Saving the Gaeltacht

 

IT IS time for action, Minister of State for the Gaeltacht, Dinny McGinley, said as he launched the Gaeltacht Bill last week. The Bill sets out a radical vision for the Gaeltacht, home of Ireland’s native speakers and an area of significant linguistic and cultural importance – but one which has been allowed to atrophy for too long. Mr McGinley, rightly, wants the physical Gaeltacht boundaries to reflect the true use of Irish within its borders and not to be simply a frozen geographical entity. To that end, he is offering to help native speakers draw up their own plans and take control of the future of Irish.

The sentiment is a fine one but Mr McGinley should not let the Government off the hook so easily. It is all very well to say that Gaeltacht communities should be responsible for their native tongue but the Government too has its role to play. Can those same communities really be expected to preserve and promote the language if their interaction with the State and its agencies is so often – and has too often been – through the medium of English? Academic research has suggested that we may be facing the end of Irish as a family and community language in Gaeltachtaí within 20 years. The language will survive after that date but in what effective state it is hard to imagine.

Despite the many challenges facing Irish, it has maintained its integrity; it is a confident medium for everyday conversation, for political debate, for literature. It is still the language of young, middle-aged and elderly. The loss of the language’s heartlands would be a grievous shame – a shame to us as a people who supposedly value culture and a shame on us as Europeans for letting go, for not trying hard enough, for being apathetic or hostile towards that which is other.

Let us not hear any nonsense about Irish being “forced down people’s throats”. Let us instead talk about a language which predates Tricolour and union flag, a language that stretches across the sea to its sister tongue in Scotland, which ties us to Welsh and in turn to Breton and the continent, a language that speaks of a different, older, hidden Europe.

Irish is a pulse, a European pulse, one which beats on – however faintly – and one which must be sustained. It is a cultural resource of value beyond these shores but this State bears a special responsibility for ensuring its survival. Yes, it is time for action. Not just in Gaeltacht communities but outside them too, from people of all classes and creeds and from all politicians.

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