One of Ireland’s most prized cultural components is at risk of being taken from the Irish people.
Considered “definitely endangered” by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, the Irish language is in a dire state. Even though learning Irish is required in all schools across the nation, only 1.8 percent of its population speak Irish daily, and only 40.6 percent say they have the ability to speak the language.
“There is no situation globally which is comparable to the cultural situation in Ireland,” said Cuan Ó Seireadáin, communications officer at Conradh na Gaeilge.
Conradh na Gaeilge is a non-profit organization that works to promote the legal and cultural status of the Irish language both in Ireland and abroad. The organization’s primary mission is to reinstate Irish as Ireland’s primary language.
“An Ireland without the Irish language wouldn’t be the same place,” said Ó Seireadáin. “It wouldn’t really be Ireland, maybe, not in the sense that it had been. For the longest portion of its history, it had been a country dominated by the Irish language and by Gaelic culture.”
The decline of the Irish language was not gradual and not long ago, said Ó Seireadáin. For the majority of time under British rule the Irish language was still frequently used, however English was the official language, especially for legal, administrative and political affairs. This lowered the status of the Irish language, and the working class population who most often used it was eventually diminished by emigration and the Great Famine in the 1800s. The Irish language never fully recovered.
In Ireland’s constitution Irish is given the status of the first and official language of the nation. Nearly 100 years later, English is clearly still the dominant language.
The Irish government has made numerous plans to encourage the use of Irish. In 2003, Ireland passed the Official Languages Act, which promotes the use of Irish for official matters of the state. The act set guidelines for all state organizations, with criteria in areas including language use in the courts, communication with public bodies, and language schemes, which are required from every public body in the nation.
Cian Mac Cárthaigh, a station manager at Raidió na Life, an Irish-language station in Dublin, said the Irish government tends to simply give the language lip service, throwing money at the problem without any proper amount of planning.
A community group started Raidió na Life to create a cultural service for the community and raise both awareness and enthusiasm for Irish along the way. Most of the staff—three paid workers and upwards of 150 volunteers—come from the community.
“If I hadn’t found out about Raidió na Life, I probably wouldn’t be able to speak Irish anymore,” said Mac Cárthaigh.
Mac Cárthaigh learned to speak Irish while attending a Gaelscoil for primary school. When he later ended up attending an English-speaking secondary school, he found there was absolutely nowhere for him to speak Irish outside of the classroom.
“The government should fund Irish language media more as organizations that support the use of the language,” said Lisa Nic An Bhreithimh, a Raidió na Life volunteer who was recently nominated for the Young Star of the Year award by Oireachtas na Gaeilge. “The young people of Ireland who could potentially lose their language are the ones who'll lose out most if the situation continues as it is.”
Mac Cárthaigh says having a community to speak Irish with is crucial for the strength of the language, especially among those still learning to speak it. If children don’t have opportunities to speak Irish outside of the classroom, they will always just see it as a language only for the classroom.
“They’d like to have you to think it’s the national language, and they spent all this money on the façade, but they won’t actually put any substance behind what they’re trying to do” said Mac Cárthaigh.
An Comisinéir Teanga (the Irish Language Commissioner) published a 2014 report outlining complaints received about noncompliant government organizations. For example, public bodies that use recorded announcements on their telephones must have the recording available in Irish, and this recording must convey the same message in Irish as it does in English. Of the 32 local authorities using recorded messages, only two were compliant.
Aoife Crawford, the acting Irish language officer at Trinity College in Dublin, said she finds these types of issues with government offices to be a vicious circle. Irish speakers don’t ask for the services because they know they either don’t exist or it is simply quicker to speak English. The offices say there is no demand for the services because nobody ever asks.
The Irish government also created a 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language in 2010, with the mission of increasing the number of daily Irish speakers, ensuring Irish is used by public services, making Irish more visible in society, and providing additional linguistic support for communities living in the Gaeltacht.
The Gaeltacht are areas, mostly on the west coast of Ireland, which have the highest population of native Irish speakers. These communities, as the only places where children are born and raised speaking Irish, play a special role in the Irish language. But recent studies have shown that these government initiatives may actually do more harm than good. A report from Raidió Teilifís Éireann, a public-service media organization in Ireland, showed that children in the Gaeltacht, whose home language is exclusively Irish, actually leave school with stronger English than Irish.
“They (the government) seem to want to get rid of us Irish speakers,” said Angela Connolly, a native Irish speaker from Inis Mór, an island on the west coast of Ireland which is part of the Gaeltacht.
Údarás na Gaeltachta is the state agency responsible for promoting the economic, social and cultural development in Gaeltacht areas. They recently published a report that found that the use of the Irish language is declining at a rate never before predicted, and within the next 10 years Irish may no longer be the dominant language even in the Gaeltacht.
Ó Seireadáin says part of the issue is the government’s “béal grá,” which literally translates to “mouth love,” meaning someone who talks positively but has no actions to back up their words.
“The “béal grá” of the government (is) the officially friendly and positive attitude towards the Irish language but de facto reluctance and lack of energy behind implementation of policy,” said Ó Seireadáin. “Sometimes is policy formed without full knowledge of all of the relevant facts needed to make that policy.”
Some Irish speakers say they are criticized for learning a “dead language,” but the language is very much alive for citizens, such as those in the Gaeltacht, who are raised with the language and may not be able to fully express themselves in English.
In February 2014, at an Irish language rights march and protest in Dublin, Brenda Ní Ghairbhí, a manager at Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Language Week), remembers a speech given by a woman who was raising all of her children with Irish. As this woman shared her experience of visiting a doctor’s office, she became very emotional, recalling how her children could not communicate with their doctor because he had no Irish and they had no English. Experiences like these illustrate just some of the frustration and marginalization that can exist when proper services are not provided for those in the minority.
Linguistic rights are a key component of UNESCO’s mission. According to a report in tandem with UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, “Languages are vehicles of our cultures, collective memory and values. They are an essential component of our identities, and a building block of our diversity and living heritage.”
Members of the Irish language community do not say they speak Irish. Instead, they say they have Irish. This phrasing reflects their feelings about the Irish language itself, that it is a cultural treasure they want to have and hold on to. But to save Irish is no simple task, and it will require the efforts of an entire nation, not just a small percentage of it. What was nearly completely taken away from them years ago is once again at risk of slipping through a generation’s hands.