Saturday, 16 February 2008

Smiling Irish fall foul of Quebec language police

On a business trip to Montreal, I was amused and slightly perturbed by an article I read in the Montreal Gazette about a local Irish pub, McKibbins. The pub is in trouble with the Quebec Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise (OLF) because a customer complained that they did not receive service in French. When the OLF inspected the premises, they were not impressed by the many antique, English-only adverts for Irish beers and other products. The antique signage must come down, the bar was told, or face a fine of $1,800 for each offending sign.

Bishop Street, home of McKibbins downtown bar, boasts not one, but three Irish bars, and an Indian, Brazilian and a Mexican restaurant among others. Down the street from McGill and Concordia Universities, the street reflects the multicultural dynamic that makes Montreal a great place to visit. Everywhere you go in this city, people slip easily and seamlessly between French and English - non-French speakers are never made to feel like outsiders here as happens in Paris. And if you stumble in your effort to speak in French, you get a smiling helping hand and not the cold reproof you encounter so often in northern France.

It is a credit to Quebec that it has retained a vibrant language and cultural identity in a nation and continent that is largely english-speaking. But, as a bilingual Irish person, I think that linguistic repression is counter-productive. I was brought up speaking Irish in an era when it was distinctly untrendy to speak our ancient language. The language was force-fed to every Irish schoolchild and you could not work in government service or qualify for university without it. Virtually all of my peers hated it and promptly forgot the little they learned as soon as they left school.

In the past 20 years, a seed change occured. The Irish language became non-compulsory for school leavers and, at the same time, the Gaelscoil (Irish language school) movement was born. A network of independent primary schools developed where Irish was the core medium of teaching and parents (many of whom spoke no Irish) were invited to play a much more proactive role in the running of the school. This spawned a new generation of bilingual Irish people, largely middle class, who were proud of, and knowledgeable about, their linguistic heritage. By removing compulsion, Irish was enabled to grow and flourish among an appreciative audience. The movement is so significant it has made its own entry in wikipedia.

En route to Montreal on this trip, I stopped in Bordeaux for a few days. The Bordelaise have a reputation for being bourgeois (whatever that means in this day and age!). I found them warm, friendly, and increasingly multilingual, unlike their northern counterparts. I had the same mix of french and english conversations with people there that I enjoy in Montreal, while in Paris they still cling to a monocultural attitude that the world has little interest in supporting. The biggest English-speaking country in the world is India and it doesn't seem to be doing their culture or economy much harm.

McKibbins is enjoying a certain notoriety and increase in business because of the media attention surrounding this bizarre story - they've made national TV - you couldn't buy that publicity as a side-street bar in Montreal. And they have decided to fight the language police (as they are known locally). On Monday they launch a website where visitors will be able to register their views on the matter - as they say in French - quel bordel. I know what I'll be voting as an Irish-English-French speaker.