An Ceathrú Gaeltachta, Béal Feirste

Irish Native Reservations

Another great analysis from Diaga Language on the growing challenges facing the Irish-speaking population of Ireland, particularly as they relate to the slow destruction of the Gaeltachtaí. These are regions of the country officially recognised by various governments in the 1920s and ‘30s as majority Irish-speaking and pretty much ignored thereafter. The frequent jibe that they represented “native reservations” has more than an element of truth in it, at least when it came to state policies. And just like designated territories for indigenous people in North America or Australia these areas were long characterized by their extreme poverty and neglect. In 1926 the famous Gaeltacht Commission offered a comprehensive way forward for these communities, a plan based not on “preservation” but on stability and growth. However successive administrations in Dublin, regardless of party or ideology, found new and ever-more interesting ways of avoiding most of the recommendations of the commission or its later manifestations.  As the short article points out:

“The new government of the FreeState did have some notions of stopping the language decline but to argue that they pursued a policy of Gaelicisation, as one famous journalist did in a recent Irish Times article is just plain lies, and lying to an agenda at that.

This can be seen by the very rejection of the core of the Gaeltacht Commission’s report in 1926, by the refusal to countenance any regional development plan for the Gaeltacht areas or indeed any regions at all. So what happened in the first decade of the FreeState was that they created designated Gaeltacht areas, but without any delineated local government structures (they were to fit into the county structure), with no regional economic development plan and crucially no obligation on the state to provide services to the more than half-a-million Irish speakers as Gaeilge (thanks, civil service!), despite clear and exact recommendations by the Gaeltacht Commission of 1926. If this is what some people call an attempt at Gaelicisation then they don’t know their arse from their elbow.

We have known that speaker numbers in the Gaeltachtaí have been declining for some time but we’ve also always known that they were no economic powerhouses, in fact the perception of them as stubbornly rural places is quite true, idealised by some romantics but in the modern world of Twitter and broadband that vision does not lend itself to prestige, nor language preservation or revival for that matter!

Prestige for a language lies where things are modern, new, innovative and flourishing. All those children who said that they used more English (and indeed had a better knowledge of English in general) in the playground and in interacting with others on the internet are unconsciously reacting to what they perceive as more prestigious. At the end of the day, literally, their mobile operating systems are in English, computer games are in English and if they’re going to be talking about all that stuff on the playground then they are going to do it in English, it couldn’t be more logical.

The government, language planners and Gaelgeoirí have a big problem here. Laissez-faire language policy has failed and it looks like we’re getting very close to the death of the Gaeltachtaí.

Drastic action needs to happen. The men and women of 1926 knew what the key was. Investment. The creation of technologies, industry and urban life as Gaeilge. If the government can create new towns with the push of a pen, like Shannon (and the Airport) then they can certainly do urban development in the Gaeltacht. They must focus investment on creating modernity in an Irish context.”

Frequent Commentator Jānis highlighted a report in a contribution here illustrating the overwhelming pressures on young people in Irish-speaking communities to adopt the English language as their sole daily tongue (or as Jānis characterizes it: “So that’s it man – game over man, game over!“). While the research may be from too small a sample to be applied more widely it certainly seems to match anecdotal evidence – and my own experiences. People in core Irish-speaking regions are switching to English not out of choice or preference but force and necessity (as always). If you are a native Irish-speaking parent with a native Irish-speaking child and you find that medical, social welfare and education services are only available to you and your children in the English language what choices do you have? None at all.

That, more than anything else, defines government policies in Ireland when it comes to our supposed national and first official language.

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26 comments

  1. Thanks for the plug 😉 The whole situation makes your blood boil and even moreso when you have ‘left-wing’ journalists inventing their own skewed version of history.

    1. The Gaeltachtai are definitely akin to South African Krals, or American or Australian tribal reservations. It’s really not a jibe or joke. Although after the Tiger, the situation is less visibly dire, the deprivation and starvation is now that of heritage and language. I don’t really know if it as purposeful as it is sheer negligence. The economic depression does not produce campaign money, and the number of voters are low. This makes the areas entirely uninteresting to the self-serving s….s we call politicians. As in your IGaeilge article, ASF, this is where the future lies, not only for the Gaeltachtai, but for the whole country. Similar to the institution raised by Pearse in Dublin was a modern way to approach the problem then, so is the leveraging of technology today. Along with furnishing the historical background of our country and people and calling people’s attention to the uniqueness of both, the heritage and language, there is a lot of potential for raising interest in our younger generations. It is up to us now to step up and raise the foundations of new institutional flagships for our children, even if they are virtual in nature, especially when our government is failing us.

  2. The report said a slightly different thing:
    That despite the fact that those kids spoke only Irish in their families and went to Irish speaking schools their competence in English still was significantly better than in Irish.

    What else could the government do for them?

    As a native speaker of a small language I learned from the early age that computers and other electronic devices speak English and if you want to use them – you better learn it.

    Entertainment options in small languages are very limited and there’s nothing the government can do about it.

    Foreign game developers are not going to localise their games in Estonian, Latvian or Irish.
    It costs a lot of money to do that and speakers of those languages understand English anyway.
    My first exposure to English was through video games and I have never seen a proper video game in Latvian (except bullshit flash games on social networks – all made by private individuals/companies btw).

    Sure the local TV channels and cinemas can use subtitles, but what if I don’t want to be limited by what they’re offering?
    And no one really localises music.

    You’re constantly complaining that the government is not doing enough.
    But you’re completely ignoring private sector’s very limited use of the language and almost non-existent entertainment options in it.

    1. Showing your age maybe? For years now computer games have been ‘localised’. Also, it’s not the same in Latvia (or is it Lithuania) where that same language of the computer games is being forced down your throat by the civil service, non-fulfilling of statuatory obligations on basic service, etc. etc.—- IRT (instead of RTÉ) anyone?
      The context of language pressure is completely different, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say there’s a lot more of it too…….

      1. Sure you can get localised versions if you happen to speak a widely spoken language like Spanish, German or French.
        No one is making them for small language speakers and never will, because it’s not cost effective and American companies could not care less about Irish or Latvian.

        1. So you’re giving up the ghost on state actually having any power, or exercising any power, upon companies at all? There are many examples of states forcing multinational companies to conform to their language policies, like in Quebec, in Switzerland and in Belgium, etc. In fact companies are realising that their english only method to date is a flawed one and are moving swiftly towards localisation of languages in loads of areas. Just look at Google, Google translate, twitter, etc. and you’ll see languages there that have very few speakers… Irish, Latvian, Basque, and many more also.

          Considering Ireland is in the privileged position of having loads of Multinationals in the country because they know they aren’t paying much (any?) tax, then a short memo obliging them to do some translation if they want to continue to benefit from the low tax rates should not be out of the question. At the end of the day were talking buttons compared to what they gain from staying in Ireland.

          Latvia, on the other hand, is a whole different case and in a much weaker position than Ireland in this regard.

          1. Quebec, Switzerland and Belgium all speak languages which are spoken by tens of millions of people (Romansh is the only exception).
            There’s no problem for companies to offer localised products in Switzerland, because they don’t have to do any additional work to conform to the Swiss language policies.
            (If I can sell it in Paris, then there won’t be any problems in Geneva too)

            Google translate spits out really horrible and in many cases funny translations.
            I definitely would not show the translations it produces to my clients – I don’t want to become a laughing stock.

            Sure – it’s not hard for google or twitter to translate some parts of their interface (there’s nothing much there any way) – all the stuff for developers is still in English only

            The Irish state has never exercised any power upon private companies at all.

            The company that I work for is 100% English speaking.
            Nothing, absolutely nothing is in Irish there – we don’t even have a “Failte” sign at the entrance.
            Our website is in ~20+ languages and Irish is not one of them and there are no plans to introduce it.

            1. A perfect parting example of how it should not be done. Though you give yourself away when you say ‘your’ company and the very fact that you speak other languages other than english. Just because a company currently ignores Irish doesn’t mean it’ll be that way forever, because, as I maintain, governments still have a little bit of kick when it comes to many different things. If there were a government policy to oblige all multinational companies based in Ireland to have at least their websites translated into Irish then I’m sure that after a little bit of huffing and puffing, it would be complied with.

              Indeed a website is a perfect example as they are the new language landscape of the 21st century, as opposed to the shop front on the last century. If we look at those shop fronts we can see examples from France, the Basque Country, Catalonia, Spain, Quebec, Brussels (official) and many other places where the government has created laws saying what languages can be used where. There is no difference, just a lack of will.

              But then just because tens of millions of people don’t speak Irish doesn’t mean there can’t be the political will to influence the language landscape of our fair country. If we want it so, so it shall be.

              1. In all of those countries you mentioned the general public WANTS to use their local language and they take the initiative in their own hands and not wait for the almighty government to do everything for them.

                I’ve done some business with people from Quebec and can confirm that many of them can’t speak English properly. That’s one of the reasons why they want to preserve French as the official language in Quebec.

                Again – that’s not the case in Ireland. Everyone speaks English here. And there are very few people who want to change things from the bottom up (The owner of this blog is one of them although he himself admitted that his knowledge of Irish is somewhat limited)

    2. Same effect, Jānis. It is the pressure to conform to English and the domination of it that forces Irish-speakers to switch languages and makes English fluency greater than “native” Irish, even for first-language speakers.

      The universal nature of the antipathy or indifference to Irish, the hostility or ridicule of Irish and Irish-speakers in popular Anglophone media and culture, creates its own momentum.

      Full and visible bilingualism in the state and by state bodies, pro-Irish policies by the government and all political parties, enhances the language and encourages use by those who do speak it – or wish to speak it. Prestige and acceptance are key to stopping and reversing the decline in young Hibernophones.

      1. There’s nothing the Irish government can do about the domination of English – the United States and their culture is here to stay – they’re the main force behind the global domination of English (‘teh dreaded Brits’ are insignificant by comparison) .

        The state’s ‘trickle down’ bilingualism will not change anything, because an average person does not deal with the state that much.
        99% of the time they’re dealing with the private sector which is 100% English speaking.

        1. Jānis, it begins with the state, but only begins. The private sector would be next, starting with commercial services, signage, websites and advertising. This would be not “trickle down” but leading by example.

          States and governments make a difference and pursue policies that shape the nation. Why else has the Latvian state forced its language and culture on that 26%+ of Latvia’s population who expressed no wish to have either because their language and culture is Russian? And to do so by denying full citizenship and legal recognition by the state to people born in Latvia, even if their parents were likewise born there, on the basis of linguistic use and other criteria?

          Though of course some domestic changes, not to mention pressure from Brussels and Moscow, have eased things recently Latvia continues its long fight against Russification at a national level. The suggested requirement that Russian-speaking children take 60% of lessons through Latvian is more compulsory than anything proposed in relation to Irish.

          And before you say it I’m reliably informed that there are still parts of Latvia where one can exist without any knowledge of Latvian, entirely through the medium of Russian. Though how much longer that will last is certainly debatable given current state policies and the “cold house” for Russian-speaking Latvians. Unless they give in to socio-economic pressures and adopt Latvian. The language of the state and its elites.

          1. As I said before.
            The citizenship issue has nothing to do with the language.
            The Geneva conventions forbid sending immigrants into occupied territories.
            Deporting all those who immigrated during the Soviet occupation would be infeasible and disastrous.
            That’s why a compromise was reached – everyone was allowed to stay, but only people who had links to pre-war Latvia received citizenship (and there were no language tests or anything for them).
            And that was the right thing to do, because the USSR that illegally occupied my country, not Latvia should be responsible for its citizens.
            We did not want to be part of the USSR in the first place and therefore have no obligations to its citizens.

            It was different to the time when we got independence from the Russian empire in 1918. At that time EVERYONE who lived in the territory of Latvia received citizenship.

            Non-citizens are an issue created by Russia/the USSR – we did not want them in the first place
            And many Latvian nationalists think that not deporting Soviet immigrants in the 90s was a mistake. And that we should not have Russian schools at all and that there should be far stricter citizenship requirements.

            I don’t have Irish citizenship and voting rights too – but I’m not feeling discriminated at all.
            That’s because I’m an immigrant and to get those privileges I must go through the naturalisation procedure first – and I’m totally fine with that.

            That’s why I’m kinda puzzled – why are you comparing illegal immigrants with people who have lived in the country for 4000+ years and whose ancestors underwent a language shift many years ago?

            1. Just to explain for other Readers, there has been a Russian-speaking minority in Latvia since at least the mid-1800s. When Latvia was incorporated into the USSR over 10% of the population was already ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking. A majority of those had little to no knowledge of Latvian (throughout the 1920s-40s most ethnic Russian children were educated through Russian medium schools not Latvian). That population more than tripled with inward migration during the Soviet Occupation and though it has now fallen to 26% it still forms local majorities in several regions (over 50% of Daugavpils, Latvia’s second largest city, is Russian-speaking while 40% of Riga, the capital, is Russian-speaking). There are currently people living in Latvia who speak Russian, not Latvian, but who were born in Latvia, along with their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents and so on. Almost all of these pre-Soviet era inhabitants are recognised as Latvian citizens while most of those who settled in Latvia during the Soviet period – including their children and grandchildren – are not recognised as Latvian citizens (around 45% of “ethnic” Russian are non-citizens). They are in a legal limbo or effectively “stateless” though that situation has ameliorated in recent times.

              It should be noted that not all Russian-speakers in Latvia, even native speakers, are “ethnically” Russian or originated in Russia, though the precise criteria for these definitions are highly debatable. Some Russian-speakers would in other circumstances be classed as Latvian or have origins elsewhere in the old Russian empire or later USSR. Likewise some “ethnic” Latvians or sole Latvian-speakers would have Russian origins.

              Latvia recently voted against granting further recognition to the Russian language and its use remains legally problematic. Technically it remains a “foreign” language. Some ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers complain of discrimination by the state, the media and in general society. Latvians counter this in much the manner Jānis outlines here.

              It is a sort of Ireland in reverse.

              1. Those who complain about discrimination are the same type of people who want curry in their yoghurt :p

          2. Jānis, it begins with the state, but only begins.
            —————-
            No – it begins and ends with the ordinary people.
            They give the mandate to the government to act.
            They are the ones who teach a language to their kids long before they even start to attend school.
            And they are the ones who exert pressure on immigrants.
            And they are the ones who maintain the linguistic environment – so everyone can immediately tell which is the main language that is used around here.

            The Russian language referendum was a really good example of that.
            The people went and democratically expressed their will.
            They proved that the relevant part of the constitution is not some nice words without any real meaning, but that it correctly describes the real situation and people’s desire to maintain it.

            And about the prestige. Well – guess what – I’m not a slave and I don’t care whether the Russians respect my language or not.

            Do you really care about what the local bum thinks of you?

            And I also do my part to enforce the constitution by not speaking Russian in Latvia.

            That’s right.

            When someone asks me something in Russian I immediately answer in Latvian.
            If he doesn’t understand – the conversation is over.

            The same thing would happen if someone refused to serve me in Latvian. (That has never happened to me because the Russians are not idiots and they don’t want to lose customers – so they make sure that their staff can actually speak the national language).

            Some time ago when I lived in Rīga I had to speak with my landlady about some things related to the apartment I lived in.
            She’s an ethnic Russian and doesn’t speak Latvian very well.
            Despite that – I did not speak a word in Russian to her – so she phoned her sister who is a fluent Latvian speaker and she then acted as a translator.
            I was not rude or anything, but politely explained that I don’t speak Russian. (As I usually do)

            All the small things that are done by ordinary people keep the language alive.
            As simple as putting up a “beware of dog” sign in the national language.
            Not because the government tells you to or gives you money for it, but because you want it yourself.

            All of those things add up and create the right environment for the language to prosper.

            All the language laws come after that. Some Soviet immigrants with imperialist mentality are the only thing why we need such laws at all – they make no difference to the Latvians and non-chauvinistic Russians.

            The language was not even mentioned in the constitution before the WW2.

            That’s why I’m saying that “trickle down” language policies are not going to work.
            You need a population that actually supports those policies.

            And thanks to Putin’s recent misadventures in Ukraine the Russian language has lost even more of its prestige. 😀

            Why would I want to speak it in public? – people might think that I’m a terrorist or something 😀

              1. There’s nothing militant in my attitude.
                I act just like an average European.
                Why should I invest my time and money in learning a foreign language only to make ungrateful immigrants feel better?

              2. Look at Ukraine – they were far more welcoming – gave citizenship and language rights to the Soviet migrants, did not join the EU and NATO and kept an open border with Russia..

                And what did they get in return?

                Treason, terrorism, foreign invasion and occupation.

                Had we given those immigrants citizenship we certainly would not be part of the EU and NATO today and most likely would have suffered Crimea’s fate.

    3. I agree with you that there are many challenges to minority languages over which the government has no control, but there is a fundamental problem in the Gaeltachtaí which does come under the auspices of the government: the school system. The schools in the Gaeltachtaí are not Gaelscoileanna; tumoideachas (immersion education) is not being pursued in the Gaeltachtaí, which is irrevocably damaging to young Irish speakers. In essence, Irish is being taught to them at a level far below their level of competence – it is being taught as a foreign language – which is reinforcing the impression that Irish is ‘boring’, ‘outdated’ and/or cannot be used as a viable form of communication. The same problem is not occurring in the Gaelscoileanna, which do offer immersion education, and needs to be addressed in the Gaeltachtaí.

        1. The question is quite complicated, actually. There are basically three different school systems in place in Ireland: the mainstream English-medium school system, the Gaelscoileanna, and the schools in the Gaeltacht. Gaelscoileanna are usually founded by parental demand and parents deliberately choose to send their children there to be educated through Irish. The Gaelscoileanna operate by total immersion until senior infants, after which all subjects except English continue to be taught through Irish. This means that although children may enter the school without Irish, they achieve fluency through immersion. Since the language is normalised in the school setting, peers communicate through Irish, which means the fluency of those who already come from Irish-speaking backgrounds is reinforced and others learn from them. The schools in the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking districts) do not have early immersion education and basically operate the same as the mainstream English-medium schools, except that the teaching is (mostly) through Irish. Since they are not specifically ‘Gaelscoileanna’, there is generally no other choice of school in the area. This means that in some classes in some districts, there can be more than 60% of the students who cannot speak Irish. Obviously this puts pressure on the teacher to use English and forces the language shift among peers, especially if new non-Irish speaking students are introduced into older classes. This could be addressed radically be designating some schools in the Gaeltacht as mainstream and some as Gaelscoileanna, or by introducing a compulsory Irish year for any non-fluent students who enter the school. Several studies have been done highlighting very moderate to radical solutions, and are now languishing in obscurity entirely ignored.

          The second major problem is the curriculum. Irish is being taught to fluent Irish speakers as if it were a second language. There is a need for a specific curriculum to challenge and improve the language ability of the students who already speak Irish.
          This has turned into a bit of an essay, but as you can see, it is a very complicated subject and there are many more knowledgeable than me. Hope this helps!

          1. I’ve heard people complaining about the opposite – that they teach Irish in English-language schools as a 1st language and if you’re a total beginner it’s hard to learn anything that way..

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