Why, I wonder, did nobody say that yesterday’s leaders’ debate on TG Ceathair was a waste of time? Or maybe even provocative? It was conducted in Irish and as we know learning Irish is a fruitless pursuit and using it only alienates northern unionists. Right?
Well no, not really. In fact completely wrong. Learning Irish is truly worthwhile, helping keep alive an ancient language that is gloriously expressive and part of our national identity. So it was satisfying to see Enda Kenny, Micheal Martin and Eamon Gilmore able to debate in Irish, and by doing so endorsing the language. Right?
Well, almost right. The fluency of the three men involved was impressive (did they learn off any of their answers, I wonder?) and the pity is that most of us needed sub-titles to follow the debate. Unlike Monday’s debate, yesterday’s excluded the Greens’ leader John Gormley and Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams. Gormley’s fluency I suspect is limited, as is that of Adams. So maybe both were secretly relieved they weren’t invited to the debate. Ironically Kenny, perhaps the most fluent of the three last night, plans to make the learning of Irish optional after Junior Certificate, and in doing so will inflict a terrible wound not just on Gaeltacht areas but on the language itself.
Which brings us to Sinn Féin and Irish. You’ll hear some people say they cringe when they hear Gerry Adams speak Irish – partly, they say, because his Irish is wooden and hesitant, partly because, like other Shinners, he uses it to upset unionists. They’re right about the wooden and hesitant part – but does that mean he shouldn’t use it? If you don’t dance gracefully or sing sweetly, should you stay seated with your mouth shut? And what level of fluency would be required before Adams or any of us would be judged acceptable? As to alienating unionism, consider public prayer by Muslims. This sight upsets some people; mercifully, the rest of us dismiss them as bigots, incapable of accepting diversity. Likewise, what kind of troglodyte thinking gets annoyed when it hears a few words of someone’s language? Imagine being similarly annoyed at hearing a French person use French or a Spaniard Spanish. And speaking of provincialism: might Peter Robinson find time to shift his critical gaze from Catholic schools onto Protestant schools, not one of which – and there are hundreds of them – offers the Irish language to its pupils?
So good for Kenny, Martin and Gilmore, and good too for Gormley and Adams – you don’t have to be Olympics-level to make a worthwhile contribution. And shame on those who sneer at imperfect fluency, and shame too on those who lock the minds of their young against a language so subtle, sweet and liberating.