Living the Irish language the only way they know and love

Residents in Carraroe in the Connemara Gaeltacht love their language, pure and simple

With a two-year-old daughter and another child expected imminently, raising children through Irish is a family affair for Katie Bán Breathnach, a primary school teacher in Carraroe in the Connemara Gaeltacht.

Daughter of TV personality Séan Ban Breathnach, she later married into a family where championing the Irish language was a major part of the family history: "It's how we were raised, so it's how we're raising our own daughter."

Her father-in-law, Seán Ó Conghaile, helped set up Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltacht –“The Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement” – in 1969 to highlight the language’s decline and to fight for greater rights for those speaking it.

“People are much more positive now towards the Irish language, and I think people want to learn. Before, it was nearly a chore and now, everybody wants to have Gaeilge,” she told The Irish Times. “[Parents] want their kids to have Gaeilge. As a teacher, the most important thing you need to show your kids is that you use your language; it’s a living, breathing language.”


However, it must be in tune with the times, too, she says, noting the popularity among students in her sister’s school in Dublin of a YouTube make-up tutorial produced in Irish: “The influence that it had on the girls in the school was unbelievable!”

Ms Ban Breathnach was speaking in the wake of a recent report commissioned by the Department of the Gaeltacht that found that just 23 per cent of 12,568 Irish-speaking households raised their children through Irish only. The 126-page report, based on research carried out in 2016 is the first full examination carried out on the 26 statutory Gaeltacht language planning areas, established by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government in 2012.


Éamon Ó Cuív, a TD since 1992 and minister for community, rural and Gaeltacht affairs between 2002 and 2010, said the report is filled with “positives and negatives” about the language’s future.

The touted 23 per cent figure is somewhat misleading, according to Mr Ó Cuív, since it does not factor in the large Irish-speaking community from the Gaeltacht living in non-Gaeltacht areas such as Dublin. Inward migration into Gaeltacht areas by non-Irish speakers is also a factor, but not necessarily a negative, says the Fianna Fail TD.

"Twenty per cent of native Irish speakers are unlikely to transmit the language, as in pass it down generation-to-generation," said Mr Ó Cuív, who speaks to constituents in Spiddal in Irish and to those living in Knocknacarra, a suburb of Galway city, in English.

"There are 20,000 native Irish speakers living in cities across Ireland, and that's bound to distort the figure," he said, adding that social media helps Gaeilgeoirs to keep in touch and keep the spirit of the language alive. "I have two sons living abroad, one in Brisbane and one in California, and we communicate on Facebook with each other through Irish," he says.

It's nice to see people coming in and the tourists love the Irish. They love sitting there, listening to people speaking it, and they come from all over

Of the 2,472 people living in Carraroe, 1,558 speak Irish at home, or at work, including 341 children aged between 3 and 18. Jamie Conneely, a 32-year-old hair stylist and mother-of-three originally from Lettermore, is adding to the number.

She moved to Carraroe after spending two years in Australia. Today Ms Connelly, raised in an Irish-speaking home, is passing on the language tradition to her children. "I just thought they need a second language; it's dying down and we want to keep it going. Everything in Carraroe is done through Irish, you go down to the local shop and people are speaking it," she said.

Tourism is a major lifeblood of the town’s economy, including the scores of students who came in pre-Covid days to practise their language, says Ms Conneely, who argues that Carraroe’s linguistic traditions are an advantage.

"It's nice to see people coming in and the tourists love the Irish. They love sitting there, listening to people speaking it, and they come from all over, from Dublin, Killarney, and Clare. If it's not around here, it won't be anywhere."

Lori Mitchell, a primary-school teacher for 20 years in a mixed-language school in Carraroe, switches effortlessly between English and Irish, as do others interviewed for this piece. The Irish language has always been an intrinsic part of the town's identity, but when non-Irish speakers visit, they "always try to make them feel a part of the conversation; we never try to exclude them," she says.

Ana Nic Dhonncha, a recent Leaving Cert graduate, works in Bláthanna Tí Mhistéil, which sells gifts from flowers, to board games to American sweets, and believes the teaching of Irish must change.

Noting the deep dislike of grammar held by students, she said: “You have to be very specific, if you spell a word wrong, you lose a mark. No one likes the grammar, and that’s what’s pushing people off.”

Like others, Ms Nic Dhonncha bring up the dreaded modh coinníollach – brilliantly lampooned by Des Bishop in his In The Name Of The Fada TV series, declaring it to be one of the most negative parts of the curriculum.

However, the sraith pictiúr, where students discuss what is happening in a set of photos, has become a popular way of testing oral vocabulary, and more such everyday applications of the language would benefit, she argued.

Upon entering hardware store, Tigh Liam, the owner, Liam O’Domhnall is watching a hurling match on television, with a licence plate commemorating the men’s senior hurling team winning the All-Ireland in 2017 hanging on the wall.

“Ah, shame about Joe [Canning] retiring during the week, isn’t it?”

I was speaking Irish to them since the day they were born, why would I suddenly turn around and start speaking in English?

Turning 62 at the end of August, Mr O’Domhnall is fiercely passionate about the teanga he holds dear to his heart, speaking Irish throughout the day, both at home and in the shop. “Ninety-five per cent of the people that come in the shop speak Irish, but when someone comes in here that doesn’t speak Irish we will accommodate them.”

A father-of-two, Mr O’Domhnall says he would “find it awkward to speak English to the kids”.

“I was speaking Irish to them since the day they were born, why would I suddenly turn around and start speaking in English?”

In Mr O’Domhnall’s eyes, the language is a strong part of Carraroe’s social fabric, while winter language classes help newcomers: “If kids want to be involved in football or the summer camps, you have to have the Irish,” he says.

The whistle-stop tour of Carraroe ends in Tigh ‘n Tailliura, a local pub, where five locals have gathered on a Saturday afternoon to enjoy a few pints, the hurling and the evident camaderie.

When the group is posed the question about raising their children to speak Irish, Steven Sullivan, a bearded man in his early 30 responds: "It's the way I talk to them! It's their first language."

The eldest of the group, Padraic Mc Donagh notes that the State has spent over €400 million on the language, though the remark prompts Eamon Ó Loingsigh half-jokingly to suggest a €1 million grant for every Irish speaker.

Whatever about the language’s future, however, it is for them second nature. It is, they agree, a tradition they will continue for as long as they can.