“Irish is nearly dead as a spoken language.” A shock ran through the Irish-speaking community at the news…. but although the after-shocks reached linguists afar …. the news caused but a small ripple in Irish society at large.
It should have been big news. In only nine decades of the existence of the Irish state, the Irish-speaking areas had shrunk by 90%. This seemed to herald the imminent death of Irish as a spoken language – a language that, albeit shrunk to being the mother-tongue of small minority of the Irish population, had survived almost a millennium of colonial occupation and a consistent policy to replace it with English.
The loss would be greater than Ireland’s alone – this is an early Indo-European Celtic language of more than four thousand years of development, the language of the earliest vernacular literature of Western Europe, an extremely rich literature of pagan mythology and folklore containing epics which did not suffer the extent of moralistic destruction which either the Reformation or the Inquisition visited upon so many others across Europe. The language is probably unique on the Continent in being that of a state and which is also that of the first recorded settlers of the land. It was (perhaps still is) the Celtic language with the largest number of speakers. It is the mother of Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic too.
It seemed almost too difficult to grasp that this had occurred in a state that claims to be independent, which also claimed the language as the first in status in the State, according to its Constitution. And this has, seemingly contradictorily, occurred at a time when there are more Irish-medium schools, Gaelscoileanna, than ever before in the history of the State.
How did it come to pass? Emigration, some might say. Certainly emigration on a large scale has been a feature of Ireland’s demographics since at least the Great Hunger (although it was in the years after that disaster that the outlying western areas began to hemorrhage). Even so, although emigration has been a constant, so also has been the population – in other words, the birth-and-survival-rate kept up with the emigration. Did the Gaeltacht areas experience higher emigration rates than elsewhere then? Certainly – not just to go overseas but also to Irish cities, especially to Dublin. Industry was scarce in the Irish-speaking areas, despite the efforts of cooperatives and Gael-Linn and the land in most places is rocky and poor.
Yet, the reality appears to be that the Gaeltacht population reached a level at which it stayed – so how can there be a continual reduction reaching 90% in the Irish-speaking areas? If the population has not decreased, certainly not to that extent – then the Irish-speakers must have. Have many ceased to speak the language then, losing it over a generation, or two, or three? Or has an inward migration of English-language-only speakers replaced Irish-speakers? Yes to the first and yes, to an extent, to the second.
The Basques have a saying: “No language was ever lost because people didn’t learn it but rather because those who had it, stopped speaking it.” (As an aside, I find myself wanting to say “her”, because in Irish the word “language” is of feminine gender: “Beatha teanga í a labhairt” — literally “the life of a language is to speak her”). Observers speak of children raised in Irish-speaking families, or in a mixed-language household, even in the Gaeltacht, speaking English with their peers as they leave the primary school where the subjects are taught through Irish.
So, the people make a choice and some people of other mother-tongues move in – that’s democracy, isn’t it? Freedom to move, freedom to speak the language you want. But is it really so? Certainly one can assume that the people moving in are making a free choice (unless one takes into account dearer house prices in the cities). But are the ones moving out making a free choice? If the absence of industry and therefore employment is a constant in the Gaeltacht then it is not an entirely free choice to leave. If the work were there, one can assume many of the people would stay.
Ok, but the ones who stop speaking Irish – surely that is a free choice? One suspects cultural factors at play there. The attractive world for pre-teenager – which is what most childhood years have become — and teenager, is a world dominated by and represented through the English language. It is transmitted in English through so many media …. all with very little competition in Irish. The Irish-language TV channel, TG4 is in practice a bilingual one. Publishers find only a small market for books aimed at children and young adults in Irish, whereas the English-language market stretches not only throughout Ireland but abroad — Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand … All of this without mentioning TV, pop-song lyrics, video games, Internet, films ….
But one must also take into account the fact that when those Gaeltacht children visit their nearby towns and cities – Letterkenny, Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Tralee, Galway, Ballina – they hear English all around them. Worse … they hear only English around them – unless they hear other languages from tourists or perhaps an Eastern European language from migrants. What they are practically guaranteed NOT to hear is Irish.
So, hardly anyone speaks her – sorry, it – and it’s not cool and most people of your age around the country don’t speak the language and what do you need it for anyway? It’s not surprising Irish-speaking is in decline.
“You can’t blame the State – they tried their best, didn’t they? Sure Irish is still a compulsory subject in the schools.” “The national broadcaster has provided a radio station and TV channel for Irish-language use, too! And they give some grants to families speaking Irish in the Gaeltacht, right?”
Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear (loosely translated as “not all is as it seems”. Yes, Irish is taught in the schools but no attempt has ever been made to make it a language of daily use – for work, public transport, banking, shopping, post office, health service, education … Radió na Gaeltachta was won through a civil rights campaign – Feachtas Cearta Sibhialta Muintir na Gaeltachta – and people refused to pay their radio and TV licenses, were dragged to court, fined, refused and some even went to jail before TG4’s precursor, Teilifís na Gaeilge, was supplied. The Irish-speaking grants were a help to households but were not properly administered so that houses that were not Irish-speaking, or had lapsed, continued to receive them. This gave rise to false statistics that helped to conceal the decline in the Irish-speaking areas.
The Gaelscoileanna outside the Gaeltacht, at 143 in the 26 Counties, though an impressive success story, are not State initiatives — they were started by local groups who then battled for state support. Many are still in temporary buildings or in need of repair while others are awaiting the funding that will allow them to employ teachers. As for the other services – nothing. Oh, yes, some of them are supposed to have one designated member of staff who can provide a service in Irish – you can avail of him or her if she or he is not off sick, on holiday, on training or relocated. And if you can wait ….. and put up with the embarrassment while you hold up the queue. Even having one’s address used in the Irish form requires a battle, sometimes drawn out and one still finds one’s letters, from time to time, forwarded from someone else’s address or disappearing somewhere forever. Or discovering that one’s address, which one gave in Irish, has been converted back to English in some office.
A couple of years ago a Dublin court ruled that a man did not have a right to have the case against him heard through Irish. Gardaí are not subject to even the notional obligations to carry out their tasks through Irish or answerable to the Language Ombudsman and, although citizens have a right to have any legally-required procedure in Irish, cases regularly arise of people detained and threatened for insisting on being dealt with through Irish by the Gardaí (police).
Ó Glíosáin showed in research published in the 1980s the decline in Irish-speaking competency among people who had learned Irish at school and who had considered themselves competent speakers upon leaving secondary education. The rate of decline was in the order of a third for every decade passing since they left school. For all its faults, the blame cannot be placed on the educational system, the usual scapegoat. Ó Glíosáin spoke about the absence of “domains of language” for Irish outside the Gaeltacht. In Dublin, with a population of over a million, there is only one social space where everything should happen through Irish. One social space, in the capital of the State, to serve a population of over a million, more than one-fifth of the entire population of the State!
The lack of Irish services obtains even in the Gaeltacht, believe it or not. A man wrote recently of a bank branch in Connemara unable to deal with him making a withdrawal through Irish that asked him to make an appointment. Some years ago, I went to an AIB branch in the Donegal Gaeltacht area and, among a staff of five who were serving customers, could find not one able to give me a service in Irish. People in the Gaeltacht cannot get a decent service in Irish from their local authority, their health service nor, in many cases, their GP. This was so even when, decades ago, many Gaeltacht people hardly knew English.
Anyway, it’s all over now ….
So beat the drum slowly
and play the fife lowly ….
Cnag go mall ar an druma
is séid ar an fhíf go híseal …
Or is it? Irish has been in difficult situations before and still managed to survive. But this may be its greatest emergency. Can Irish-speaking survive if the Gaeltacht dies? Some say not, some say yes. But it will be without a doubt another great blow to the language and a great fall in its status. We should say NO — we will not suffer that to happen! We will not bequeath a headstone to future generations.
But what can we do?
What can be done – what must be done – must be done by us, each an every one of us, and also by the State. We must accustom the public to hear Irish spoken. Some will respond and some will not. Some will be hostile. But it must be done and WE must do it. And the more it is heard, the more it will be acknowledged, the more people will think it worthwhile to speak what they know, to learn more, to demand services through Irish, to keep speaking the Irish they know. Spreagan Gaeilge Gaeilge – “Irish inspires/ generates Irish”.
We can greet the bus or taxi driver or shop assistant or post office official in Irish and thank them, saying goodbye in the same language. In pubs and cafes we can ask for our drinks, tea, coffee in Irish (we can repeat the request in English if the response seems uncertain; our purpose here is not to embarrass or shame or be superior, only to have the language heard). I know all of this can be done because a few people have been doing it for years. We can ensure our greetings are always in Irish – “the first word in Irish” is a transposition of a slogan from the Basque Country. We can ensure wherever signs, slogans and banners may be, that we provide these in Irish too. Sure, this is the cúpla focal, tokenistic …. but tokens are not to be disparaged; we do not disparage tokens of love and affection. Of course the tokens must be followed by the real practice, just as needs be the case with tokens of love.
And there are battles that must be fought with the State, with local authorities, with utilities and service providers including private companies. Both logic and history make it clear that this is so. I have already alluded to the civil rights campaign in the Gaeltacht areas and the refusals to pay radio and TV licenses. In the 1960s a Dublin man asked Norwich Union to supply him a bilingual vehicle insurance document or one in Irish. The company declined. The man bought the insurance but refused to display an English-only document on his car. The State’s laws require that every driver display a document showing that they had insurance but no law required a private company to provide that documentation in Irish. The Gardaí regularly stopped the man who explained his stance and they noted his details and allowed him to proceed. For about a year nothing else happened until one day he was summoned to go to court and, despite his explanation and his reference to his right under the Constitution, he was fined. He refused to pay the fine and went to prison. Demonstrations followed with a friend of his playing the bagpipes outside Mountjoy Jail. In less than a fortnight, “an anonymous cleric paid the fine” and subsequently the law was changed. Every vehicle insurance company wishing to practice in Ireland subsequently has to provide Irish documentation or a bilingual version.
Some policies will have to be put in place in the Gaeltacht and closely followed. Policies relating to housing, employment and service delivery will be among them. Some will be welcome and some controversial … but needs must.
The State has already shown by its attitude and by the sad statistics that it does not wish to save Irish as a spoken language. Nor is it only the record of the Gaeltacht decline which speaks volumes. Recently this Government showcased in a video its plan for the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Rising. Among the many criticisms the video attracted was that the Irish in it was of a terrible quality – the Government had employed a translator who had used Google Translate. The video was withdrawn.
Towards the end of 2013, the Irish Language Commissioner, a public servant, accusing the State of “lip-service” towards Irish and actual obstruction, announced that he would not seek reappointment at the end of his term – an announcement that led to a number of big demonstrations in 2014 under the slogan “Dearg le Fearg” (Red with Rage). In July 2014, the Government appointed a Minister for the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht who does not speak Irish – Heather Humphreys. She has, in turn, a Minister of State with specific responsibility for the Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh, appointed in the same month … and, although apparently he is learning it, he does not speak Irish either. And note that responsibility for “Culture” is longer in the same Department as Irish – it has been moved to the much more prestigious Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport.
The State is being challenged from many diverse directions – on issues of services, state finances, centennial commemoration of the fight for independence, conservation, social housing, social welfare, employment and employment rights, health service, gender and sexuality equality, natural resources, Traveller rights, migrant rights … Irish must be seen and heard in these battles and the civil rights of Irish speakers inside and outside the Gaeltacht must also be presented separately, as an issue in itself. These are battles to be fought in campaigns to be planned and time is short. But we can start today, with ourselves. Beatha teanga í a labhairt.