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Remarks at a Reception in Honour of Seán Ó Cuirreáin

Áras an Uachtaráin, 5th March 2014

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to Áras an Uachtaráin for this reception in honour of Seán Ó Cuirreáin. As President of Ireland, I would like to convey my deepest gratitude to Seán Ó Cuirreáin for all he has done to foster the everyday use of the Irish language among our citizens, and to vindicate the rights of Irish as our first national language.

I have known Seán for 30 years, and I must say that he is one of the most courteous people I have ever met. As a journalist for Raidió na Gaeltachta, and then as the Radio’s Deputy Head, Seán has very actively and meaningfully contributed to enhancing the Gaeltacht’s rich social and cultural life. The radio is a wonderful medium, one that captures and reverberates in a unique fashion voices, accents, stories and music. And all of us who, in years gone by, have listened to Raidió na Gaeltachta while driving along the narrow and winding roads of the West of Ireland, or performing our daily tasks inside and outside the home, know what we owe to Seán’s contribution to the Gaeltacht’s soundscape.

It is, however, for his work as our country’s first  Coimisinéir Teanga that I wish to acknowledge Seán Ó Cuirreáin’s contribution to the Irish people, including generations to come. For ten years, Seán has been a very competent and dedicated defender of the rights of Irish citizens to conduct official business through the Irish language – rights which, we should not forget, are enshrined in our Constitution, and were confirmed by the Official Languages Act of 2003.

A passionate advocate of language rights, Seán Ó Cuirreáin is very well aware that the issues facing the Irish language are shared by all vernacular, or so-called ‘minority’ languages across the world. He was a driving force behind the foundation of the International Association of Language Commissioners, established in the wake of an important conference held in Dublin on 23rd-24th May 2013.

I had the pleasure of welcoming some of the participants in that conference to the Áras, and I expressed the view, then, that for any plurilingual society to discourage some of its members from speaking their native language or from using it in public life – in such critical areas as education, medical information, access to justice and so forth – is a denial of human rights.

In the Irish context, this means, as Seán powerfully put it in his recent speech to the Houses of the Oireachtas, that:

“The support required for the Irish language within this country’s public service should not … be viewed as an optional extra. Language rights are permanent rights; they are not concessions or privileges granted at times of prosperity.”

Indeed the use of Irish should never be viewed as a thorn in the administration process. As President of Ireland, I want to express not only my disappointment but my concern at the apparent low level of capabilities in the Public Service for engaging with citizens who wish to exercise their right to interact with the State and its agencies in Irish. We must also challenge the pernicious myth that learning Irish is a barrier to the acquisition of any other language. In my experience, those who espouse this view are broadly satisfied to have a monolingual English-speaking Republic.

It is necessary that we consider carefully the difficulties Seán Ó Cuirreáin faced in the pursuit of his mission, difficulties that were such that he thought it better to step down as an Coimisinéir Teanga.

For my part, I would like to pay tribute, this afternoon, to Seán’s integrity and intellectual honesty – to his conviction that for the debate on the Irish language to succeed:

“It must be based on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth … the starting point must always be based on reality rather than on a presumption based on unfounded hope. Groupthink has no place in matters as important as the survival of a language.”

Serious doubts have been expressed as to whether Irish will remain as the dominant language spoken even by the communities living in the core Gaeltacht areas. This was sharply highlighted by Seosamh Mac Donnacha, who is with us this afternoon, in his most recent article for The Dublin Review of Books. The article describes how the shift away from Irish is driven by profound social dynamics – dynamics that have emerged from changes in the composition of Gaeltacht communities from the late 1960s onwards, and from the linking of these communities into regional, national and international networks over the same period. Such tidal phenomena need to be faced by scholars and policy makers alike.

Recent census data highlights a profound change in people’s attitude towards the Irish language: Irish is no longer the bearer of stigma, associated with poverty and emigration; its positive meaning as a symbolic marker of identity is more important than ever to Irish people.

Of course this symbolic function does not make up for the undermining of the Irish language’s “communicative functionality.” Nevertheless, I contend that this seismic change of attitude towards the language can be harnessed in such a way that Irish will remain an integral part of our living together in the present and future. Not a mere token of identity, not just a cultural asset confined to heritage, but a language in which new paradigms for thought and action are being forged.

I have great trust in the potential of the Irish language and in the creativity of our fellow-citizens. Many positive developments are taking place, including outside of the Gaeltacht, which can give us well-founded hope for the future of the language. Our public service broadcasting in Irish is blooming, and there is now more reading material available in Irish than ever before. Irish has embraced the latest technologies: the Worldwide Web is a modern forum on which people of every age can creatively engage with one another through the medium of Irish.

To conclude, let me stress that Irish is infinitely precious to us, not only because it is our national language, but also because it constitutes one of the many diverse ways of dwelling in this world, of looking at it and expressing it. It is a language that encapsulates the unique way in which the many generations of people who have lived on this island before us have related to one another, to the landscape, or to the other world.

This significance of Irish as an essential component of human diversity was powerfully captured by Seamus Heaney in the following lines, which Seán quoted in his speech, and with which I will leave you:

“Not to learn Irish is to miss the opportunity of understanding what life in this country has meant and could mean in a better future. It is to cut oneself off from ways of being at home. If we regard self-understanding, mutual understanding, imaginative enhancement, cultural diversity and a tolerant political atmosphere as desirable attainments, we should remember that knowledge of the Irish language is an essential part in their realisation.”