The Trouble with Irish Language
With the Irish language under threat of extinction, you would think the Gaeltacht, small pockets of Ireland where Irish is still spoken, would be a safe haven for our native tongue. Not so.
The day is drawing to a close and the sun is setting in the sky. In the dusky light, a farmer strides purposefully home, his feet heavy in earth-covered boots and a shovel slung over his shoulder.
This scene may sound exotic to you but it’s a common sight here in County Kerry. In fact, it’s a scene that has changed relatively little in the 30 or so years that I’ve borne witness to it – except in one vital respect.
Had you encountered that Kerry farmer walking home from his day’s work all those years ago, he would have acknowledged you with a softly-spoken “Dia Dhuit,” the most commonly used Gaelic salutation, which means “God be With You.”
Today, that same farmer wouldn’t be so sure of himself. Instead of speaking spontaneously in his native tongue, he would probably hesitate and eventually greet you with “hello.”
What has changed in 30 years? There are many answers to this question but the most pertinent may be the very nature of the Gaeltacht itself. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. You may not even know what a Gaeltacht is.
Gaeltacht areas are regions of Ireland in which the Irish language continues to be spoken within families and within the wider community. They are to be found in Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Cork, Meath, and in my home county of Kerry.
They represent a living link with a past that has been lost in other parts of the country. The Gaeltacht is not only a place where Irish is spoken as it has always been, rich in nuance and idiom; it is also a place where age-old customs of dance, music, stories and song – customs that are intertwined with the
language – continue to this day.
I live in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht on the Dingle Peninsula. (Corca Dhuibhne translates as “the seed or tribe of Duibhne,” a Celtic goddess.)
During my lifetime, Corca Dhuibhne has changed beyond measure, as have Gaeltacht areas all over Ireland. In 1986, there were 7,440 people living here and most were Irish speakers. Even those who weren’t raised with the language had a firm grasp of it because it was such an integral part of life in the community. Twenty years later, in 2006, the population had risen to 8,979 and one in every three of those people could not speak any Irish at all.
What had happened in the meantime? And what does it signify for the future?
Some answers can be found in the Report of the Linguistic Study into the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht recently issued by the National University of Ireland in Galway. Other answers can be observed in the comings and goings of daily life in the Gaeltacht.
This report shocked me with one of its statistics. It claimed the current situation in Gaeltacht areas was so grave that if effective measures weren’t taken soon, the Gaeltacht would no longer exist in 20 years’ time.
Is this the case in Corca Dhuibhne? I resolved to find out and in doing so, discovered a community that seemed to be dissolving into mutually-miscomprehending factions. On one side, there are those who are passionate about the language and on the other, there are those who have different – yet equally valid – priorities.
This conflict of interest has been simmering for many years but finally erupted with the Dingle/Daingean Uí Chúis controversy of 2005.
That year saw the implementation of the Official Languages Act in which Irish was recognized as the primary language of Gaeltacht areas and was given equal status to English in the rest of Ireland.
As a result, all towns and villages within Gaeltacht areas were henceforth to be known officially only by their Irish names. Dingle, now to be known as An Daingean, was one of these towns.
“The town’s names which had existed side by side for more than 700 years were deleted from the record,” says Fergus Ó Flaithbheartaigh, who was born and raised in Dingle and now chairs the committee which is campaigning to reinstate its bilingual names. “This was unacceptable.”
He and a strong contingent of supporters opposed the change and set about challenging its legal standing. They held a plebiscite in which 90 percet of the town’s population voted to retain the bilingual names. They lobbied politicians. So far, however, they have failed to make any real progress.
But this hasn’t dampened their fervor. “This is a matter of our identity and we are prepared to fight,” says Fergus, adamantly.
Others view the situation differently. Technically, Dingle is a Gaeltacht town, and geographically, it is surrounded by Gaeltacht areas. While the town may not have been a bastion of the language for many decades, it has served as the market town for its surrounding Gaeltacht people. They have always referred to it as An Daingean or Daingean Uí Chúis (the former is a shortening of the latter).
For generations, they have battled to have their language recognized at official level – something they finally achieved with the widely welcomed Official Languages Act.
“It’s important to us that the name is in Irish,” says Máire Ní Shíthigh of Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne, a cultural organization that promotes the heritage of the area. “This is a Gaeltacht area and Dingle/An Daingean is a Gaeltacht town. It’s the wish of the Irish-speaking public that the town be known by its Irish name.”
A conflict was born. A group called Todhchaí na Gaeltachta (the future of the Gaeltacht) was formed in support of the Official Languages Act and the Irish-language place names.
“We had to take a stand on the issues that were important to us,” explains Fergal MacAmhlaoibh, a member of the group. “If the people of Dingle don’t want their town to be known as An Daingean or Daingean Uí Chúis, they should be asked if they want to remain in the Gaeltacht. If they don’t, that’s sad. But it should be borne in mind that out of 22,300 towns and villages in the country affected by the name change, Dingle was the only one to object.”
These are fighting words but Fergus Ó Flaithbheartaigh is ready to retaliate. “This isn’t a language issue,” he insists. “This is an identity issue.”
This difference of opinion – slight though it may seem – divides the local community. With hindsight, it now seems to have been the first of many issues to do so. This September, the Christian Brothers’ and Presentation Sisters’ Secondary Schools in Dingle (the only non-fee-paying secondary schools in all of Corca Dhuibhne) were amalgamated. Until the amalgamation, both schools had a policy of teaching through Irish.
In recent years however, following unprecedented levels of immigration into the area, this had proved difficult to achieve. Classes often included several students who had little or no Irish due to being raised in non-Irish-speaking families. As a result, teachers often opted to use English instead of Irish.
When the schools amalgamated, a decision was taken to adopt a strict Irish-only policy and supports were put in place to help students who needed to improve.
Most Gaeltacht parents welcomed the decision. “There is no question that Gaeltacht students should be educated through Irish. It’s their right,” says Máire Ní Shíthigh of Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne and herself a parent. “We’re entitled to it and we haven’t been getting it until now.”
Fergal MacAmhlaoibh, a father of two, agrees wholeheartedly. “If the language is going to survive, the young generation have to speak it,” he says. “Getting an education through Irish is central to that.”
This may be indisputable but a significant minority of parents and students are unhappy with the situation. Parents have formed a group called Concerned Parents of Corca Dhuibhne which is currently exploring legal and political ways of making the school change its policy. And approximately 100 of the school’s 479 students have staged a protest at the school in opposition to the policy.
“From our point of view, this is not a language question, it’s an educational issue,” says Johnny Ferriter, whose Russian-born stepdaughter moved from the school because she was unable to cope with the all-Irish policy. “They are sacrificing children for the sake of the language. It’s not right.”
A fellow member of the Concerned Parents group, Tina Fröhlich is even more forthright about the issue. “We are made out to be the enemies of the language but we are not,” she says. “It’s simply morally wrong that any child should suffer at school.”
Both sides have arrived at stalemate yet both are unwilling to back down, justifiably believing they are right to demand the best possible education for their children.
The Department of Education have stepped in to try to diffuse the situation. They are planning to hold a survey to establish the full extent of the problem. The results are eagerly awaited.
While the Dingle/Daingean debate rages on and the crisis in the secondary school is dominating headlines, planning issues continue to pose another threat to the language.
For years, the people of the Gaeltacht have asked planning authorities to develop language plans – practical aims and strategies to promote and protect the language. They are worried about the influx of non-natives into the Gaeltacht and fear that the newcomers will literally drown the language out of existence – unless preventive steps are taken.
Their anxieties are justified, as revealed by the previously mentioned university report. It found that 46 percent of children starting school in the Gaeltacht have little or no Irish because they come from English-speaking homes. This poses all sorts of problems in the classroom, in the playground and in the wider society.
Is there a way of turning this situation around? Fergal MacAmhlaoibh believes that measures can be taken but that it might already be too late.
“Two years ago, 21 council houses were built in Ballyferriter (one of the strongest Irish-speaking villages in Corca Dhuibhne and a village that previously would have consisted of 50 or so homes),” he explains. “Everyone thought those houses would be allocated mostly to Irish speakers – in a protective measure that was welcomed by the community. But in the end, only seven Irish speakers were given houses.” As a result, you now hear more English spoken on the streets of Ballyferriter than ever before.
The local council now admits this was a mistake. “They came out with their hands up but the damage had been done,” says Fergal. “However, from then on, they have worked with Todhchaí na Gaeltachta on all developments.”
This is a positive outcome but Fergal believes that it may be a case of too little, too late. So much development has taken place in recent years that the critical moment may have already passed.
“I am majorly pessimistic about the future of the language,” he admits. “There are so many challenges. We are not just swimming against a tide. We are swimming against a tsunami.” Máire Ní Shíthigh of Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne is more hopeful. “There are lots of good things happening in the language now – the Official Languages Act, Irish being recognized as an official language in the EU, all the job opportunities with Irish-language radio and television… I believe it will survive,” she says, firmly.
After my whistle-stop tour of Corca Dhuibhne, I can see both points of view. I can see that the Gaeltacht is indeed at risk and that the danger comes from within.
Unlike the homogenous community I grew up in 30 years ago, Corca Dhuibhne is now home to a world of nationalities. Newcomers to the area have contributed in all sorts of positive ways but they have also had an unforeseen impact upon the indigenous culture.
The Irish language, long under threat, now faces more challenges than ever before and nobody can predict how it can overcome them – or even if it is possible to do so.
The only option is to try. That’s what our reticent farmer should bear in mind. Instead of appeasing strangers by greeting them in globally recognized English, he should continue to speak to them in Irish. In doing so, he may just pique their interest in our ancient Gaelic culture.