Irish language will not be saved by symbolic-focused bureaucracy

Gaeltacht requires community trusts to stimulate familial transfer of vernacular

Symbolically reinforcing the civic status of Irish when communities of Irish speakers are in terminal decline is both strategically misguided and a wasteful use of scarce resources.

Symbolically reinforcing the civic status of Irish when communities of Irish speakers are in terminal decline is both strategically misguided and a wasteful use of scarce resources.

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The State is about to embark on another bout of outcome-blind public spending on Irish. This is seen in the recent bureaucratic wrangling in the Oireachtas over the largely irrelevant Official Languages Bill and the political grandstanding on Lá na Gaeilge.

The Bill is primarily focused on increasing the number of public servants with the requisite language skills to provide mostly unspecified services in Irish. Instead of allocating public resources to generate maximal, beneficial social outcomes for speakers and learners of Irish, politicians have been preoccupied with the latest version of token State provision to bolster the symbolic status of Irish – legislative fiddling while Rome burns.

Symbolically reinforcing the civic status of Irish when communities of Irish speakers are in terminal decline is both strategically misguided and a wasteful use of scarce resources. The current untargeted, aspirational provision should be replaced with a focus on assessable social outcomes in communities and networks of Irish speakers.

One-off Gaelic cultural events give the impression of Gaelic community activity that does not exist behind the facade

The superficial official response to over a decade of research on Gaeltacht social endangerment has merely generated an inane version of the status quo. In the failure to address the crisis, language bodies now perversely become official mechanisms driving the cultural shift to English in the remaining Gaeltacht communities. This raises the question: why do Gaeltacht bodies continue to exist?

Despite the failure to protect the Gaeltacht as Irish-speaking communities, there have been no calls to date for the overhaul or even disbandment of these bodies. The relentless anglicisation of the Gaeltacht seems not to be a concern of Gaeltacht officialdom. The symbolic civic promotion of Irish without protecting existing communities of Irish speakers has enabled English-language majoritarianism to flourish in the social geography of the Gaels.

Language policy now manages language decline by deflecting attention from that decline via inconsequential initiatives. The idea of legitimate democratic concerns of the Gaelic vernacular group hardly registers in official debates. This is a case of symbolic language promotion by bureaucrats going through the motions while precluding the democratic protection of a language minority in decline.

Sociocultural crisis

The status quo will soon render a Potemkin Gaeltacht. Gaeltacht State bodies will continue to pressurise voluntary Language Planning Committees to organise one-off Gaelic cultural events to give the impression of Gaelic community activity that does not exist behind the façade.

There is an alternative, however. The not-inconsiderable resources of the Gaeltacht sub-ministry and of Údarás na Gaeltachta could be repurposed as a Gaelic community development fund to alleviate the sociocultural crisis of the Gaeltacht.

An alternative strategic vision is set out in our recently published Scottish Gaelic study, The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community. An emergency response to the Gaeltacht crisis could be achieved by re-establishing Údarás na Gaeltachta as a Gaeltacht community trust.

The trust’s shareholders among the Gaelic communities of the Gaeltacht would benefit from a co-ordinated series of socioeconomic and sociocultural programmes aimed at arresting the societal decline of the Gaeltacht.

If there is to be no Irish-language communal practice there can be no Gaeltacht community

These would include affordable housing initiatives, employment schemes, training and small business grants, co-operative enterprises, green energy co-operatives, technical innovations and new-economy business start-ups, as well as commercial language initiatives.

The trust could also administer a raft of social policy initiatives aimed at bolstering the collective dimension of the Irish-speaking community. A core element would be a family grant scheme for Irish-speaking families, similar to the former Scéim Labhairt na Gaeilge, to give State recognition to the foundational aspect of minority language protection – the familial transfer of the social and cultural capital of the language group.

English-language socialisation

The trust could back a series of Irish-medium leisure, sports and social activities for the young to allow for peer-group socialisation in Irish. Cultural bursaries and scholarships could also be organised to encourage educational and career ambitions among the young. Gaeltacht education could be reoriented to coordinate Irish-medium learning alongside a programme of youth supports.

This focus on the day-to-day vernacular communal use of Irish offers an alternative to compulsory English-language socialisation and it allows for a social and educational approach that reinforces the home acquisition of Irish. It explicitly protects the social dimension of the Gaeltacht as an Irish-speaking community and establishes a strategic basis for the community-led democratic dispersal of public resources.

It is axiomatic that language can only live in a community of speakers, as opposed to being performed institutionally, such as in schools, media and quangos. Supporting the intergenerational transfer and practice of Irish is the only means by which the social continuity of the Gaeltacht can be assured. If there is to be no Irish-language communal practice there can be no Gaeltacht community.

Addressing the challenge first requires breaking the vicious cycle of evading the reality of decline and dissipating energy and public resources on the unfocused priorities of language bureaucracies. The Gaeltacht is too important to Ireland’s cultural integrity to be treated with such crippling disregard by the State.

The damage done by the official illusions of language promotion while neglecting the social decline of the Gaelic group can be repaired by redirecting budgets to focus on beneficial social outcomes for Irish speakers. A bang-for-buck approach to the social dimensions of Irish may also restore the State’s credibility in protecting our share of the globe’s cultural diversity and language resource.

Conchúr Ó Giollagáin is the Gaelic research professor in the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland. He is the lead author of the recently published study, The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community

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