Thursday, 14 July 2011

Compulsory English and Compulsory Suits

A fierce debate has been raging in the letters pages of the Irish Times and Irish Independent this week over language fanaticism and extremism.

It all started over two typically hyperbolic letters complaining about money 'wasted' on bilingual leaflets printed by state bodies. They argued that as everyone speaks English there is no need for any of this material to be made available in Irish.

Last year I wrote an article for the website (which unfortunately is no longer available due to changes in the site's layout) which pointed out that such an attitude is effectively arguing for compulsory, lifelong English for everyone in the State.

I also pointed out that if someone who forces Irish on others is to be labelled an Irish language fanatic, then someone who forces English on others is an English language fanatic. Some of the letter writers have made similar points, while one claimed that the 'cost' of translating one of the leaflets mentioned would be about €8.

Another letter says that Ireland is a 'wholly English-speaking nation' and always has been, which is false on both counts and a nice way to deny the existence of Irish speakers. It also claims that 'forcing' Irish on people has made people hate the language.

It's true that people do hate Irish, but people have been hating Irish for hundreds of years, long before 'compulsory Irish' or the Official Languages Act. Throughout the vast majority of that time there was one very simple reason the Irish language was hated, because it was the Irish language. This is the reason extremist British nationalists hated and continue to hate the language.

Many people from the Irish nationalist tradition also hated the language long before 'compulsory Irish' or the Official Languages Act.

In 1845 Thomas Davis wrote that the middle classes in Ireland think it a “sign of vulgarity” to speak Irish, while Douglas Hyde wrote in 1896 “that it is considered a disgrace in most Irish cities to speak Irish.” In 1926 the Gaeltacht Commission stated that in relation to the language “the educated were ignorant of it; and they protected their position by affecting to despise it, or often despising it with conviction.”

These were adults who had gone through the education system before Irish became compulsory, yet they despised the language, some of them “with conviction”.

There is a fallacy at the heart of the 'I hate Irish because it's compulsory in school' argument.

If this theory were true then we will shortly see a massive increase in hatred for suits among members of the Dáil. New rules are set to be introduced to make it compulsory to wear a suit in the chamber. A small number of TDs have objected to being forced to wear a suit - the TDs who don't wear one at present.

The rest of the members don't object to the rule, and won't end up hating suits because of the new compulsion, because they agree with wearing suits already. The TDs who object to the 'compulsory suits' rule don't want to wear a suit in the first place, not because there is a new rule forcing them to do so.

It's high time we had an honest debate about the real roots of hatred of the Irish language. The reason this hasn't happened, and that people make ludicrous arguments to justify their objections, is that bigotry and fear lie at the heart of this hatred.

I and many others speak Irish because it's the Irish language, so it should be no surprise that others rejects and hate the language for the same reason.

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