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Why Irish language may soon be a Celtic myth

October 31, 2012

The State has to step in to prevent the demise of our native tongue, writes Conchur O Giollagain

THE Irish language as a communal, collective identity is on its last legs. This was the principal finding of the 2007 Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht. This study was an integral part of a 10-year-long research and consultative process, which regrettably has come to a conclusion of sorts with the revised Gaeltacht Act.

Irish is collapsing in the gaeltacht for two main reasons: a strong decline in the proportion of young, home speakers of Irish; and, secondly, inadequate communal and educational supports to enable even the home speakers to acquire a native-like ability and to function with social ease through Irish in their own peer groups.

Among the central recommendations of the study were: to give statutory effect to designated language-planning initiatives for communities with varying language vitalities, priority being afforded to the stronger areas, so as to counteract their slide below the viability threshold of 70pc of active Irish speakers in a given district; a revamped and attractive support scheme for Irish-speaking families; a bespoke gaeltacht educational system and curriculum; Irish-language socialisation strategies for educational and youth organisations; holistically integrated planning across all domains – language, education, socio-economic; and, finally, the establishment of a rural district council for gaeltacht districts in the stronger areas.

In refusing to engage seriously with any aspect of these recommendations, the State is effectively facilitating the demise of the Gaeltacht. The amended legislation adopts elements of the stylistics of the study, but in essence it is an act of evasion rather than engagement with the clearly documented threats to the sustainability of Irish as a living language. The new Act lacks both analytical rigour and political sincerity.

The language planning provisions of the new Act have been greeted with a mixture of dismay and a sense of missed opportunity by local organisations in the Gaeltacht.

The combination of the visionless political leadership from the State and the evasiveness of the Act will only serve to spiritually diminish the remaining adherents of gaeltacht identity so as to encourage a meek acceptance of their fate.

It now appears that the apparatus of the State is either unwilling or incapable – or perhaps both – of taking on issues concerning linguistic complexity.

Historically, many linguistic minorities have looked to Ireland for leadership. Our failure to address the language issue sends out a disappointing message to the world. It is obvious, however, that more effective interventions are required from the State.

Dr Conchur O Giollagain is the academic director of the MA sa Leann Teanga in NUI Galway and co-author of the Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht.