Finding our voice: Looking to Wales to save the Irish language

The breathalyser controversy last week revealed how many don’t believe our native language should be part of Official Ireland and that it’s a waste of money. They’re wrong, says Sharon Ni Chonchuir. That’s exactly what has kept Welsh a living language

Croeso i Gymru. These words welcome you to Wales. Written on road signs, they tell you you’re in a country with a language and culture all of its own. Turn on the TV in Wales and you’ll hear Welsh being spoken. Listen to the radio and chances are you’ll catch bands like the Super Furry Animals singing in their native tongue.

We have our own language in Ireland too. It features on road signs but in a smaller font to English. We’ve got an Irish-language TV channel but only a proportion of its programming is in Irish. And, Des Bishop aside, popular culture has yet to embrace Irish.

There are similarities between Ireland and Wales but the countries are different in the ways they promote and protect their native languages. Irish is often described as dying while the future for Welsh is widely seen as hopeful. Here, there was uproar last week when it emerged that hundreds of drink-driving cases could be thrown out as breathalyser test results hadn’t been presented to drivers in both Irish and English as is the law. Some commentators, including Victoria White in this paper, railed against the existence of this law, saying it was “idiocy” and that the Official Languages Act will only serve to kill the language itself as acts of parliament aren’t a way to keep a language alive.

In Wales, however, they are doing just that and for far longer than us. And it seems to be working.

“There’s a lot to be positive about,” says Jamie Bevan of the Welsh Language Society (WLS). “We’ve won concessions through campaigning over the years, especially in education, broadcasting, and officialdom. But there are problems. It’s one step forwards, two steps back.” The 20th century saw a huge decline in Welsh speakers. There were 977,000 in 1911 but only 504,000 in 1981.

Jamie Bevan of the Welsh Language Society 

The WLS was founded to stem this decline and staged protests to achieve its aim. As a result, road signs became bilingual in the 1960s. A Welsh-language TV channel was established in 1982 (14 years before TG4). And a Language Act was passed in 1993 (a decade before Ireland’s equivalent legislation).

Yet this is not cause for complacency. The number of Welsh speakers has risen since the 1980s but the 2011 census showed a drop from 2001. Back then, 20.76% could speak Welsh but this fell to 19% ten years later.

“This is worrying, especially as the government had committed to increasing the number of Welsh speakers by 5% over that time,” says Bevan. “It’s also worrying that the number of Welsh speakers in traditional Welsh-speaking areas dropped below 50% for the first time. That could be seen as an emergency.”

Irish is the oldest spoken literary language in Europe but the numbers speaking it have been in freefall since its 1830s heyday, when it had up to 4m speakers.

Reviving the language was one of the State’s first aims but it met with limited success. Some 41.4% of the population can speak Irish today, which compares well with the 18.3% who could speak it when the State was founded.

However, few of these people use Irish to any significant extent. Less than 2% speak it daily outside the education system. Even in Gaeltacht areas, where 88.5% speak Irish, only 35% do so daily.

Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, co-author of the Update of the Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht 2006-11, is alarmed. He fears Irish will die as the communal language of the Gaeltacht within ten years unless steps are taken.

“It’s a potentially terminal crisis,” he says. “The core social group in the Gaeltacht who possess Irish as a primary social identity are approaching collapse. If this comes to pass, the whole Irish language will be in jeopardy. It’s not common for States to support languages with no native-speaking community.”

Julian de Spáinn, general secretary of Conradh na Gaeilge, is less pessimistic. “I see the language strength-ening in terms of people’s attitudes towards it and how they use it,” he says.

Julian de Spáinn

He cites a recent Millward Brown survey in which 61% of respondents agreed the State should support the language more. Only 18% disagreed. “This shows the vast majority are behind the language,” says Julian.

“There’s a major problem in the Gaeltacht,” he admits. “But the tide can be turned if the language is made a priority and people are given proper access to supports and services through Irish.”

Education has always been vital to the promotion of Irish and Welsh. Welsh is mandatory to the age of 16 in all Welsh schools but this alone is not producing fluent speakers. “21% of schools are Welsh-medium schools where children learn through Welsh,” says Jamie Bevan. “This produces Welsh speakers. The other 79% teach Welsh as a second language, which means young people emerge — as they do in Ireland — with varying competence.”

The WLS is campaigning for at least 30% of the curriculum to be taught through Welsh in all Welsh schools; the government is considering the matter.

Irish has been compulsory in schools since the foundation of the State. But generations turned against it when the initial emphasis was on the written, rather than the spoken language.

The WLS succeeded in communicating the benefits of bilingualism to Welsh people but this hasn’t happened here. Instead, any increased appreciation for Irish has come about organically.

“We’ve travelled and become globalised,” says Julian de Spáinn. “We’ve begun to see what’s important about our identity. For many, that’s language.” This has led to a rise in demand for Irish-medium schools (Gaelscoileanna). There are now 270 primary schools and 65 secondary schools teaching entirely through Irish and producing students with a fluency in and a grá for Gaeilge.

In 2010, the government produced a 20-year strategy for the Irish language. One of its recommendations was for partial immersion to be offered to all children in primary schools. However, the 2007 Harris Report found 25% of teachers in English-medium schools rated their spoken Irish as weak. They are in no position to teach extra Irish.

Wales doesn’t have Gaeltacht areas. There are parts of north and west Wales where Welsh has traditionally been strong but these areas don’t have special designation like they do in Ireland. Yet thet experience the same pressures as our Gaeltacht areas. Work opportunities are limited and people move away. Outsiders often replace them, disrupting age-old linguistic patterns.

A big problem in Ireland is that not enough young people are engaging with the language in the Gaeltacht. The education system may be a factor in this. “The Leaving Cert now emphasises spoken Irish, which means less emphasis on literature,” says Julian de Spáinn. “Imagine taking Shakespeare off the English curriculum. There’s no challenge for native speakers. We need a Gaeltacht curriculum for them.”

Connemara, a Gaeltacht area

Wales is years ahead of Ireland in offering Welsh-language public services. Its 1993 Language Act gave Welsh an equal footing to English in the public sector and administration of justice.

Our Official Languages Act came a decade later and is still not being fully implemented. This was why the language commissioner, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, resigned last year. He was angry the government was not delivering on its commitment to provide public services through Irish.

Some 10,000 took to the streets in a protest called Dearg le Fearg following his resignation. “Government has always failed to support Irish speakers,” says Julian de Spáinn. “Dearg le Fearg showed we’re fed up of being treated this way.”

Máire Uí Shíthigh and Orla Ruiséal have seen the impact of government inaction in West Kerry. Máire organises Irish language and heritage classes with Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne while Orla runs Tús Maith, a support service for families raising children through Irish. Both were part of a group which visited Wales in 2004 to learn from what was being done there.

“It was so different,” says Orla. “There isn’t an aspect of life that isn’t bilingual. Everybody who deals with the public speaks Welsh.

“We’re nowhere near that level of provision here. You can feel like you’re being a pain if you ask for services through Irish sometimes. That makes people reluctant to ask in future and also sends the message to young people that Irish is not equal to English.”

Máire thinks there are several reasons why Wales is so far advanced. “They have a greater understanding of why bilingualism is important. It’s seen as a huge advantage when you apply for jobs and parents understand that from day one.”

She also thinks national identity has something to do with it. “Welsh people assert their difference by speaking Welsh,” she says. “They bring it into popular culture and modern music. In Ireland, we’ve focused on traditional music and sports, not just language.”

This is not to say Máire thinks Welsh is out of danger. “They face the same challenges we do. They just appear to be engaging with them more comprehensively than we are.”

Jamie Bevan admits the struggle is ongoing. “There will never be a situation where we can say everything is OK. But we all have a role to play in strengthening what we have. People can take steps at an individual level but it’s up to government to do the big things. We need bold decisions from them.”

A forum is planned to discuss the progress of the 20-year strategy for Irish later this year. This could be the time for Irish speakers to emulate the Welsh and use their language to finally be heard.

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