Rural Irish Speakers Fight Influx of English

Sean Markey in Ballyferriter, Ireland
National Geographic News
Updated March 17, 2003

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Villages don't get much smaller than Ballyferriter, a hamlet of 40 souls here on the windswept Dingle Peninsula—an Irish-speaking enclave in western-most Ireland.

Set amid sheep pastures and rugged hills hard by the Atlantic Ocean, the village center boasts little more than a modest collection of homes, four pubs, a church, a post office, and a police station.

By most accounts, the Irish language is in decline in communities like Ballyferriter that lie in Ireland's Gaeltacht, a term used to describe the country's seven, historically Irish-speaking regions scattered about its western seaboard.

Census data gathered in 1996 estimates that 42 percent of Ireland's 3.9 million residents claimed some proficiency in the Irish language. But most experts say only 100,000 Irish speakers are truly fluent in the language today. (By comparison, Wales, with a population of 2.9 million boasts nearly three times as many fluent Welsh speakers.)

Despite signs of a modest national revival, within the Gaeltacht Irish is slowly ceding ground to English as the language of daily discourse, experts say.

"The prognosis for the Gaeltacht, if current trends and practices continue, is not good," said Seosamh Mac Donnacha, a language-education planning expert at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Mac Donnacha and other experts cite a number of factors behind the change. Chief among them is the number of non-Irish speakers moving into Gaeltacht communities.

During the 1950s and 60s, Ireland's bleak economic conditions drained many native Irish speakers from Gaeltacht communities, as residents left to find work in Dublin, London, New York, and Boston.

Many of these job-seekers married and started families while abroad. Now, lured by Ireland's changing economic fortunes, they are returning to their native Gaeltacht communities, bringing English-speaking spouses and children who have not acquired Irish.

And Gaeltacht communities have been ill-equipped to deal with the influx, experts say.

"Local schools were left to deal with the situation where they had a partial intake of Irish-speakers and a partial intake of English-speakers. There was a tendency to try and support the English-speakers," said Mac Donnacha. "While much of this was well intentioned, I would say in the main it had a very negative effect on the Irish language."

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