Acht na Gaeilge: Ciall cheannaigh….bought sense better than taught sense

In welcoming the publication of proposals for an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland, it’s important to remember the old Irish sean-fhocal, Ciall cheannaigh níos fearr ná an dá chiall a mhúintear.  Roughly translated, sense paid for (by bitter experience) is better than two attempts to teach sense.

A pre-publication of the proposals – inspired leaking – in the Irish News this morning gives us a heads up on the main proposals – and these are likely to fuel the fevered ravings of Steven Nolan and co for a couple of monrings.

From the Irish News:

  • Courts – a repeal of the 1737 Act which bans Irish in the courts, introducing the right to speak and use Irish in proceedings.
  • Assembly – equality for Irish in conduct of business in assembly and committees, simultaneous translation, publication of acts and bills in Irish.
  • Irish language commissioner – new post to promote and facilitate use of Irish, oversee and monitor implementation of act, advise public bodies and investigate complaints from the public.  The position of Irish Language Commissioner should be advertised publicly and appointed as the result of a public competition, not the result of a deal behind closed doors between the most powerful parties or OFMDFM.
  • Language schemes – onus on public bodies to to produce schemes to set out how Irish language services will be provided.
  • Gaeltacht areas – Define conditions and boundaries for recognition as a Gaeltacht area.
  • Place names – place names in Irish to be given legal and official recognition and provision for bilingual road signs for Irish to be on a par with English.
  • Education – guarantee of the right to education through the medium of Irish on a par with the English language sector.

I don’t know how these provisions as published in the Irish News will actually translate in the proposed Bill as yet.   There are some about which I would have reservations.

It’s high time the penal law prohibition on the use of Irish in the courts was repealed.  It’s not enforcing Irish in the courts. It’s offering choice to those whose preferred language is Irish.

In the Assembly, use of Irish should be encouraged and speakers who use Irish should not have to provide their own English language translation, thus halving their speaking time, as is currently the practice.   I would not be necessarily in favour of translating all Acts and Bills to Irish as this is a misuse of expertise and scarce resources.   If money is to be spent on translating documents to Irish that are barely read in English, we’re not learning the lessons so bitterly experienced in the south.

An Irish language commissioner gives the language a symbolic status – but it begs the question, given the indication that the Coimisinéir Teanga will be responsible for advising public bodies re the Irish language, what role is left for Foras na Gaeilge, the cross border body which has this role (but which seems to have failed in delivering).

The appointment of an Irish Language Commissioner should be as a result of a public merit based competition – rather than as a behind closed doors pork barrel carve up by the main parties.

The use of Language Schemes to place an onus on public bodies to set how Irish languages services would be provided is another backward step illustrating the lessons from the south have not been learned.  The language schemes are slow to devise and authorities are even slower to deliver their obligations.   Schemes sought by the Irish government from the likes of RTE, with a deadline of April 2010, are yet to be drafted/finalised.

Far better to set out bands of public service bodies with different obligations for each band.  A specific public service body which believes the obligations are too onerous would then have to set out the case why its obligations should be reduced and what services it is prepared to deliver.

While Gaeltacht communities – where Irish is a main/major language of the people – do exist in Northern Ireland as in the rest of Ireland, the idea of defining a Gaeltacht by a geographical area, rather than as a community of people, is problematic in the extreme.   The area of Gaeltachtaí in the south is continually being eroded because the demographics of the Republic are changing.  Gaeltacht families are heading for the cities where there are already thriving Irish language communities while others, whose first language is not Irish, are moving to the Gaeltacht.   Also there is a certain decline in the use of Irish by Gaeltacht families increasingly under pressure from outside influences such as the media etc.

At the very least, this provision should be looked at to ensure it supports Irish language speaking communities.   The definition of a Gaeltacht as an ‘area’ has the potential to do the reverse. The reimagining of a Gaeltacht as a community, now that might open up possibilities.

There is no reason in the wide earthly world for Irish place names NOT to be given legal and offiicial status as most if not all placenames in NI have their roots in Irish.

The right to continued education through the medium of Irish right up to third level should be guaranteed – and provision made for same.

What’s most notably absent from the snap-shot of the provisions of the Bill is any mention about the role of media in promoting the Irish language.   At the very least the provisions signed up to by the British Government in respect of the Irish language and the media in the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages should be given the force of law.   The media is the most powerful force for the promotion of any cultural perspective and if a media body has a public service remit, based on public funding, then, as the promotion of Irish in any part of Ireland is a public benefit, the promotion of Irish should be part of that body’s public service remit.

Culture Minister Caral Uí Chuilinn has done the community some service in persisting to bring forward an Irish Language Bill, whatever shape it takes, and so we will await the formal publication of the Bill and the ensuing public consultation in the anticipation of a mature and considered debate.


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  • streetlegal

    The Irish language has been better served by not being placed under the dead hand of the Stormont bureaucracy, staffed by a crowd of dead head translators. Much better to make any funding available to make the language accessible to all who want to learn it in every town in N.Ireland. I would like to learn Irish myself, but there is no adult class in my town.

  • barnshee

    Happy support all theabove provided its funded from party funds

  • the keep

    I still think my solution will work make Irish the second official language and then no more funding as for Ulster Scots make it the third official language and no more funding if people want to use these languages pay for it yourself.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    As an Irish speaker living and working in Northern Ireland, I already pay my taxes and I think funding the Irish language should come out of tax revenue. Rather spend it on Irish than on useless nuclear missiles….etc

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Party funds to support the Irish language…..then you would be politicising the language. Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid…..please be sensible….

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Good points. There is a role for bureaucracy – but let’s not make it bureaucracy heavy, as these proposals appear to be….

  • Ernekid

    I’d hope that an Irish language act would be closely modelled on existing Welsh and Scottish language legislation.

    Would Unionists oppose ‘British’ standards for minority language promotion and protection?

  • the keep

    Or on Schools Benefits Nhs etc?

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    No – I’m paying for them too. Thousands of millions are spent on ‘defence’ every year – with very little outcry from those who are normally so prudent about our public purse. Here’s another proposal – take the money from the HSBC which has been hidden away by Britain’s wealthiest people from the taxman….and spend that on the missiles.

  • barnshee

    You pay SFA for “defence”- NI runs on an English supplied “overdraft” if you want to borrow more for extra expenditure have the decency to borrow it and pay for it yourself

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    It’s a funny type of United Kingdom you live in Barnshee. I pay taxes to HMRC. How HMG spends that revenue concerns me – whether it’s on an ‘overdraft’ to fund this particular part of the UK or on missiles in Scotland or wherever else in the UK. If I were to follow the logic of your argument, NI is separate from the UK, politically as well as geographically, and only the kindness of the benificent English keeps us going. Whatever way it breaks down, the UK spends far more tax revenue on defence, which I regard as dead money, than it does on culture/language, which I consider to be the public good.
    Of course, it’s not the only way in which some unionists cherrypick the Union – they wouldn’t have legislation protecting the Irish language in NI as there is protecting the Gaidhlig language in Scotland or Welsh in Wales, lest it put NI on an equal footing with those other regions. A bit shortsighted to say the least…..

  • Demolinguist


    Like you, I have doubts about the need and feasibility of some of these proposals. No doubt Minister Ní Chuilín (who can’t be bothered to learn Irish to a sufficient standard to engage in interviews in the language) is going for the most ambitious Bill possible in the hopes that most of the provisions will become law in the end.

    Irish speakers in NI may be in for a rude awakening. While there has been serious difficulty in implementing the Official Languages Act 2003 in the South (the Act currently under review btw), and much indifference and inertia on the part of public bodies, it also seems increasingly clear that there are simply not enough fluent Irish speakers to go around. The demand isn’t there and the number of truly fluent Irish speakers able to provide services through the medium of Irish to a standard that would make it worthwhile (as opposed to just using English!) is also too low at present.

    Those gaeilgeoirí and republicans in the North who are seeking MORE than feel-good symbolism, cultural ornamentation, and official recognition for the Irish language will likely be disappointed by whatever results from the consultation process and future language Bill. How many children in Northern Ireland are being raised in Irish-speaking households currently, for example? It’s less than 2,000 in the Gaeltacht in the South…

    Irish actually has relatively little room for growth. Universal bilingualism among its speakers and the passing every year of what may be termed ‘Irish dominant’ native speakers (not really a factor in NI, but moreso in the South) weaken Irish further.

    People who seek true revitalisation (i.e. increase in the number of native Irish-speaking children, usage across most or all domains, not just educational and ‘cultural’ ones, a vibrant Irish print media) will probably be disappointed. What’s more likely, assuming Irish gains official status in Northern Ireland, is a replication of what occurred in the first few decades after partition in the Free State/ROI…a significant increase in the number of people with a passive, incomplete knowledge of Irish, acquired in school, and an increase in status and prestige for the language, but little change in organic growth, intergenerational transmission.

  • barnshee

    “NI is separate from the UK, politically as well as geographically, and only the kindness of the benificent English keeps us going”

    Out of your own mouth what more can I say

    “Whatever way it breaks down, the UK spends far more tax revenue on defence, which I regard as dead money, than it does on culture/language, which I consider to be the public good.”

    Shakes his head— ITS THEIR MONEY to do with as they will

    1 Beg them for more or
    2 Raise it yourself

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Unless you don’t believe in a UK, it’s OUR money as much as it is theirs…. in fact there is no theirs….. I feel strange, light-headed. Am I really arguing for a unionist to understand better what it means to be a unionist? Or is he just so blinded by his anti Irish sentiment that he will deny his own beliefs in order to spite Irish speakers…..?

  • barnshee

    “Unless you don’t believe in a UK, it’s OUR money as much as it is theirs…. in fact there is no theirs..”

    Happy with that. Raise “our” money spend it as you like and don`t ask those damned English to top it up

  • Reader

    Concubhar: The right to continued education through the medium of Irish right up to third level should be guaranteed – and provision made for same.
    So standard undergraduate physics textbooks get translated into Irish for the scientists and Top Gear gets dubbed into Irish for the media studies crowd?

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    What language is Top Gear in anyhow? I never understood it to be English….
    It stands to reason that if a student studies physics at second level and wants to pursue this study, he shouldn’t be disadvantaged wrt other students if he wishes to continue his studies in his chosen language. I am talking in general about a sensiible approach and if you want to go down every tangent available, that’s fine, but I realise that there are budgetary considerations that have to be weighed. However that’s not in any way to go against the principle that there needs to be provision for Irish language education. This is part of the outcome of the Peace Process to which all parties and governments have signed up.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    the same rule applies as applies in any china shop you care to wander into – you break it you pay for it.

  • streetlegal

    This is all irrelevent in any case as the proposed Bill can never pass into law. Sinn Fein had the opportunity to make such an Act part of the recent Stormont Agreement – but they let it drop. No point in crying about it now.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Why should it be part of the Stormont House Agreement, given it was already in the St Andrew’s Agreement? One builds on the other, it doesn’t circumscribe the other.

  • streetlegal

    Agreements are only window dressing. If Sinn Fein had been serious about passing an Irish language Act, they would have forced the issue when both the DUP and the British government were under pressure in December. Now they have no leverage – so all we are getting is hot air and pre-election grand-standing from the Sinn Fein Culture Minister.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Perhaps. But, if what you say yourself is true, agreements are only window dressing. So the absence of the ILA from Stormont Agreement makes no odds. If SF wants to get it passed, the opportunity may well arise between here and 2016’s Assembly Election, or even before, when the DUP need something….. we’ve been here before and it’s better that there’s something concrete on the table and this consultation is as good a start as any…..A week is a long time in politics and, er, Events, dear boy, events…

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Concubhar, I remember trying to expalin about British rights and equality under law to some serious Unionists in my extended family back in the heady NICRA/PD days of 1968. I think that they thought Britishness meant agreeing with them, and anything else was unBritish.

    Sir Charles Petrie, founder of the MHSI, tells a story of some Irish Unionists at Oxford back in the 1870s saying they’d kick the Queen’s crown into the Boyne if she disagreed with them, and that was the sainted Queen Victoria!

  • Reader

    Concubhar O Liathain: “I am talking in general about a sensiible approach and if you want to go down every tangent available, that’s fine, but I realise that there are budgetary considerations that have to be weighed.”
    Contradicts:“The right … through the medium of Irish right up to third level… guaranteed”
    The second statement is basically an assurance that every tangent will be followed, as Carál Ní Chuilín and the DCAL lawyers will no doubt point out in due course.

  • Jay

    The worst thing that could happen to SF and the Irish language is if the DUP back it.
    Unionist opposition, with the likes of Alister and Campbell are much better promoters than any bill ever will be!

  • streetlegal

    You might be right – but Sinn Fein looks extremely weak on this issue at present.

  • Old Mortality

    I constantly read this old mantra of “I already pay my taxes” and, this being Northern Ireland, I’m pretty sure that in many cases it comes from the pen of people whose income is received from the state.
    So does what you pay in taxes exceed any income which you may receive from the state, either directly or indirectly?
    If the answer is negative you are not a genuine taxpayer.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    What utter crap, OM. Your tune never changes. Whatever work I do I receive a wage for and pay taxes on that. Whether it’s from the State or not makes no odds because the work is to be done, the State believes it needs to be done and therefore people who work for the State deserve to be paid a fair wage. They pay taxes and if you look at their or my wage slip, you will see that tax is deducted from it. Am I a genuine tax payer? Yes, too f***ing right I am.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    One of the most exciting aspects of the learning of Irish over the past twenty years has been those classes that Irish medium Primary schools offer for parents who want to use Irish with their growing children in everyday life. I’ve been in a number of homes over the past ten years where the children are entirely bi-lingual, and while playing use Irish perfectly naturally in their games. While it is an excellent thing for us all to strive to take classes as adults, the future in my mind is with such work, but the presence of irish throughout the state these children will live and function within can only be a conformation of its naturalness for them.

  • Old Mortality

    It sounds as if you are dependent on the state for a living so let me put it this way. Your ‘taxes’ are less than you earn, even after taking VAT and other indirect taxes into consideration. So who pays the remainder of your salary? The taxes of another state employee whose income exceeds their tax payments?

    My tune never changes because it is the correct one. It’s just that people like you constantly need reminding of an obvious truth that you’d prefer to ignore.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    I am not ‘dependent’ on the State for a living. Your analysis is wrong headed in the extreme as it does not take into account basic economics. Your ‘analysis’ taken to its logical (and that’s a strange word to use in connection with what you’re writing) t end, the State should not exist – but then how would we educate our children, treat our sick etc. You put no value on public service which invariably is of better value than a similar service delivered outside the public sector….

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    There’s a point where this ceases to be funny.

  • Kevin Breslin

    How would I prioritize the list –
    1. Courts – freedom from discrimination, redundant law.
    2. Assembly – freedom of speech rights, minority language rights
    3. Language schemes – minority language rights
    4. Education – minority language rights
    5. Gaeltacht areas – minority language rights
    6. Place names – minority language rights
    7. Irish commissioner – ???