There has been a debate in the Irish parliament recently about the ongoing status of the Irish language, and it holds some very instructive parallels and comparisons with the status of the Catholic, and Christian, faith.
The Minister for the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking regions), Eamon O Cuiv, wants to make it illegal to use English at all in road signposts in the Gaeltacht areas, even though many people who live in these areas use English in their everyday lives. And even though all maps are printed in English. But Mr O Cuiv — the grandson of Eamon de Valera — seems to be a strong adherent of the school of coercive thinking. Ban it! Force them to comply! Use the law as a tool of prohibition!
Sometimes the law can be successfully used as a tool of prohibition. I was not in favour of banning smoking from pubs and restaurants because I agree with John Reid that for some poorer folk in particular, smoking is one of the few pleasures they have in life. And we should all take responsibility for our own health — not expect the state to nanny us.
But I have to admit that, in Ireland, the prohibition has turned out to be remarkably successful. That is because the majority of the people seem to agree with, or have come to agree with, the law. In the making of laws you have to take the majority of the population along with you.
The case of the Irish language is quite different. Every form of coercion has been tried over the past eighty years. Indeed, my most enduring memory of learning the Irish language in school was the stern or anxious voices of various teachers and nuns telling us: “You must pass your Irish exam, girls, otherwise you’ll fail everything.” The underlying message about learning Irish was that it was compulsory, and failure in Irish was to be disqualified from passing the exam in every other subject.
I never met a teacher, in my own schooldays, who loved the language for itself, who rolled it around on her tongue with a sense of joy, or recited its poetry with eyes shining with emotion. Indeed, the teachers who were the best Irish scholars tended to have the lowest charisma quotient for the pupils.
Just recently, I attended the delightful Listowel Writers’ Week in County Kerry, where Maire Cruise O’Brien — who is married to the internationally known Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien — read from her charming autobiography The Same Age as the State. She spoke in English, but with Irish interspersed in her conversation and references, and it was done with a natural sense of love for the language that was quite admirable. I envied Maire’s childhood and her times in the Kerry Gaeltacht with her adored uncle, the scholar and priest Fr Paddy Browne (Monsignor De Brun). That, I thought, was the way Irish should be imbibed: with a sense of appreciation and natural love for the language, not with anxious sighs and draconian warnings about exam failure or, for that matter, daft prohibitions about not using English on local signposts.
All teachers know this basic fact: example is a hundred times more powerful than precept. The example of Maire Cruise O’Brien using Irish in such a cultured way was a hundred times more attractive than any rule or regulation.
There is an interesting parallel here with the imbibing of the faith. When I was growing up, the Catholicism as practised by my family was kindly, natural, and charitable. The priests in our parish were perfect gentlemen. Most nuns I encountered were intelligent women who were dedicated to their work. I might have rebelled against the institution of the Church, but my experience of the people within it was, overall, positive and benign.
And this is what endures: example and personal experience, not prohibition or coercion. Minister O Cuiv would do better to foster a culture of love for the Irish language, rather than fussing about banning signposts. The metaphor also applies elsewhere.
PSSo the debate about smacking has concluded with the British compromise law of “don’t smack too hard”. Several celebrities, such as the author Salman Rushdie, have come out against smacking and said how pleased they are that they never smacked their children.
Isn’t it amazing, though, that some people think nothing of divorce which so often means trauma and loss for children — while they consider a smack a form of cruelty? Surely it is far worse for your father (or mother) to walk away from the family home than to administer a slap? In the current system of values, it seems not.