Coláiste Naomh Eoin in Ballinteer is one of the many Gaeltacht experiences on offer this summer in places which haven’t had a native Irish-speaking population since the Norman invasion.
Then I thought, so what? I’ve just packed my eldest off to a Gaeltacht college in glorious Achill Island, Co Mayo. I’ve visited Achill pretty much every year of my adult life and I have dived into turquoise water, surfed in white waves, gazed at stunning sunsets. But I have never heard a single word of Irish. And that’s not surprising since there hasn’t been a cohesive community of native speakers of Irish on Achill for more than half a century.
So where is the Gaeltacht, really? Is it more of a concept now than a place? Isn’t the Gaeltacht were we wish it to be? Wasn’t that always the way?
UCC academic Aidan Doyle’s new history of the language from 1200 to 1922 includes those famous maps of Irish as the main spoken language. Through the 19th century it retreats before English, which sweeps across the country like a cold front. By the 1890s, when the Gaelic League is getting going, Irish is already confined to the Western seaboard and familiar patches in Waterford and Meath. Doyle argues that by the time the State was founded the revival of the language was already an impossible task.
Originally, according to Doyle, “Gaeltacht” meant “the state of being Gaelic” while “Galltacht” meant “the state of being foreign”. It was the Gaelic League which began to use the word to refer to those parts of Ireland in which Irish was still spoken. Doyle first finds this use in 1893 when Irish was already embattled and confined. He shows convincingly how the Gaelic Leaguers projected fantasties of escape onto the impoverished, Irish-speaking regions.
He quotes Patrick Pearse waxing lyrical about the inhabitants of the Gaeltacht: “Only on the lonelier mountain slopes… does one find the ipsissimus Gael — the Gael as he was in the days when Grainne Mhaol’s warships swept these seas and the clans that garrisoned these mountains were wont periodically to swoop down on the burghers of Galway and Athenry. I met him last week beyond Cnoc Leitreach — met strong men and women in the prime of life whose Irish organs of speech have never been defiled by a word of English.”
How did these people themselves feel, I wonder, sketched into a nationalist dream? Forced to carry the can for the Irish language when the rest of the population couldn’t be bothered? The Gaeltacht designation brought investment but the continuance of the community depended on poverty and isolation. Doyle quotes a government source in 1926 as saying there wasn’t enough industry in these areas to support a tenth of the population.
The hard fact is that while poverty pushed Irish speakers away, relative prosperity eats the language from within today, as more and more people who do not speak Irish move into Gaeltacht areas. Ireland is among the most globalised countries in the world. Young people from Gaeltacht areas are educated and want to travel like any other young people. They have eyes in their heads and they often fall in love with girls and boys who can’t speak Irish. English is the common language and English almost inevitably wins.
Údarás na Gaeltachta’s “Comprehensive Linguistic Study” on the use of the language in the Gaeltacht from 2006 to 2011 said that if current trends continued “Irish is unlikely to remain the predominant community and family language in those areas with the most widespread and inclusive Irish-speaking networks for more than another 15 to 20 years”. The recently-published update on this study shows the decline of Irish occurring faster than the authors first suspected. So we are maybe facing the death of the last remaining Gaeltachta/í well before 2030. As if in recognition of this fact, the Gaeltacht Act 2012 redefined Gaeltacht areas as Gaeltacht Language Planning Areas.
Understandably and rightly, the authors of the study present possible measures to halt this decline in the use of Irish. My difficulty is that most of these measures are based on isolating the Irish-speaking community.
It is interesting that the report finds particular challenges for Gaeltachts which are close to urban centres such as Galway, in the case of An Spidéal, and Dungarvan in the case of An Rinn, Co Waterford. It is also interesting that the report reserves special criticism for Gaeltacht businesses who benefit from Gaeltacht grants but do not foster the language.
This is surely because business is by its nature plugged into a national and global network. It’s not credible or socially responsible to try to stop the flow of global influences through every network in the country. It won’t be possible to encourage cultural and economic interaction but stop linguistic interaction.
A recent report on education in the Gaeltacht which found that a majority of 12-year-olds in core Gaeltacht regions are more fluent in English than in Irish proposed the incubation of Irish-speaking Gaeltacht children from other Gaeltacht children who are not native speakers. The hard fact is that half of the children who start school nowadays in the Gaeltacht have little or no Irish. This is because people without Irish have moved to the area and people with Irish have moved away and come back with less Irish or with partners who have no Irish. The Gaeltacht is not isolated anymore and because it is not isolated it will soon be no more.
It breaks my heart to think of the Donegal Gaeltacht, for instance, without the opportunity of hearing their rich and beautiful dialect of Irish. In my mind the language is connected to the stunning scenery all around to which it gave names like Dún Lúiche (“Lugh’s Fort”) and An Ghleann Nimhe (“The Poisoned Glen”).
But another part of me realises that the very Gaeltacht idea, which seemed practical a century ago, is no longer appropriate. I think the idea that we should impress on young people who happen to live in certain areas “that their current language behaviour has implications for the future viability of Irish as a living language”, as the comprehensive study suggests, is immoral. The people of certain isolated regions should no longer be paid badly to take the bare look off our refusal or inability, as a nation, to trade English for Irish.
The irony is that Irish people, and Gaeltacht people in particular, have a huge affection for the Irish language. So I’m proposing that we manage our grief at the loss of the Gaeltachta/í by reverting to the original use of the word as “the state of being Gaelic” and speak Irish however we can, wherever we want, from the roundabouts of Dublin 18 to the wild waves of Achill.
A History of the Irish Language: from the Norman Invasion to Independence by Aidan Doyle is published by Oxford University Press.