Sunday 24 March 2019

Irish and the Gaeltacht - they haven't gone away, you know

Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs Joe McHugh
Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs Joe McHugh

Rónán Mac Con Iomaire

I woke up one day not so long ago to the news that the Gaeltacht had 10 years left before being effectively wiped out. An academic report, commissioned by the Gaeltacht development agency, Údarás na Gaeltachta, found that Irish would no longer be the majority language in the Gaeltacht within a decade.

For me, the news was quite alarming, not just because I was raised in Irish and happened to live in the Gaeltacht, but because my children were in the same boat.

It occurred to me, as it did a number of other parents I spoke to at the time, that raising your children to speak a rapidly dying language mightn't be the greatest long-term strategy.

And then I thought it through.

My wife and I speak Irish to each other. My next-door neighbour and I speak Irish to each other. My parents and siblings, who live close by, speak Irish to me, as do my shopkeeper, my barman, my barrister. My children speak Irish to each other. My children and their friends (yes, as a parent, it's my job to eavesdrop!) speak Irish to each other. Their teachers speak Irish to them, as do their football coaches and boxing trainers.

Yet, according to the study, the entire fabric of this linguistic society was to be torn apart within 10 years, a conclusion that was latched onto by both pro- and anti-Irish camps.

The anti-lobby because it suited an argument. The pro-lobby because it erroneously thought that presenting the death of the Gaeltacht would spark huge interest and investment.

It didn't, partly because it's not relevant to most people's daily lives and partly because it's like the boy who cried wolf.

The death of the Gaeltacht has been forecast many times. Wolf was cried only recently around the future of the Irish language on the basis of another study, which had a sample size of only 50, that said that young Gaeltacht people had better English than they had Irish, and so the language was doomed.

There is always some truth in these things, but the presentation of these studies and their championing of the impending disaster, mostly by the same group of people, is counter-productive.

Now I'm not saying that everything is perfect and that the language is thriving unabated in either Gaeltacht or Galltacht. But the truth is more nuanced than is being presented.

Sure, my kids speak Irish to some kids and English to others. When they commentate their own two-man football games, the commentary is in Irish. When they're beating each other up under the pretence of a Spiderman v Batman game, it's in English (until one of them loses his temper - then it's back to Irish).

It's little different from when I was a child, commentating my way in English through ad hoc tennis games in a BBC accent during Wimbledon week, trying to find the right combination of words that would break the spirit of my fellow 10-year-old opponent.

The Gaeltacht is changing. Technology is changing. Lifestyles are changing. It all impacts upon the language. We bemoan the disappearance of the richness of Irish, but much of the argument stands on the same ground as an argument that English is not as rich as it used to be because we no longer use 18th-century agricultural terminology in daily conversation.

When some people hear that I speak Irish, they tell me that it's amazing. It's not. It's no more extraordinary to be raised in a place like An Cheathrú Rua in Connemara speaking Irish, given the socio-linguistic context, than it is to be raised speaking English in Rathmines. But for whatever reason, we tend to assign meaning, positive or negative, to Gaeilge.

Language is language. Strip it down and it's nothing more than a collection of words with a grammatical structure built around it, shaped by the environment it envelops and which envelops it.

There is no good or evil language, no language better or worse than another. There is only our experience of a language, what it means to us and how that shapes our opinion of it.

As Irish people, our relationship with our native language can be a strange one. Some of us resent it. Some of us have a zeal for it. And then there are those who don't care about it either way, many of whom, actually, are those who live in the Gaeltacht, who were born and raised with Irish and view it with no more exception or interest than those raised with English view their first language.

But language is, of course, more than a collection of words. The language of our past and present is the key to unlocking our surnames, our place names, our very identity.

Our relationship, as a nation, with our language has changed profoundly, in my view, over the past 20 years, especially among the younger half of the population.

That same baggage that Irish attracted doesn't exist to the same extent anymore. Partly because of the development of Gaelscoileanna and TG4, partly because of the self-confidence we have finally begun to develop as a nation.

It's time we acknowledged this and changed our approach to the Irish language. To stop doing stuff just because it's in the legislation or because it's expected of us.

That's the approach we're taking in RTÉ with our Irish-language action plan. Not to do something for the sake of doing it, but in order to create great television, great radio and great online content. To interweave it naturally, seamlessly, unforcefully, into all that we do and to do so for what it is, without judgement.

Rónán Mac Con Iomaire is group head of Irish Language at RTÉ

Irish Independent

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