[lg policy] Irish in crisis – we need a New Deal to revitalise the language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Jun 29 14:47:39 UTC 2015

 Irish in crisis – we need a New Deal to revitalise the language  ‘We need
to address the crisis of Irish in its native-speaking community – now
marginalised to be merely court jesters to the cultural dominance of
[image: View of the Ros Goill Gaeltacht area, Co Donegal. Photographer:
Dara Mac Dónaill]

View of the Ros Goill Gaeltacht area, Co Donegal. Photographer: Dara Mac
  Conchúr Ó Giollagáin

  Mon, Jun 29, 2015, 04:30

*First published:* Mon, Jun 29, 2015, 04:30


Irish, our “first” but minority language, is in crisis. The
recently-published Update of the Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use
of Irish in the Gaeltacht: 2006-2011 has concluded that Irish as a
vernacular in Gaeltacht districts will not survive under current conditions
beyond the next 10 years. This cultural and social aspect of our national
project is now in tatters, and at a time of its greatest crisis, we have
lost our way. Irish needs a New Deal as a matter of priority.

There are five main issues which must be addressed if Irish is to survive
as a community language:

1. The erosion of the critical mass of Irish-speaking communities in the
Gaeltacht is accelerating into what will be, without intervention, a
terminal trajectory

   -  [image: Léirsiú ar son na Gaeilge. grianghraf: dara mac dónaill/the
   irish times]Freagracht do thodhchaí na Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta ag brath
   -  [image: ‘The Government must provide the resources required to
   implement a creative, courageous, and comprehensive policy.’ Photograph:
   Joe O’Shaughnessy]A call to action to save the Irish language inside and
   outside of the Gaeltacht
   -  [image: ‘Rustic life’ sa Ghaeltacht? grianghraf: dara mac dónaill/the
   irish times]Cás na Gaeilge faoi scrúdú thiar agus thoir
   -  [image: Joe McHugh TD. grianghraf: dara mac dónaill/the irish
   challenges facing the Irish language in the Gaeltacht’ – Joe McHugh

 2. Weak, non-functional levels of Irish language acquisition among young
people living in Gaeltacht areas, including native speakers

3. The failure of language-support agencies to support the real needs of
speakers and communities; arid institutions do not save a language, only
speakers through a process of language acquisition backed by social
support/reinforcement achieve this

4. The inability of the educational system to support the emergence of
competent and socially-rooted speakers, either as native speakers or
learners; greater emphasis on the needs of native speakers in the
educational system is clearly required, we still await a curriculum for
native speakers of Irish, for example

5. A growing alienation among the remaining speaker community from both the
political and state class in relation to perceived insincere official
reiterations of State commitments to Irish; the State is perceived as
obstructing the strategic deployment of the mechanisms of State against the
clearly documented crisis in Irish-speaking networks.

The aims of the official 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language are
increasingly viewed as irrelevant in that they suggest no coherent
intervention against these challenges, ie the condition it is purporting to

The approach taken in the State’s strategy owes more to wishful thinking
than to science. From a language policy perspective, its irresponsible
cross-fertilisation of outmoded sermonising about the importance of our
linguistic heritage, redolent of Éamon de Valera’s musings on Irish,
coupled with a simplistic reworking of fashionable cosmopolitan rhetoric on
cultural diversity, is unlikely to result in strengthened Gaeltacht areas.
The strategy is devoid of analytical foundation, diagnostic rigour or
strategic relevance – bien-pensant but unengaged and of limited practical
use to the nature of the current crisis. Put simply, it is a failure to
face reality.

This evasiveness has engendered a form of passive aggression in official
circles towards the crisis in the Gaeltacht, which is taking on the
hallmarks of a conspiracy against the laity – professional privilege
dissociated from the problems of the collective. Language support agencies
now seem to be entrusted with managing a distressed culture on behalf of
learners, rather than on behalf of speakers who possess the culture. The
State’s focus, therefore, is on the external requirements of promoting
language as historical heritage and pastime rather than supporting a living
community. It essentially ignores the pressures on a fragile vernacular and
pins it hopes on schools and other institutional efforts. Those working for
the language agencies operate as an intermediary class between the State’s
largely mono-lingual English-speaking power elite and the bilingualised
Gaeltacht, rather than as dynamic leaders of a distressed community.

The current contradictions of pursuing a language policy for Irish as an
optional secondary culture for individualistic consumption has displaced
focus from where it needs to be. We need to address the crisis of Irish in
its native-speaking community – now marginalised to be merely court jesters
to the cultural dominance of English.

The irony of facilitating the need for Irish as symbolic heritage at the
expense of the disempowered Gael is not lost on those living in the
dwindling Gaelic districts of the Gaeltacht — a case of a minoritised group
being expected to defer to ineffectual national sentiment.

In this context of crisis, the Irish State’s 20-Year Strategy is a
non-policy. It demonstrates naïve deference to inherited language policies
but suggests nothing effective to engage with current conditions.

Instead of a New Deal for Irish speakers and communities, policy reform
efforts to date have culminated in a reversion to the status quo but with
weaker budget provision. To re-establish Irish in the Gaeltacht as a living
language it will be necessary to focus on four basic tasks: a)
re-establishing communities with sufficient density of Irish speakers to
ensure Gaeltacht sustainability, b) establishing a form of civic trust to
manage socio-economic resources for the benefit of the minority group, c)
establishing some form of assembly to allow for the development of Irish
language civil culture and to provide group leadership, and d) making
provision for research and productive strategic back-up for the
Irish-speaking community.

I propose that current language-support institutions be replaced by the
following agencies, possibly within the existing budget:

1. A Gaelic Community Trust – to manage collective resources and to
administer the benefits of group membership

2. Dáil na nGael — a form of assembly to develop group leadership and to
empower practical strategies and actions

3. A research and information centre — to disseminate knowledge on
best-practice and strategy.

Given the enormity of the complex challenges facing Irish, the ambiguity
and inadequacy of the strategy to date and the challenges faced by minority
languages globally, it is obvious that we need new imaginative approaches
to give Irish and its community a living chance. The status quo and the
survival of Irish are no longer compatible — a New Deal is required.

Conchúr Ó Giollagáin is the Soillse Research
Professor in the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland
He co-authored, along with Martin Charlton
the *Update of the Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in
the Gaeltacht: 2006-2011*. This article is an abbreviated version of his
address to the Celtic
Sociolinguistic Symposium in UCD on June 25th


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