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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."

Concern has grown so great that the Galway County Council, a local government authority, is currently considering a controversial rule that would bar non-Irish-speakers from building homes along a 60-mile (100-kilometer) stretch of scenic coastline in the county's Gaeltacht.

Native Speakers Won't Give Up Without a Fight

But on a recent Friday evening in Ballyferriter's Tigh Uí Chaitáin pub—a warren of narrow rooms thick with tobacco smoke where the talk, in Irish and English, flowed as freely as the stout—the mood seemed far from dolesome.

Sitting at a small, fireside table under a portrait of Patrick Pearse, the early 20th-century Irish nationalist and ardent Gaelic advocate, was none other than Cathal Ó Searcaigh. A moon-faced man of unbridled energy from County Donegal, many hail Ó Searcaigh as one of Ireland's foremost poets writing in Irish today. He had traveled to Ballyferriter at the invitation of local residents to read his work.

Sorting through a small reef of papers as he prepared for his reading later that evening, Ó Searcaigh paused to reflect on the importance of the Irish language with a visitor. "The window to the world is so very different through Irish," he said.

An hour or so later, 22 area residents packed the rough wooden benches and chairs in a small basement room behind the pub for the evening's reading. Among them were Padraig Ó Fiannachta, an Irish-language scholar and Catholic monsignor from nearby Dingle town, and Mícheál Ó Duláine, a school teacher whose protests some 30 years ago against government plans to close a local Irish-language primary school landed him briefly in jail.

Ó Searcaigh and other local poets read their work in Irish and sometimes in English. Muireann Ní Amhlaoibh, a young woman in her 20s, played slip jigs and airs on a traditional wooden flute between readings, which continued until closing time.

If nothing else, the evening symbolized the passion Irish speakers hold for their language and provided at least anecdotal signs that they won't give up their native tongue without a fight.

Youngest Generation Will Determine Fate of Irish Language

Irish faces no risk of dying out in the near- or medium-term. Language experts say Gaeltacht communities and 80 years of government-mandated Irish instruction in primary and high schools throughout the country have managed to stabilize the language and ensure its passage from one generation to the next.

But language advocates say the degree to which Irish is freely spoken is now at stake. More than anything, the attitudes of Ireland's youngest generation towards the Irish language will determine its fate, they say.

"What's killing Irish, or any language today, is three words: That old Irish," said Father Mícheál Ó Dochartaigh, a Gaelic advocate and parish priest in Beaufort, a small village in County Kerry.

Sean McConn, a student at Galway Mayo Technical Institute, was born in Athleague, a small village in County Galway outside the Gaeltacht. Taking a break from his job at an Internet café in Galway, he shared his views of the Irish language with a visitor. "You only hear old people speaking it, unless you're way out in the Connemara," he said, referring to a rural Gaeltacht region in County Galway. "Rarely would you see a young person speaking Irish today."

Irish was not spoken in McConn's community nor at home. As a result, McConn said, he struggled to learn the language at school. "I would like to be a native speaker, [but] if you don't enjoy it, you don't want to learn," he said. "I'm 24 now. Learning it would be pointless."

Unlike McConn, Pól Ó Loideáin, 21, was born into an Irish-speaking family in Carraroe, a strong Irish-speaking community about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Galway. Ó Loideáin says that while his parents spoke Irish exclusively during their upbringing, he speaks both Irish and English. "Even though I speak Irish with a lot of my friends, it is a dying trend," Ó Loideáin said.

"I can see it with the younger ones coming up, it's become less and less often that they'd be speaking Irish to one another," he said. "Around the Connemara itself, you can see the perimeters are closing in the whole time. The Gaeltacht is getting smaller."

Louis de Paor, an Irish-language poet and director of the Center for Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway, said he thinks the Irish-language community does itself a disservice when it compares the present state of the language to its historical heyday or idealistic visions of the future. "I think we're unduly harsh on ourselves," he said.

But de Paor adds: "I don't think the Irish language is entirely a personal choice yet. If you choose to [speak] it, it is a political choice as much as anything else. You find yourself becoming an activist despite yourself because of the lack of equality between [Irish and English]."
 

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