A week ago (on 31 October), the Irish-language channel, TG4, celebrated its first twenty years in existence; its advent had been greeted with scepticism by many and the cost of establishing and running the station had been resented by some. While Irish as the ‘national language’ has the status of first official language in the Irish Republic (English being the second), Irish speakers are in a minority; of a total population of around 4.5 million people, some 1.77 million answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘Can you speak Irish’ in the 2011 Census. However, as few as 1% of the population may be habitual speakers of the language, i.e. those for whom Irish is the main home, work and/or community language.
As part of the celebration of its anniversary on TG4, a short film by Niamh Ní Bhaoill was broadcast on the difficulties of belonging to the Irish-speaking minority in the independent Irish state. The actress voicing the concerns of the Irish-language community suggested that it is easier not to be an Irish speaker in contemporary Ireland and longed for a situation in which one could speak one’s language without always having to assert rights, demand services, and defend its position. The film ends on a defiant note: ní ghéillfidh mise, is í mo theanga í ‘I will not surrender; it is my language’. Irish speakers have reason to be particularly sensitive at the moment; two months ago a native Irish speaker from Kerry felt obliged to leave his job as a barman in Cork having been told by his boss not to speak Irish at work as it was ‘an English-speaking business’. It was alleged that the owner had received complaints from customers who had felt ‘uncomfortable’ at the bar on hearing the barman speaking Irish, usually with another native speaker with whom he worked or, on occasion, with other staff or customers who had an interest in the language and who were pleased to hear it spoken. Following adverse reaction, the pub released a statement in which it alluded to the fact that its staff includes people of ‘six different nationalities who all speak their native language’; these people ‘respect that, while at work, the most sensible and practical language to speak is English.’ The pub had a dress code for employees and, likewise, a single working language ‘because it’s a hospitality business.’ When elaborating further, the owner stated that no distinction was being made between Irish and other languages, in this regard, and added that ‘we’re all Europeans after all’. In other words, the business felt no reason to favour the ‘national language’ over other European languages, similarly excluded from the world of work in this case, as we all speak English anyway.
A number of points emerge from this which may seem surprising to those who are unfamiliar with the complexity of language and identity in Ireland. The ‘pub incident’ happened in Cork, not Belfast, and charges of discrimination cannot be connected, on this occasion, to questions of sovereignty, ethnic division, and contested space. The Irish language had a crucial role in the growth of a cultural nationalism in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century; however, by 1919, this nationalism had morphed into a political and military push for independence in tandem with the emergence of a new identity and literature in English. For some, its place in Irish life since then has been largely symbolic, a language to be seen (on signposts), and endured (at school), but otherwise confined to the small Irish-speaking districts (the Gaeltacht) and excluded from most domains of public life. This absence from the public domain is the backdrop to one of the most popular short films in the Irish language, Yu Ming is ainm dom (www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqYtG9BNhfM), the story of a young Chinese man who, having learned Irish in China, struggles to find anybody with whom to speak the language on his arrival in Anglophone Ireland until an encounter with someone in a pub points him in the direction of the Gaeltacht. All linguistic encounters in Irish pubs need not be negative, therefore!
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