Our national approach to Irish as a spoken language is in urgent need of a rethink. Given the pending demise of the Gaeltacht, the status quo is clearly not working.
Without vision and innovation, Irish will not survive as a community language beyond the next 10 years and we will lose the social context needed for young people to acquire fully functional Irish.
Except for rare individuals, you can’t really have competent Irish speakers without the Gaeltacht. And you won’t have a Gaeltacht without serious social change. Language communities need competent speakers and those speakers need communities. One reinforces the other.
Much of the public debate about Irish ignores the tension between, on the one hand, the processes of social language death in the Gaeltacht and, on the other, celebrating the use of Irish as an artistic or symbolic appendix to the dominant English-language culture. We appear to be living through a final eclipse of Irish as a community language by the use of Irish for display or performance.
This eclipse of communal use by display and sentiment is common in the death of a language.
Current policies, including the State’s 20-year strategy for the Irish language, are irrelevant. The cliche about the benefits of individual bilingualism do not address the problems of the threatened minority group of Irish speakers.
Lack of empathy
It actually shows a lack of empathy for the Gaeltacht by undermining proposals for affirmative action.
The realignment of policy towards learners’ individual needs is strategically facilitated by a widespread denial of and indifference towards the Gaeltacht among sections of the political class, the media and academia. It is impossible to address the crisis of Irish if those in charge refuse to recognise the clearly documented evidence surrounding the decline of the Gaeltacht – or worse still when they conspire to “shoot the messengers” who report these facts.
We propose the establishment of new social structures and organisations, based on democratic agreement and organised along co-operative lines.
Language communities require empowerment through collective action. These include the protection of language-group dynamics and social, educational and institutional support for developing full competence.
There also need to be socio-economic rewards for membership in the minority group. But these needs are not being met by the present approach of the State agencies responsible for the Gaeltacht.
Our more progressive proposal rests on four main pillars:
1 Irish linguistic zones (Tearmann na nGael): Similar to ecological protection, these will provide a habitat for the geographic protection of the remaining Gaeltacht speaker base, if and as endorsed by the community organisations.
2 Community Trust for Gaels (Iontaobhas na nGael): This co-operative structure will manage the various resources of group members and will administer the beneficial schemes for its members. These will include employment and housing schemes, dividends and social reward systems, tax incentives, educational and cultural supports. We suggest a mixed model of public, private and philanthropic sources for funding to encourage greater financial independence.
3 Assembly for Gaels (Dáil na nGael): This assembly will provide a democratic mechanism for political solidarity, empowerment and leadership to endorse practical initiatives for the Community Trust.
4 Academy for Gaels (Acadamh na nGael): To undertake research and disseminate knowledge for the benefit of the community and to offer strategic support for organisational structures.
The least we can do now is to face facts and deal with reality. If we are to be constructive, Irish needs a new social dynamism.
We hope that these ideas and proposals may form the basis for a more productive engagement with current challenges and can encourage positive citizenship and optimism for Irish.
Conchúr Ó Giollagáin (University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland) and Brian Ó Curnáin (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) are the authors of Beartas Úr na nGael: Dálaí na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta san Iar-Nua-Aoiseachas (A New Deal for Gaels: Irish and the Gaeltacht in Postmodernity)