Irish in crisis – we need a New Deal to revitalise the language

‘We need to address the crisis of Irish in its native-speaking community – now marginalised to be merely court jesters to the cultural dominance of English’

Irish, our “first” but minority language, is in crisis. The recently-published Update of the Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht: 2006-2011 has concluded that Irish as a vernacular in Gaeltacht districts will not survive under current conditions beyond the next 10 years. This cultural and social aspect of our national project is now in tatters, and at a time of its greatest crisis, we have lost our way. Irish needs a New Deal as a matter of priority.

There are five main issues which must be addressed if Irish is to survive as a community language:

1. The erosion of the critical mass of Irish-speaking communities in the Gaeltacht is accelerating into what will be, without intervention, a terminal trajectory

2. Weak, non-functional levels of Irish language acquisition among young people living in Gaeltacht areas, including native speakers


3. The failure of language-support agencies to support the real needs of speakers and communities; arid institutions do not save a language, only speakers through a process of language acquisition backed by social support/reinforcement achieve this

4. The inability of the educational system to support the emergence of competent and socially-rooted speakers, either as native speakers or learners; greater emphasis on the needs of native speakers in the educational system is clearly required, we still await a curriculum for native speakers of Irish, for example

5. A growing alienation among the remaining speaker community from both the political and state class in relation to perceived insincere official reiterations of State commitments to Irish; the State is perceived as obstructing the strategic deployment of the mechanisms of State against the clearly documented crisis in Irish-speaking networks.

The aims of the official 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language are increasingly viewed as irrelevant in that they suggest no coherent intervention against these challenges, ie the condition it is purporting to address.

The approach taken in the State’s strategy owes more to wishful thinking than to science. From a language policy perspective, its irresponsible cross-fertilisation of outmoded sermonising about the importance of our linguistic heritage, redolent of Éamon de Valera’s musings on Irish, coupled with a simplistic reworking of fashionable cosmopolitan rhetoric on cultural diversity, is unlikely to result in strengthened Gaeltacht areas. The strategy is devoid of analytical foundation, diagnostic rigour or strategic relevance – bien-pensant but unengaged and of limited practical use to the nature of the current crisis. Put simply, it is a failure to face reality.

This evasiveness has engendered a form of passive aggression in official circles towards the crisis in the Gaeltacht, which is taking on the hallmarks of a conspiracy against the laity – professional privilege dissociated from the problems of the collective. Language support agencies now seem to be entrusted with managing a distressed culture on behalf of learners, rather than on behalf of speakers who possess the culture. The State’s focus, therefore, is on the external requirements of promoting language as historical heritage and pastime rather than supporting a living community. It essentially ignores the pressures on a fragile vernacular and pins it hopes on schools and other institutional efforts. Those working for the language agencies operate as an intermediary class between the State’s largely mono-lingual English-speaking power elite and the bilingualised Gaeltacht, rather than as dynamic leaders of a distressed community.

The current contradictions of pursuing a language policy for Irish as an optional secondary culture for individualistic consumption has displaced focus from where it needs to be. We need to address the crisis of Irish in its native-speaking community – now marginalised to be merely court jesters to the cultural dominance of English.

The irony of facilitating the need for Irish as symbolic heritage at the expense of the disempowered Gael is not lost on those living in the dwindling Gaelic districts of the Gaeltacht — a case of a minoritised group being expected to defer to ineffectual national sentiment.

In this context of crisis, the Irish State’s 20-Year Strategy is a non-policy. It demonstrates naïve deference to inherited language policies but suggests nothing effective to engage with current conditions.

Instead of a New Deal for Irish speakers and communities, policy reform efforts to date have culminated in a reversion to the status quo but with weaker budget provision. To re-establish Irish in the Gaeltacht as a living language it will be necessary to focus on four basic tasks: a) re-establishing communities with sufficient density of Irish speakers to ensure Gaeltacht sustainability, b) establishing a form of civic trust to manage socio-economic resources for the benefit of the minority group, c) establishing some form of assembly to allow for the development of Irish language civil culture and to provide group leadership, and d) making provision for research and productive strategic back-up for the Irish-speaking community.

I propose that current language-support institutions be replaced by the following agencies, possibly within the existing budget:

1. A Gaelic Community Trust – to manage collective resources and to administer the benefits of group membership

2. Dáil na nGael — a form of assembly to develop group leadership and to empower practical strategies and actions

3. A research and information centre — to disseminate knowledge on best-practice and strategy.

Given the enormity of the complex challenges facing Irish, the ambiguity and inadequacy of the strategy to date and the challenges faced by minority languages globally, it is obvious that we need new imaginative approaches to give Irish and its community a living chance. The status quo and the survival of Irish are no longer compatible — a New Deal is required.

Conchúr Ó Giollagáin is the Soillse Research Professor in the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland. He co-authored, along with Martin Charlton, the Update of the Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht: 2006-2011. This article is an abbreviated version of his address to the Celtic Sociolinguistic Symposium in UCD on June 25th