Let's have a Referendum on the Status of Irish
Foilsithe ag Colin Murphy, The Sunday Business Post, 31/01/2016
The Irish language is dying. A referendum debate on our first language could actually be its saviour.
"When the Irish language is quite dead", wrote Roger Casement, we will realise "that a race has passed away from the family of men, and that an ancient nation has ceased to exist."
"That the nation may live", wrote Patrick Pearse, "the Irish life.... must be conserved." That life was principally vested in the language; when the "last repositor" of that died, the Irish nation would be no more.
"Any free state that might thereafter be erected in Ireland, whatever it might call itself, would certainly not be the historic Irish nation."
The Irish language is not "quite dead" - yet. Its death has been predicted for at least 300 years; it has proved remarkable resilient. But it is dying. A landmark 2007 study found that in the strongest Gaeltachts, Irish had, at most, 20 years left as the dominant language. An update last year found that the decline was happening quicker than anticipated: Ireland had ten years left as vernacular, it said. Why? The vast majority of children now being raised in Irish are unlikely to raise their own children in Irish. They are likely to be the last generation of native born Irish speakers.
This would have horrified Pearse and Casement. Though the language gets just token recognition in the Proclamation, which opens with "Poblacht na hÉireann" before moving to English, both were passionate language revivalists.
That cause was neither peripheral nor quixotic. Other places managed to revive languages during the 20th century: Wales; Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain; Israel.
The enshrining of Irish as the first language in the 1937 Constitution was legally spurious (the Constitution was drafted in English, so the primacy of the Irish version is nonsensical), but de Valera was a talented linguist, and his commitment to the language was real.
Two great policy mistakes were subsequently made: making Irish mandatory in the Leaving Cert, and removing the requirement for Irish in the civil service.
Mandatory school Irish, perversely, made Irish pointless. For most students, it became purely a technical requirement; for educators, it removed any incentive to attract people to the language.
Mandatory Irish for the civil service, on the other hand, was a real incentive to learn the language, and one that then created the possibility of the language being spoken within the bureaucracy. As recently as the 1970s, an entire government department - Education - functioned largely through Irish.
The great success of policy since has been growth in the numbers speaking Irish as a second language, largely led by the gaelscoileanna movement. But this obscures the bleak reality that the numbers speaking it as a first language are in catastrophic decline.
Is that decline terminal? It may be - languages are spoken by people, and people are messy, unpredictable things. There is no guarantee that it can be saved, no matter the investment.
But there is, at least, a plan for how to try and save it. One of the authors of the Comprehensive Linguistic Study in 2007, Prof Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, has proposed a "New Deal" for the langauge and the Gaeltacht. At its core is the need to re-establish communities with sufficient density of Irish speakers to ensure the language remains a community language. That is a challenge. Nobody wants to set up ring-fenced enclaves in which something like ethnic profiling is imposed to protect the language. Establishing such communities would require a complex mix of incentives and supports - and it might not work. There are two alternatives, both of which are easier. One is to continue as we are. People like me will give their children Irish names and send them to gaelscoileanna and report them as Irish speakers in the census, and the government will trumpet these numbers as evidence of success and, meanwhile, the Gaeltacht will quietly die.
The other is to embrace the death of the language, rather than ignoring it. Abandon the notional commitment to Irish altogether: let the language sink or swim based purely on demographics and demand. The end result will be the same but this, at least, has an honesty to it.
That would require a referendum to remove Irish as the first language. But such a referendum could be an opportunity, not a threat. There are good arguments to be made for abandoning the sham status of Irish as first language. But there are better arguments, I believe, to be made for doing all we can to save it as a real, spoken language. A referendum debate would be the best way of airing them. And a referendum endorsement for the language would create a real mandate for investing in it. Last year, for the first time in my life, I spoke Irish because I needed to, in order to communicate. I was on my first visit to Inis Meáin and met people who were more comfortable speaking Irish than English.
That transforms the experience of learning the language. It turns a recreational activity into an authentic means of communication. But there are not many such people left, and few communities where Irish is the authentic means of communication, rather than merely a hobby. When they go, the anchor of the language is gone. When that happens, we will have lost something incalculable - Pearse and Casement would say we have lost the nation. That would be some achievement for a century of national activism.