Gaeilgeoir ‘outrage’ at Joe McHugh a symptom of long term policy neglect of the Irish language

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Joe McHugh has been the nearest thing Dublin has had to a Minister of State with responsibility for Northern Ireland. He’s made the most of his parliamentary role as Chair of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and co-chair of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

As Harry McGee points out, “he should really have been promoted years ago…”

As the newly appointed Minister of State for the Gaeltacht he’s getting stick for not being fluent, and operating under another Ulster based Minister who is also not fluent in the Irish state’s official language.

McHugh’s home area is itself an indication of just how perilous the language is in or near its home base. Officially, it is in the Gaeltacht area. To all practical purposes, the actual Irish speaking area starts up the road in Downings and, I suspect, is only thickly found amongst older folk up towards Melmore Head.

It’s the same all over Donegal, which was at independence the largest contiguous tract of primary Irish speakers on the island. Just across the Blaney bridge in Fanad, where my own family is from, only the local Irish medium schools (which arrived two generations too late to preserve the integrity of the local near Scots Gaelic dialect) preserve the areas official status.

My own father had no English worth speaking of when he went to the local English medium school. Now, mostly through politeness, decency towards strangers and sheer forgetfulness that comes with long disuse it’s the enthusiastic youngsters there who keep it fresh and alive.

Of course McHugh’s appointment has a political purpose (when does a ministerial appointment not have one?). In a new five seat Donegal, he needs to grab as much of Dinny McGinley’s vote as he possibly can before the veteran west Gaeltacht man steps down.

But, and I suspect McGinley’s not alone in this regard as Harry notes

…having fluency in Irish provided absolutely no guarantee that the language would be protected or preserved. McHugh’s predecessor Dinny McGinley is a native speaker with mellifluous Donegal Gaeltacht Irish – but poor budgets and indifference at senior levels in Government to the language ultimately meant he was an ineffectual minister.

That’s the problem for the remaining Irish speakers point of view. It’s also hampered by an officialdom unwilling to accept that now down at the sharp for the language smart thinking (though not too smart) is required to preserve and even grow what’s left.

Major policy initiatives can have a lasting and positive effect on the language, the setting up of Raidio na Gaeltachta for instance, and to a lesser extent the TG4. Both went with the grain of dispersal, re-aggregating audiences on air, and latterly online.

But, it seems to me, it’s the preservation of Irish as local lingua franca that’s the greater challenge which is the most pressing problem. Under the care of insiders the language has failed to prosper and its speakers continue to complain of creeping marginalisation.

Harry again…

The guiding policy is the 20-year strategy for Irish, published in 2010 by the previous government. Its aim is to increase the number of daily speakers of Irish from 83,000 to 250,000 by 2039.And the strategy sets out an ambitious series of targets and milestones to allow that lofty aim to be achieved.

The Government inherited the strategy but did commit to implement it. But the evidence of implementation so far is that it is minimalistic and fitful. The die was cast when in the run-up the election Kenny suggested ending compulsory Irish for the Leaving Certificate.

He said there were other ways of preserving and teaching the language but did not specify any.

He concludes…

Former language commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin said it would take 28 years for the level of Irish speakers to reach 3 per cent. In fact, so frustrated was Ó Cuirreáin that he resigned from office in protest.

One of his gripes was that it was impossible to say if the strategy was being implemented. Dinny McGinley made a great play of the fact that the Taoiseach allocated €500,000 extra to implement the strategy but that, in relative terms, is a drop in the ocean.

Besides the Act; some groundwork on strategy, and increasing by a week the time student teachers can spent in the Gaeltacts, little has been done in the first four and a half years of the strategy.

Of course, McHugh can’t be expected to turn it all around in 20 months. But if he can improve the outcomes as much as he improves his Irish this week it will be: “tús maith leath na hoibre”!

Yep. Policy wise, if you were going to start from anywhere, then it wouldn’t be from here. Oideas Gael on the other hand, is a great start for anyone seeking to return to or getting to know to the language for the first time. Ah, if only we could clone Liam Ó Cuinneagáin.

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  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Mick

    ” (which arrived two generations too late to preserve the integrity of the local near Scots Gaelic dialect)


    Tell me more!
    —————————–
    Also, and I appreciate my ignorance shall present opportunity for people to lay the boot in, but, how has it reached this stage?

    In the Hebrides they can at least blame Thatcher(?) for taking it out of the schools (my ex was part of the generation when the switch came (apparently)).

    Up north we can blame the unionists (or can we? Save it for later folks)
    But who do we blame down south/up north west?

    How difficult would it be to subtitle every program in the Republic?

    I mean, there must be thousands of people who are willing to volunteer as translators for the sake of practice? (or have they started doing so? If so, please disregard comment)

    And before anyone hits me with “well AG, there’s that many different dialects that standardising it would be difficult to control” or whatever what I say is “so what”?

    Better to have a mish mash of Gaelic dialects than none at all.

    Also, it’s not that uncommon to have a one size fits all translation service;
    In Croatia I (yes, even I) noticed that some of the Croatian subtitles for English movies were not ‘pure/standard’ Croatian, (a little bit of Serbian slipped in now and again, believe it or not).

    So, why not just subtitle everything in southern TV (for starters)?

    Is there any official Gaelic co-operation with Scotland and the Isle of Mann?

    What industries are left where Irish/Gaelic is the main player (FYI, I say Gaelic because I tend to bring Scottish Gaelic into the arena, not out of unionist prissiness)?

    Could they give tax breaks to cottage ‘Gaelic’ industries like whisky distilling or something?

    I find it tragic that the Gaelic languages are teetering on the brink.

    I think it’s time for practical measures and not just measures that only suit certain agendas.

    The only ‘right way’ is the way that works.

  • donnchup

    I’m afraid the reason for Gaeltacht decline is a bit more complicated than “politeness, decency towards strangers and sheer
    forgetfulness that comes with long disuse” – although those are fair layman points. Sociolinguists know what is going on, and it is more or less intractable language shift to English. And perhaps the “local near Scots Gaelic dialect” betrays a politically understandable but linguistically-dodgy attempt to place Irish in an IONA context.
    McHugh was appointed to dole out grants in Pearse Doherty’s back yard. Gaeilgeoir ire is water off a duck’s back to Kenny, personally and politically.
    McGee is too kind to McGinley, a man who put party loyalty above his own language community. Some of us thought a man with retirement on the horizon might show a bit of initiative, we thought wrong. History will not be as kind to Dinny as Harry McGee.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    The problem with having Irish as part of the curriculum is that it forms no benefit to the student in a practical sense that languages such as French, German and Chinese would.
    Having said that I would love to learn this language in my spare time but there doesn’t seem to be any classes available.

  • Barneyt

    I too have to tread carefully when I push for the Irish Language as my lack of skill and knowledge leaves me exposed to the lingua-fascists out there. Some Irish, regardless of dialect is definitely better than none.

    I hear folks in the republic site the manner in which the language is taught combined with the mandate, as off putting. Some might jump towards the optional path, however I would enforce it but strive for other ways to make it interesting and relevant.

    A single government department cant be entirely responsible for the preservation and promotion of the language. It needs pan-party support. Perhaps I am wrong, but I would argue that Irish “should” be safe in the hands of FF, FG and SF. If not, its in trouble

    How about tax incentives for those that have the skills to help?

    My advice? Dual signage. Not Irish and the phonetic equivalent, but Irish as the primary language and a direct English translation (space permitting) below. Schools should be challenged to produce the English translations for their own area, as I suspect meanings may vary from Kerry to Antrim.

    Doire may sit alongside Oakwood? Sounds better than stroke city. I however would look forward to the direct English equivalent of Tandragee (ok some license taken)…i.e. Arse to the wind :-)

  • Barneyt

    ye never know, ye could be using some words without knowing it? There are some classed in East Belfast I believe :-) now that is positive

  • Barneyt

    I too have to tread carefully when I push for the Irish Language as my lack of skill and knowledge leaves me exposed to the lingua-fascists out there. Some Irish, regardless of dialect is definitely better than none.

    I hear folks in the republic site the manner in which the language is taught combined with the mandate, as off putting. Some might jump towards the optional path, however I would enforce it but strive for other ways to make it interesting and relevant.

    A single government department cant be entirely responsible for the preservation and promotion of the language. It needs pan-party support. Perhaps I am wrong, but I would argue that Irish “should” be safe in the hands of FF, FG and SF. If not, its in trouble

    How about tax incentives for those that have the skills to help?

    My advice? Dual signage. Not Irish and the phonetic equivalent, but Irish as the primary language and a direct English translation (space permitting) below. Schools should be challenged to produce the English translations for their own area, as I suspect meanings may vary from Kerry to Antrim.

    Doire may sit alongside Oakwood? Sounds better than stroke city. I however would look forward to the direct English equivalent of Tandragee (ok some license taken)…i.e. Arse to the wind :-)

  • AndyB

    The Rosguill peninsula is interesting, and I used to know it well. I remember the signs for Duuhaigh, one at the turning for An Meall Mór, and one in Downings itself, which had a different spelling; I remember the simple white plate reading “AIRE LEANAI” at the bottom and top of a hill exiting Downings towards Dooey (English spelling according to the local postcards), and yellow Aire Leanai signs in mixed case on one of the roads crossing the peninsula near Downings.

    Melmore Head itself however is such a tourist area now – increasingly so since we first visited in the 1980s, as Irish, which appears to have been a language spoken in the home, and frequently with family and friends outside the home (all the members of the extended family who ran the caravan site we visited for years spoke it to each other at all times) – that the influx of Anglophones is severely restricting the number of Irish language conversations that locals can actually have.

  • mickfealty

    Superficially there is an opportunity cost Joe. But it’s more than 30 years since I left school and having travelled with many people through most of the countries formerly known as western Europe I can say, hand on heart, that the time I invested in learning a language I felt to be my own, paid me back in dividends.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Are the primary Schools in the Gaeltacht areas teaching in Irish or English?

  • mickfealty

    Get yourself down to Gleann and feck the begrudgers Barney!!

  • mickfealty

    Apologies Donn for the layman’s view. I’m only going on personal experience.

    I agree with most of that. But colour me sceptical. I suspect it’s more an attempt to stem a tide than some stupid lunge at Shinner votes.

    Dinny’s local to Gaoth Dobhair, and his votes will likely shed all ways, not just or even mostly SF.

    I think you may be being too kind to FF. In reflection, the 2010 strategy was a little late in the day, just before the brink mar a dearfa.

    Besides loading everything on the incumbent smacks rather more of electoral rather than strategic thinking.

  • mickfealty

    Irish, now. But it took a long time after independence to build the necessary capacity.

    My grandad was one of the first generation in Ireland to benefit from British universal education (he spoke Irish, understood his kid’s English but rarely used it). His son (my dad) was one of the early beneficiaries of a Free State education, but it was still totally in English.

    I genuinely don’t know when it switched to Irish only, but it was over a long enough period to erode the local culture from one lingua franca to the other.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Cheers Mick
    One last thing, do you have an info, references or pointers regarding that Scottish type dialect in Donegal?
    It’s very interesting

  • mickfealty

    Eist leis. Even in Glencolmcille it still sounds more Scots than Irish. Listen to anyone from the outer Hebrides speaking English and listen to anyone from Donegal.

    The water between Ireland and Scotland once made us a great closer than we are now… Donaghadee Presbyterians or Scots and Donegal fishermen..

    We just don’t like to talk about it these days…

  • Zig70

    If Joe manages to become fluent within the year then he may find himself lauded. The fluents are a generous lot. For me the key is nursery and primary school. My kids exposure to Irish at primary school was piecemeal and depended on the teacher. Having to limit your language choices in secondary also does it no favour. I’d have language on the curriculum from nusery and then kids could pick up any language of their choosing easier.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Interesting.

    As for the water-highway, a lot of the ulster-Scots groups make a big deal of it, but then given the way some of this ‘revival’ is being handled I can’t see the appeal for ‘Ulster Scots’ from people in places like Ballycastle or ‘Baile na Galloglach’ in Donegal.

    Did you read Mr Joe’s brother’s book ‘Tyrone Triumphant’? A belter of a read, highlights the early Scottish connections quite well e.g. the mercenaries.

    As for saving the Gaeltachts.
    Well, a government’s answer is normally to throw money at the problem.

    I don’t think this is necessarily the answer. Between teaching it in nursery, primary and then secondary school, subtitling TV and wot not, that should shore up the Gaeltachts to begin with.

    But as for making it more appealing and indeed accessible, I was wondering (and don’t laugh) what is there in the way of Gaelic plays, opera, modern poetry and ‘high brow’ culture?

    (Poetry was quite the big thing in Gaelic culture if I understand correctly, maybe it still is, I am perfectly ignorant).

    I don’t think it’s unfair to say that when people think of the Gaelic world they think of whisky and men in peaked caps playing folk music (FYI, I’m fine with that, that will be me in my retirement years hopefully!).

    Instead of making Gaelic just the thing of the Atlantic sea board, should we not consider making it an over arching cultural blanket for all walks of life?

    Just thinking out loud here…

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Joe

    First of all, contact Linda Ervine for info on Irish classes: http://www.ebm.org.uk/communityirishclass.php

    Although based in east Belfast they’ve been spreading their teaching network surprisingly quickly (turns out more Protestants are interested in it than we were led to believe).

    BTW, did you know LOL 1303 had a banner written in Gaelic? (though yes, quite unfortunate it that it was THAT lodge….)

    As for the academic and practical worth of learning Irish, all I can say is that from personal experience, had I been exposed to Gaelic from primary school then my attempts and struggles with learning other languages later in life would have been a lot less painful.

    I think that if you are bi-lingual in Gaelic and English then learning French or German or wot-not would be a lot lot easier when you’re older.

    Just my opinion though, a knowledgeable linguist would of course be much more of an authority on the matter than Muggins here.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Am Ghobsmacht,
    A large number of Orangemen can speak fluent Irish, one is tempted to refer to Brother Henry Richmond who says his prayers in Irish (he is a COI/COE minister).

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Joe
    I’m aware that some do, it would be a statistical anomaly (or shame) if none did.

    Though I confess to never having heard of Henry Richmond.
    I say the more the merrier.

    Fitzroy Pres church in S Belfast has Gaelic services.

    I wish that some one would start a Gaelic choir in NI. It is truly the most haunting and beautiful music.

    To think that Free Presbyterians are the custodians of this culture in Scotland is truly mind-boggling for some one from Mid-Ulster.

  • Joe_Hoggs
  • Reader

    Barneyt: My advice? Dual signage. Not Irish and the phonetic equivalent, but
    Irish as the primary language and a direct English translation (space
    permitting) below.

    That’s a big change for all the signs to Dublin and in Dublin, then. (“Trinity College Blackpool”. I like it)

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Tempted to call into that, they also discuss Protestantism and the Irish language.

  • JR

    I am just back from Oidheas Gael today. I was helping to teach Joe some Irish. I have to say that he has alot of Irish in the background but lacks confidence in speaking it. There was a big difference in his Irish through the week. I have to say I felt it was a bit of a slight on the Irish community to appoint a minister for the gaeltacht without fluent Irish but I am willing to give Joe the benifit of the doubt. Better an effective minister without Irish than an ineffective one with.

  • Annie AuldIrn

    Your last sentence is the crux, JR

  • http://www.robbimcmillen.com/ Robbi

    Am Ghobsmacht,
    There’s a Gaelic choir based in An Chultúrlann, Cór Loch Lao. I wish more would start, work a look in! Manus Ó Baoill used to conduct CLL, was sad to see him step down a few years ago. You can find out more about CLL at culturlann.ie.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Cheers Robbi

    You know, to my shame I’ve never been there. I’ll check it out next time I’m home.

    Delighted to hear about the choir.

    On that note, in Scotland the schools have a Gaelic singing competition called the Mod (or something like that) is there anything like that in Ireland?

  • http://www.robbimcmillen.com/ Robbi

    Schools get involved in fleadhs (county/provincial/national) and Oireachtas na Gaeilge (An tOireachtas) – they’re great events! It would be great to see Oireachtas na Gaeilge reinvigorated the way the Mòd has been in Scotland – I’d love to visit it sometime! Next time your home be sure to check out antoireachtas.ie or Comhaltas.ie, hopefully you’ll catch a competition or two! Gaelic choirs are big in Scotland, I wish they were here too… someday!

  • donnchup

    I’m afraid I have to point out the uncomfortable fact that although teachers get extra money for teaching in Gaeltacht schools, many of those schools operate primarily through English. Yeah, I know….

  • mickfealty

    Just one of the things we don’t like to talk about outside the ‘family’..

  • JR

    Am Ghobsmacht, The dialects of East Ulster, antrm and Rathlin are much closer to Scottish dialects than those in Donegal. There is a gradual transition from West Cork all the way up Irelands western Seaboard which continues up the coast od Scotland. There are different dialects on each Island on Scotlands coast.

    Here is an example of Fermanagh Irish, This song was written in the 1700’s

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Cheers JR
    The thing I suppose I’d like to know is there any ‘faultlines’ that depict significant changes or is it all gradual as you described?

    I suppose should really just study properly and find out for myself…

  • JR

    There are a few faultlines depending on the word, phrase or construction. I would recomend Heinric Wagner’s book A Linguistic Atlas of Irish dialects. One of the most significant would be the Cha/Ní faultline indicating how to form the negative of a verb in the past tense, which runs from North west donegal in a Diagonal South East Direction to about the Boyne. Everything to the North including Scotland and the isle of man Using Cha, everything to the south useing Ní. Some faultlines like the way to say thank you run through scotland where to the north they say Moran Taing, to the south including all of Ireland they say Go Raibh maith agat.

    To make things more complicated here would be Linguistic traits which are strong in Munster, Particularly Cork and Kerry which are also in the Northern Most of the Western Isles Skipping The southern western Isles, Ulster and Connacht in between.