Like the vast majority of people in the western world, I use my bank card often enough, from contactless payments, to ATM withdrawals. As an Irish speaker, I’ve used the Irish language option on Bank of Ireland ATMs (and more recently, the ATMs available at Dublin Airport) for as long as I can remember. I use English only when I don’t have Irish available to me, which is admittedly much more common.
At this point, and for the sake of those unfamiliar with my views on the language, I take what I would see as a Nordic view on languages; I speak my own language (i.e. Irish) with anyone who can or wants to speak it, and for anyone else, I’ll speak English without complaint. I don’t ever expect people to speak Irish with me, but while I accept that it’s a minority language, I will make the most of it being an official language of the Republic and the EU. For example, all my tax information and documentation has been done through Irish since I was 18. The only time I used English for a state form was for my provisional driver’s licence, and even at that, I registered my address in Irish. All this from a non-Gaeltacht living, non-Gaelscoil educated Dubliner, by the way.
On that note, it’s sad and somewhat sobering to learn that Bank of Ireland is to put an end to the availability of Gaeilge on their ATMs. According to a report in the Irish edition of The Times, “fewer than 1 per cent of transactions were being conducted in Irish“, although personally I would like to know more how this research was carried out. The article also reports of complaints made to Bank of Ireland, where English-speaking customers considered the option “distracting”; God forbid those customers ever have to use an ATM in other European countries, where up to five languages are made available to users. Still, no machine can be made idiot-proof.
Regardless of easily-distracted users, the recent decision by Bank of Ireland highlights a problem for the Irish language community regarding their financial and business clout… or maybe, their lack thereof. While expecting services through either official language for state services is (or should be) acceptable, the private sector is different. Businesses will only ever provide a service if there is a profitable demand for it. This doesn’t automatically shut out minorities; the lucrativity of the ‘pink pound/euro’ is proof of that, however a collective sense of loyalty to brands and businesses that attend to that minority is required, in order for the relationship to work.
This, however, is the crux of the problem: The Irish language community is so fragmented, so varied, and so dispersed, that its commercial bark is usually worse than its bite. The only successful exception to this is socially, where the Pop-Up Gaeltacht events have been an absolutely wonderful breath of fresh air to the Irish-speaking social calendar. With those, pubs with an open mind towards the language are delighted with the events, profiting from the ‘Euro Gaelach’ and enjoying the numbers of customers on the night.
Social events are one thing, but regular businesses are another. Some companies have made great efforts to use Irish, such as Samsung making Irish available on their phones, while petrol company Top Oil were recently nominated for a Gradam Margaíochta le Gaeilge (Marketing through Irish Award) at this year’s All Ireland Marketing Awards. Have the number of Irish-speaking customers increased for these companies as a result? I’d argue yes for Samsung, but I’m not sure if the rise has their Board of Directors smiling, and I’d say similar for Top Oil.
In The Times‘ article, Julian de Spáinn of Conradh na Gaeilge recommends using celebrities to “encourage people to use the Irish-language option on ATMs instead of eliminating the service”, a tactic inspired by Wales. While I’d be cynical enough about that idea, I like that de Spáinn is looking to Welsh revivalist strategies, something Ireland needs to do more of. Still, using a celebrity to encourage everyone to use Irish is a band-aid measure; what we need instead is the Irish-language community to come together as a group – from former Gaelscoil and Gaelcholáiste attendees to native speakers in the Gaeltachtaí – and use Irish wherever they can. If we, as a language group, defer to English* instead of taking advantage of the availability of Irish, then the language’s commercial options won’t improve. There have been previous attempts to encourage Irish speakers to ‘use’ their language in business wherever possible, but they seem to have run out of steam.
Recently, I’ve seen calls on social media for Irish-speakers to complain to Bank of Ireland about removing Irish from their ATMs. While I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing that if they so wish, I won’t, because (a) I’m not a BoI customer [I’m with Permanent TSB, who don’t offer anything in Irish, so it’d be the height of irony] and (b) there’s currently nothing to show that more than 1% of their transactions will be done through Irish in the future. If we want Irish to be a language of business, we must show loyalty to the brands that support us. That doesn’t mean buying poor quality products for the sake of a “Fáilte” sign, but encouraging brands and businesses to use Irish by choosing them over others.
The old saying, beatha teanga í a labhairt (a language is alive when it’s spoken) is well known to many, but in a world where money talks, maybe we need a new one for the 21st Century: beatha teanga í a chaitheamh (a language is alive when it’s spent/worn)!
(*Note: I’m aware that it could be ironic to say that when this blog article is in English. That’s intentional; this article is written to allow non-Irish speakers the chance to comment about the topic. I’ll write a version in Irish later).