Ten months after his appointment as Minister of State for the Gaeltacht, it seems to me Joe McHugh is proving his outspoken critics of that time very wrong.
When I met him at the weekend at the opening of the Micheál Ó Cléirigh Summer School in Rossnowlagh, McHugh told me that he’s not quite there yet with the language in terms of being a fluent speaker, but he’s getting there.
“I’m not proficient,” he said but with a twinkle in his eye he swiftly added “just yet”.
I don’t think his road to fluency is as important as many feel it is (including Joe). I think the message he has sent out about loving the language and the enthusiasm he exudes re-learning how to speak it, is far more important. If he’s really not enjoying his road to fluency then he’s a damn good actor. On Friday night there was a sense of fun about him, a sense of enjoyment that, to be frank, I don’t normally associate with learning Irish.
It was no chore for him and his ability on Friday evening in Rossnowlagh to flick from English to Irish is to his credit.
He seems determined to become fluent. From what I heard as he spoke in Irish and English, he is well on the way to being “proficient” as he put it himself.
Defending himself last year when his appointment caused ructions because he admitted his Irish was “ropey”, McHugh asked people to give him a chance and he said he would work hard at the language and to my ear on Friday I think he has worked very hard.
“I’m asking people to follow me in my journey, where we can reach out to people who got Cs and Bs and As in their Leaving Cert and don’t speak it but want to speak it and have a love and a grá for the Irish,” he told the Irish Times in July 2014.
Then and last Friday night in Rossnowlagh, McHugh was very clear in his mind how he views the language and what needs to be done.
McHugh has touched a nerve with many people who would love to speak Irish but are intimidated by a fear that it is too complicated to learn.
In Rossnowlagh last Friday night he told me that the key for him is getting people to speak Irish. “For the Irish language to prosper we need people to speak it again,” he said. Joe McHugh, to my mind, was the right person to appoint as Minister of State because he is typical of so many of us who have some Irish, but wish we had more.
I have no great grasp of Irish grammar, and I am vague on where a fada should or should not be, but I’m not sure how important than is.
If more of us could hold a full conversation in Irish I think that would be a much bigger step in safeguarding the language rather than worrying if we got the fada or the h in the right place. Let the linguistic experts keep an eye on that, while we get on with talking in Irish.
*First published in the Daly’s Donegal column on May 18th, 2015.