Flawed Gaeltacht Bill in need of brave revision


OPINION: Further work in defining more realistic Gaeltacht boundaries is critical to the preservation of the Irish language

THE GAELTACHT Bill 2012 before the Oireachtas is the culmination of 12 years of costly research, extensive consultation and prolonged procrastination by officialdom in dealing with the problem of Gaeltacht boundaries.

Part of the problem is that the official boundaries, set up by government order in 1956, with a few additions since, do not reflect the current linguistic situation. More than half the population of the Gaeltacht is living in areas in which Irish is no longer used within the community to any significant extent.

The Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht (2007) established criteria for three categories of Gaeltacht: Category A for areas in which Irish was the “predominant community and family language”, Category B for weaker areas in transition, and Category C for areas in which Irish, while not the main community language, would be used by some social networks, by a minority of families and within education.

Analysis of data from Census 2006 shows that of the 95,000 people living within the official Gaeltacht, approximately 17,000 belonged to Category A areas, 10,000 to Category B and 17,000 to Category C, leaving about 50,000 in Gaeltacht areas which did not meet the minimum criteria.

The Gaeltacht Bill before the Oireachtas was heralded as providing for “a new definition based on language criteria” for the Gaeltacht, to quote Minister of State Dinny McGinley. It does the opposite.

Section 7 of the Bill states unambiguously that all areas “currently within the Gaeltacht” shall maintain their current Gaeltacht status, irrespective of whether Irish is actually used. This status can only be revoked if the area fails to prepare a language plan.

To put this into perspective, consider the case of housing estates within the boundaries of Galway city which happen to have been built within the official boundaries of the Gaeltacht. When the present Gaeltacht boundaries were drawn in 1956, Galway city had a population of 22,000.

In the then farming areas on the outskirts of the city, about 500 people lived within Gaeltacht-designated townlands such as Knocknacarra and Tirellan, which were subsequently rezoned for housing to accommodate the rapid expansion of Galway city to its present population of about 75,000.

As a consequence, there are now in excess of 15,000 Galway city residents who live in housing estates within the official Gaeltacht boundaries. There are more people in Galway city within the official Gaeltacht than in the large Irish-speaking area of South Conamara, which stretches from An Spidéal to Cárna!

Instead of sorting out this blatant anomaly, the Gaeltacht Bill as currently presented confirms the Gaeltacht status of Knocknacarra and Tirellan. To make matters worse, the very section of the 1956 legislation which allowed for the withdrawal of their anomalous Gaeltacht status by government order has been revoked.

However, the problem of Gaeltacht boundaries goes beyond the anomaly of housing estates in Galway city. According to returns from the 2006 census, some official Gaeltacht villages are even less Irish-speaking than Knocknacarra in Galway city.

Belmullet in northwest Mayo, for example, Burtonport in west Donegal and Claregalway, east of Galway city, are all Gaeltacht villages in which less Irish is used, according to census returns, than is the case in Knocknacarra, in which there is a thriving Gaelscoil.

Under the new Bill, the Gaeltacht status of these areas can only be withdrawn if it should happen that no organisation within them manages to formulate an approved language plan. The corollary of this is that every official Gaeltacht area will keep its Gaeltacht status, irrespective of whether or not Irish is actually used in the area, as long the necessary paper exercise is completed and the requisite box can be ticked in the department.

The reason advanced for abolishing direct elections to Údarás na Gaeltachta, under the terms of this Bill, is to save some money. The irony is that the Údarás elections cost much more than they should because of the failure of the Government to redraw the Gaeltacht boundaries.

As well as that, the Government continues to pay a Gaeltacht allowance of €3,000 per annum to many teachers who happen to work in official Gaeltacht areas which are no more Irish-speaking than Clondalkin or Carlow.

More realistic boundaries for the Gaeltacht would save money for the Government. More importantly, they would allow the language planning process being promoted in this Bill to concentrate efforts and resources on those few areas in which Irish has managed to survive as a community language for the last 2,000 years, and allow the promotion of Irish language networks in urban areas outside the traditional Gaeltacht.

Is it too late to ask the Government to withdraw this faulty legislation and to redraft a more honest and courageous Gaeltacht Bill in the autumn? After 12 years of waiting, we can afford another few months of delay in order to get it right. The survival of our living language heritage is at stake.

Donncha Ó hÉallaithe was until recently a maths lecturer at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. Over the last 10 years he has conducted independent research into the use of Irish in both Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht areas. He lives in the South Conamara Gaeltacht and is a frequent commentator on Irish language and Gaeltacht issues on RnaG and TG4.

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