I’ll try to avoid every typical phrase used about the Irish language or the Gaeltacht that you might see from school essays to the comments section on certain news sites. The matter is far too serious to use such platitudes. Instead, I’ll try to tackle the issue head-on to find a potential solution.
I don’t think it can be denied that the State – not just one government, but all of them since independence – has failed the Irish language and its community, not least of which being those living in Gaeltacht areas. Since the start of the Irish language movement, the most successful campaigns were not those initiated by the State, but by the community; calls to establish Gaelscoileanna, TnaG (now TG4), the Falls Road Gaeltacht in Belfast, and many Irish-medium media. When the recent TG4 programme Gaeltacht 2020 reported that only 17,000 people speak Irish daily outside the education system today – a figure no larger than the population of Clonmel – we are now facing a national language emergency.
Even I, for all my interest in the Irish language, am technically not one of those 17,000 speakers (which shows that daily speakers does not equal the total number of fluent speakers). I live in a suburban area with my partner, whose Irish is quite rusty. I work in a multinational tech company which gives me more opportunity to use my French or Danish than my Irish, but the language of the office is still English. With that, the only times I get to use my Irish are when I’m reading or writing (whenever I’m in the mood to) or if I’m chatting with certain friends from my college days. In some ways, Irish is a minority language in my own life, whatever about on a national level, and even that is a pity.
Mind the Gap
The fragility of the language today, however, is not a pity, but highly alarming. As someone living in the Galltacht, I can sometimes forget just how dire the situation can be, and instead, romanticise the Gaeltacht from afar as some linguistic mecca. Instead, the likes of such programmes from TG4 remind us of the reality.
It made me realise, however, that the lack of understanding from English-speakers regarding the Gaeltacht Emergency (as it most certainly is an emergency) is a blocker on any support or awareness. Why should any TD be worried about the death of the Gaeltacht, when the majority of them will focus on where their voters are based, i.e. mostly outside the Gaeltacht? Which politicians are serious about the language community, by speaking to their constituents in their own langauge or – more importantly – listening and acting on their concerns?
If those in the Galltacht are unaware of the real concerns and worries facing Gaeltacht communities, what is to stop the government from once again delegating any pro-active efforts to someone else, and focusing on the concerns of the English-speaking majority instead?
Crossing the Divide
It is not, therefore, that Ireland’s English speakers cannot engage with the Gaeltacht or broader Irish-language communities, but there is neither enough cause nor compassion to. We have heard the phrase, “we’re all in this together”, banded about during the pandemic, which prompts the cynic in me to raise an eyebrow for a few reasons.
As a nation, we have had at least two language communities in Ireland since the 14th Century; the Gaeltacht and the Galltacht. Irish speakers have lived within English-speaking areas since then, as well as English speakers roaming or settling in Irish-speaking strongholds. The social divide between the two, however, has been recorded since well before the Penal Laws. Of course, a lack of understanding and a lack of interest are closely related, and even though the likes of Gaeltacht 2020 help to spread the word to the unconverted, more needs to be done to bridge that social divide.
That work starts with action on a community and political level. It starts by presenting the Gaeltacht as a valuable public asset, not just to local communities or to the counties in which they’re located, but across the country from Headford to Howth. It starts by supporting Gaeltacht-based businesses with training, industry networking, and marketing skills, so those companies have the right tools to acquire new customers, partners, and clients. It starts with cooperation outside of the Gaeltacht, in order to demand improvements to infrastructure for all communities, regardless of the community language spoken.
There are many practical ways in which we not just try to preserve the Gaeltacht communities we have today, but reverse the anglicisation suffered by many former Irish-speaking districts over the years. Preservation is no longer enough when our native language community is in such a vulnerable state, but we should instead focused on renewal and revival, and how to truly connect fledgling urban-based groups, like Gaelscoil communities or second-language speakers, with the Gaeltacht more.
It starts with consideration for others, and that should be the foundation for any community.