That in the opinion of Seanad Éireann the Government should institute an inquiry into
(a) the various steps taken since 1922 for the restoration of the Irish language,
(b) the measure of success which has been achieved, and
(c) what other or further steps or changes of methods may be desirable.
The purpose of this motion is clear on its face. It has been put down only after due consideration. The decision to table it was made some months ago and before many of the very controversial letters, speeches and leading articles appeared in some of our Dublin dailies.
The first issue which the nation to-day must get its mind clear upon is whether or not it desires that the language must survive. Possibly judged on the purely material plane, a very strong argument can be made against the wisdom of such a policy. On fundamental questions, however, material considerations alone have rarely, if ever, been the deciding factor. Sentimental, spiritual and cultural values generally tilted the decision in what to many might appear quite an irrational fashion.
Perhaps I am not the most suitable person to move such a motion as this. My competence in the language is limited and it may be charged against me that I have neglected to attain that proficiency in the use of Irish which I urge others should possess; but to that challenge I have an answer. In the district where I was brought up, the language was lost before I was born. It was not taught in my school. When the opportunity came to me, as the new national movement of our generation began to take root, I took my share of the responsibility for the organisation of the Gaelic League and the establishment of Irish classes. However, events were moving so fast and men of action had so many demands upon their time and readiness for sacrifice that purely academic pursuits had to be abandoned. My days have been so full that I have never been able to take up where I left off in 1917-1918. For this defect in my knowledge, I have had unfavourable judgment passed upon me, as members of this House know. But if I may say so at this point, I firmly believe that this attitude of mind on the part of language enthusiasts has done injury to the cause of its restoration.
When the late Dr. Eoin McNeill was Minister for Education, he invited me to join the Programme Conference of 1924 established to plan the programme in our primary schools. In 1925, General Mulcahy named me as a member of the Gaeltacht Commission, so I suppose I may say truly that I am not without some responsibility for our educational schemes as they are operated to-day. If I am expected to repudiate my past, I would declare unequivocally I would no more abandon the teaching of Irish to-day than I would in 1924.
"Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said ‘This is my own my native land.'" If Ireland as a nation is to live, then its people must learn to appreciate what are the attributes of nationhood. We must be proud of our past and appreciate the great value of our inheritance. In this material age, perhaps many of these values have lost their appeal; yet it is hard to imagine that in any other nation on the face of the globe to-day, it would be seriously suggested that a plebiscite should be held to determine whether or not the people should abandon the teaching of, and the struggle to revive, the national language.
Yet, the most enthusiastic must concede immediately that, so far, the efforts made and the methods adopted have not achieved the results so enthusiastically desired. All sorts of people have all sorts of views as to the reason why more has not been accomplished. Because I feel that not even the most learned or the most experienced can supply all the answers, I am asking this House to agree that an inquiry should be instituted by the Government to supply answers to the queries set out in my motion. I have no intention of prejudging the issue, but, like every member of this House, I have opinions as to why a greater measure of success has not been achieved in reaching our objective.
Perhaps the measure of our failure is not as great as many of our people are inclined to believe. The movement for the revival of the language got away in a great burst of enthusiasm. But many of us miscalculated. Perhaps we expected too much. We believed this enthusiasm would be sustained. We did not really understand all the complexities of the problem, but above all we had no appreciation of the depth of the national disillusionment which was bound to follow in the wake of the divisions after the Treaty.
The decision commanding the great body of national teachers to show proficiency in the language within a limited period was, I fear, an error of the first magnitude in the revival campaign, educationally, linguistically and psychologically. For many of these teachers, the struggle to acquire an adequate knowledge of the language was heartbreaking. It impaired their efficiency as teachers of other subjects and I believe they were harassed by inspectors to do something that was beyond their competence.
This policy stilled much of the enthusiasm which was abounding in the earlier years. It is not easy to assess or apportion the blame for this error of judgment in the early years, but the truth is that it created opposition where before there was outspoken support. It is easy to be wise now with 35 years' experience behind us.
The case is frequently made, and with much justification, that, in the making of public appointments where technical qualifications should be the dominant consideration, candidates who had what was regarded as a competent knowledge of Irish but who were less well qualified technically were given posts in preference to those whose technical efficiency was unquestionably of a much higher order. Obviously, where qualifications were equal—apart from their knowledge of the Irish language—we should all support the idea that knowledge of the language should weigh in favour of the candidate who could use it efficiently. Unfortunately, the notion went abroad that "duds" with Irish had better prospects of public appointments than efficient technicians without it. I do not accept these extravagances and I am quite certain the candidates who ignored Irish and might, in fact, be hostile to the restoration of the language helped to propagate that idea.
It is unfortunately true that a section tried to make a corner in the language for themselves, and with a fair degree of success when judged from the material standpoint, thus giving credence to the notion that the language was the gateway through which many inefficient public servants were crowded on to the backs of the tax paying public in the country. The notion that a priceless possession like the language could or should be used in such a selfish material manner was a rude shock to many of the enthusiasts. To the noble and patriotic minds who loved to think that, in the centuries of Ireland's glorious past, the medium, through which were communicated the civilising concepts of a great Christian race, should be so abused in the battle for its re-establishment was a bitter disillusionment. Unquestionably, this development has bred a cynicism which this generation will have a difficult task to dispel.
Perhaps the most challenging and controversial aspect of the language revival policy is in regard to what is being attempted in our national schools and the consequences which flow from this policy. Some will allege that, as a result of the teaching of Irish, children leaving our national schools are illiterate in two languages. Others will assert that a disproportionate amount of time is spent on Irish to the detriment of more important subjects and that the mental development of our children is being retarded by this undue emphasis on the teaching of Irish or through the medium of Irish. On this point alone, it is essential to make an inquiry so as to establish the facts.
I do not propose to analyse here the consequences of attempting to impart knowledge to children in a language other than that learned at their mother's knee. From investigations which I have made, I am satisfied there is a good deal of exaggeration and ignorance about the extent to which the teaching through Irish is being done either voluntarily or under compulsion in our national schools at the moment. Unfortunately, I fear a great deal of this criticism has its origin in prejudice against the language revival movement. Whatever an inquiry may reveal, I am satisfied some of our best educational authorities believe we will make far more progress in reviving the language as a spoken tongue by concentrating on the teaching of oral Irish and placing much less emphasis on literary knowledge and expression.
A study of the methods used in countries with problems of bilingualism similar to our own—countries such as Wales, Belgium, French-speaking Canada and Switzerland—might help in a re-appraisal of methods here. The views of competent and sincere educationists with long and wide experience of the problem in our own schools should also be sought. An educated and realistic public opinion on the problem should be encouraged. If public opinion is not attuned to national policy then assuredly the policy will fail.
There is unquestionably a great deal of criticism, and perhaps opposition, to the present effort to revive the language. Some of this is intelligent, enlightened, but most likely purely material and utilitarian in its approach. Other critics were born with an inferiority complex and this unfortunately survives with regard to everything Irish. The great majority, however, undoubtedly base their opposition on the methods of teaching in our schools and these people we can no longer ignore. A small minority, of course, quarrel with the revival policy because this is part of the inheritance of the historic Irish nation. Even these we can understand.
Many members of this House have had the opportunity of going to the mainland of Europe. The first visit was to me—as I am sure it was to many others—a particularly exhilarating experience. Not alone did our eyes rest upon buildings which revealed a style of architecture very different from our own, but on to our ears came the sounds of a language new, foreign, the distinctive attribute of another race. Were such to be the atmosphere into which visitors to Ireland were wafted, I am certain the foreigner would accept us as a people even more attractive than they declare they find us.
I have never gone abroad as a parliamentarian that I have not been questioned about our people's knowledge of "Gaelic", as they style it, and the measure of success attending our efforts at revival. My national pride would make me hesitate to reveal to the foreigner the type of criticism one hears and reads about the revival policy. Two languages, people say, we cannot have—mainly because of our proximity to England. Wales is much nearer, yet I have seen reports of the co-operative societies of Wales in Welsh. Visitors to Holland cannot but be impressed by the ease and fluency which so many of the ordinary Dutch people reveal in answering the foreigner's inquiries in English.
When all has been said which can be said in favour of the revival movement, we must admit that, after 40 years of serious and persistent effort to restore the Irish language to its rightful place in the life of the nation, the reward has been far below our expectations. Let us, therefore, have the moral courage to admit this lack of success and face up to the consequences which, in my view, would be to inquire into the reasons why.
Finally let us remember what Dr. Kuno Meyer wrote—"The Irish language is the earliest voice from Western Europe north of the Alps." By the time its development was arrested and impeded, it had already achieved a literary output of which, in variety of matter and perfection of form, Irishmen may justly be proud. Competent scholars find Irish literature worthy of study and admiration. They regard it as a notable and remarkable contribution to Europe's cultural inheritance.
It is the outstanding attribute of the distinct Irish nation—this combination of individuals descended from Angle and Saxon, Norman and Celtic stock, who have to find a way of life by working this out for themselves on this small island. We must not abandon or surrender a particle of our national heritage. Rather must we work together to preserve and enrich it. In this spirit, I ask this House to accept my motion.