Current Affairs

The Walking Gaels, Not So Dead After All

Labhair Gaeilge
The Walking (Gaelic) Dead... (Íomhá: UT)
The Walking (Gaelic) Dead… (Íomhá: UT)


The anglophone supremacists who influence so much of Ireland’s ideologically incestuous news media insist that Irish is a “dead language”. No one, they confidently assert, speaks, reads or writes in the indigenous speech of this island nation (or if they do so, it is simply out of an attachment to some sort of linguistic revanchism. Which leaves one wondering if such men and women are living, dead, or somewhere in-between?). However it seems that someone forgot to inform the students at Trinity College Dublin of this decades-old mantra from the press group-think (for the usual suspects have been claiming the same state of affairs since the 1970s). From a lengthy report by University Times:

“This evening saw the second annual “Toghchánaíocht” (Hustings) organised by An Cumann Gaelach and TCDSU. The event offers candidates in The Leadership Race a chance to speak about how they will offer support to the Irish language over the course of their term in office. Each candidate was given two minutes to speak, in Irish or in English, about their policies. Reachtaire of An Cumann Gaelach, Fionn Ó Deá, then posed a question to the candidates, each was then given time to answer before the floor was opened to questions from the audience. The main theme was the improvement of relations between An Cumann Gaelach and the SU.”

And my god, there is just paragraphs an’ paragraphs of young people from across Ireland and overseas making speeches in Irish and English on the issue of linguistic rights and education. None of whom look particularly zombie-like. Strange that…

24 comments on “The Walking Gaels, Not So Dead After All

  1. As always seems to be the case with Irish, there are some interesting contrasts… My impression is that the prestige of the Irish language in urban Ireland or the ‘Galltacht’ is higher than it has been in generations. Those young people in groups like UCD’s An Cumann Gaelach will be a major factor in the future of the language. Their attitudes and language habits will have a considerable impact. Because one thing is certain… nothing stays the same and Irish will either expand or contract from where it is right now.

    On the other hand, despite positive signs, the former Coimisinéir Teanga Seán Ó Cuirreáin in his resignation speech in December 2013, said he had never seen “morale and confidence so low” in his 30 thirty years as a journalist working through the medium of Irish, and as language commissioner.

    Click to access SpeakingnotesAnCoimisineirTeanga04122013.pdf

    I’m not sure how much influence Ireland’s ‘Anglophone supremacists’ actually have, although they certainly exist. Kevin Myers and Ian O’Doherty immediately come to mind. My sense is that for those Irish people who are more than indifferent to the Irish language, their hostility is often borne of genuinely unpleasant experience in schools (no fault of the language!) and rarely if ever hearing Irish spoken in natural settings in person. Many people have no real understanding of the state of the language or what’s out there, or rely on myths and stereotypes, but it’s not necessarily the result of bigotry or a lack of patriotism.


  2. I’ll just add one thing…

    Consider the following quote:

    “What we are now seeing in the Gaeltacht, therefore, are the final throes of Irish as a living language. [. . .] In sociolinguistic terms, a language can be defined as living if it meets two criteria. First, it should be the dominant (but not necessarily the only) language in most or all of the social networks that make up a community. Second, the community of individuals who speak it as their dominant language must be capable of regenerating themselves as a “language community” – in other words, they must be a sustainable community in terms of both their demographic regeneration and the intergenerational transmission of their language.
    On both of these criteria the Irish language is no longer a living language.”

    These or not the words of a Myers or an O’Doherty or O’Hanlon… but from Joe Mac Donnacha, a native speaker from the south Conamara Gaeltacht and one of the world’s leading experts on Irish sociolinguistics and language planning (also co-author of multiple studies, including the landmark Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht, 2007, which is currently being updated by researchers at the NUI and Údarás na Gaeltachta)

    In other words, his sobering opinions carry significant credibility and authority. Had they been written by Kevin Myers or Fintan O’Toole or say, Gregory Campbell, would they be dismissed as needlessly defeatist or bigoted?



  3. ar an sliabh

    I do not know about all these important experts, so-called experts, or self-styled experts, but generally a language, at least in the past, was not declared dead until the last native speaker was no longer capable of reproduction (since we all know that at that point, even though minute, there is still a chance). Scottish Gaeilge is one of those examples, where, despite being “declared dead” for decades, there are still native speakers, and the language is still around, despite hundreds of years of best effort to eradicate it. Applying Danny’s second criteria, “must be a sustainable community in terms of both their demographic regeneration and the intergenerational transmission of their language,” there are several communities in Ireland (Inish Mor, Connemara, some of the other so-called “hard-core” Gaeltachtai), that although they are very small in terms of numbers, still have a sustainable population that produces native speakers also in numbers allowing for continued sustainability. The current trend for Irish is actually very positive. Not too long ago, I was surprised to see an American lady living on the islands, whose children spoke Gaeilge fluently. We have also seen, although also very slight, an increase in fluent speakers over the past few years, which is indicative of the language having problems, but non-the-less still being alive. I know it is an uphill battle to preserve our language, it is one of my main reasons to support this site, but it is still alive. The continued concerted effort to keep it that way is underway. Many of our newer generations appear very interested and are learning to appreciate it for providing for a unique personal identity. Even though some in support of the language are frustrated with the difficulties, systemic obstacles, and other problems, and are giving up, this does not mean that the battle is done and all is lost.


  4. ar an sliabh

    …and yes, I am accounting for Joe Mac Donnacha’s statement. Not only did he make that based on the conditions of almost a decade ago (he is also not an optimist) but, if he as the expert, puts out something positive, our bright government will say “no more problem here,” and they’ll lose all of their funding.


    • I believe he’s a realist. In fact, the primary authors of the massive sociolinguistic study published in 2007 have publicly stated that their findings (which predicted the end of the ‘life cycle of all Gaeltacht districts as a predominantly Irish-speaking communities in 15-20 years’) was actually overly OPTIMISTIC! They were relying partly on 2002 census data, for example, which did not include a question about the context and frequency one spoke Irish (daily outside the education system etc.) until the 2006 census. The trend from the data clearly shows that there is a big dropoff from language knowledge to language use. About a third of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht speak it daily/habitually outside the education system. That’s approximately 23,000 people.

      I don’t find your argument about the government convincing. It was an article outlining his personal opinion in a Dublin magazine. Optimism is important (although blind optimism isn’t) but if people believe Irish is undergoing a renaissance when it seems the opposite is true, we could end up sleepwalking until it’s too late. Honest assessments outlining the challenges facing Irish are needed. That’s why the voices of Joe Mac Donnacha and Donncha Ó hEallaithe are needed as part of the broader discussion if people are serious about having Irish as something more than a cultural ornament, which is what it often is for most non-native speakers.


      • ar an sliabh

        I absolutely agree with your assessment regarding optimism and blind optimism, and that all voices must be heard. I don’t think anybody believes that Irish is undergoing a renaissance. Far from it. Even the critical assessment of the status of the Irish language is not necessarily disputed, although if 15-20 years was overly optimistic, the impact would be more visible now, in my opinion. There is a discussion (there really wasn’t one before), that in itself is already an improvement.


  5. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised by Mac Donnacha’s statements. Is he saying Irish is moribund? But it was a thought-provoking article, considering his background and extensive knowledge, especially since it’s usually the naysayers and outright opponents of Irish who say it’s dying, or even ‘dead’. Clearly Irish is not dead, but to say it’s dying as a regular, habitual means of communication within Gaeltacht communities is not unreasonable. It’s backed up by evidence, both quantitative and anecdotal.

    You mention “hard-core” Gaeltachtaí having sustainable populations but in fact it’s these very regions (Cois Fharraige, Conamara Theas/south Conamara) where the evidence clearly shows that most young people from Irish-speaking homes have less range and ability in Irish compared with English. And these are the strongest districts in Ireland! This issue of incomplete acquisition and language shift is even more acute in the ‘weaker’ communities in Mayo and Cork, Kerry etc…

    The implications of incomplete acquisition and the dominance of English as the preferred medium of communication amongst most native speakers in the Gaeltacht (coupled with universal bilingualism) is deeply problematic in terms of future sustainability so I’m not sure why you conclude that the trend for Irish is currently very positive. On what basis?

    It’s not a matter of whether Irish lives or dies, there will always be fluent speakers and Irish-speaking households for the foreseeable future and beyond (you can probably find multiples of each in every single county on the island of Ireland today!) ….but it’s whether or not Irish will continue to be widely spoken in ANY community as the main langusge, and passed on naturally to future generations. If it can’t be, for more than 10-15 years, as predicted by Mac Donnacha and Ó Giollagáin, then it will be headed down the road of Manx and Cornish, which are more like hobby languages, with a handful of truly fluent speakers and a larger number of speakers with a passive or partial grasp of the language, and unlikely to pass it on to the coming generations.


    “It is estimated there are now fewer than 1,000 children who are native Irish speakers in Gaeltacht area primary schools.”

    “Researchers examined the linguistic ability of 50 children, aged between seven and 12, whose home language is exclusively Irish.

    They found that their competence in English significantly surpassed that in Irish.”


    • ar an sliabh

      I base my assessment on that it is reported more people are fluent from 10 years ago. Also, perhaps, erroneously, on my personal experience when I am home (actually living near the south Connemara/Conamara Gaeltacht) where I find more people amenable to speaking it than ever before, especially among the younger generation. But then, as I still also reside in the U.S. for a considerable time during the year, I also tend to start conversations in Irish with acquaintances and strangers to keep myself fluent, and not to be confused with one of the usual “meirican” tourists. With my friends at home, I only converse in Irish, but they are my age, and just as stubborn. I am not saying that there are no problems, and there certainly have been times where it seemed Irish would be condemned to become another Scottish, but compared to the last few decades, there is considerably more interest. I don’t recall language rights demonstrations (at least not of the size of the last few) and an ever-growing international Irish language community until just this decade. It sure beats the “absolute nothing” that was before. Addressing language competencies, much of the focus is on writing. Irish is hardly standardized as a language and in how it is written, so the findings do not surprise me at all. I for one, never learned to write it, so even my rudimentary Spanish “surpasses” it significantly in (overall) competence. I am currently actually taking classes to learn my native language “properly” in the terms of the more modern scholarly assessments. Add to that that I had a significant break in speaking the language, and like any language that is spoken, much has changed in terms of idioms, adopted terms and phrases, etc… some of my customary expressions are now antiquated (although I have been back now for about 10 years – so this applies more to 2005, although occasionally I still get a laugh at some archaic reference I make). As for the fewer than a thousand estimate, I am not sure where that came from. It just doesn’t appear that way to me, but then I have no children in school either, and there seem to be a lot of foreigners as well. Again, maybe it is just my limited viewpoint.


      • It’s interesting to get your insights. Would you know many families with children in school currently?

        I haven’t seen any report attached to the claim of fewer than 1,000 primary school children from Irish-speaking homes, but maybe I’m just not aware of it. It doesn’t seem like a wildly inaccurate figure, because the total population of the Gaeltacht is only about 100,000 and in most of it the shift to English has already occurred so you’d have to consider the combined populations of Cois Fharraige, south Conamara and the Aran islands, along with ‘Na Trí Paróistí’ in northwest Donegal (Na Rosa, Cloch Cheannfhaola and Gaoth Dobhair), and the villages west of Daingean Uí Chúis… That’s essentially the remaining ‘core’ or ‘Category A’ districts that Mac Donnacha, Ó Giollagáin et al., proposed in their 2007 study where speakers fluent speakers reside. Relatively few young native speakers will be found elsewhere in the Gaeltacht, from what I’ve read and based on my own impressions of having travelled in various regions.

        In fact, I once read a claim that even in these strongest districts, only about half of the households with school age children were Irish-speaking, despite the high success rates for the now-defunct Scéim Labhairt na Gaeilge, which was abolished in the spring of 2011.

        The just recently completed centre in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Coiste Ionad Tacaíochta Teaghlaigh Iarthar Dhuibhneach) and others like An Crann Taca in Indreabhán (opened 2009) are very important for communities and language maintenance and revitalisation.,18310,en.html


        • What surprises me is that this sort of thing wasn’t done years, no decades, ago? Do Irish speakers (or your government?) have some kind of morbid death-wish, only sending in the fire brigade when the house is already nearly burned down?


        • ar an sliabh

          I am of the generation, where our children have children now. Virtually all of the young parents I know make a dedicated effort for their children to speak Irish. The modern Irish speaking household is not that of my time, however. The only English I heard as a young child was on the radio off and on. I do not remember seeing a tele until I was with my adoptive family and no longer living in Ireland, much less watching one. Computers in homes were unheard of and so was the Internet. Now most households (anywhere, actually) are exposed to a myriad of languages, and predominantly English. I know families who have partaken in some of these studies, but because of one parent’s Irish being rudimentary, they were not deemed an Irish speaking household, even though all but one of the children were what I would consider native speakers (and even that child speaks Irish fairly well), In virtually all of these families, the children speak mostly Irish with the native speaker and mostly English with the other parent, and a hodge-podge in-between and when interacting with other children and families (it is village life after all). Again, my viewpoint is somewhat limited, as when I am home, I do not generally move about much.


    • It was a big mistake to allow English speakers who didn’t want to learn Irish to live in the Gaeltacht areas.

      The local attitude should have been – learn Irish or GTFO to Dublin.
      But now, I think, it’s too late.

      Unidirectional bilingualism means a slow language death.

      That’s why I was saying that you CAN’T support a language if you don’t speak it fluently yourself.
      Because as soon as you meet its speakers and force them to speak your language – you’re helping to destroy their language.

      People who say: “We must save our national language, but I’m not going to bother with learning it myself – someone else must do it!” are pathetic hypocrites and I have zero respect for them.

      Gabriel Adewusi was next to speak, beginning in Irish he comically remarked “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithris?” He then continued in English, saying that despite his own limited ability to converse in Irish, he is a firm believer in the “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” adage.

      This guy would be flat out laughed at in Latvia. Even people who hate our country and our language can speak Latvian.

      So if you call yourself a supporter but don’t actually put your money where your mouth is then you’re just a pathetic hypocrite.


      • In principle I have to agree with you, Jānis. All those people who are going to learn the local heritage/minority language next week/month/year/ when they retire / … The excuses are endless, I call them the “Wishful Thinking Brigade”.

        But then you have to see the problems faced by English speakers. Wherever they go, at least in Europe and the Western World, everyone will speak to them in English. So they have no practice in learning or using or getting by in another language. Even when they want to learn e.g. Irish, most will have no idea how to start. Apart from those of us strange people who just happen to find languages interesting in themselves, most people only take an interest in a language when the hear it spoken around them out in the ‘real world’, not in some contrived situation.

        But once the number of speakers of a language fall below a certain proportion it’s no longer worth speaking it to strangers (given one-way bilingualism) because the chances of them understanding you have become too low. So you end up by habit only speaking it with people you know personally. And eventually the language retreats almost entirely from the public sphere. Then a stranger coming into the area will rarely hear it and so have no motivation to take an interest. And even two speakers if they don’t know one another will likely converse in English without realising that they didn’t need to.

        As an individual I’m entirely free to speak any language I know whenever I choose. But in reality without another speaker who can understand me there would be little point. Most Irish speakers I imagine are not in the Gaeltacht these days but scattered around the country in a sea of mostly English monoglotts. Is this the core of the problem, that language rights have been treated like other *individual* rights when in fact they need to be viewed as social and community rights?


        • Yeah – it’s even worse if “the wishful thinking brigade” actually move in an area where their beloved language is spoken and keep expressing their love in English only.
          “Irish is our national treasure!”
          “We have to save our language!”
          “I identify with the Irish language, but I can’t speak it!” and the like.
          They’re not helping.
          One fluent speaker helps the language far more than a million of “passive supporters” like the author of this blog.

          And no – everyone will not speak to you in English.
          From my experience – almost everyone will give you an opportunity to speak their local language – they’ll switch to English only when they see that you don’t understand them.

          And I agree that language rights are social and community rights.
          Everyone who wants to live in a particular community must speak the language of that community.
          Of course it’s not possible to designate the whole Ireland as an Irish speaking community any more, but the Gaeltacht absolutely should have been designated like that with a zero-tolerance policy against the English speakers.
          A clear language border should have been drawn and DEFENDED.
          Like in Switzerland or Belgium.

          The current “bilingualism” policy in Ireland is a bullshit cargo-cult and a pointless waste of time and money.
          I see the Irish language road signs as tombstones – “Here lies the Irish language that was the language of this community long long ago” – they don’t encourage anyone to learn the language.
          And the same with the government – even if it was able to provide fully bilingual services everywhere that still would not encourage anyone, because if you can get a service in English, then what’s the point of learning Irish?


          • Whoops! I should have written “Good Intentions Brigade”, as in “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. That’s what happens when you post late at night.

            “From my experience – almost everyone will give you an opportunity to speak their local language – they’ll switch to English only when they see that you don’t understand them.”

            That’s not usually my experience, apart from artificial situations designed to promote the language in question. A native Irish speaker will habitually speak Irish with other members of their family/community but English with outsiders, just as you will speak Latvian with other known Latvians but English with everyone else. If anyone else tried to use your language, unless they were near perfect, you’d immediately switch to English and probably be insulted because the implication would be that you were too ‘thick’ to manage English. At least that’s how most minority language natives would see things in Ireland or the UK.

            I don’t know how you could implement a ‘Belgian solution’ in Ireland or even in Wales (where it’s been suggested from time to time). Basically it goes against the right of EU citizens to settle or work anywhere they like (otherwise you wouldn’t be in Ireland in the first place). Also whenever this is suggested there are loud cries of ‘racism’ all round. Generally from liberal people who only speak English and so have no understanding of the problem. OTOH would you want to turn the Gaeltachtaí into something like bantustans? As long as people from these areas and their kids claim the right to move to Dublin, London (or Rīga!) how can you deny outsiders the right to move the other way?


            • When I’m in Latvia I speak Latvian to everyone. Unless a person starts with “Excuse me, do you speak (whatever)…” I answer them in Latvian.
              The Russians, of course, are a special case and I don’t speak Russian to them even if they are tourists. 🙂

              That’s how people in other countries act as well.
              Receptionists in both French and Estonian hotels greeted me in their local languages and only switched to English after seeing that I’m a tourist.

              I think it’s too late for a “Belgian solution” now anyway.

              And refusing to communicate in a foreign language is not against the EU legislation.
              That’s the case in all other EU countries – if you don’t speak the local language – you’ll be frowned upon.

              I can’t even think of speaking to strangers in any other language than English here in Ireland.


              • Sinéad Rohan

                Any EU compulsion to speak publicly in Irish seems unnecessary. Centuries old deep-seated inferiority will mean national subjugation to the federal programme of immigration as economic policy. The long term unemployed today and native Irish speakers as pensioners already envy the 80s recession when at least Irish speakers weren’t shamed into silence.


              • Could you clarify a bit for us foreigners? How are Irish speakers “shamed into silence” now but weren’t previously? What has this to do with the EU (if that’s what you mean by ‘federal’)?


              • The point being they *did* switch to English as soon as they realised you couldn’t speak the local language. And I’m sure if most of their clients had been foreigners or if the local language was only spoken by a minority (as in Ireland) then they would only use it first if they had been ordered to by management, as it would simply be a waste of their time and possibly annoy the client whose money they were after. Of course when foreigners frown on English speakers, most of them don’t have any idea why, they just assume everyone (the French especially) hates the English, or that they’re arrogant, rude etc. In a way it’s unfair on English speakers that their language happens to have become the international language. Everyone else gets massive exposure to English, but we get little exposure to other languages. Hence lack of interest and lack of knowledge/skills.


              • Well, there’s also a difference between a tourist and an immigrant.

                While people usually tolerate tourists who can’t speak the local language because they bring money and leave soon after, they really frown upon guest workers and immigrants who don’t learn the local language or even worse – try to impose their language upon the natives.

                I have some friends and relatives who, just like me, are working in foreign countries (Norway, Germany, the UK, Ireland and even Iceland). And they are all learning the local languages to better fit in and integrate into societies of their host countries, because the locals frown upon you if you don’t.


              • The contrast between Iceland and Ireland is certainly interesting. All Icelanders learn English almost from when they start school afaik, and their own language is very complex and difficult. I’ve never heard of anyone learning it, indeed I didn’t think they welcomed foreigners. They’re outside the EU so you can’t just go there.


              • EU/EEA citizens in fact can just go there:

                And yes – they all do speak English, but that doesn’t mean that they like immigrants who refuse to learn Icelandic.

                It’s not surprising that you haven’t heard of anyone learning it.
                Because the only people who learn it are either language nerds who, for some reason are interested in Iceland or immigrants who intend to stay in Iceland – they usually start learning when they get there, because it’s quite problematic to learn it outside of Iceland.

                My friend who lives there said that he’s learning Icelandic despite the fact that it’s possible to get by with English – he intends to become fluent in it in order to better fit into the society.

                And as you may know – the Icelandic language is spoken only by 300k or so people and all of them are at least bilingual.


              • I’m interested to read your opinions and I agree with many of them in this post. Your perspective is interesting from my point of view – being Irish and living here all my life. I agree with the concept that by only speaking English you are in effect forcing Irish speakers to speak English whether you ‘support’ the native language or not. Good intentions will not keep the language alive in any shape or form so I started learning myself 3 years ago. I’m between A2 and B1 on the European languages framework. It’s a long and winding road when you have other commitments and you have been a monoglot English speaker all your life. I would not underestimate the commitment people require to acquire a second language as an adult, but, then again, many mange to complete third level studies while simultaneously working and having families so it can certainly be done.


  6. an lorcánach

    browsing above articles with references to Joe Mac Donnacha i have to admit over last three years i’ve changed my opinion on the irish language – principally because of an sionnach fionn

    taking just Donncha Ó hEallaithe: i absolutely reject his long-standing call for optional irish in the leaving cert. i went to both all-irish primary and secondary schools and failed the inter and leaving certs. was that because of compulsory irish? absolutely not! — though rarely we’re allowed to question the education system itself as an ideology or the reductionist permanent government’s role over 90 years, of course reflective of wider society’s antipathy (visceral hatred) towards native irish language and traveller culture

    in the regular commentaries on the state’s junior education cycle, there’s rarely any cross-referencing of or detailed extrapolation of failure rates in other subjects and why that should be.

    is it the fault of the irish language that almost 18 percent of adult population are functionally illiterate? of course not!

    — i don’t know… .

    ./. easpa íomhá 😉 .


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