The 2016 Census returns, published this week, contain bad news for the Irish language, with a decline across all significant categories: daily speakers of Irish outside the education system and knowledge of and use of Irish in the Gaeltacht. The fall in the Gaeltacht is particularly dramatic – an 11 per cent drop in daily speakers outside the education system within the past five years – and provides further confirmation of the decline of Irish in its traditional heartland, a change which has been documented extensively in recent years.
Although the latest Census figures also illustrate a fall in daily speakers outside the Gaeltacht, that reduction, from 54,010 to 53,217 people, is very small (just over 1 per cent). There has also been an 0.8 per cent increase in the numbers of weekly speakers outside the education system, which probably include those who speak Irish well but lack opportunities to do so. This confirms another existing trend: that the numbers speaking Irish regularly outside the Gaeltacht, although small, are more stable than the equivalent figures from the Gaeltacht.
Research on these “new speakers” of Irish – fluent and committed speakers who were not raised with the language in the Gaeltacht – shows that some look to the Gaeltacht as the model, although it is declining, while others are attempting to create new models such as the recent Pop-Up Gaeltacht events around the country. This is a European-wide trend and is being explored by a European research network on “new speakers in a multilingual Europe”.
The network spans 28 European countries and looks at situations where minority languages (including Irish) are acquired by non-traditional means and in non-traditional settings. Researchers involved in the project have been looking at the role that "new speakers" play in the future of these languages. The project is led by Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and involves more than 28 partners from across Europe, including the National University of Ireland, Galway and the University of Limerick. In addition to Irish, other languages involved include Basque, Breton, Catalan, Galician, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh.
New speakers of Irish or other minority languages learn the language outside of the home, school, through adult-classes or other formal means. New speakers differ from simple learners in that they are committed to speaking the language on a regular basis and seeking out opportunities to use the language.
There are now more new speakers of Irish than native speakers. We have spoken at length with many such speakers from a range of backgrounds and from different parts of the country. They have different stories to tell but what they have in common is that they are deeply committed to the language. This is what makes them want to use the language and to put 13 years of school Irish into practice.
Some newcomers to the language have decided to model their Irish on traditional Gaeltacht varieties. This has sometimes been through dedicated self-study or visits to the Gaeltacht. Some new speakers idealise a traditional Gaeltacht variety and are can be critical of newer forms of “learner” Irish.
At the same time, some other new speakers see themselves as fluent Irish speakers and are less concerned with speaking with a Gaeltacht blas. Some even flaunt what they proudly refer to as “Dublin Irish”. Others still consider themselves “experts” in Irish. There are also some who lack confidence in terms of grammatical accuracy and fluency. We have seen a wide range of abilities. This is often linked to opportunities to use Irish and the amount of practice these speakers can get. There are some new speakers whose use of Irish does not go beyond their weekly ciorcal cainte at the local community hall or local coffee shop.
These speakers are often reluctant to engage in what they perceive as more fluent speakers. Nonetheless, they are committed to their weekly conversational groups which often involved heated debate about the Tuiseal Ginideach or irregular verbs. Newcomers to Ireland are also part of the mix and we also came across many new speakers of non-Irish origin. These speakers had often learned Irish to a very high level and are dedicated supporters of the language.
New speakers of Irish are not of course restricted to Ireland itself. We came across vibrant communities of Irish speakers at Irish Centres in the United States and online communities of language learners spanning the four corners of the world. This shows the extent to which Irish has moved beyond what we would normally think of as Irish-speaking areas.
Among new speakers, there is a strong sense of “becoming” and a desire to joining an existing group of regular Irish speakers who are committed to the future of the language. “Becoming” an Irish speaker can be a life-changing experience for people which can involve sending their children to a Gaelscoil or speaking Irish at home.
Although the teaching of Irish at school is often presented as a failure, we found that becoming an Irish speaker was often prompted by an inspirational Irish teacher. Whatever the reason though, becoming a new speaker of Irish requires a huge personal effort. Becoming an Irish speaker is a journey and for those who embark on that journey, there is always more to be learned.
Native speakers of Irish and their historical links to the Gaeltacht are an important part of new speakers’ consciousness. Some new speakers talk about tensions with native speakers. These speakers tend to have little interest in traditional Irish but will happily speak their own hybridised variety among themselves. Others forge strong links and friendships with Gaeltacht speakers, based on the common goal of promoting the use of Irish.
Most new speakers see themselves as having a role in the future of Irish. The 2012 Gaeltacht Act, while not without its faults, is the first recognition of the need to plan for Irish-speaking networks outside the traditional Gaeltacht. However the Census returns provide no evidence that the poorly-funded language planning process being rolled out in the Gaeltacht and elsewhere is having a positive impact.
Investment in community-based language planning, aimed both at the Gaeltacht and at new speakers, needs to be increased substantially for it to have any chance of success. The paltry sums allocated to the current 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language fall well short of what is required. Indeed successive governments have shown themselves to be particularly apathetic on the language question; the Language Commissioner (Coimisinéir Teanga) recently published a damning indictment of the falling standard of public services in Irish rather than the progress envisaged by the Official Languages Act 2003. These Census returns are a stark warning that the continuous increase over recent decades in the numbers of those claiming competence in Irish cannot be taken for granted. It can only be hoped that they will be a wake-up call and lead to a more engaged and pro-active public policy that will recognise the needs of regular speakers of Irish throughout the country.
Dr John Walsh is a senior lecturer in Irish at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Prof Bernadette O'Rourke works in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh