Ensuring the Irish language survives and thrives
It cannot be taken for granted that there will always be another generation of native speakers
Government Chief Whip and Minister of State for the Irish Language Joe McHugh, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during an announcement of spending on culture, language and heritage in Dublin on Tuesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Speaking at an announcement of State spending on culture and language in Dublin on Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar noted that “deep in our souls we all understand the obligations of our heritage”. The phrase would have struck a chord with Irish speakers. The exhortation “tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” – a country without a language is a country without a soul – is a battle cry that Irish speakers have raised for more than a century.
It is good that we are reminded of our duty to that which we hold in trust for future generations. Still, even the soul needs sustenance. To that end, the Government’s decision to invest €178 million in the Gaeltacht, the Irish language and our islands is welcome.
Important strides have been made in recent decades, the tremendous growth of Irish-medium schools chief among them. We are richer culturally for their success. It is worth noting that the rising rate of Irish-language schooling is largely a bottom-up, people-driven initiative. Governments, beyond their pious platitudes about Irish, have shown much less commitment. The current 20-year strategy has achieved little.
The biggest challenge is ensuring that Gaeltacht communities survive and thrive. It cannot be taken for granted that there will always be another generation of native speakers. That requires serious investment in the language itself, notably in ensuring a supply of high-quality, well-trained teachers. But it must also involve support for job-creation in Irish-speaking regions. Research consistently shows that Irish is under grave threat in the Gaeltacht; according to some estimates, the death of the Gaeltacht is likely within a decade unless action is taken.
That requires a specific strategy, not the type of catch-all plan, largely focused on non-Gaeltacht areas, that the 20-year strategy represents. Critical to this is an understanding that the needs of native speakers, in the education system in particular, are not the same as those of learners. The bottom line is that if the Gaeltacht dies, then the living, unbroken language goes too.