Ireland’s Gaeltacht Regions: Transitioning Into Oblivion?

Photo Source Endangered Languages Project | CC BY 2.0

UNESCO, the UN body charged with – among other things – fostering international cultural co-operation, categorizes safe languages as ones where the ‘language is spoken by all generations; [and] intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted’. At least 43% of the estimated 7,097 languages spoken in the world today are far from safe – and instead are classed as endangered. Linguists estimate that a language becomes extinct about every four months and that half will have died out by 2100. Already, about 80% of the global population speak about 1% of the world’s languages. For the founders of the Endangered Language Project, a global collaboration aimed at strengthening languages under threat:

‘with every language that dies we lose an enormous cultural heritage … the understanding of how humans relate to the world around us; scientific, medical and botanical knowledge; and most importantly, we lose the expression of communities’ humour, love and life. In short, we lose the testimony of centuries of life’.

Moreover, the extinction of a language represents not only a cultural demise or a lost ethnographic opportunity – many of the languages that have become extinct were never recorded – but it also deals a hammer blow to the collective psyches of indigenous and national peoples attempting to resist the homogenizing forces of transnational capital. As Ireland’s foremost Marxist thinker, James Connolly, writing in his newspaper, The Worker’s Republic, in 1898 opined:

‘… it is well to remember that nations which submit to conquest or races which abandon their language in favour of that of an oppressor do so, not because of the altruistic motives, or because of a love of brotherhood of man, but from a slavish and cringing spirit. From a spirit which cannot exist side by side with the revolutionary idea. This was amply evidenced in Ireland by the attitude of the Irish people towards their language.’

At other points in history too, intellectuals of the European continent have underscored the relationship between language and power. Hegel postulated that nineteenth-century Germans would only achieve emancipation once they began to philosophize in the vernacular, rather than in foreign languages like Latin. Marx modified Hegel’s notion that a people required their own language to raise their consciousness on the path towards human freedom. For him, the proletariat of all nations ought to develop their own vernacular that would allow them to disentangle from the languages and worldviews of the ruling classes. Gramsci later emphasized the role of ideology in upholding the social hierarchy, where educational and religious institutions instructed the working class to conform to the normative behavior and morals of their ‘betters’. In Ireland, the language of these institutions was invariably English.

Consequently, for centuries, the Irish language has been the language of the dispossessed and those outside the spheres of power as Connolly identified. The language of those who were ‘lesser than’. Today, although the situation can sometimes be complicated by the apparent support of ruling-class figures in Ireland for the language, contemporary accusations of its ‘privileged’ position in Irish society – the Gaeltacht regions as a ‘golden cow’, or ‘élitist’ Irish speakers embedded in the institutions of education and civil service – ring hollow when the global and national power dynamics of language, and the stark reality of the figures for Irish speakers, are considered. As of 2017, the twenty-six county Irish state had a population of 4,757,956. Yet, only 1.5% (73,803) speak Irish on a daily basis outside of the education system, with a third of that figure (20,586) residing in the Gaeltacht where Irish is still spoken as a community-based language.

Unsurprisingly, UNESCO thus categorizes Irish as ‘definitely endangered’, meaning that the majority of children in Ireland no longer learn the language as a mother tongue in the home. In the Gaeltacht regions, where a minoritized community continue to speak the language and pass it on to the next generation, the remnants of historic colonial hostility, the penetration of modern technology into traditional linguistic communities, and the state – enmeshed as it is in neoliberal political economy – pose formidable obstacles to its survival as a language of daily communal usage. In essence, the people of the Gaeltacht regions – which are overwhelmingly located in deprived, peripheral areas – are staring down the face of a linguistic transition, perhaps into oblivion, that has its roots in global, national and local factors.

Colonial origins of Transition

Recent scholarship by Nicholas Wolf on the state of the Irish language during the pivotal nineteenth century has questioned the pace of linguistic transition during that period of ostensibly rapid decline, instead arguing that the shift was not as brisk as previously thought and that an ‘oppositional Irish-speaking voice’ existed with more vitality than hitherto assumed. In reality, the debate is academic as there is little doubt that by the turn of the twentieth century Irish was in serious decline in its Western heartlands. A number of explanatory causes present themselves.

From the eighteenth century, in particular, the tentacles of a commercialized and English-speaking market economy expanded into the countryside and began to erode the habitual usage and status of the Irish language – acquiring English became a necessity for those who sought to trade or labor to earn money and provide sustenance for their families.

Later, the establishment of the National School system – what the Irish educationalist and rebel of 1916 fame, Pádraig Pearse, called ‘the murder machine’ – in 1831 dealt a further blow to Irish. Within this English speaking system, corporal punishment was often encouraged in order to coerce children away from Irish and teachers could be penalized if they taught through the medium of the language.

Also looming large is the specter of the Great Famine of 1845-52, affecting as it did the rural and predominantly Irish-speaking West worst of all. An Drochshaol (literally, ‘the bad life’), signified a massive setback to Irish, not only in material terms through emigration and death, but also by accelerating a transition in attitudes. On the eve of the Great Famine, there had been more Irish speakers than at any point in history – around 4,000,000. However, this figure began to decline drastically in the wake of that episode. Forged in the minds of those who survived the social obliteration was a link between the language on the one hand, and poverty and powerlessness on the other.

Ireland achieved quasi-independence for twenty-six of its counties in 1922 following a sustained guerrilla campaign against the British state. The initial momentum for this military struggle had developed in a cultural revolution during the 1890s in which proposals for Irish-language revitalization were a central component. In the 1920s and 30s, despite the initiation of various commissions and schemes to support the Irish language, as well as the wholesale introduction of Irish into the education system, macro-economic forces – which fostered unemployment and emigration particularly in the west of the country – continued to damage the strength and standing of the language.

Arising out of this were several contributory cultural factors detrimental to the survival of the language that have endured to the present – one of which is lackluster policy implementation by state officials. As early as 1926, in the wake of the report by the Gaeltacht Commission, the Kerry Newsidentified how many bold suggestions had been made but the cornerstone of actually implementing these measures was being undermined. As the newspaper declared, ‘already influences are at work to nullify the Report, that it may be a kind of Home Rule Act, reposing peacefully so to speak on the Statute Book, without ever coming into operation’.

The phenomenon whereby sociolinguistic reality is downplayed, or glossed over, with the objective of saving the language through raising the morale of its speakers – when what is needed in reality is substantial governmental intervention – also manifested during the first decades of the fledging state’s existence. In reviewing the literary work of Conamara, and former Gaelic League, IRB and IRA man, Colm Ó Gaora’s, Obair is Luadhainn: nó saoghal sa n Gaedhealtacht, ‘Roddy the Rover’, writing in the Irish Press in early 1938,noted that Ó Gaora’s work described:

‘the Gaeltacht in transition: ports being constructed, big houses rising, life growing easier and freer, but – agus a bhuidhe sin le Dia [and thanks be to God] – the old tongue thriving and the old customs growing in favour’.

Yet, the statistical evidence from the time and the historical evidence since did not, and would not, bear out Ó Gaora’s view that the language was thriving. Indeed, the economic difficulties of the 1950s – a period described by some historians of Ireland as ‘the lost decade’ – once again proved severely detrimental for the Gaeltacht, seeing the mass emigration of an entire cohort of speakers seeking work in the US or Britain.

The modern Irish State

The former rebel had, nonetheless, correctly recognized another transition; that of the Gaeltacht economy, which was slowly modernizing. At an earlier point, in 1925, the abovementioned Gaeltacht Commission had taken testimony from a witness in An Clochán Liath in the Donegal Gaeltacht, one P. Gallagher. Gallagher, the manager of a local co-operative society, acknowledged that there was to be no future for the traditional hand knitting industry in the area in the face of competition from English automation. He urged the establishment of a school where design could be taught so that workers would turn out their own unique products.

Several decades later, in September 1960, at a symposium on Gaeltacht Development at Coláiste na Rinne, Caoimghín Ó Cinnéide of the Ordnance Survey asserted that ‘market gardening, fishing and tourism were the main lines on which the West Kerry Gaeltacht could be developed’. The Kerrymanreported that Ó Cinnéide observed how ‘the canoe era was almost extinct, and the transition should be to bigger and safer boats’.

During the twentieth century, however, more profound economic forces determined the socio-economic health of the Gaeltacht and put paid to ideas of a transition from traditional work into a thriving modern economy of small rural industries. A shrewder commentator, who addressed himself only as Fear Fánach (the inconsequential man), wrote to the Western People in early 1961 to decry the state of his own region. He lamented that the:

‘youth of the North Mayo Gaeltacht must look forward to the emigrant ship and sail to the faraway lands of Uncle Sam, to earn a living, while foreign trawlers operating along the coastline are reaping a rich harvest from the sea outside their doorsteps’.

Twelve years later, in 1973, the Irish state entered the European Union and sacrificed its fishing rights in return for agricultural payments to farmers (many of them large graziers located in the midlands and east of the country), further condemning coastal communities in the West to unemployment and emigration.

For the Fear Fánach, rural underdevelopment and lack of infrastructure stemmed primarily from a tendency towards the centralization of power where the crucial political decisions were made in the capital, Dublin. ‘There are piers yet to be built at Portacloy, Rossport and Killgalligan’ he wrote, and noting the opportunism of politicians he complained that many years of agitation had led to false promises, ‘by Ministers who are only seen in those areas on the eve of elections to renew their propaganda speeches’.

In more recent times, many businesses in the Gaeltacht have attempted to adapt into becoming part of a global online market. Some of the first tentative steps in this process were made in the early 2000s. In the summer of 2003 the Kerryman reported that the ‘Gaeltacht’s transition into an Information Age Community continued last week when 17 individuals were presented with … Records of Achievement in Computer Literacy at Waterville’. The newspaper stated that some of the skills acquired by the participants were put to use ‘making contact with family members abroad via e-mail [and] purchasing goods on-line’.

With the onset of the so-called Celtic Tiger economic boom, it seemedto many that this economic transition might bear some – sustainable – fruit for Gaeltacht society. Reporting in 2007, the Connaught Telegraph announced happily that ‘in the Gaeltacht overall, last year was the best since 1998 for job-creation and saw Údarás na Gaeltachta continue to make considerable progress in the transition from manufacturing to services employment in a broad spectrum of areas.’ The Mayo Gaeltacht, which was the focus of the Telegraph’s piece, had seen a boon in shellfish farming and the bringing of a fiber telecommunications network to the industrial park in Béal an Mhuirthead. In the same region the ribbon had also been cut for a new enterprise arts and administration center, and in Acaill, Teagmháil Acla Teo., billed as a modern €1.6 million-euro call center, was opened.

2008-2018: Recession and Neoliberalism

However, this growth had been based entirely on a neoliberal economic model of ultimate faith in the private sector. Following the crash of 2008, the apparent development in the Gaeltacht was shown to have been built on quicksand.  The crash, of course, was global in scope. But it was particularly devastating in Ireland where an extremely laissez faire housing market and banking system, coupled with an endemic culture of cronyism, clientelism and corruption, and a compliant and unquestioning media, fostered a toxic culture of property fetishism.

Within the context of the Gaeltacht, adherents of neoliberal ideology in the civil service and government have seized upon the post-2008 recession as an opportunity to remove state provision. Consequently, state support has been heavily reduced for language conservation schemes and industrial and educational grants previously of vital importance in sustaining these remote communities. The budget of Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Gaeltacht development and employment authority, has been slashed out of all proportion to similar bodies outside the Gaeltacht. As one employee of the Údarásinterviewed by Ben Ó Ceallaigh, a sociolinguist based at the University of Edinburgh, in 2016, only under the proviso that he remain anonymous, affirmed:

‘A third of the staff have been laid off, when people leave we’re not allowed recruit someone to fill their place. [There’s] much more work to do with less people [and] pressure from the department [of state for the Gaeltacht] trying to narrow things down, they don’t want to implement this and that’.

In the Department of Education, meanwhile, development grants, which had been paid to aspiring teachers to train and learn Irish in the Gaeltacht, were also cut. Since those grants – amounting to a paltry €1.8 million – were slashed in 2011, the center-right Fine Gael-controlled Department has not considered reintroducing them, despite commanding a budget of some €10 billion. This has elicited anger from opposition figures and language advocacy groups in recent months who have pointed out that the refusal to withhold this funding comes down not to budgetary constraints, but to lack of political will.

In essence, the resolve to continue to support Irish does not exist. Language, culture and the arts (language, especially) are deemed superfluous to economic progress under neoliberalism, where utilitarian attitudes also flourish and English is viewed as necessarily being the ‘only show in town’.

Other issues arise with the state’s dependence for development in the Gaeltacht on private companies at the whim of the market. Údarás na Gaeltachta has for many years invested its time in promoting and providing start-up grants for medium-sized industries. But, two examples in recent years demonstrate the redundancy of such a strategy.

The case of Largo Foods, which manufactures the well-known Irish potato chip brand Tayto, is illustrative of the tendency of businesses run on a purely profit-driven model to gravitate towards the economic center in response to market imperatives. Largo Foods had been based in Gaoth Dobhair in the Donegal Gaeltacht for a number of years until it shut its doors in 2014 with the loss of 140 jobs and it relocated to the east of the country, just outside Dublin. Its CEO cited the cause for the decision as ‘the need for the company to continuously reduce costs in the very competitive snack-food market’. Nonetheless, the company, even during the height of the recession, had recorded solid profits and its owner just last year sold his share in the business to a German multinational, in the process retiring far more comfortably off than the workers he ‘let go’ ever will.

Meanwhile, the actions of another company, Rapid Action Packing, attracted to the Gaeltacht by the same Údarásgrants, and also based in Gaoth Dobhair, has highlighted another key problem; namely, the pervasiveness of low-wage and precarious jobs in the neoliberal economy. Last August its workforce felt compelled to strike due to a refusal by the company to recognize SIPTU, the manufacturing trade union, and the right of the workers to collective bargaining. Despite receiving enormous subsidy from the state, RAP clearly does not feel the need to grant this minimal decency to its workers.

Oblivion or Survival?

The net result of this has been a sharp decrease in the numbers of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht. Prior to the social turmoil caused by the crash, sociolinguists had carried out a study in 2007 entitled Comprehensive Linguistic Survey of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht, the prognosis of which was dire – Irish would cease to survive as the dominant community language in the Gaeltacht within ten years. The period of savage austerity inflicted post-2008 only served to hasten this transition. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of daily speakers in the Gaeltacht fell drastically by 11.2% as a direct consequence of cutbacks and closures.

To worsen the situation further, the former principal voice of opposition to destructive state policy with regards the Irish language, Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League), has been co-opted to such a degree – primarily through the controlling of its purse strings by government – that it veers on acting as a controlled opposition which channels genuine discontent among Irish speakers down insipid avenues that fail to challenge those in power.

Nevertheless, many of the gains made by the Irish speaking community, both inside and outside the Gaeltacht, in the last fifty or so years have come about through the twinning of radical activism – including direct action – with conventional agitation. The Údarás and the Gaeltacht radio station, Raidió na Gaeltachta, were established after a protracted period of protest by the Gaeltacht civil rights body Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Likewise, Teilifís na Gaeilge, founded in 1996, was achieved only after the refusal by campaigners to pay their television licenses, leading to terms of imprisonment for some. The growth of Irish language education in the form of the Gaelscoileannafrom the early 1970s onwards also owes its success to a brand of grassroots voluntarism that seems of another era now. In contemporary Ireland, only in the six counties of ‘Northern Ireland’, with its specific political dynamics, does a vibrant and bottom-up Irish language movement capable of challenging the status quo exist.

If the picture seems bleak for the Gaeltacht today, however, then some positive shoots in the form of resistance to this language shift have, in fact, sprouted. The fightback has materialized in a number of ways, whether it be: local communities opposing the withdrawal and downgrading of transport and postal services; parents forming collectives which guarantee their children develop first class fluency in the language; people coming together on a voluntary basis to devise language plans for their districts, or young people joining radical activist organizations such as Misneach which call for a complete overhaul of the class structures in the country and the establishment of Gaeltacht workers co-operatives with a view to salvaging the language from the brink.

As has been witnessed in places as far apart as Standing Rock and the Amazon, the struggles of indigenous cultures and languages are bound up in the struggle against a rapacious system of exploitation and economic and political centralization. Such regions and cultures represent crucial focal points in a wider, global battle against the forces of neoliberalism.

This article arose from a paper given at the American Conference for Irish Studies annual Mid-Western meeting on the theme of transitions that took place at the University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, in October 2018.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. He is currently teaching Irish (Gaelic) in the US as a Fulbright Scholar at Villanova University, Philadelphia.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.