Going to the Gaeltacht

I handed over the money with a polite thank you and received a friendly but firm tá failte romhat in response. I had been cycling in County Waterford and following signs for the coastal village of Ring. In the space of a few metres I was been transported into a different world where both Waterford and Ring had been replaced by Contae Phort Láirge and An Rinn. We had entered the Gaeltacht.

Nothing else seemed to have changed. The sun still struggled to shine through threateningly grey clouds. There was no physical border and the road rolled on. We passed a couple of road signs that were entirely in Irish, replacing the bilingual signs that more typical of Ireland.

An Rinn - the Waterford Gaeltacht

A few minutes later we passed a large building site with a huge banner that indicated the project was funded by the European Union and the Government of Ireland under the National Development Plan. This was just a guess, however, based entirely on the logos displayed at the bottom of the sign. A detailed explanation of what the project was and who was paying for it was set out in large letters but was completely unintelligible to me.

After a few more minutes, we reached a shop. We’d been cycling for a while and were running low on supplies. I entered, clutching my Euros and an awareness that I didn’t know a word of Irish.

The Gaeltachtaí are areas where the Irish language is the predominant, vernacular language of the majority of the inhabitants as recognised by the Irish Government. Irish may have survived as the majority language in Ireland into the nineteenth century and vast swathes of the island were de facto Gaeltacht. Irish would emerge 100 years later barely surviving as a living language.

Give way sign in the Baile Ghib Gaeltacht  by JP [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It rapidly lost ground to English throughout the nineteenth century, its decline accelerated by the Great Famine, the emigration of the Irish diaspora, reformers and educators who saw the ancient tongue as a sign of backwardness and the allure of English as the language of empire, America and opportunity.

As Ireland entered the twentieth century, many of her leading lights feared that they would lose the language. What had seemed primitive and limiting to their forebears was now a powerful symbol, conduit and talisman of nationalism and culture. Membership of the Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) and playing Gaelic sports through the GAA played an important part in a national awakening that led to revolution and independence.

Irish now had the official and enthusiastic backing of the government in Dublin. The Coimisiún na Gaeltachta was established to investigate how much vernacular Irish had survived. The Commission reported in 1926 and found that there were Irish-speaking or semi-Irish-speaking districts in 15 of its 26 counties.

Maps of these loosely defined Gaeltachtaí depict Ireland with thick and continuous splodges of pink (for Irish speaking districts) and yellow (for partially Irish speaking districts)  on her western and southern coasts and selected Irish-speaking enclaves scattered throughout the rest of the island (see page of the Report).

By the time the second Gaeltacht Commission reported in 1956, the government had decided to tighten its definition to include areas where Irish was the majority language. A shrunken and patchwork of Gaeltachtaí resulted, with Gaeltacht areas now found in just seven of the Republic’s 26 counties.

Gaeltacht areas in Ireland By D.de.loinsigh at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 2002, the third Commission presented a bleak report that prophesied the demise of the Gaeltacht and with it the death of Irish as a community language. This was reinforced by census data in 2006 which found that the total population of the Gaeltacht was 91,862, or 2.1% of the state’s 4,239,848 people.

This is a sad position for a language that is, under Article 8 of the Constitution of Ireland (or, to continue a theme, the Bunreacht na hÉireann), the “national language” and “the first official language”. Despite its ubiquitous usage, English is merely “recognised as a second official language”.

Is the language in danger of dying out? Not if politicians have anything to do with it. The use of the Irish language is promoted across Ireland through education, media and the administration. Even Northern Ireland now recognises the language giving it a status comparable to that of the Welsh language or Scottish Gaelic.