Speech at Conradh na Gaeilge President’s Award
Galway Bay Hotel, 26 February, 2022
It is a great honour and privilege to accept Conradh na Gaeilge’s President’s Award which is given for furthering the vision and the philosophy of my first predecessor as President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde. Douglas Hyde is remembered as a President who represented his country with dignity and grace. He is also recalled, of course, for his legendary and inspirational passion for the Irish language – a passion that would lead to the founding of Conradh na Gaeilge of which he served as President from 1893 to 1915.
I am particularly delighted to accept this award in the year during which the Irish language achieved full parity with the European Union’s 23 official languages, a milestone moment for all those who worked to have our native tongue take its appropriate place with the other languages of Europe. While this international status and acceptance is a matter of both pride and importance, it does not by any means reduce the significant challenges our native language faces here at home.
To my mind, there are two distinct but connected challenges which can readily be identified - the survival of Irish as a living community language in our Gaeltacht areas and its general usage throughout the length and breadth of the country not as a token or some occasional culture icon but as a functional language of choice, anchored in our past but very much part of our future.
Those two challenges are linked – the language will not survive as a community language in the Gaeltacht unless it also has a clearly defined space in the life of the nation in general; at the same time, it cannot have that national resonance unless there are communities where it is still the living language of daily life.
Let me say this to the people of the Gaeltacht – you have ensured the survival of our living language in a continuous unbroken chain down through the generations and I appeal you now not to allow any break in that intergenerational transmission. The challenge to you is to pass the language on to the next generation with that fluency and eloquence with which it has been nurtured down through the centuries. If, for any reason, that transmission to ‘an chéad ghlún eile’ of a living language were to fail then it would be a cultural destruction to the heart of our nation on a scale which is impossible to calculate or contemplate.
The Gaeltacht communities do not live in a vacuum and consequently, the second element of the equation is also hugely important – ensuring that Irish is used, respected and appreciated in all aspects of our national life, in the Houses of the Oireachtas, the courts, Government departments and state agencies, in commercial and social life, in sport and entertainment, in the arts, technology and new media.
Over a decade has passed since Government launched a twenty-year strategy aimed at developing ‘a bilingual society, where as many people as possible can use Irish and English with equal ease and facility’. Some twelve years down the road we still have a significant journey to travel if we are to turn that vision into a lived reality. Today, unfortunately, our language remains at risk of becoming permanently marginalised, the ‘cúpla focal’ a symbolic nod to our past while the business of state and the public services of which all citizens avail are conducted almost exclusively through English.
At the end of last year I signed into law the Official Languages (Amendment) Act 2021 which is a strengthening of the Official Languages Act 2003 and aims to improve the quality of services available to citizens who wish to conduct business with, or avail of services from, the State through the medium of Irish.
In many ways, enacting legislation may be the easy part – although, in this case, a significant number of amendments were discussed in Oireachtas committee debates which lasted some 25 hours over a period of months. The more difficult matter now is ensuring that the provisions of that new legislation are faithfully and fully implemented. This challenge falls primarily to the senior managers and other leaders in the civil and public services and it is a task that I hope and trust to which they will rise. It is an accepted fact that the work culture, priorities and ethos of most organisations is driven from the top down.
That is the reason I believe that it is essential that those in positions of responsibility actively engage with the new legislation and boldly chart the way to increase the numbers of Irish speakers in Government departments and agencies, to facility the use of Irish by anyone for whom it is their language of choice and to place Irish firmly and clearly at the centre of public life.
To do this, it is essential to recognise the absolute right of Irish speakers to engage with our public services through our first language. The alternative, to view language rights as concession, a favour, an optional extra rather than a fundamental entitlement is to journey down a dangerous road.
It is not sufficient that we pay lip service to our native language while granting it a barely visible space in our society, allowing it to drift into a situation where it has become classified by UNESCO as ‘definitely endangered’.
It is important that our Irish language, our music, our literature, our great well of history, culture and heritage become a source from which we draw great pride, and one which we come to value and understand as a significant point of entry into all that has gone before.
In the words of Douglas Hyde:
“if we allow one of the finest and the richest languages in Europe, which, fifty years ago, was spoken by nearly four millions of Irishmen, to die out without a struggle, it will be an everlasting disgrace.”
It is not all a matter of doom and gloom. There are, of course, encouraging signs and significant infrastructure now in place to ensure not just the protection of Irish but its active promotion on so many different levels.
Raidió na Gaeltachta will celebrate its 50th birthday, its golden jubilee on Easter Sunday next, an important milestone which grew from a community demand for its own radio service to a station which now broadcasts 24 hours a day throughout the country and available worldwide on the internet.
TG4 celebrated its 25th anniversary some months ago, established when I was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. It has proven to be a key element in the normalization of our language. Not only did it play an important role in the development and growth of Irish language drama, it also brought our native language into our homes, our family lives, our leisure time and places, and from there out into the street, creating for our vernacular a central and dynamic space.
There are other positive signs which augur well for the language – the creative arts and wealth of Irish poetry, novels and short stories emanating from a new generation of talented writers, the celebration of the 80th birthday this year of the literary magazine Comhar and the success of events such as Seachtain na Gaeilge.
The work of Údarás na Gaeltachta has also been hugely important, particularly in job creation and more recently in language planning. It is also vital that we continue to work and develop new strategies to preserve and develop our Gaeltacht regions, recognising them as a critical resource that must be kept alive through the provision of decent jobs, appropriate housing and the infrastructure required to ensure our Gaeltacht communities can thrive and prosper.
Today, more and more of our children are taught through the medium of Irish. Gaelscoileanna are now the fastest growing type of primary school in Ireland, and it is believed that approximately one in 12 primary school children are being educated through the vernacular that once defined our country, our people and our culture. That represents a significant number of young parents who are committed to the future of the Irish language.
It also signifies a serious will to reclaim our national language, the degradation of which had become so deeply embedded into the psyche of our nation across centuries of British occupation. Generation after generation had inherited the legacy of that degradation as a norm from the grandparents and great-grandparents for whom Irish had become a teanga an bhocthanais, a source of shame that, in Douglas Hyde’s own words: “made young men and women blush and hang their heads when overheard speaking their own language.”
It is of course due in no small way to the pioneering vision of Hyde and his colleagues and to the ongoing and generous work and commitment of Conradh na Gaeilge, that the Irish language remains a living part of our rich heritage. While, it has, indeed, in recent years, enjoyed a small but encouraging revival, we have still, it cannot be denied, some distance to travel before the Irish language becomes, perhaps if not an everyday, but a more common vernacular in our homes and public spaces.
It is hugely encouraging to note that survey after survey in recent years has shown that a significant majority of the population here are supportive of the preservation and promotion of the Irish language. For some, that may be a ‘soft support’, a simple appreciation that it is important that our native language survives, for others, it is an essential component of our being, of what we are as a nation and as a people.
In addition, we know that over a million people around the world are actively learning Irish on online applications, many of them members of our global Irish family anxious to connect to the culture of their forefathers who left our shores in search of a better future. We are also gratified to know that, here in Ireland, many non-Irish nationals and new Irish citizens are also seizing the opportunity to learn the native language of the place that they now call home.
It is only through the preservation of that profound connection that we can both comprehend our shared past and enable it to evolve and remain relevant in our contemporary world – a world which must be informed by the history that shaped and formed us.
May I take this opportunity to commend Conradh na Gaeilge’s new archive to be hosted in NUI Galway. It illustrates the Conradh’s pioneering work in various areas, for instance, the campaigns for radio and television services, all-Irish schools, a democratic Gaeltacht authority, the status of Irish in the EU and language rights on both sides of the Border. Materials also include the minutes and programmes from Conradh na Gaeilge’s ardfheiseanna going back to 1894, the years when the first president of Ireland, Dubhghlas de hÍde, was the organisation’s president (1893-1915).
Douglas Hyde’s legacy was an important one and, by continuing to uphold and promote the role of Conradh na Gaeilge as a democratic forum for the Irish-speaking community, you not only uphold that proud legacy, but also pay great tribute to it.
Today, Conradh na Gaeilge has branches, not only throughout Ireland, but abroad. Founded in greatly unsettled times, as our country struggled to find and reclaim its own cultural identity in the early days of the Irish Free State, Conradh na Gaeilge has been instrumental in ensuring the survival of Irish as a living language.
By campaigning and lobbying, by instilling a love of our language in those who attend your classes and courses, and by refusing to be discouraged by those who have sought across the decades to denigrate our vernacular, dismissing it as a dead language, you have risen to challenge after challenge and can take great pride in all you have achieved.
The Irish language is of us, something that must be made available to, and valued by, our future generations. Many are working hard to ensure it remains at the heart of our identity, a truly inclusive language which all citizens in all circumstances and of all ages are entitled to access and speak with pride, delight and a sense of shared connection and heritage. Let us resolve to continue that work during this year in which Irish will now be in everyday use in the EU, building on that achievement, and ensuring the day will come when we begin to see its use in the everyday lives of the people of Ireland. What a wonderful tribute that would be to the life and legacy of Douglas Hyde.
May I thank you once again for this award, which I accept with great pleasure and true appreciation.