Irish language endangered by austerity measures

Tue, Mar 6, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:THE VIBRANT Seachtain na Gaeilge festival runs nationally until March 17th, with tomorrow a Lá Gaeilge in the Dáil. At the same time, Irish language groups are campaigning against the effects of funding cuts on the language. So what is the state of the language and how might the current recession affect it?

Efforts to revive the language date from the founding by Douglas Hyde of the Gaelic League in 1893. Hyde’s view of the language as a vehicle for national identity led to the league becoming a mass movement and inspired many in the independence movement, including Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera.

Since independence, all governments have supported the language and, 90 years on, the evidence suggests these policies have had mixed results.

The main policy focus (perhaps to an unbalanced extent) has been the education system. In many ways, achievements here are disappointing compared to inputs. Despite the time spent between ages four and 18, it is shocking how few young people finish school able to speak Irish fluently. Such poor outcomes would be unacceptable in most subjects (the exceptions perhaps being other languages). Reasons for the poor outcomes include a traditional over-emphasis on grammar, a continuing lack of creativity in how the language is taught, and a strikingly high number of teachers who cannot themselves speak the language.

On the other hand, the work of the schools has led to the number of people who say they can speak Irish rising from 20 per cent of the population in the 1920s to more than 40 per cent today.

The 2006 census showed that 1.66 million people have an ability to speak Irish, with more than half a million people using Irish every day. This included more than 72,000 people who spoke Irish daily outside the education system.

As such, there has been some movement towards a bilingual society, although Ireland is clearly no 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, there have been real achievements.

Opinion polls consistently show that strong public support for Irish (despite a minority who don’t seem to “get” the language) and the vibrant Gaelscoil movement, as well as growth in the use of Irish in Northern Ireland, represent strong sources of optimism. (Research suggests one in four parents would send their child to a Gaelscoil if available.) While many languages around the world died in the 20th century, Irish is very much alive.

A crucial exception to this optimism is the decline in the use of Irish in Gaeltacht areas. This is primarily due to these communities being largely rural and remote (why the language survived in the first place), and so having the economic tide against them. While the value of the language in these areas is firstly to those who live there, who tap directly into a rich Gaelic heritage, these communities provide inspiration for all who speak Irish.

However, the sad truth is that we may be living through the last years of Irish as a community language in most Gaeltacht areas.

Drawing on all-party support, a 20-year strategy for the language was published in December 2010. It has two central targets: to increase the number in the State who use Irish daily outside the education system to 250,000 by 2030, and to increase the number of daily speakers in Gaeltacht areas by 25 per cent. The 250,000 figure represents 5-7 per cent of the expected 2030 population. Given general positive views on the language and the numbers learning Irish in Gaelscoileanna and other schools, this objective should be achievable, if there is a will to achieve it.

Unfortunately, the strategy entered the world in a time of austerity. So how is the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition performing on the language?

On the positive side, the recent Gaeltacht Bill suggests commitment to the strategy. As well as focusing on the urgent challenges facing Gaeltacht areas in keeping the language alive, an innovative part of the Bill will allow any area where large numberS of Irish language speakers live or work to become a “Gaeltacht network” (groups in both Clondalkin and Co Clare are already looking at this). New “Gaeltacht” areas, with a range of outlets for people to use Irish, could generate local pride and create virtuous circles of language visibility and use.

On the other hand, the national austerity is having detrimental effects and particularly negative decisions include:

The proposal to merge the Office of the Irish Language Commissioner with the Office of the Ombudsman, which will lead to almost no savings, but may well affect the rights of Irish speakers;

The cutting of grants to trainee teachers to spend time in the Gaeltacht. This is particularly illogical as trainee teachers need more and not less time in the Gaeltacht;

Reduced funding for small Gaeltacht schools.

The risk is that spending cuts from different Government departments could, taken together, undermine the “horizontal” Government objective of supporting the language. There is an urgent need for the Cabinet committee on the Irish language to take a “joined-up” view to ensure the 20-year strategy is given high-level leadership and oversight.

Otherwise, personal support from Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore may not prevent the recession doing considerable damage to Irish.

Indeed, drawing on the ideas of Douglas Hyde, the deeper European integration being driven by the economic crisis suggests a need for new ways to assert national identity. In this context, there is now an opportunity for the language to become part of a wider national rejuvenation, a confident assertion of who we are in an integrated global economy.

Bainigí sult as imeachtaí Seachtain na Gaeilge!


Finbar McDonnell is a public policy analyst and an Irish language speaker. Information on Seachtain na Gaeilge events is at snag.ie