I feel some diffidence in addressing the House on this subject, because I happen to have been a member of what Deputy Myles referred to as a band of enthusiasts. Whether one is an enthusiast or not, one does not like to appear prominently in that capacity before the public. I got some consolation from the latter part of what Deputy Myles said, for he went on to describe the difficulties in the fostering of the Irish language under present conditions, as the people are mainly interested in bread and butter. He will admit that I am at least a bread and butter enthusiast on this subject. I must confess I feel neither a great deal of enthusiasm nor dismay about the whole question, because, like Deputy Law, I have some doubts as to whether this Bill will achieve all that its promoter apparently sets out to achieve. On the other hand, I believe that the people who complain about the principle of compulsion in this whole matter are aiming their blow in a wrong direction, are fighting a battle already lost, and would be much better employed in devoting themselves to other aspects of this question of Irish in schools and Irish in general. What I am afraid is likely to happen under the Bill is that you will get a situation in regard to the legal profession very much like the present situation in the universities. Irish will be a compulsory subject for entrance. Every entrant will have to pass a qualifying examination, but that examination will by no means ensure that the person who has passed it has a good spoken knowledge of Irish.
Sometimes I find myself astonished at the attitude of mind of people like Deputy Myles, and perhaps even Deputy Law, who seem to think that a competent spoken knowledge of Irish is practically impossible. They remind me of a famous Canadian humourist who joked in that strain about Greek. He said a friend of his used to read a page of Thucydides every night before he went to bed. This humourist was very much offended at the boast, and he said he did not believe any one could read a page of Thucydides. It looks as if Deputy Myles were in that position about Irish. I do not see that the question of the number of Irish speakers there are in any part of the Gaeltacht has very much to do with this subject. Even if there were only a few Irish-speaking people left in the Gaeltacht, it would still be the duty of any Government who had the interest of the country at heart to do all it could to foster and spread the Irish language. As long as there are even half a dozen Irish speakers left it will be the duty of whatever Government is here to see that more speakers of Irish are turned out, and that everything possible is done to prevent the language dying out altogether.
Opponents of this Bill make the statement that speakers in the Gaeltacht do not want Irish, and that there are not so many speakers of Irish in the country as there are supposed to be. They are talking in a completely irrelevant manner. The struggle on behalf of the Irish language will and must continue as long as there are half a dozen Irish speakers left in the country. Apart from that, I fail to see what injustice is done to anybody by asking that he should have even a competent reading knowledge of Irish acquired in school. That is what I am afraid this Bill will bring about in the case of lawyers, that though they will have acquired a reading or written knowledge of Irish, they will not be able to use the language in the Law Courts in the Gaeltacht. Although it would not be more than half the full object of the Bill, still I would regard that as a very valuable achievement, for suppose Irish were to die, it would be still well worth holding that everybody in this country should learn Irish in some way or other as a written and spoken language.
Except we are prepared to throw away all our history, and everything that has happened in this country up to a hundred years ago, I do not see how we can look forward to a system of education that will not include, as a compulsory part of that education, even a written knowledge of the Irish language. This Bill will probably not succeed, for a long time at any rate, in doing any more than bringing that about; but I consider that would be well worth bringing about in the case of lawyers. On the other hand, I am inclined to think that it would be possible to go still further than this Bill goes in regard to the Irish-speaking districts, and that we might even from the present time try to secure that in certain courts, in certain districts, no one from now on will be allowed to plead—I mean no lawyer who is at present beginning his education, I do not mean lawyers who are at present practising—that, after a certain date, no one will be allowed to plead in these courts in certain districts like Galway, and parts of Donegal, and Mayo, without being able to show that he had not only a competent written and reading knowledge of Irish, but a competent speaking knowledge as well. In that way we would achieve a double object which I am afraid will not be achieved by this Bill.
While I am all in favour of seeing that Irish is taught properly in the schools, even as a written and spoken language, it is more important to see that everything possible is done to keep the language alive where it is alive at present. Except for the Church, and perhaps medicine, there is no activity which is of so much importance in this respect as the legal profession, because it is not only what actually happens in the courts that matters, but the fact that a great deal of what people read consists of reports of what takes place in courts. If the business of these courts was carried on in Irish, it would mean that the news which people read in Irish-speaking districts would be, to a considerable extent, more in Irish than it is at present. In that way you will be giving very valuable encouragement to people who have had no great reason for keeping the language alive, and who undoubtedly are not always enthusiasts in the matter, to do what they can to keep it alive where it is still alive.
With regard to the whole question of compulsion, as I said, those who deal with this matter always as a matter of compulsion are aiming their blow in the wrong direction. There is no really sound logical argument against compulsion in the case of Irish, any more than in the case of mathematics or Latin. It can be argued, just as in the case of mathematics and Latin, that compulsory Irish in the schools only achieves in most cases a very small result; that if it is not very well taught you only get a written and reading knowledge—you do not get a spoken knowledge. If those who are opposed to compulsory Irish on alleged educational grounds will give up talking about compulsion and confine their attention to the methods by which it is at present being taught in the schools, and how far these methods may be improved, how far even a better written and spoken knowledge of Irish can be given, how far the cultural materials that exist in the Irish language can be used for educational purposes, they will be doing a great deal better work for the people whom they represent as well as the country generally. I have always believed, and I think I can speak with a certain amount of knowledge on the subject, that if Irish were properly taught in the schools, apart from the question of spoken Irish, it could have a greater value for the Irish people than French, German, Latin, Greek or any other cultural subject, except perhaps English. Even those who disapprove and think that at present things are going too fast, even those who have misgivings on the whole question, will be better employed in devoting attention to seeing that what Irish is taught is properly taught, that where, for instance, as is generally the case, it is not possible to get a perfect and competent spoken knowledge of the language from the schools, at least some educational and cultural value will be got out of the language. My own misgivings have always been in that direction—that even yet we are not getting the fullest educational value that we might out of the language. I do not think there is anybody to blame—I think the circumstances are purely to blame. I believe if we could come to an agreement on that question we could leave the whole question of compulsion aside as being irrelevant, because we already compel people to do all sorts of things and we do not do them any great harm. We could come down to discussing the methods by which Irish is taught, the results we are trying to achieve, and how far the methods we are using are successful in achieving these results.
I should like to see this Bill somewhat supplemented, to see more attention devoted to the districts where Irish is still spoken, because I believe that the knowledge of Irish which will be achieved by the Bill will, unless great care is taken, be of very little use in Irish-speaking districts. I do not say that out of the Bill it will not be possible, if care is taken, to get a spoken knowledge of Irish as a qualification, but what I am afraid of is that, as time goes on and the thing becomes more and more familiar to people, a standard qualifying examination will be set up which hundreds of students will pass every year and which will require another examination afterwards, and a much more rigid and stringent examination, to find out whether any of these students has a competent spoken knowledge of the language. For that reason, we would be doing better, if we want to secure a spoken knowledge of Irish which can really be of use in court, if we added to this Bill some provision that in certain courts in certain areas a competent spoken knowledge of the language will be required after a certain time. Even as the Bill stands, I am prepared to support it as a reform in our educational system, and in that respect I cannot see that the legal profession or its authorities have any complaint. They have had five years in which to bring their legal education into line with the rest of the country in the matter, and if they have neglected to do that, it is high time that some other authority should bring them into line. For that reason I support the Bill as a reform in education, and I hope either that it will be extended in the direction I suggest, or else that, when it is in operation, attention will be paid to secure that nobody will be allowed to practise after a certain date in courts in Irish-speaking districts unless he has not only a competent knowledge in the writing and reading sense, but also a competent spoken knowledge of Irish.