by Fiach Mac Fhionnlaoich
It’s safe to say that Caifé na Gaeilge’s failure to open this year caused a stir. Confusion amidst staff and students as to whether its opening was merely delayed, or if the closure was something more permanent. A PR nightmare for University management, as it quickly became clear that neither they nor NUI Galway Students’ Union were happy to take the brunt of the responsibility for the Caifé’s closure, and protesting students drew the attention of national television and newspaper outlets.
Members of the Students’ Union Executive may be happy to question University management’s commitment to its bilingual campus policy, but why were students and staff not informed of the issues relating to the Caifé’s funding back when the University first reneged on its agreement to cover losses incurred? Had the university’s community been mobilised then, when the problem was far smaller, there’s a chance the Caifé’s closure this year wouldn’t have come about. With all the hullabaloo that our Students’ Union makes about the lack of funding for student services on campus, it’s hard to believe they weren’t aware of the ticking timebomb of the Caifé’s closure, nine years in the making, according to their own official statement.
The dearth of Irish language signage in Students’ Union-run and University outlets paradoxically named An Bialann and Sult, as well as in Smokey’s Café and other outlets on campus, reinforces the notion that these are not spaces in which the use of Irish is encouraged. Can I say that our Union or our University champions the use of Irish when I don’t know if I could order a sandwich in Irish at one of their outlets? The Union’s support for the movement to reopen the Caifé is to be commended, but it would be wise to consider its own failings regarding its support of the use of Irish on campus and its role in the failure to open the Caifé this year.
For those that would argue that nothing stops people from speaking Irish in other social spaces on campus, consider this. If this article was written in Irish, how many of you reading it wouldn’t have bothered? Irish language speakers are already adept at navigating conversations in which we are told that our language is “worthless” and “should die out” or where we are asked to “give our names in English”. Other minority groups are familiar with the notion of ‘passing’. If an LGBT+ student was unsure of whether they were in an environment unwelcome to them, they’d be more likely not to bring up their orientation so that they don’t have to deal with derogatory comments, as, in that way, they can ‘pass’ as straight and/or cisgender. Irish language speakers employ similar tactics to avoid being belittled for using the language in public.
If such statements were made regarding another language or culture, it would be seen as xenophobic, and rightly so. An unwritten rule of Irish society is that these sorts of statements people can be made about Irish without thought to any damage caused and that those who speak the language must grin and bear it. We don’t even deserve the dignity of being addressed by our names without being cross-examined. This behaviour occurs in hospitals, on public transport, at concerts and in all manner of public spaces in Ireland. It’s been my experience as an Irish speaker since I was a child. English speakers have no qualms with having me accommodate them and engage with them in what is my second language. I haven’t encountered as many who have extended me the same privilege.
So, in my own humble opinion, if people believe that the closure of the Caifé, the lone social space on campus where Gaeilge is the dominant language, won’t affect the use of the language on campus, they need to take their heads out of the sand. If these issues are to be resolved, it will require will and effort not only from students, faculty and University staff who are already actively engaged with Irish on campus, but also those who have, until now, been content to passively cheer on from the sidelines. Apathy and inaction are what got us here and they are luxuries we can no longer afford.