Welcome to the Galltacht
I was in the attic the other day looking for records to play on a recently recovered record player when I came across an ancient copy of Buntús Cainte, the Irish language instructional programme that was broadcast by Radio Teilfís Éireann — the national radio (Raidió) and television (Teilifís) station of Ireland (Éireann) – from 1967 to 1969. Gael Linn issued the record to complement the series. It must have been thirty years old – not as old as Wish You Were by Pink Floyd which, if I remember correctly was bought in a second hand shop in Richmond St in 1978 courtesy of my first paypacket from the Dept of Justice. Nostalgia! Either way I thought that Buntús Cainte might just come in handy – again – given the news. The demise of Irish as a living language had just been announced on the web and people were wondering what could be done about it. Revive Buntus Cainte?
It’s not often that you browse a story and see the same headline repeated across all platforms. The breaking news was that the “Decline of Irish as spoken language was ‘worse than previously thought.’” The Hibernian Brotherhood blog bucked the trend by boldly declaring “Ireland for the Irish” but really toed the line and posted a link to the a story about the “Decline of Irish as spoken language ‘worse than previously thought.”
The story was as brief as it was predictable. The Irish language is in decline. The “shocking” news was contained in a study commissioned by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the organisation tasked with the economic, social, and cultural development of districts where Irish is spoken more than English, that is Gaeltachts. The study showed that by 67% or more of the population spoke Irish on a daily basis in just 21 of the 155 electoral divisions in the Gaeltacht. Within 10 years all 155 divisions will have dropped below the 67% threshold of a “living language.”
The reaction was as muted as it was predictable. “The end is nigh. Irish is on last legs as living language” wrote Donal Nolan in the Kerryman while the national version of the Kerryman, the Irish Independent, warned that by 2025 the Irish language that “will not be used as the primary dialect anywhere in the country” in a piece written by Daniel MacDonald.
Dialect is an interesting choice of wording. The difference between Gaeltacht Irish and School Irish — its poor half-cousin in the towns – has been narrowing for years. Anyone who has worked in the Gaeltachts will have seen the relentless progress of English and despaired of the ability of Irish to handle the linguistic demands made by modern globalised communications and social media in particular. “Fócasáil an ceamara, lad” sums up the “spotty” language of that developed in the space between the Gaeltacht, the land of the Gael, and the Galltacht, the land of the foreigners where the townies and other non-native speakers live.
The Irish village of Ballymaclinton epitomised the Galltacht and the creeping Anglicisation of Irish society that was denounced by Douglas Hyde in a speech delivered to Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, on 25 November 1892. The Gaeltachts were established by the Free State as a bulwark against, and a cure for Anglicisation. All the resources of the state were devoted to the reversal of Anglicisation and the revival of the Irish language. The Gaeltachtachtaí or Gaeltachts were culturally and, to a lesser extent, economically advantaged (the deontas) in order to advance the ‘Irish Ireland’ project. The rest of us were schooled in compulsory Irish and sent to the Gaeltacht during the summer to learn the real thing. Now that the majority people living in 134 out of the 155 areas currently defined as Gaeltacht districts have given up on Irish, what happens?
More De-Anglicisation? More Resources? More Irish in Schools? More “Spotty” Irish in the media? I heard recently that parents on an island that had always been a stronghold of Irish were speaking English at home and were depending on teachers to teach Irish to their children. The study by published by Údarás na Gaeltachta confirms that but there is worse to come. It follows on other surveys that confirm what 125 odd years of ‘De-Anglicisation’ has shown: you can’t ‘school’ a living language. If in doubt have a listen to Buntús Cainte. If you haven’t got a record player, don’t worry. Its online. Just googaláil Buntús Cainte.