Sell the cows, rent out the farm

Colin Murphy

Colin Murphy


On a Thursday evening last March, thirty-five people packed into a small room with a creaky floor and old, dark furniture in Quaker House in Brussels. The house is an elegant, century-old building on Ambiorix Square in the Schuman district, which is home to the EU institutions, and is the headquarters of the Quaker Council for European Affairs. Once a fortnight, the Claddagh Toastmasters, a Brussels section of the international public-speaking organization, uses one of the Quakers’ rooms for a meeting.

This was a special event for the Toastmasters: a public lecture by one of their members, a long-serving Irish diplomat called Seán Ó Riain, at the conclusion of the first ever Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish-language week) in Brussels. The week’s events included a ‘ciorcal comhrá’ at the Old Oak pub, near the European Commission headquarters, an ‘oíche caidrimh, ceoil agus craic’ at the offices of Nasc, an organization that acts as a liaison between the West of Ireland and Europe, and the annual Irish-language Mass, which Ó Riain and his colleagues now hope to make a more frequent event.* The invitation had promised a talk on ‘the history and nature of the Irish language, with colourful and amusing comparisons to other languages’. Members and guests gathered from 6.45 p.m. for tea, coffee and biscuits, and the lecture began at 7 p.m. sharp.

Seán Ó Riain opened with a comparison of which he is particularly fond. Nearly 5 per cent of Jean-Claude Polet’s twelve-volume Patrimoine littéraire européen (1992), an anthology of the literature of Europe, is devoted to literature in the Irish language, he said. Yet just 6 per cent of the original three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing deals with Irish-language literature.

‘My question,’ he said. ‘Why did a Belgian professor give 200 times more importance to literature in Irish than did English-speaking Irishmen?’

Or, in other words: if the Irish language is such an integral part of the European patrimony, why do the Irish typically care so little about it?

Seán Ó Riain’s mother was a Gaeilgeoir and, as a child in Lattin-Cullen, Co. Tipperary, he would speak Irish with her and with his younger brother, Donncha. But when their father was present, they would switch to English.

‘He’d tell us to switch back. Even though he doesn’t speak Irish, he loved to hear it spoken. He’d tell us, “The fact that you speak it means that 700 years of colonization didn’t succeed.”’

Seán Ó Riain studied Irish at university and then entered the Department of Foreign Affairs, later returning to complete a doctorate on Irish-language policy; he has spent twenty-eight years as a diplomat, working in Austria, Australia, Poland and Germany before moving to Brussels a few years ago. Upon the recognition of Irish as an official language of the European Union at the beginning of 2007, he was seconded to the European Commission as a national expert with a brief to be the liaison between the Commission and the Irish government on Irish-language matters. He runs an Irish-language version of the Commission’s website,, making sure the home page is fully translated, and translating key articles from the English-language site. Recently he inserted a deliberate Anglicization into an article: he translated the neologism ‘to go green’ as the literal ‘dul glas’, rather than ‘éirí glas’. He was rewarded when the Commission received an angry complaint from a reader.

Seán Ó Riain is an avid linguist, speaking French, Polish, German, Spanish, Welsh … and Esperanto. His wife is Swiss, and their children speak Irish with their father, French with their mother, English at the European school they attend, and German as their second school language. Over lunch in Brussels, I asked him to speak some Esperanto, and he promptly recited the Lord’s Prayer; ‘It’s something you’ll be able to follow,’ he said. He gave me a small printed card that, he said, contained all the grammar necessary to speak Esperanto (which has no irregular verbs or grammatical exceptions) and a copy of an Esperanto textbook he translated into Irish, Esperanto Tríd An Modh Díreach. He believes Esperanto ought to be taught in schools as a precursor to learning another foreign language: the ease of learning it would build confidence in young people to learn other languages. In an email after we met, he asked me to mention this in my article. ‘It is the golden key, the sine qua non,’ he said. He is involved in a small initiative within the institutions of the EU to disseminate this idea. Sixteen MEPS have so far lent it their support.

Ó Riain said he believed official status for the Irish language finally allowed Ireland to appear at the EU ‘as a country in its own right, with its own language and culture and traditions, and not some kind of wayward western province of England who for some reason became independent’. There were more practical considerations, too. ‘To get a job in Europe, the Irish had to have English plus two other languages, plus Irish. We were shooting our own people in the foot.’

Seán Ó Riain’s brother, Donncha, did a Master’s in Irish, and then moved back home to run the family farm in Lattin-Cullen. At Christmas a couple of years ago, Donncha was complaining about the poor return for his work on the farm. Seán said to him: ‘Why not think of buying a computer, and any time you’d a spare few hours, you could do a bit of translating and email it off?’

Donncha Ó Riain bought a computer, and got himself registered on the panel of translators maintained by Foras na Gaeilge. ‘The work started to pour in,’ Seán told me. ‘He found there was less and less time for the cows.’

Then, last year, Donncha saw an advertisement seeking Irish-language translators for the European Council. He texted Seán: ‘ta post gaeilge sa bhruiseil. suim agam ann.’ (‘There’s an Irish-language job in Brussels. Am interested.’) In a series of lengthy, nightly phone conversations in Irish, Seán coached him for his interview on the workings of the institutions.

Last November, Donncha Ó Riain sold his sixty cows, rented out the farm, and moved to Brussels.


On 15 April 1958, Regulation Number 1, ‘determining the languages to be used by the European Economic Community’, was passed by the Council of the European Economic Community. Article 1 read, ‘The official languages and the working languages of the institutions of the Community shall be Dutch, French, German and Italian.’

Article 1 has been amended a number of times in the past fifty years, and now reads, ‘The official languages and the working languages of the institutions of the Community shall be Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish.’

The burden of multilingualism has been immense. In the Commission alone, 2,200 staff produced 1,324,231 pages of translation in 2005. Demand soared with the accession of ten new members in 2004, which brought with them nine new official languages. (Cyprus was the exception; its national language is Greek.) In response, the Commission introduced a ‘demand management’ strategy, under which departments were told not to produce documents of more than 15 pages in length (the average had been 37 pages). By 2006, the multilingual regime cost €800 million per year.

The accession was one of the key events of the Irish presidency of the European Union in 2004. The other key event was the agreement amongst heads of state on a constitutional treaty, brokered by the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. (The treaty was subsequently defeated in referendums in France and the Netherlands, and revised as the Lisbon Treaty, the future of which is uncertain, following its defeat in the Irish referendum.) Ahern’s Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition governments of 1997 and 2002 pledged in their programmes for government to pursue official status for Irish in the EU, and the issue enjoyed cross-party support in the Dáil. The rise of the accession languages in 2004 provoked Irish-language campaigners to renewed efforts, and fed a view in government that the time was right to press the issue. Ireland’s role in brokering the constitutional treaty was seen as helping to create the conditions whereby official status might be granted.

Yet, the campaign seeking official status was not a straightforward one. At least three EU countries – Spain, the Netherlands and Austria – objected to the Irish request. Madrid was seeking recognition of three of its regional languages, and reluctant to support Ireland’s claim without receiving its own guarantees. Amsterdam was objecting to increased costs and bureaucracy in the EU generally, following a rise in Euro-scepticism and the defeat of the constitutional treaty in a referendum there. Vienna’s objections, according to two sources I spoke to, arose from the observations of a young diplomat in Dublin, who had reported that nobody in Ireland used Irish. (The Austrian embassy spokesman in Dublin told me that that was not the sole issue at stake for Vienna.)

Spain’s objections were overcome by a separate agreement on its own languages but, with the deadline for a decision looming, the Netherlands and Austria were still opposed. One of the Irish members of the European Parliament, Seán Ó Neachtain, received a call from a senior official at the Irish Permanent Representation in Brussels on the night of 9 June 2005. ‘It’s all over,’ he was told. ‘We can’t get agreement.’ But by the time the member state ambassadors sat down again the following Monday, 13 June, the objections had disappeared. There was unanimous agreement that Irish should be welcomed as the twenty-first official language of the European Union.

The change in fortunes appears to have been down to some last-minute phone calling by Bertie Ahern. Although the Austrian Embassy spokesman told me there was no contact between the Taoiseach and Chancellor on this issue, Seán Ó Neachtain told me he was told by a senior diplomat that Ahern had intervened personally over the final weekend, and another diplomatic source confirmed this account.

Seán Ó Neachtain meets me in the queue for visitor accreditation in the bustling lobby of the European Parliament. Ó Neachtain is the Fianna Fáil MEP for the North West region, and has just watched Bertie Ahern announce his resignation on TV. He is distracted, fielding calls on his mobile phone, in Irish, from the Irish-language media. A intense, balding, bespectacled man skips ahead of us in the queue, with his visitors, and remonstrates with us as he does so. I object, mildly. ‘Go fuck yourself,’ he says, and ushers his group away.

The woman at the accreditation counter smiles when I ask for the man’s name, and writes it down on a post-it, handing it to me with my day pass. ‘Paul van Buitenen,’ says the post-it. (I learn later that van Buitenen, a Dutch MEP, was the whistleblower who exposed corruption in the European Commission in 1998, leading to the resignation of the commissioners.)

Seán Ó Neachtain was thirteen or fourteen before he learned English properly, when he was sent to secondary school in Galway. At primary school in Spiddal, Irish was the language of the playground.

‘I will never forget my roots,’ he says later, over a café rus in the Parliament’s bar, which is known as Mickey Mouse, apparently on account of the soft-edged, primary-coloured seats. ‘My family in Connemara. The Irish language. If I lost that, I would lose my own soul.’

English is the language of his old primary school’s playground today. Still, Ó Neachtain feels that Irish is experiencing a revival. ‘Irish is modern. It’s new. Irish is chic. It’s a symbol of a new, dynamic age.’

Seán Ó Neachtain made his maiden speech to the European Parliament on 3 July 2002, four and a half years before Irish was officially recognized. Yet he spoke in Irish, providing the interpreters with a copy of the speech in English so that they could interpret it into the other official languages simultaneously.

We walk into the empty parliament chamber, its 700-plus seats fanning out from the podium. Twenty-three interpreters’ booths look down on the chamber, one for each official EU language. ‘Gaeilge’ reads the sign on booth 21. Seán Ó Neachtain points to it.

‘It’s the symbol,’ he says, and raises his hand in a fist, and sweeps his arm over the empty chamber.

In January of this year, the Irish Examiner devoted a front-page article and a full page inside to an exposé of the precise cost of that symbol. Reporter Mary Regan calculated that a total of twenty-eight minutes of Irish was spoken in the European Parliament during 2007. At a total annual cost for Irish-language interpretation services at the Parliament of €360,000, this was equivalent to a cost of just under €13,000 per minute of Irish. The Parliament sat for fifty-six days during 2007; there are two interpreter shifts per parliamentary day, and two interpreters man each booth, each shift. The four interpreters employed per day had to interpret a daily average of thirty seconds of Irish.

The Sunday Tribune had greeted the commencement of official status with an article on 31 December 2006 headlined, ‘Not enough translators as Irish becomes EU official language’. There had been ‘teething problems’ sourcing ‘fully-trained interpreters’, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs admitted, though he said freelance interpreters had been hired in the meantime.

The Irish Times ran a front-page story in October 2007 headlined, ‘Brush up on your Gaeilge, EU warns Government’, reporting that the European Commission had rebuked the government for its lack of readiness for official-language status. The article was based on comments contained in a ‘briefing note’ prepared for the Commissioner for Multilingualism, Leonard Orban, in advance of his meeting with members of the Irish government, and cited claims that the ‘official grammar’ of the Irish language was out of date and out of print, that the Government had badly underestimated the amount of translation that would be necessary following official status, and that there was an ‘acute shortage of interpreters’.

‘Typical seoiníns’, says Seán Ó Riain, over lunch, when I mention these stories. ‘They just want to pick at the cost figures to attack the Irish language.’

A seoinín, he says, is ‘an Irish person who likes to ape the English, to pretend we’re an English province, who’s ashamed of the Irish language. Those who follow the fashion in London but are always about six months behind it. It was used a lot about a century ago. D.P. Moran in The Leader used use it.’

(In The Philosophy of Irish Ireland, in 1905, D.P. Moran wrote: ‘A national language will differentiate us from the rest of the world, and keep us ever in mind that we are an entity of original and historic growth, not a parasite stuck on to the side of England because our own heart was too weak to keep the vital spark in us.’)

Killing time after lunch, I wander into Infeuropa, the European Commission’s public information office, just off the Schuman roundabout. A glass and steel elevator opens into a spacious office of tables holding neat piles of booklets, breezy posters, document racks, filing cabinets and computer workstations. It is impeccable, and empty, and the inescapable gaze of the smiling attendant at the counter invites a query.

‘Do you have documents in all EU languages?’

‘Yes,’ she says, assertively.

‘Do you have anything in Irish?’

‘Eh. No.’ She laughs guiltily, and wrinkles her brow. ‘I think we may have a poster.’

She confers with two other staff on whether there may be an Irish poster. They conclude, after a time, that there isn’t.

One of them points to a telephone with a bank of pre-set buttons, and suggests I phone in a query. Each button is labelled with a different language. I pick up the receiver and press ‘Gaeilge’. A recorded message, in Irish, presents various options, and I choose to speak to someone. The phone rings. And rings. Eventually, it goes to another message, also in Irish. This one says (in my approximate understanding), ‘Nobody is able to attend you now. If you would like to continue with your inquiry in English, please press …’


In 1715, a Rev. E. Nicolson wrote of the state of the Irish language:

‘English is now so universally spoken by all the young Irish here that we may hope in the next generation Irish will be quite forgotten … Their parents encourage them to it for their own trading and dealing with their English landlords …’ He concluded: ‘The old ones will soon die, and if the young ones be rightly educated, popery and Irish barbarism will soon be ended.’**

By 1800, Irish was still spoken everywhere in Ireland, although, according to the geographer Reg Hindley, it was not being used by the children of most families in Leinster and Ulster. (Hindley’s 1990 study, The Death of the Irish Language: A Provisional Obituary, has been invaluable in providing data that informs the following account.)

The Irish language declined precipitously through the nineteenth century. In 1841, there were 4.1 million Irish speakers (according to a near-contemporary estimate); in 1851, after the famine years, 1.5 million (according to the census); in 1861, 1.1 million. In 1871, with over 100,000 monoglot Irish speakers, and almost 820,000 who spoke Irish as well as English (in a population of almost 5.5 million), the writer of the census concluded that, barring ‘circumstances beyond calculation or conjecture … within relatively few years Irish will have taken its place among the languages that have ceased to exist’.

By 1901, there were just 20,000 Irish monoglots; the rest of the population was exclusively English-speaking or bilingual. By then, a language revival movement had started. Douglas Hyde founded the Gaelic League in 1893, and urged: ‘In order to keep the Irish language alive where it is still spoken – which is the utmost we can at present aspire to – nothing less than a house-to-house visitation and exhortation of the people themselves will do.’

Within ten years, the Gaelic League had some 50,000 members in almost 600 branches, and Irish was apparently regaining lost ground in the English-speaking parts of the country. By 1921, under the outgoing British administration, a quarter of primary pupils were learning Irish at school. Between the censuses of 1911 and 1926, the proportion of Irish speakers increased, reversing a century-long trend, although the absolute number of Irish speakers continued to fall, reflecting the falling population.

Language revivalism was adopted as a signature policy of the new state. The 1922 constitution enshrined Irish, idealistically, as ‘the national language of the Irish Free State’, with English, pragmatically, ‘equally recognised as an official language’. There were policies on proficiency in Irish for new recruits to the civil service and on Irish-language education in the Gaeltacht. A memo from 1922 notes Michael Collins encouraging government departments to adopt Irish versions of official forms, and insisting that ‘the use of the Irish language should be introduced wherever possible’.***

Yet, there were already contradictions. The birth of the new state, and its descent into civil war, was accompanied by a collapse in Irish-language volunteerism: the number of Gaelic League branches had fallen to 139 by 1924. And those areas of the country where Irish was the native language were increasingly isolated from one another. Despite the national increase in Irish-speakers, the number and proportion of Irish-speakers continued to fall in most of the areas where Irish had been spoken by the majority of the population. The 1926 census showed a dramatic increase in the number of people under twenty who spoke Irish as compared with the 1911 census, yet the number of people over twenty who spoke Irish had fallen by an even greater figure. Irish as a school language was on the rise, but Irish as a spoken, community language remained in decline: those who spoke it in school were not going on to speak it in their lives afterwards.

By 1933, the Minister for Education, Tomás Ó Deirg, had concluded that something radical had to be done. He wrote to Éamon de Valera: ‘Irish as a living speech of the people is dying in the Gaeltacht almost as rapidly as it did in the days of British rule and if something is not done to deal with the decay it is only a question of a generation or two until it will be dead.’ He proposed paying ‘a small bonus to each Gaeltacht family or each child that is a good native speaker’, suggesting £5 per child.

‘Propaganda is of little use,’ he wrote. ‘It has been tried for over 30 years and has failed … Something is needed that will bring home to every household in the Gaeltacht that there is a money value in talking Irish to children … If Irish dies as a living speech, the attempts to Gaelicise Ireland from the schools will only result in an artificial product without roots or organic life.’

The Department of Finance objected to the costs involved in the ‘bonus’ proposal. A memo suggested that the amounts of £5 and, under an alternative proposed scheme, £3, were ‘based on non-Gaeltacht standards’, and recommended instead amounts of £1:10:0 and £1. The average number of children per family in Gaeltacht areas was higher than in the rest of the country, the memo noted, and so a £3 bonus per child would be ‘unnecessarily high’. The memo also noted more general objections: ‘The mentality that nothing can be done to serve the language except by spending money has already gone very far – so far indeed as to damage the interests of the language itself, because it has already undoubtedly created a general feeling of reluctance to make a voluntary effort in favour of the language by many of those who are competent to do so.’

Three days later, the Cabinet agreed to pay an annual bonus – or deontas – of £2 to parents in the Gaeltacht for every schoolgoing child who ‘certified to be a fluent speaker of Irish’. There was, however, no broader consensus on how to revive the language. In 1936, Cumann Gaedhealach na hÉireann made a series of proposals, of which the principal one was to establish a special board to promote the language, staffed by some 500 officers. Other proposals included the Gaelicization of personal names, starting with the voter lists; requiring fluent Irish for all civil service jobs, and for all apprenticeships; obliging pubs, cinemas and other public establishments to display their names in Irish; and ‘to select 20 or 30 Irish songs – national and humorous – to be taught in every school and after a while to require that picture houses should be required to show them on the films from time to time’. The proposals were circulated to various government bodies for commen, and the responses were largely hostile. The Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, P.S. O’Hegarty, concluded that the Cumann scheme was ‘rooted in (a) ignorance of Irish history, (b) complete lack of historical perspective, (c) defeatism and (d) inferiority complex’. The Cabinet subsequently adopted just one of the measures proposed, for the revival of Irish names of townlands.

In 1937, a new constitution was adopted after its approval by voters in a referendum. Article 8 followed the 1922 constitution in declaring Irish ‘the national language’ and ‘the first official language’, and English ‘a second official language’. Article 25 stated that, in the event of a conflict of interpretation between the Irish and English texts of the Constitution, the Irish text would take precedence. However, as R.A. Breatnach noted in 1956, the very text of the Irish version was often meaningless except by comparison with the English, for it contained a ‘very large number of invented terms which can scarcely be said to have any legal or other connotation except by virtue of being equated with English legal terms’.

De Valera had rejected an amendment proposed during the Dáil debate on the Constitution that would have elevated English to equal status with Irish. Proposing the amendment, Frank McDermott described the constitutional primacy of Irish as ‘artificial and mischievous Gaelicisation’. De Valera’s reply clarified his rationale for the Irish-language clauses: Irish was ‘the language that is most associated with this nation; the language that is in accordance with the traditions of our people’, whereas English was ‘the language of those who came as invaders’.

Following the introduction of the new constitution, de Valera initiated a process of standardizing the Irish language, which was spoken and written in distinct regional dialects. He established a committee in 1941 to ‘abbreviate’ Irish spelling, but this fell apart in acrimony. ‘It is notorious that many people approach the question of Irish spelling or Irish dialects in the spirit of the partisans of a football-match (“up such and such a county!”); and under the delusion that their own dialect is the “best” one,’ wrote the committee’s chairman, T.F. Ó Rahilly, to de Valera.

The chief translator at the Oireachtas was then given the task of overseeing the standardization, and de Valera engaged with him (and his successor) in detailed discussion, making decisions on the forms to be adopted for particular words, and calling for ‘more satisfactory’ forms to be found where proposed forms had been found wanting.

The spelling reform was necessary, the chief translator surmised, ‘not primarily for the sake of the Gaeltacht, which has had no difficulty with a variety of spellings during the past hundred or hundred and fifty years, but for the sake of the Galldacht children who have to acquire the language laboriously, and for whom it is essential that Irish orthography should be cleared of the immense load of dirt and rubbish which has been increasing in it evermore century by century … My reason for setting this down is that reform has been hindered by an extravagant consideration for peculiarities, not to say funniosities of Gaeltacht speakers who do not read, or who if they do read, could read matter in practically any spelling that might be devised …’

In the late 1940s, the Department of Finance made a number of proposals to cut back the cost of translating and printing Irish-language versions of official documents, and the government accordingly agreed to stop bilingual advertising and official forms, and to reduce bilingual printing to a minimum. Subsequently, Finance went further, recommending that statutes did not need to be translated, following advice from the Attorney-General that Article 25.4.4 of the Constitution did not require that every publication of the statutes must be in bilingual form. This measure was rejected by the government, however, and translation of statutes continued, at least until the 1980s.

The boundaries of the Gaeltacht contracted following a survey in 1956. Although the purpose of the new boundaries was to reflect demographics more accurately, there was a measure of gerrymandering, with certain Gaeltacht areas being expanded so as to facilitate the broader application of financial benefits. The new definition of the Gaeltacht was circular: ‘specified areas, being substantially Irish-speaking areas and areas contiguous thereto which, in the opinion of the Government, ought to be included in the Gaeltacht with a view to preserving and extending the use of Irish as a vernacular language’. ‘Gaeltacht’ was to be both a descriptive and prescriptive term – reflecting the status of the language itself, which was put ‘first’ in the Constitution in the hope that it would once again become first in practice.

In 1956, Roinn (department) na Gaeltachta was established. The following year, an independent board, Gaeltarra Éireann, was placed in charge of Gaeltacht industries, and this was superseded in 1979 with the establishment of Údarás (authority) na Gaeltachta, with a broader remit for industrial development. Bord na Gaeilge was established in 1975 to oversee the general promotion of the language.

The deontas scheme continued, becoming known, following an increase, as Scéim an Deich Phunt (the ten-pound scheme; it is now known as Scéim Labhairt na Gaeilge, or Irish-speaking scheme). The financial incentive involved was greatly increased by the linking of the scheme to one of housing grants, where significantly higher grants were available to families who already qualified for the deontas.

Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973 and became the only member not to seek official status for its first national language. Irish was recognized instead as a ‘treaty language’, meaning that only the core treaty documents would be translated into Irish. This does not appear to have been an issue in the broader debate on entry, though the language question was introduced by the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, in a speech shortly before the referendum.

The greatest injection of hope which can be given to the language revival movement will be the loosening of our ties with the world of English and the strengthening of our link with Europe..

The Irish language has been weakened mainly because of Britain’s position between us and Europe, and by the influence of English culture. With God’s help, and with the renewal of our bonds with Europe, Irish will blossom and prosper.

Even today Irishmen who spend their holiday on the Continent feel, perhaps for the first time, an urge to use whatever Irish they may have. This happens because the Irishman wants to highlight his national identity and to show that he is not some strange sort of Englishman.

The Taoiseach’s comments, said Conor Cruise O’Brien later, were ‘an elaborate contribution to the copious flow of codology … on the subject of the Irish language and on other aspects of national culture’. Cruise O’Brien used the opportunity of the Dáil debate on the government White Paper on EEC membership to read an Irish Times report of the Taoiseach’s statement, and contradict it.

Some of the critics of Ireland’s entry to the Common Market are taking the line that entry would destroy our national culture, specifically, that it would kill the Irish language. I do not think that Brussels will kill the Irish language any faster than Dublin is killing it under this Government … Brussels will not kill the Irish language but it will not save it either … It is our own interest in the Irish language, if we have any, and only that that will save it.

Yet there were signs that our own interest was increasing. While the population had fallen steadily through the twentieth century (until the early 1960s), the numbers declaring themselves Irish-speakers in the census had continued to rise. By 1981, this was over 30 per cent of the population, or just over one million people. This was more than in the census of 1871 (when the population had been more than 2 million greater) and more than double the number in the census of 1926 – an apparently extraordinary achievement.

What this obscured, however, was the poor state of the language in the places where it was spoken as a native tongue, and by a community. Reg Hindley estimated that the number of people in 1981 living in places where Irish was genuinely a native language, used in the community and being transmitted to the next generation, was just 8,751. This was calculated by extrapolating from the census figures for the Gaeltacht using the figures for receipt of the deontas, and adjusting these based on his own fieldwork; Hindley estimated that only those living in areas where at least 70 per cent of children were in receipt of the deontas could be said to be ‘living in circumstances in which continued transmission [of the language] seems possible or even probable in the light of experience’.

Hindley concluded:‘There is no room for honest doubt that the Irish language is now dying. The only doubt is whether the generation of children now in a handful of schools in Conamara, Cloch Chionaola and Gaoth Dobhair, and Corca Dhuibhne are the last generation of first-language native speakers or whether there will be one more.’


On 18 September 1997, Séamus Ó Beoláin appeared before the District Court in Tallaght, charged with drunken driving. He had been served with a summons in Irish, had received the results of a blood-alcohol test in Irish, and had had all his dealings with gardaí during the course of the investigation in Irish. He said he wished to conduct his case in Irish, and asked for Irish-language copies of the Road Traffic Act and the Rules of the District Court. These didn’t exist.

Judge Mary Fahy adjourned the hearing. Four months later, on the day before the next court date, Ó Beoláin received an unofficial, draft translation of the Road Traffic Act. The case was adjourned again on a number of occasions; at least twice the problem was that there was no Irish-speaking judge available to hear it. Eventually, Ó Beoláin went to the High Court, seeking to oblige the Director of Public Prosecutions to provide him with the Irish-language documents he needed for his case. He lost, and appealed to the Supreme Court.

On 4 April 2001, Adrian Hardiman delivered the lead judgement in a two-to-one decision in favour of Ó Beoláin. Hardiman excoriated the state’s position in the case, and its policy (or failure to apply policy) in relation to the Irish language. Hardiman noted that, around 1980, translation of statutes into Irish appeared to have more or less ceased. Between 1980 and 2001, just a small number of statutes had been translated, due to a shortage of staff in the translation section of the Oireachtas. He quoted the 1986 report of a group of Irish-speaking lawyers, the Fasach report, which stated that it was ‘almost impossible’ to complete a simple commercial transaction in Irish, due to the unavailability of Irish versions of ‘even the basic documents’. He cited a 1988 Supreme Court case, in which a Mrs Ó Murchú had claimed that she was unable to incorporate a company in Irish due to the lack of Irish versions of the necessary forms, and the state had denied that she was entitled to the Irish versions. (The state lost.)

The Constitution committed the state to ‘an official policy of bilingualism’, Hardiman wrote, yet there had been a ‘policy of inertia’ with regard to the translation of law. ‘The production of laws in one language only is totally inconsistent with bilingualism, and is not paralleled to my knowledge in any other bilingual country.’

The state had argued that it was entitled to produce translations within a time frame of its own determination, and that responsibility for translation in fact rested with the Oireachtas, which was not answerable to the court. These arguments, wrote Hardiman, were ‘unworthy’; some of the state’s positions were ‘narrow, legalistic, pettifogging and reductionist’.

Under the Official Languages Act of 2003, which was introduced in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Ó Beoláin case, public bodies are required to produce their key public documents in English and Irish simultaneously. The responsibility falls to the body concerned, and thus there is no central budget or accounting for Irish-language translation and printing.

The issue of the cost of the Official Languages Act has been raised regularly in the Dáil. In 2006, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív, said ‘information to hand’ was that the relevant costs for all Departments (there are sixteen), the Revenue Commissioners and the Office of Public Works totalled €343,000, suggesting that the cost impact of the Act was almost negligible.

A schedule to the Official Languages Act undermines this suggestion, however. It contains a list of the public bodies to which the act applies. The list runs to five pages, and contains, as well as the sixteen government departments, 192 public bodies, and a further number of categories of public body, as follows: regional assemblies; regional authorities; vocational educational committees; the ‘implementation bodies’ established under the Good Friday Agreement; Area Partnership Boards; County Enterprise Boards; District Registrars of Marriages; Harbour Authorities; Harbour Companies; local authorities; and health boards. There are probably more than 250 bodies obliged to produce their key reports in Irish; the total cost of this policy must be many times a multiple of €343,000.

Whatever the cost, one claim about this policy remains constant: it produces ‘documents that nobody reads’, as Fine Gael TD John Deasy, a consistent critic, put it in the Dáil last November. He cited figures published in the Irish Examiner on expenditure by local authorities on translating key documents: ‘Last year, Cork County Council spent €90,000 translating its development plan. Nobody requested the Irish copy. In my county, Waterford, €26,000 was spent and not one person requested a copy.’

Deasy acknowledged that there had been a high demand for Irish-language documents in Galway, but concluded it did ‘not come close to excusing the kind of blatant waste that we are witnessing’.

Deasy was persistently interrupted by Ó Cuív, who quipped at one point, ‘Níl aon rud níos measa ná an té a theastaíonn uaidh bheith bodhar do léiriú a thugtar dó’ (‘there’s nothing worse than the person who wants to be deaf to what’s being told to him’). Ó Cuív said that 3,667 people had accessed the Cork report on the internet. A subsequent article in the Irish-language daily Lá Nua reported that 7,937 people had accessed the Waterford report online.

Eoin Ó Murchú is the political correspondent for Raidió na Gaeltachta and head of the Oireachtas press gallery. I asked him if he thought the translation of official documents was worthwhile.

‘It’s worthwhile for me,’ he said. ‘As a practitioner, a journalist.’ He had regularly had to translate reports from English himself for his broadcasts on Raidió na Gaeltachta, he said. And the argument about documents being unread could be glibly made about reports in English as well.

‘The reality is that about a dozen journalists and two dozen civil servants read official reports [in any language],’ he said. ‘The fact that Irish was not used for important things was a factor in the decline of the language. So its use for important things is an important part of stabilizing the language.

‘For a language to live, it has to be there in public life.’

Following the Irish Times story on EU complaints about the official grammar, I sent a number of questions to the press office of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The press office gave me an incomplete response, and I replied by reiterating and elaborating the initial list of questions.

The following day, my mobile phone rang. The caller didn’t identify himself clearly, and I was momentarily confused because I was in the middle of working on an unrelated story, and because the person on the phone was using words in Irish I didn’t recognize. It slowly dawned on me that I was speaking to Éamon Ó Cuív, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

‘I like to be helpful,’ he said. ‘You could be sending emails back and forth for ever.’

He spoke slowly, in a strong accent without a trace of a Dublin tone or media jargon, except in occasional moments of irony. He spoke of the history of Irish language policy with a personal tone, as if he were telling anecdotes of family history, which, of course, he was.

Éamon Ó Cuív – a grandson of Éamon de Valera – has served at the Department of the Gaeltacht since 1997, when he was appointed Minister of State at what was then the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. In 2002, following a departmental reorganization, he was promoted to Minister at the new Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. As Minister of State, he served under his cousin Síle de Valera, who was the senior minister at the department. His father, Brian Ó Cuív, was an Irish-language scholar; the family name was originally Ó Caoimh, but was changed to Ó Cuív by Brian Ó Cuív’s father, Shán Ó Cuív, to accord with a simplified spelling system for Irish, called ‘An Leitriú Shimplí’, which he devised himself, but which was not elsewhere adopted.

‘There’s a fantastic article in this,’ said Éamon Ó Cuív.

‘In the 1950s, two big projects, the dictionary and the official grammar, were pushed relentlessly by – if I might say so – Éamon de Valera.’

The official grammar – he called it ‘the Caighdeán’ until I admitted I didn’t know what he was talking about – was in the process of a lengthy revision, under the auspices of Foras na Gaeilge, the North–South body that was set up in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement. ‘I had raised it with Foras a long time before,’ he said. ‘I was very aware of the need for the work to be done, and to be done again and again and again. So they’re banging away at it. I was very pleased to see that they were working on it – Ministers often are pushing at these things for ages before anything happens.’

He started talking about the dictionary project.

‘It’s an enormous project. First of all, you have to decide what English words you want translated into Irish. Then, they have to figure out every word that was ever published in the Irish language. They copy out all the books into the computer, and the computer picks up the different words.’

‘Just hold on one second,’ he said, and left the phone. He came back, presumably holding a volume. ‘In 2003, they gave me a presentation of the index.’ I imagined him sitting there, alone in the Department, reflecting on the language, occasionally receiving volumes of the grammars and dictionaries, receding behind them as they piled up around his desk.

He spoke about the significance of Irish being a EU official language. ‘Everybody’s in there for what they get out of it, let’s be honest about it,’ he said. Official status had created ‘new employment opportunities’, in translating and interpreting. And, should the multilingual regime ever give way to a sole working language, such as English, Irish would be in a position to wrest the same concessions as the other official languages for agreeing to drop its claim to parity.

‘So it’s absolutely vital to be in there with Swedish, Czech, etc, and not be in the space of Tyrolean, Scots Gaelic, Basque … You’d be underselling yourself.’

But presumably nobody would read the documents being translated, I said.

‘Well they probably don’t read it in English either,’ he said. ‘And they certainly don’t read it in Lithuanian, Latvian, Maltese … When they all got it, that really put us in an invidious situation. All we were looking for was something that people that were no better developed than we were had got.’

He had been cautious about pursuing official status, he said. ‘I always wanted to do something on this in Europe, but I hadn’t defined what the endgame was. I had to work out, if you got it, could you deliver. I didn’t want to run into it, and suddenly find we couldn’t do it.’

But was it in fact the case that ‘we’ couldn’t quite do it?

‘There are mega challenges there, but we think we’ll get there. There’s been this row about translating official documents. We’re looking at technology to help us. Computer-assisted translation is going to be a big thing in the future. A lot of these documents keep coming up with the same sentences, phrases, parts of sentence, etc. So if you can do them once, you can ask the computer to do it a second time. We could become market leaders in this technology in the future.’

Official status was just one development helping to create more job opportunities for Irish-speakers, he said. Another was the rapid growth in academic teaching of Irish in international universities. There were twenty-five universities teaching Irish in the US, and a further twenty-five in ‘Tokyo, Berlin, Norway …’, he said. ‘Oxford were on to me the other day.’


The idea that the exclusion of Irish from among the EU’s official languages represented an anomaly following the 2004 accession of ten new members was one of the shibboleths of the debate around recognition. As Éamon Ó Cuív said, the recognition by the EU of the national languages of ‘people that were no better developed than we were’ was seen as putting Ireland ‘in an invidious situation’; it was perceived as an affront that Irish, the language that occupies 5 per cent of Jean-Claude Polet’s Patrimoine littéraire européen, should be inferior in status to the languages (and, by extension, the nationalities) of the arrivistes of accession, many of whom had framed their ambitions upon joining the EU in terms of emulating Ireland’s economic success. In Ireland, this success had brought with it confidence; the (short-lived) triumph of Bertie Ahern’s brokering of a deal on the Constitutional Treaty, and the fact that the accession of ten new members moved Ireland irrevocably up the development ranks in Europe, allowed for a new assertiveness. We were, in fact, ‘better developed’ than these people. It was time for our historic native language to be recognized.

In these debates, Maltese appeared to occupy a totemic position, presumably because of a combination of its tiny size (and economy) and its comparable linguistic profile to Ireland. Malta, a small island nation in the Mediterranean, south of Sicily, has a population of 410,000 and is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. From 1814 to 1964, Malta was a British colony; at one point during the 1950s it came close to becoming part of the United Kingdom.

Maltese is a Semitic language with a vocabulary heavily influenced by Italian and Sicilian, and a modified Roman alphabet. It has various socio-political characteristics in common with Irish. The constitution designates it an official language, alongside English, which became the language of governance under British rule and is the dominant language of the civil service. In recent years there has been a renewed focus by the state on protecting and promoting Maltese, leading to a Maltese Language Act in 2004. There is a shortage of school textbooks in Maltese, and the Maltese publishing industry is small.

There is, however, a crucial distinction to be made between Maltese and Irish: the Maltese people speak Maltese. A 2001 survey reported that 98.6 per cent considered it their native language. Maltese is the sole official language of the courts, and the dominant language in politics. Ninety per cent of people use it to communicate with family, and 84 per cent use it amongst friends. All ten radio stations, and all four television stations, broadcast mainly in Maltese.

Among those who attempted to leverage the recognition of Maltese in the campaign for official status for Irish was Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. In a Dáil statement in January 2004, he listed ‘gaining EU recognition for our native language’ as among the four ‘real challenges’ facing the Taoiseach during Ireland’s six-month European Presidency. (The others were the EU constitution, the Middle East, and ‘curbing paedophilia’.) Kenny cited a recent advertisement for jobs for English-speaking secretaries at the EU: because candidates were required to have a second language from amongst the EU’s official languages, he said, Irish people who spoke just Irish and English would be disqualified, whereas Maltese people who spoke Maltese and English could apply. ‘In Ireland,’ he said, ‘approximately 380,000 people speak Irish every day. Incidentally, the same number speak Maltese in Malta.’

This was – perhaps unwittingly – deeply misleading. Kenny’s figure referred to those who speak Irish within the state education system, where Irish is compulsory, and taught daily to most students. The number of people who speak Irish daily outside of school, according to the 2006 census, is just 85,076.

Enda Kenny’s misstatement was repeated by two of his party colleagues in further debates on Irish: Bernard Allen told the Dáil that Maltese was ‘spoken by fewer people than speak Irish’, and Joe McHugh referred to ‘smaller member states, where fewer people speak the official language compared to the number of Irish people speaking Irish’. There are no such states.

The real anomaly, perhaps, is that of the disjunction between the promotion of Irish as a language of state, through EU official language status and the 2003 Official Languages Act, and its neglect as a language of the citizens. While resources are being invested in translation of European and Irish official documents, secondary school students in Gaelscoileanna, Irish-speaking schools, are studying for state exams using English-language textbooks. According to Muireann Ní Mhóráin, head of the small organization that represents the interests of the Gaelscoileanna, An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta (COGG), there’s ‘a huge dearth of books’ in Irish at Junior and Leaving Cert levels. Maths is the only subject where there is a series of textbooks running from first to sixth year. At Leaving Cert, there is no textbook in Biology, none in Business Studies, and ‘the Geography book is so out of date that it could have served as a history book’.

‘It’s just dire,’ she says. ‘Students in Gaelscoileanna spend an awful lot of time translating stuff. There are translators out there working away on fisheries policies. Back home, at the fireside, the kids don’t have textbooks.

‘The knock-on effect is that they’re not then becoming adult readers of the language.’

Proinsias de Rossa agrees. The Labour MEP was one of the few Irish politicians to oppose the recognition of Irish as an official EU language.

‘There are a lot of disabilities that native Irish-speakers suffer,’ he says, referring to lack of service provision and employment opportunities through Irish. ‘That’s not a good enough reason for the taxpayers of Europe to subsidize a language that the Irish state is not willing to support. If any government was serious about Irish, the first thing they’d do would be ensure that Irish-language textbooks were available for Gaelscoil students.’

Like Seán Ó Neachtain, de Rossa (who, despite using the Irish version of his birth name, Francis Ross, is not a fluent speaker of Irish) addressed the European Parliament in Irish prior to its recognition as an official language. As with Ó Neachtain, he provided the interpretation service with an advance English version of his two-minute speech.

‘There’s no stopping Irish-speakers speaking it,’ he says, he says, between bites of a baguette and nods to fellow travellers waiting for the 9.20 p.m. Aer Lingus flight from Brussels to Dublin. ‘But there’s no need for a simultaneous interpretation service.’

In 2005, 956 young people throughout the Gaeltacht took a break from translating their English-language textbooks to do a questionnaire that included questions such as ‘How often do you send text messages in Irish?’ The survey was one part of an extensive research report, the ‘Comprehensive Linguistic Study on the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht’, which was commissioned by the Department, and published in November last year. Most did not send texts as Gaeilge, apparently. Just nine per cent of the young people said Irish was the language in which they communicated with their peers.

There was a ‘crisis’ in use of the language by young people, the report’s authors concluded, to the general indifference of the national English-language media (there was a small news story in the Irish Independent, and nothing in the Irish Times or Irish Examiner, the papers that displayed such interest in the language’s EU status).

The ‘predominant means of communication’ for ‘the vast majority of young people’ in the Gaeltacht, the study found, was English, not Irish. In the strongest Gaeltacht areas, the study found that less than a quarter of school leavers reported speaking primarily Irish with their peers. (These were areas where a substantial majority – over 67 per cent – spoke Irish on a daily basis.) The study concluded that, on current trends, it was likely to have documented ‘the dynamics presaging the final stages in the lifecycle of the Gaeltacht as an Irish-speaking community’. Even in the strongest Gaeltacht areas, Irish was ‘unlikely to remain the predominant community and family language … for more than another 15 to 20 years’.

The Gaeltacht has a total population of 86,500, according to the report. One of its central recommendations was a new classification system for the Gaeltacht, with three categories. The strongest Gaeltacht areas are ‘Category A’ – areas where over 67 per cent speak Irish on a daily basis, which the authors estimate is the threshold for sustained viability of Irish as a community language. There are 21,000 people living in Category A Gaeltachts, and a further 7,500 in ‘Category B’ Gaeltachts.

The majority, 58,000, live in ‘Category C’ Gaeltachts, areas where there is ‘weak communal use of the language’. In these areas, just 3 per cent of young people were raised either solely or mostly in Irish. Less than 44 per cent of the population (including schoolchildren) are daily speakers of Irish. In some of these Gaeltachts, the only existing Irish-speaking network is associated with the primary school; in others, there are no Irish-speaking networks.

So these are English-speaking places where a small number of older people are native speakers of Irish and there is a reasonably strong predisposition towards Irish within the educational system – though this does not transfer out beyond the school walls, and does not necessarily even survive the transition from primary to secondary. In other words, these are not Gaeltachts in the popular understanding of the term: they are not places where the language of everyday life is Irish. As in the Constitution, the first-language status of Irish in the Gaeltacht is prescriptive rather than descriptive. The Constitution has finally been given full effect with regard to the rights of native Irish speakers: they are legally entitled to interact with the State, and with the European Union, in their first language. But even as these rights have been won, the community they were won for is, literally, dying, and not being replaced.

In 1905, D.P. Moran judged that there would be ‘a genuine Irish nation’ only ‘when the fashionable young Irishman and woman, not overburdened with strength of character – the type which in every community follows the tide whithersoever it may lead – can talk Irish as well as English, and knows more of the real Ireland than of modern London.’

‘If anyone is startled at this view’, he advised, ‘and decides that it is impossible of realisation, that the price is too much, the difficulties too great, then let him have the courage of his convictions, think things out to a rational conclusion, and cease playing the fool.’

* A ‘ciorcal comhrá’ is an Irish-language conversation group; an ‘oíche caidrimh, ceoil agus craic’ is a night of the music of fun; ‘nasc’ is Irish for ‘link’.
** This and all subsequent documents dating from before 1922 are from Tony Crowley’s invaluable sourcebook, The Politics of Language in Ireland, 1366-1922 (Routledge, 2000).
*** This and the following documents quoted are from Seán Ó Riain’s Pleanáil Teanga in Éirinn 1919-1985 (Colour Books, 1994).

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 32 Autumn 2008