Could Clare Island be the next gaeltacht?


Clare Island has been suggested as a testing ground for a pilot project on the Irish language. It may sound like silly-season headline grabbing, but residents of the island are all for it

A CENTURY ago Clare Island, in Co Mayo, proved the perfect laboratory for the groundbreaking Clare Island Survey led by naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger. Frank Feighan, Fine Gael TD and shadow spokesman on the Gaeltacht, says the island would be a perfect testing ground for reintroducing the Irish language

The island’s postmaster, longtime community activist Padraic O’Malley, is positive but cautious about Feighan’s proposal.

“The Government would have to develop a realistic and achievable proposal to carry out such an ambitious project. It would have to be about speaking the language.

“After all, I went to school and was taught Irish for 14 years and still left without being able to speak Irish,” says O’Malley.

“It wouldn’t take a huge shift to transform the national school into a Gaelscoil. And we’re always looking to increase the population, so scholarships could be offered to families who want to resettle here and learn Irish.”

He recalls a pithy observation made by his late uncle Mikey James Moran about his maternal grandmother, who came from a north Mayo Gaeltacht and taught lace-making and crocheting on the island during the early decades of the last century.

“Occasionally another woman from the island who was also a native speaker would come to visit my grandmother, and they would chat and converse away with each other. But if the children came within listening distance they were shooed away lest they pick up the Irish.

“My uncle believed their logic was that Irish would be no use to them when they were forced to emigrate to the UK or the United States,” says O’Malley.

Feighan says we need to think outside the box if the 20-year Strategy for the Irish Language, which aims to increase the number of speakers from 87,000 to 250,000, is to be successful. He said after his recent visit to the Clew Bay island, which during summer months has a population of up to 160, that he was struck by how suitable it was for a pilot project on the Irish language, as it is situated between the Gaeltachts of Achill and Connemara.

Dr Peter Gill, part-time island resident and professor of education at the University of Gavle, in Sweden, agrees with Feighan. He refers to the Royal Irish Academy’s New Survey of Clare Island, launched by former taoiseach Charles Haughey in 1991.

Gill says: “In the new survey it is remarkable that more Irish place names of the fields and rocks, coves and crannies were recorded than in the original [carried out from 1909-1911 by Eoin MacNeill, Michael McDowell’s grandfather] . . . Under the surface of the visible culture is the invisible one.

“This has been clearly shown recently with the resurgence of traditional music and sean-nós dancing and singing on the island. For myriad reasons the island is a perfect laboratory to reintroduce the language. The parameters of the project can be easily defined and its progress monitored,” Gill says.

Gill recorded some of these lyrical place names in a bilingual love poem he often recites at island gatherings: “So I despaired of winning your heart and put mine idir a dhá cliath / But you went and stole it that day from Creagán Léim an Mhadrá­ [the field of the jumping dog].”

The higgledy-piggledy Rundale or Clachán farming system of the densely populated pre-famine Clare Island – when the population surged to over 1,600 – contributed to the colourful patchwork pastiche of place names.

According to the longtime principal of St Patrick’s National School, Mary McCabe, Irish words still pepper the island dialest. Children are still gasúrs, and side roads are bóithríns. When the dog is ordered to direct the hens out of the newly sown potato patch the owner will shout a menacing “cearc, cearc, cearc”, and if the mutt’s excited enthusiasm leads to feathers flying, the order becomes a scolding “a’mhadaigh, a’mhadaigh, a’mhadaigh” (pronounced “waddy, waddy, waddy”).

“An island is probably the best place to carry out such a pilot study, since the people are in touch with their heritage and culture, and effectively the native language is the missing link in this,” McCabe says.

“Over the years our school has promoted a strong Irish cultural ethos, and we now have a St Patrick’s National School céilí­ band. Children from the age of six and seven upwards play fiddles, accordions, banjos and concertinas.

“They often join in sessions with the older island musicians and all during the summer we have had a regular cultural evening – through the local Comhltas Ceoltóirí­ group – where the children also join in,” she says.

“The school is the obvious place to implement this, and, like the gaelscoils throughout the country, the adults would learn from the children. Of course there would have to be a programme of formal classes for the adults as well.”

She continues: “I’ve noticed over the years that when we attend the Oireachtas na Samhna . . . the island children and their parents often say they would have liked to understand the Irish-speaking all around them. There is a willingness there and a love of the language, but the resources would have to be put in place by government. The obvious way to implement it would be by linking the initiative with a university – say NUIG.”

Gráinne O’Malley, an 18-year-old secondary student on the island, has a more pragmatic attitude: “Since Irish is compulsory for the Leaving Cert, it would be great to be fluent and to be able to pick up all those extra points.”

‘No respect for Irish because of the way it’s taught’

Despite efforts to invigorate the Irish language, its use is still in decline. Of 55,783 Leaving Cert students this year, only 45,984 took the Irish exam, a decrease of about 600 a year since 2006.

The most recent figures on Irish speakers show a continued downward trajectory for the language, in decline for a number of decades: 598,485 people aged 15 to 34 are able to speak Irish, but that doesn’t indicate how many speak fluently or use Irish regularly. Only 0.44 per cent – about one in 200 people – speak the language daily outside of education.

Audrey Donohue, a 22-year-old from Glenamaddy, Co Galway, is fluent in Irish but doesn’t regard herself as a native Irish speaker, as she’s not from a Gaeltacht. She blames the education system for the language’s lack of popularity and says that if it was no longer compulsory those who want to speak Irish would take it up voluntarily. “A national language shouldnt be learned at school, she says: we should grow up speaking it,” she says.

The numbers sitting Irish for the Leaving Cert will renew debate about exemptions from the subject. Timmy Crowley, an 18-year-old Dubliner who sat the Leaving this year, and says that although he didn’t mind learning Irish, he doesn’t imagine he will ever use it again. “Culture and history aside, there is no point in making students learn a subject when obviously there is a large number of people that don’t want to learn it.”

Fláine Ní Chathalláin, a 22-year-old from Coimn, near Ballyferriter in Co Kerry, is a native speaker. Having grown up in a Gaeltacht, she says that she has been speaking Irish since she was four and that it is part of her identity. All her education was through Irish, and she is now doing a master’s degree. “Most young people don’t have any respect for the Irish language because of the way it’s taught in school,” she says. “Most people can only speak a cúpla focal after years of learning the language, which doesn’t say much for the education system.”

Connie McGinty, a 30-year-old from Letterkenny, Co Donegal, says changes need to be made to the way Irish is taught in secondary schools because the language is dying out as a result. He remembers being a relatively good Irish speaker before secondary school but felt forced to learn a subject that was badly delivered and had no practical application.

Alan Power, a 25-year-old from Rathfarnham, in Dublin, did higher level Irish in secondary school and got a good grade, but he has had little use for his Irish professionally. “Keeping the language alive is important in maintaining a degree of our own national identity, but that argument is often based on sentimentality and not practicality.” STEPHEN MANGAN