When the greater part of Ireland won its independence from the United Kingdom in the early 1920s the number of native Irish-speakers across the island, north and south, was close to 6% of the total population (a figure which excludes fluent non-native speakers of Irish, perhaps another 3%-5%). This represented over 250,000 men, women and children, the vast majority of whom were confined to rural communities, principally along the western seaboard (some of these were later designated as gaeltachtaí or Irish-speaking regions, a term with overtones of “native reservation” rather than an area of special significance). Of these hibernophones or gaeilgeoirí around 50,000 were monolingual speakers, having little or no understanding of the English language, while the remainder were bilingual to greater or lesser degrees. Nearly ten decades later the percentage of native-speakers across our island nation has fallen to less than 0.8% of the total population or around 64,000 people (this of course excludes as many as 100,000 anglophones or béarlóirí with significant levels of Irish fluency). Of that figure the total number of monolingual Irish-speakers is effectively zero (even allowing for young children, of whom no more than a few hundred have yet to acquire a fluency in English, if even that many).
Following the imposition of partition it was the avowed aim and policy of successive unionist administrations controlling the paracolony of “Northern Ireland” to banish the Irish language from their territory, something pursued with fanatical zeal. In contrast the national governments in Dublin had the collective goal of restoring the language as the majority vernacular of the newly independent state. However that lofty aspiration was just that – aspirational. From the end of the Civil War in 1923 to the early 2000s no comprehensive or detailed strategy was ever pursued or implemented by any Irish government to encourage the growth of such a majority. Indeed, from the 1920s onwards no serious effort was made to service or sustain the existing, pre-independence number of monolingual and bilingual Irish-speakers in the 26 Counties. Rather, this population was allowed to wither and die, being denied or curtailed access to the resources of the state, except for a few acts of cultural tokenism such as dismissive “gaeltacht grants” to appease former revolutionary-era aims.
Whether led by Fine Gael, a party which inherited its institutional antipathy to our indigenous language and culture from the old Irish Parliamentary Party and southern unionist factions, or Fianna Fáil, which expressed generous support when in opposition while pursuing miserly lip-service in office, no government of Ireland has advanced in any meaningful way the position of its hibernophone citizens and communities. Even the much-heralded Official Languages Act of 2003 – eighty years in the making – was niggardly in both intent and implementation. It was not passed with the objective of raising the national and first official language of the state to the same level of the second official language. Rather it was enacted in order to limit and codify its use, allowing the prejudices and discriminatory practices of the civil service and ministers to continue behind a superficial veneer of equality. The same description applies to the so-called 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language, a derisory government policy delayed and redacted so many times that it has been buried under a layer of dust since 2010.
It is a simple truth in 21st century Ireland, as in every other century for the last eight hundred years, that the Irish language is not dying – it is being killed. The mechanisms of this killing – of this murder – are neglect, bigotry and hatred; not just towards the language itself but towards those who speak or identify with it too.
“Irish is unlikely to be the majority spoken language in Gaeltacht areas in ten years’ time, a major report commissioned by Údarás na Gaeltachta has warned.
The report, which is a reassessment of an earlier study published in 2007, warns that the spoken use of the language is declining at a faster pace than was previously believed.
Publication of the latest report was delayed for over a year following a dispute over the final recommendations between its authors and Údarás na Gaeltachta. The report without the authors recommendations was published on Friday.
Joint authors Prof Conchúr Ó Giollagáin and Martin Charlton have independently published their recommendations.
Prof Ó Giollagáin criticised the current approach to language planning in the Gaeltacht which he said lacks vision and leadership.
Calling for the establishment of an emergency commission of inquiry headed by the Taoiseach to address the accelerated decline of Irish, Prof Ó Giollagáin said: “The situation is so bad, the crisis is so pressing that a new strategy is needed and has to be implemented by those at the highest levels in the State.”
Daily speakers of Irish have fallen below a 67 per cent tipping point in 134 out of 155 electoral areas in the Gaeltacht.
Once the number of daily speakers falls below the 67 per cent tipping point the daily use of Irish in social settings becomes largely restricted to the older generations.
Recommendations published by the authors say an independent commission of inquiry should be set up to address key points of policy implementation.
They include clarification of what vision the State has for Irish in Gaeltacht areas and an examination of the State’s apparent reluctance to actively implement its own policy as outlined in the 20-year Strategy for the Irish language.”
“Sinn Féin MEP, Liadh Ní Riada, has described the Údarás na Gaeltachta report into the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht as “a damning indictment” of successive governments’ failures and believes that the current Government has “no interest in the survival of the Irish language”.
She said: “As a woman from a Gaeltacht community, I find all of this to be utterly heartbreaking. As an Irish citizen, I regard it as shameful. As we embark on a programme to commemorate the vision and courage of those who declared the Irish Republic in 1916, this is a damning indictment of successive governments who have abjectly failed to deliver on a core objective of those revolutionaries: the survival and development of the Irish language as a spoken vernacular.
“Far from enhancing and developing the status of spoken Irish in Gaeltacht communities, the strategies implemented by those in power failed abysmally to achieve any appreciable improvement … in fact we have seen the reverse. Where we needed sustained commitment to the language from political leaders, we got tokenism and stroke politics instead. Given this lack of commitment to our Irish language community by those in power and given the lack of thought-out and measurable strategies over many years, is it any wonder that things are so bad?
…we have reached a stage where the very survival of Irish as the spoken vernacular in Gaeltacht communities is doubtful. This is a cultural crisis and decisive action needs to be taken immediately to address it … The alternative – the inevitable death of the Gaeltacht – is a scenario that we are duty-bound to resist”.”
Coincidentally June has seen the publication of “An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Linguistic Landscape in Ireland, 1770-1870” by Nicholas M Wolf of New York University, as reviewed by Róisín Ní Ghairbhí in the Irish Times (almost the only national anglophone newspaper in Ireland that examines hibernophone matters; at least without indulging sub-racist hate-speech):
““By the third decade of the 19th century,” Nicholas M Wolf writes, “it is estimated that Ireland was home to between three and four million speakers of the Irish language, more than at any other time in the history of this language community.”
…painstaking sifting of the census evidence pointed to a figure for Irish speakers in pre-Famine Ireland which would equate to the entire population of the island of Ireland on the eve of our (partial) independence. As scholars like Niall Ó Cíosáin and Gearóid Denvir have previously noted, the voices of these millions of 19th-century Irish speakers were for a long time routinely ignored by scholars relying only on English-language sources and their wits. (Some scholars familiar with Irish have been equally culpable.)
In Ireland the past is indeed another country, and we have proved particularly stubborn in failing to accept that people spoke differently there.
For years schoolchildren learned about a polarised country where the Catholic Church, Daniel O’Connell and the national school system encouraged poor (and strangely supplicant) Irish speakers to abandon their native language.
The neat business of language replacement was then completed by a reforming church and modernising British state. It was assisted linguacide, plain and simple.
Meanwhile, the lurking horror of the Great Famine cast its shadow over an entire century and still colours modern-day perceptions of the Gaeltacht as residual and remote, a historical anomaly.
The reality of language shift in Ireland was both more nuanced and, eventually, more brutal. Though the linguistic shift happened much later than most Irish people realise, when it did come the change was unprecedented in its rapidity.
Seán de Fréine coined the memorable phrase “the Great Silence” to describe the lack of critical discussion of the extent and impact of the psychological wound left by the linguistic upheaval of the late 19th century. De Fréine described how an “Orwellian” dispensation in scholarship and the popular imagination turned Irish into “an unlanguage” and made “unpersons” of its speakers.
In 2005 Ó Cíosáin identified a need for further research on the use of the Irish language in the judicial system and within the church. These two topics are discussed at length in the second section of the book “Encounters”.
Here Wolf proves himself an equal opportunities myth-buster as he sets about debunking absolutist takes on British complicity in the decline of Irish by outlining many instances of the state apparatus making accommodations for Irish speakers.
At times, present-day Irish speakers, who recently saw a Language Commissioner resign over the Government’s failure to protect their language rights, may find themselves sighing at the irony of it all.
Wolf takes us on a Monty Pythonesque journey of the “What have the English ever done for us?” variety. Well, for one, they provided court interpreters, often in response to demand by Irish speakers who had a knowledge of English but preferred Irish. Wolf provides examples of assertive Irish speakers successfully exercising their right to use their own language.
An Irish-Speaking Island makes a convincing case against the notion of a polarised country where poor, impassive Irish speakers surrendered meekly to the anglicising oppressor, sacrificing their language for the promise of progress.
In the meantime, this important work should serve as a wake-up call to those who still insist on a simplistic and a historical view of the Irish language in Ireland, both past and present. An Irish-speaking Ireland is no less than a call to give Irish back to the Irish.”
All of which begs the question: when will the tortuously slow ethnocide of our indigenous language and its associated culture stop? Or does it require someone somewhere to stand up and forcibly halt this island nation’s contemporary murder machine?