Friday, February 3, 2017

The Irish Language and the Free Market

I have to write this very quickly, but I wanted to record a few thoughts I had today, regarding the Irish language and the free market. It's a good example of why I'm a traditionalist conservative rather than a libertarian (although I agree with libertarians on many things), and why I'm not a free market fundamentalist.

First off, I do believe in the free market. I do believe in capitalism. I do believe in economic freedom. If you still don't believe in all those things, after the lessons of the twentieth century, you're just closing your eyes to the obvious.

But, to me, it's by no means an absolute good, and the situation of the Irish language is a good example.

As regular (or occasional) readers will know, I've been trying to improve my Irish for the last year or so. All my schooling was through the Irish language and, man, I hated it. It turned me against the language-- big-time! Only more recently did I come to see its importance, and I'm very glad now that I reluctantly acquired some grounding in it.

In the last week or so, I have been listening to Radio Na Gaeltachta podcasts while commuting to and from work. Radio Na Gaeltachta is the Irish-language radio service of the Gaeltacht, those areas in Ireland where the language is still spoken in daily life.

It's wonderful, because even a poor speaker like me can hear the enormous difference between a native speaker and someone who learned Irish as a second language, no matter how fluent the latter might be. It's the difference between someone thinking in Irish and someone thinking in English and translating it. The heritage of usage, idiom, proverb, and all the other quirks of a language as actually handed down makes all the difference. (The podcast are quite cosy, into the bargain. On call-in shows, the presenter usually knows everybody who calls in.)

Radio Na Gaeltachta wouldn't exist without government funding. Neither would the Irish language television service. (I don't like that so much, even though it has many wonderful programmes, because it makes too much effort to be zeitgeisty and jazzy, and because there's so much English spoken on it. You can't blame the producers for this last drawback, since it's impossible to make a programme on any but the most restricted subjects without featuring non-Irish speakers.)

Similarly, the only reason most of the population of the Republic of Ireland have some grasp of Irish is because Irish is compulsory in the Irish education system-- a recurring bone of contention in this country. Our current Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, declared himself at one point to be opposed to compulsory Irish. He is a fluent speaker himself. I don't know if he still holds this view.

The simple point: I don't think the Irish language would have survived even to the extent that it has without government funding. The resources available to someone, like me, who wishes to improve his Irish would not be available without government funding.

A free market fundamentalist might say: "Fine. Let it die, or dwindle to a state that reflects actual demand. If people really value something, they'll pay for it themselves, out of their own pockets, and they'll keep it alive themselves."

But when it comes to tradition and heritage, it's very often the case that "when it's gone, it's gone". If people come to value something too late, that choice is then closed off forever. So in such cases, I think the free market gives people less choice, at least in the long run.

People antagonistic to the Irish language often complain about the "gravy train" of Irish language jobs, many of them providing services for which there is no great demand. It's easy to understand that kind of resentment. But, listening to Radio Na Gaeltachta, I find myself thinking that the Gaeltacht is so precious, I wouldn't really object if the government paid people just to stay there and speak Irish all day long.


  1. Séamus (Australia)February 5, 2017 at 12:36 AM

    I've recently come across a book in a presbytery, left by a Kerry born priest, who is now in a home, the memoirs of Irish language sports commentator Micheál O'Muircheartaigh titled FROM DÚN SÍON TO CROKE PARK. He makes some interesting points. "' use whatever you have of it rather than talk about it' would be a summary of my approach to the use of Irish and I advocated that it belonged to the entire community rather than a minority regarded as specialists. Specialists can be off-putting for learners and enthusiasts"
    When talking of the agency An Foras( which I assume had much to do with Gaelic?) he says"I believe that a Dublin hq is best..... it is important that the language be seen as belonging to the entire population"

    1. An Foras is an authority for Irish language schools. I know because I just looked it up. As for Dublin being the best location for such a HQ, I'm not so sure. Being a localist and a regionalist I don't like centralisation very much.

      "Use whatever you have" is, I think, the best advice. I think most Irish language speakers have that attitude and appreciate any effort. You still get some snottiness. At a recent Irish language Mass, one chap started complaining to me that the priest had delivered his homily in English rather than Irish, that this was Ireland not England, etc. etc. I positioned myself far away from him ever since. Isn't it better that a priest use Irish as much as he can?

  2. Micheál was not a Dubliner and was probably a "decentralizer" himself, but I think his point was that if the HQ moved to Donegal(which was the intention in 2004, the time of writing) there was a danger of people seeing Gaelic speaking as "that provincial thing" people di I've there (which is hardly the case in most of the county, there's a Donegal man living near me who doesn't have a word of Irish) and he was just suggesting that a Dublin HQ would give a message of universality. Whatever of it,a decade later now the whole system can be subject to change