For most people in Ireland the word Gaeltacht summons up memories of the first time, as teenagers, that they spent time away from home without parental supervision in an Irish language summer college – with all that entails. First romances, first cigarettes, sneaking out of the house after dark, the “bean a’ tí” etc., etc., If you were lucky, you came home with a few words of Irish.
It’s such a cosy image that companies are using it to promote their products on TV advertisements.
I am a Councillor on Donegal County Council and I live in Loch na nDeorán in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht and, believe me, life here doesn’t conform to the cosy image portrayed in those advertisements.
Historically, the Gaeltacht has been reduced to mostly marginal areas along the west coast and, because the poor land could only support subsistence farming, seasonal emigration became the norm with men and women going to Scotland and England to work and coming back occasionally to save turf or plant potatoes. This explains why there are such close links between the Donegal Gaeltacht and Scotland, Glasgow in particular.
Like the rest of rural Ireland, Gaeltacht areas have not fared well since the foundation of the state but it could be argued that County Donegal has suffered more neglect than any other county. We have no railway, no motorway, no natural gas network, no access to medical centres of excellence and limited broadband facility. If the county is marginalised, then the Gaeltacht area where I live, in the north west of Donegal, is even more marginalised.
A recent report on life in Gaeltacht areas, covering various indices, shows higher rates of unemployment, poverty, emigration and overall population decline than the national average. The Donegal Gaeltacht is among the most deprived areas and, combined with the historic underinvestment in infrastructure throughout the county, means that there is little sign here of the economic recovery that the government and political commentators are heralding.
Not only has the state neglected us historically, they are continuing to make life more difficult for our community. For example, last year they announced the closure of post offices throughout rural Ireland. In our small Gaeltacht area, they announced that four were to close. Despite submissions to a review body, petitions and a concerted campaign of protests by myself and other community activists, An Post has finally declared that the post offices at Ailt a’ Chorráin, An Bun Beag, Bun na Leaca and Gort a’ Choirce are to close. That means that, on the road from Anagaire to Falcarragh (the backbone of the Donegal Gaeltacht), there will be only one post office at Na Doirí Beaga.
This is not sustainable.
But, as a Gaeltacht community, we also have to deal with the state’s neglect of our native language as well.
Back in 2007, a number of academics wrote the “Comprehensive Linguistic Study Of The Use Of Irish In The Gaeltacht,” in which they stated that the Gaeltacht had reached a linguistic “tipping point” and that, unless strong measures were adopted by the community, the Irish language would soon cease to be the primary language and that the Gaeltacht would cease to exist as a linguistic entity.
Since then, a number of committees have come together on a voluntary basis and prepared Language Plans for their own particular areas within the Gaeltacht and Údarás na Gaeltachta are in the process of appointing officers to help implement those plans.
I wish them well and promise to do all I can to assist them as a member of the community and as an elected public representative.
It’s important too that the community gets behind the language plans and do their best to save our language in the areas that have kept using it in an unbroken chain for over a thousand years.
It would be helpful if the state supported these endeavours, but we shouldn’t take that for granted.
It is five years now since the Language Commissioner, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, resigned. In his resignation letter, he said that successive governments had been hypocritical in their approach to Irish in that they refused to provide services in the language to people who wanted to speak Irish.
He also claimed that government policy was “Speak Irish among yourselves as much as you want, but don’t expect to speak it to us.”
My own case highlights the very same attitude. Nothing has changed in this past five years, except that the community is expected to save the language with little or no support from the state.
I was born in the Gaeltacht and brought up in an Irish speaking family. I speak Irish with my own family. My daughters go to an Irish speaking Gaeltacht school. I speak Irish to my neighbours and, when I’m out socialising, it is done mostly in Irish. Most of my work in the community is done through Irish.
Why, then, am I accused of being disruptive and obstructive when I as an Independent Councillor, I have spoken Irish in the Council, even though I have been ridiculed for it by other councillors and members of various committees. I have also been accused of “making a circus of the Irish language.”
I acknowledge that Donegal County Council has introduced translation facilities in a lot of the meetings that I attend and this facilitates my use of Irish but problems arise when those facilities are not available. Apparently, I should revert to speaking English.
What message does that send out to those committees who are working hard to preserve Ireland’s indigenous language from dying in the small remaining areas where it is a living breathing reminder of our national identity?
2018 was named Bliain na Gaeilge in Ireland and 2019 is International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Do they mean anything at all?
Micheál Choilm Mac Giolla Easbuig is an independent councillor on Donegal County Council.