Unique attraction of Irish Pól Ó Muirí


Who says tourists don't come because there are signposts in Irish?

Did the good citizens of Dingle/An Daingean, Co Kerry (but never Co Chiarraí) wake up last Wednesday morning to this paper's lead story - about the calamitous drop in tourist numbers outside of Dublin - and think "It's all the fault of the Irish language"?

How thin those arguments about signposts deterring visitors must seem in the light of cold, hard empty beds. Tourists are voting with their wallets. Dublin abú!

The fall in numbers of visitors outside of Dublin is due to many things - bad food, bad weather, dear drink, poor facilities. The Irish language is well down the list - if it is on it at all. Ironically, I read the bad news while on holiday in the Donegal Gaeltacht - one of the few places where tourism was steady this summer, due in no small measure to parents visiting their children at Irish-language summer colleges and dedicated Irish-language courses for adults.

Since 2000, Donegal has lost 100,000 tourists but you would never realise that while Oideas Gael's courses are running in Gleann Cholm Cille. The area is remote even by the standards of Donegal and has only two natural resources - its landscape and a small Gaeltacht of native Irish speakers.

Since its foundation in 1984, Oideas Gael has attracted visitors year after year who want to avail of those two resources. Classes it runs in the Irish language, dance, music and hillwalking are aimed at adults who come from all over the world - Germans, Dutch, Belgians, Swiss, Japanese and Americans. They rent accommodation, eat and drink in the locale. And they come back to Gleann Cholm Cille because it has something they want - language and traditional culture - and because it is fun.

Gleann Cholm Cille is by no means one of the strongest Gaeltacht regions in Donegal, never mind the rest of Ireland, and whether it survives another 20 years is an article for another day.

However, what they have done remarkably well is to make the best of what they have; they have marketed their uniqueness in a global arena and have established a thriving business because of it.

Another example of trying to offer something new and old is Tory Island, off the Donegal coast. It is running its first ever Maritime Film Festival at the end of August, a modest event that will last only a weekend. Tim Severin's The Brendan Voyage will be screened and Severin will be in attendance to talk about his work. A Breton film, The Voyage of the Saint Efflam, will also be shown and there will be traditional music, a céilí and a boat-trip around the island.

Given that it rains a lot in Donegal, spending a few hours watching a film and talking with its director will be of interest. Tory is an Irish-speaking island (pop. 180) and is associated with the likes of Saint Colm Cille. (Yes, he did get around.) Folklore and film is an unusual combination and an honest attempt to tie modern and traditional together. It is different and it is appealing. (Of course, we must not get too romantic. There is the issue of hard cash. Tourists will only stay - and rightly so - if they get good value for their euros.)

There are two templates for tourism: Planet Dublin and Ancient Ireland. Planet Dublin is doing very, very well and its attractions are many and varied.

What then of ancient Ireland? There are Gaeltacht regions in seven counties out of the 26 in the State and they are to be found in all four provinces. Unquestionably, many are very small and all are under constant threat.

However fragile some may be, they are all a unique attraction. Yet they are not marketed in any meaningful sense. In fact, more often than not, any coverage of Gaeltacht regions is usually negative - it is about how much Irish costs and rows about planning. In tourism terms, however, it is clear that they have great potential to make money - if promoted properly, sensitively and intelligently.

Ireland is not Ibiza, though Temple Bar likes to think it might be. Cultural, educational and recreational tourism is obviously Ireland's niche. The Gaeltacht, with its traditional arts, crafts and (for the most part) unspoilt landscape provides all three. Those areas without a Gaeltacht will benefit too. Language can tie hillwalking to folklore and folklore ties into the ancient archaeological sites that are scattered throughout the land. Irish is the glue (even in translation) that binds so many other aspects of our heritage together. Of course, the Gaeltacht is not the be-all and end-all of tourism but it is a starting point, something uniquely ours, a choice that only we can offer visitors.

The people of An Daingean should go down on their knees and thank God and Government that they have a resource very few others do - living Irish. It's money in the bank - if only they had the wit to open an account.

• Oideas Gael:tel 074-9730248, www.oideas-gael.com. Tory's film festival: tel: 074-9180786, lughfilms@eircom.net

John Waters is on leave