[lg policy] blog: Where is the diaspora in the Irish-language strategy?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 5 15:26:14 UTC 2011

Where is the diaspora in the Irish-language strategy?

By Noreen Bowden | December 30, 2010

The new 20-year Irish-language strategy announced by the Taoiseach
recently is aimed at increasing the use of Irish among all citizens.
Curiously, however, the document makes almost no reference to the
Irish abroad, despite the enthusiasm of the government for diaspora
participation in almost every other realm of strategic growth (The
diaspora has figured highly in recently announced strategies for the
Smart Economy, higher education, and tourism, for example).

The omission is particularly glaring in light of the fact that the
Gaeltacht areas have traditionally been some of the hardest-hit by
emigration, and the numbers of Irish-language speakers abroad are not
insignificant. There are 95,000 Irish speakers in the UK, according to
Wikipedia. The US census found that in 2000, there were 25,661 people
speaking Irish in the US, while in 2005 it reported that there 18,815
speakers. (The decline in numbers perhaps reflects a number of
Celtic-Tiger returnees as well as the deaths of some of the 1950s/60s
generation.) The heaviest concentration was in Massachusetts (where
many Connemara emigrants have settled), New York, and Illinois.

So why is there so little mention of the Irish abroad in this
document?  The first reference to the diaspora is this comment, which
follows an outline of 13 policy objectives previously set out in the
2006 “Government Statement on the Irish Language”:

    It is also an objective of Government to support the promotion and
teaching of Irish abroad, through the Department of Foreign Affairs
and the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs.
Particular emphasis has been placed on supporting the teaching of
Irish in third-level colleges in a range of different countries.

Apparently, the inclusion of the diaspora is an afterthought, perhaps
reflecting the larger status of the diaspora now, post-economic

The second major mention of the language as it is spoken outside of
Ireland is in reference to third-level courses abroad:

    In 2006 the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht
Affairs established a dedicated fund to support the development of
Irish language courses in third-level institutions overseas. The
objectives of the fund are to promote and foster goodwill for the
Irish language and indeed for Ireland and Irish culture in general
across Europe, North America and Canada and to provide a platform from
which the Irish language can be assessed and showcased as an
international language. This increases awareness of the Irish language
and culture outside of Ireland and leads to links between Ireland and
the countries in which these institutions are located, resulting in
positive long-term impacts on the language. It also provides an
excellent opportunity to present the Irish language to the academic
community worldwide and gives the Irish language equal status to other
European languages being taught abroad. In addition, many students who
study Irish in their own countries continue their studies here in
Ireland and as a consequence students from all over the world attend
courses in the Gaeltacht. This results in bonds of friendship and a
lifelong interest and understanding of the rich language and culture
of this country.

    Currently over 30 third-level colleges and universities in the
USA, in European countries and further afield are actively providing
Irish language and Celtic Studies’ programmes within their own

    These measures by the Department of Community, Equality and
Gaeltacht Affairs to support the teaching of Irish overseas (including
the joint programme with the Fulbright Commission and the Ireland
Canada University Foundation) will be maintained as a vehicle to
expand the teaching and learning of Irish in universities outside

The strategy thus seems to view the use of Irish in the diaspora
solely as an academic exercise. Is this not a lost opportunity? Surely
native Irish speakers outside of Ireland are as deserving of support
as those in the Gaeltacht, and they should be also encouraged to use
their Irish, pass it on to their children, and to partake of
opportunities to use the language in their communities.

There may even be some native speakers in Boston, New York, and
Chicago who might be interested in creative interaction with those
learning Irish in nearby universities.

Here are a few ideas off the top of my head of ways to encourage the
use of Irish abroad and to engage native speakers in promoting the

    * Support touring productions of Irish-language dramatic productions
    * Encourage oral histories of Irish-speaking communities abroad
    * Support Irish-language elder programmes in senior centres
    * Irish-language programming on the long-overdue Irish television
service for the Irish in the UK
    * Extend support for family language transmission to Irish speakers abroad
    * Engage the GAA and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in promoting the
language abroad
    * Support Irish-language programmes aimed at preschoolers and
children in Irish cultural centres
    * Strongly promote Irish-language summer programmes for
diaspora-based learners of all levels.

Perhaps some of these initiatives are being undertaken already, but it
would be nice to see more outreach to native speakers in the diaspora
as part of the strategy. It seems a rather glaring oversight to ignore
them, particularly given all the recent focus on both the diaspora and
the importance of Irish culture abroad.


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