Ireland may have been the land that saved western civilization, ((À la Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.)) and certainly enjoyed a period of setting priests alongside agricultural products as the major export, but that’s not to say that nothing good came out of the experience. Their perhaps unique relationship with the Catholic church has put Irish comedians in a wonderful position, and combined with a deep love/hate relationship with the English, provides a rich source of material for us all to enjoy. Republicans, Catholics, Patriots, Atheists: here are some of my favourites of Ireland’s sons.
On January 1st of this year, under the continuing enlargement plans, Romania and Bulgaria acceded to the European Union. At the same time, the number of official EU languages was enlarged to 23, now including Romanian, Bulgarian – and Irish. The inclusion of the latter might seem to come at an odd time, given that the Republic of Ireland has been a member since January 1st, 1973, and Irish is its official language. Yet it was through English that the Republic handled its application to the Union.
To take some basic figures, Irish is spoken by less than half of the Republic’s population, whilst it is in daily use by only 5% ((A generous assessment, since this figure appears to include schoolchildren who use the language in class on a daily basis.)). To put this in some perspective, there may be more than twice as many Welsh speakers, while both of these Celtic tongues pale in comparison to Catalan, for example, with more than 7 million speakers. Ireland’s European commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, insists that Irish is central to Irish cultural identity, and its acceptance into the European fold has prompted calls for the inclusion of other minority languages ((Spain has already requested semi-official status for Catalan, Galician and Basque.)).
This weekend a radio talk show in Ireland was lamenting the state of the Irish road network, in particular focusing on the state of her road signs. Anyone that has driven through the country will understand how this seemingly trivial matter could be focus for an entire discussion. The cause of the problem was perceived to be the decentralised system of transport regulation, the result being a wide disparity between different parts of the country, and a generally poor system compared to European standards. The show received numerous SMS messages and emails highlighting more extreme examples, from road signs incorrectly directing traffic, through long stretches of road with nary a road-sign or indication of turnings, to the example of sections of road with conflicting speed limits, no doubt compounded by some complications in the changeover from miles to kilometres per hour.
Yet what was only mentioned in passing was that government initiatives to improve the transport network in the country can only be spent once, and ultimately further improvements to the road network must necessarily mean public transport receives less funding. One of the interesting statistics cited was that in Dublin, the only large urban centre, around 70% of commuters travel to work by private transport. Although unduly unfair, for the sake of comparison just consider the figures for the centre of London, which show the figure to be as low as 10%. Is Ireland’s public transport system underperforming?