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The decade the Gaeltacht died?

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Laoise NIc Aogáin, Principal in Bunscoile Mhíchíl i mBaile an Sceilig, teaching Irish music to her 5th and 6th class pupils this week. Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan

Laoise NIc Aogáin, Principal in Bunscoile Mhíchíl i mBaile an Sceilig, teaching Irish music to her 5th and 6th class pupils this week. Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan

Heart of the Gaeltacht: Caitlín Breathnach, right,
manager of Comhcoiste Gaeltacht Uíbh Ráthaigh,
at a workshop she helped organise for micro food
enterprises in the Iveragh peninsula, Co Kerry

Heart of the Gaeltacht: Caitlín Breathnach, right, manager of Comhcoiste Gaeltacht Uíbh Ráthaigh, at a workshop she helped organise for micro food enterprises in the Iveragh peninsula, Co Kerry

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Laoise NIc Aogáin, Principal in Bunscoile Mhíchíl i mBaile an Sceilig, teaching Irish music to her 5th and 6th class pupils this week. Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan

The rain is cold. The north wind cuts like a whip at the stony conclusion of the last road in Europe. It's lunchtime at Scoil Mhichíl, and as kids pelt around the schoolyard in their little blue jumpers, the snatches of conversation are all spoken in English. In the small shops of Dungeagan village, English is all-pervasive even though this is Seachtain na Gaeilge and this is the heart of a Gaeltacht.

The Irish language teeters on a precipice steeper than at any point in its history. Have you heard this before? Or maybe you never heard it? Paradoxically, both are symptomatic of the state of the language. You see experts have been warning of the imminent disappearance of Irish since at least 1715, when a Rev E Nicolson wrote that English was "so universally spoken" by young people that it would be "quite forgotten" within a generation.

However a recent report, Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht by Conchúr Ó Giollagáin and Seosamh Mac Donnacha of National University of Ireland, confirms the worst. The researchers asked 1,000 young people throughout our gaeltachts how often they sent text messages in Irish. Seldom, it seems. Just 9pc said Irish was the language of choice among their peers.

Caitlín Breathnach of Comhchoiste Gaeltacht Uíbh Ráthaigh says it is modern-day economics and politics that are devastating the Irish language in Gaeltacht Uíbh Ráthaigh in Kerry's Iveragh peninsula. "The problem isn't just isolated to language. It's something we need to look at holistically. The economic structure dictates your population and your population dictates what language is used so it's kind of a chicken and egg thing. Our economic situation isn't the best at the moment and this is destroying the language."

The younger generation have mostly left Gaeltacht Uíbh Ráthaigh in search of work. Eoin Ryan is a young farmer who continues to eke out a living here even though his peers have all emigrated.

"A neighbour of mine fell and broke her hip there before Christmas and I'm looking after her six or seven animals and one of them was in labour out in the field. I was trying to think of a few lads I could get to give a hand and there was nobody around. They were either working outside the area or gone completely. Before the recession, you'd have fellows working in the buildings, but in the last five years it's gone very bleak."

This is a place of "blow ins" and Eoin worries about the effect that has on the language. "I was talking to a local auctioneer about the high number of Americans, Canadians, and British that have bought up properties in the area recently because the weak euro is giving them good value. That is going to distort the balance of the whole area. A lot of the houses you'll see lights on in them for the first two weeks of August and then not for the rest of the year."

Paddy and Fíona de Buis blew here from Dublin 42 years ago. They are both retired teachers and describe their Irish as a "reasonably busy second language."

Fíona worries too about the shrinking population and its effects on the language. "The biggest drop in population in a townland in the whole country is in the Waterville area. There are townlands now with nobody living in them. Place names are getting forgotten because there are no postal addresses in particular areas."

"The government aren't doing enough for rural Ireland. Enough isn't happening. This Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA) report was just put on a shelf and the only recommendation they followed through was that they now have a junior minister for rural affairs with no budget. But for the moment as older people die, there's no rejuvenation."

Yet hundreds of millions have been thrown at these areas in a bid to keep the natives speaking as Gaeilge. Grants are given for speaking Irish, for trying to speak Irish, for building a house in the area, for setting up a business in the area, for teaching your workers Irish, for keeping students, and for keeping tourists. The result appears an unmitigated failure; the creation of a virtual Gaeltacht that exists primarily in the minds of those who attempted to administrate it.

It could be argued that these attempts are too little, too late, or it may simply be that you cannot save a language artificially, that unless ordinary people are prepared to embrace it every day, all official efforts are doomed. Back at Scoil Mhichíl, Laoise Nic Aogáin, one of the teachers, confirms this. She explains how parental involvement and pre-school education are pivotal in our fight for Irish and yet the local parents are failing despite language assistants even visiting their homes to help out with homework.

"I've been here nearly 28 years. It would've been very few families that came into school speaking Irish at home. We try to teach everything through Irish as much as we can but it's a struggle. A gaelscoil is completely different. Parents send their children to one because they're interested in their children learning Irish. Here it's just that it's the nearest school to send your child to."

Some 68.5pc of persons in the Gaeltacht areas said that they could speak Irish in 2011, a drop from 70pc in 2006. However, the number of daily speakers outside of the education system in the Gaeltacht regions was 24pc of all persons aged three or over. A further 6,813 spoke Irish on a weekly basis.

The surge of interest in Irish-language education outside the Gaeltacht areas suggest that many people have a sense that its value goes beyond the purely commercial and should be retained. The rise in the number of these all-Irish schools in all-English speaking urban areas highlights an irony. Where Irish has been neglected by the state, it is flourishing among people who are using the language, not because they are being forced to learn it or because every government publication is translated into it, but because they love it.

After all Irish is our sound, our language. Passed down to us from our ancestors, it is ingrained in the crevices of every monastery wall, Viking port, Norman castle, thatched cottage and even some Celtic Tiger estates. We need only look at our place names and know that every single field was baptised by the people who lived and worked the land for hundreds of years.

The future of Irish shouldn't be about preserving pockets of Irish speakers in isolated regions but rather encouraging bilingualism everywhere, according to Paddy. The notion of Gaeltacht areas is something that should be abandoned entirely for the good of the language.

Ireland is a long way off from being a Canada or Belgium. But with high-quality television and radio channels in Irish, print and online media, a lively cultural scene and a right for citizens to obtain State services through the language, we are definitely on the right track. However, the sad truth is that we may be living through the last years of Irish as a community language in Gaeltacht areas like this one.

"Any minority language, whether it's Maltese in the English-speaking island of Malta or Catalan in Spain, is only going to exist in a bilingual situation. Most of Europe is bilingual. Most people in the world are bilingual. You don't have to pick one language over another. So this idea that you have to abandon Irish because English is more useful is mad.

"If you're going to strengthen the language then you strengthen bilingualism whether you're inside or outside the Gaeltacht. Having one area that is Irish speaking and another one that is not is just a nonsense choice. You can't have people choosing just one language. It's like someone having two eyes and deciding they'll close one eye or the other, when you can look at the world through both eyes."

Indo Review