preserve the integrity of the local near Scots Gaelic dialect) preserve the areas official status.
My own father had no English worth speaking of when he went to the local English medium school. Now, mostly through politeness, decency towards strangers and sheer forgetfulness that comes with long disuse it’s the enthusiastic youngsters there who keep it fresh and alive.
Of course McHugh’s appointment has a political purpose (when does a ministerial appointment not have one?). In a new five seat Donegal, he needs to grab as much of Dinny McGinley’s vote as he possibly can before the veteran west Gaeltacht man steps down.
But, and I suspect McGinley’s not alone in this regard as Harry notes…
…having fluency in Irish provided absolutely no guarantee that the language would be protected or preserved. McHugh’s predecessor Dinny McGinley is a native speaker with mellifluous Donegal Gaeltacht Irish – but poor budgets and indifference at senior levels in Government to the language ultimately meant he was an ineffectual minister.
That’s the problem for the remaining Irish speakers point of view. It’s also hampered by an officialdom unwilling to accept that now down at the sharp for the language smart thinking (though not too smart) is required to preserve and even grow what’s left.
Major policy initiatives can have a lasting and positive effect on the language, the setting up of Raidio na Gaeltachta for instance, and to a lesser extent the TG4. Both went with the grain of dispersal, re-aggregating audiences on air, and latterly online.
But, it seems to me, it’s the preservation of Irish as local lingua franca that’s the greater challenge which is the most pressing problem. Under the care of insiders the language has failed to prosper and its speakers continue to complain of creeping marginalisation.
The guiding policy is the 20-year strategy for Irish, published in 2010 by the previous government. Its aim is to increase the number of daily speakers of Irish from 83,000 to 250,000 by 2039.And the strategy sets out an ambitious series of targets and milestones to allow that lofty aim to be achieved.
The Government inherited the strategy but did commit to implement it. But the evidence of implementation so far is that it is minimalistic and fitful. The die was cast when in the run-up the election Kenny suggested ending compulsory Irish for the Leaving Certificate.
He said there were other ways of preserving and teaching the language but did not specify any.
Former language commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin said it would take 28 years for the level of Irish speakers to reach 3 per cent. In fact, so frustrated was Ó Cuirreáin that he resigned from office in protest.
One of his gripes was that it was impossible to say if the strategy was being implemented. Dinny McGinley made a great play of the fact that the Taoiseach allocated €500,000 extra to implement the strategy but that, in relative terms, is a drop in the ocean.
Besides the Act; some groundwork on strategy, and increasing by a week the time student teachers can spent in the Gaeltacts, little has been done in the first four and a half years of the strategy.
Of course, McHugh can’t be expected to turn it all around in 20 months. But if he can improve the outcomes as much as he improves his Irish this week it will be: “tús maith leath na hoibre”!
Yep. Policy wise, if you were going to start from anywhere, then it wouldn’t be from here. Oideas Gael on the other hand, is a great start for anyone seeking to return to or getting to know to the language for the first time. Ah, if only we could clone Liam Ó Cuinneagáin.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty