Is once-maligned Irish language the marker of a new Ireland elite?

A new study finds the Irish language, once seen as the tongue of the poorer and less-educated even in Ireland, is a marker of an economic elite.

By , Correspondent

Visitors to Ireland have long been greeted with the words "céad míle fáilte," an Irish language phrase meaning "a hundred thousand welcomes." But should this old tourism slogan be changed to "céad míle dollars?"

A recent study by researchers at the University of Ulster and University of Limerick found that contrary to its image as the quaint, dying language of Ireland's poor, speakers of Irish enjoy significant economic and social benefits – and form an elite in Irish society.

Key findings include that 42 percent of Irish-speakers were employed in senior professional, managerial, or technical jobs, compared with 27 percent among nonspeakers, and that Irish-speakers enjoyed a larger social network – even though they rarely spoke the language.

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The paper, "Language and Occupational Status: Linguistic Elitism in the Irish Labour Market," published in Ireland's Economic and Social Review journal, found a "structural advantage of Irish-speaking, relative to non-speaking, workers" in Ireland’s labor market, and compared use of Irish to historical examples of linguistic elitism in czarist Russia and in Vietnam, where the elite spoke French

Vani Borooah (editor's note: Mr. Borooah's last name was misspelled in the original version of this story) one of the report's three authors, says that by almost any criteria, a bilingual Irish-speaker has advantages over someone confined to English.
"Even if you take [socioeconomic] factors into account and have two people of equal status, the Irish-speaker will have a small but significant advantage over the other," he says.

Why this should be so is a matter of some debate. Colm Ó Broin, editor at the bilingual online business newspaper InsideIreland.ie, argues the report's claims of a linguistic elite are "Orwellian."

"For hundreds of years, it was attacked as the language of poverty and now it's the language of the elite?" he asks.

"I wouldn't say it's an elite thing. The report doesn't recognize cause and effect. It would be more accurate to say that Irish is spoken by people who have had a better education. You would find the same thing among listeners to classical music or people who know Shakespeare sonnets."

Often referred to as "Gaelic" in the US, in Ireland the language is generally referred to as "Irish" or by its Irish language name, Gaeilge. The Republic of Ireland is officially a bilingual nation, with Irish the official language, but virtually all daily business is carried out in English.

The study also found that Irish-speakers enjoyed economic advantages over workers in British-controlled Northern Ireland, where the language is seen as divisive by many Protestants.

"In Northern Ireland, Irish is a purely Catholic thing and, within Catholics, it's the elite that has the best command of the language," says Professor Borooah, who speaks four languages -- none of them Irish.

The Irish language has a curious status in Ireland. It's everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It is used on all road signs, government communications are available in Irish, there is national Irish language television and radio, and most newspapers carry at least some material in the language. However, hearing it spoken outside of officially designated Irish-speaking areas, known as "Gaeltachtaí," is a rare occurrence. The new report indicates the possibility that Irish is being used to open doors for speakers – and close them in the face of nonspeakers.

There are no entirely reliable figures on how many fluent Irish-speakers live in the Republic of Ireland, principally because it is a mandatory subject at school and therefore, technically, the entire native population of 4.2 million is fluent. In reality, however, fluency is not the norm. The study by Borooah and his colleagues took a 5 percent sample from the 2006 census, amounting to 197,862 people. Of these, 42 percent said they could speak Irish. Of Northern Ireland's population of 1.7 million, 167,487 people claim "some knowledge of Irish," according to the 2001 UK census.

The study found that Irish is a "living language" for less than 5 percent of Ireland's overall population.

Token gestures have long been thought the extent of the country's commitment to the language. Although all children are taught the language, few can do so in practice, and those who can often don't, preferring English in order to be more widely understood. The government unveiled plans in 2006 for the country to become truly bilingual within two decades.

Ó Broin's instincts are borne out by the experience of David Ruffles, a native of Birmingham, UK, who emigrated to the rural west of Ireland with his Irish wife. Despite not speaking the language, Mr. Ruffles and his wife sent their daughter Hermione, now age 8, to an Irish language school because they felt it provided a better education.
"It was a nondenominational school, and my wife and I both felt the quality of the education is better," says Ruffles.

It's not just children learning their native tongue, Séamas Ó Sionnaigh, a middle-aged quality auditor, is now studying the language: "My father was an Anglophile but my mother was a native speaker of Irish," he says.

Mr. Ó Sionnaigh was born James Fox – like all Irish people he effectively has two names (this reporter is known as Maolíosa Breathnach in Irish). "For me, speaking Irish enhances my feeling of being Irish. It ties me in to my heritage," said Ó Sionnaigh, who also wants to see immigrants helped to learn the language.

Borooah sees the study's findings as positive – rather than pointing to an exclusive club, learning Irish is particularly good for children and may yet save the language: "It provides an incentive to learn Irish," he says.

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