Do urban Gaeltachts produce a compromised Irish?

Ag amharc síos ar an loch i mbaile fearainn Chnoc a' Stolaire i nGaoth Dobhair.   Looking towards the lake in the townland of Cnoc a' Stolaire in Gaoth Dobhair, county Donegal.
Ag amharc síos ar an loch i mbaile fearainn Chnoc a’ Stolaire i nGaoth Dobhair.
Looking towards the lake in the townland of Cnoc a’ Stolaire in Gaoth Dobhair, county Donegal. (Seán Ó Domhnaill)

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he creation of urban Gaeltachts in Belfast and other Irish cities should be regarded as one of the greatest language revitalisation projects ever undertaken. As a leading University of California linguistics professor puts it, ‘I know of no parallels to this achievement anywhere else in the world’.

The urban Irish-language movement has largely coalesced around Irish-medium schools, known as Gaelscoileanna. That’s certainly the case in Northern Ireland, where 5,000 pupils attend one of 39 Irish-medium schools. There are plenty of benefits to raising children bilingually, as a wide body of research shows. And as a briefing published by the Department of Education (Northern Ireland) illustrates, ‘academic attainment achieved by the IME [Irish medium education] schools was higher than might be expected, when set against the wider population patterns over the same period’. 

My own observations of Irish-medium education in Belfast have been very positive. For four years, my wife, who grew up in California, worked at an Irish-language primary school in Belfast as an art therapist (through English), and was so impressed by the school’s care, commitment, and holistic approach to its children and families during her time there, that she now insists that our children, if we are so blessed to have any, will go there. I’ve also had the opportunity to connect with this school through my own work running parenting programmes. The quality of Irish, along with the quality of education and staff, was truly impressive, convincing me that if we move back to Belfast, this is definitely where I would want my children to do their primary-level education.

There are difficult questions that parents, educators and language activists need to address, however, regarding Irish as a second language.The public conversation about Irish in Northern Ireland has been so focused on the language’s political and perceived symbolic meanings that rarely do people, especially non-native speakers of the language, step back and ask about the state of the language itself. So intense has the conversation been on questions of identity and who the language belongs to—a necessary conversation given the history of the language over the last 100 years—that questions about the richness and capabilities of the language in a grafted, urban environment have gone largely overlooked. But these questions are of vital importance to the language . They are the questions that, if my own conversations are anything to go by, many traditional Irish speakers are asking, if not out loud, then to themselves and in private, as they work out their reservations about sending their children to Irish-medium schools in urban environments.

The traditional Irish of the Gaeltacht is dying, and the influx of learned Irish, or Irish as a second language, has caused a serious degradation to the syntax, vocabulary, pronunciation and native sounds of the language. The result is that the range of expression available to young people brought up in learned-Irish can be limited and compromised.

diarmuid_johnson_2I recently had a chance to sit down with Dr. Diarmuid Johnson, a poet, musician, scholar and artist who has lived and worked in Ireland, Wales, and across continental Europe. Johnson, who is a native Welsh and Irish speaker, last year held the post of Bard in Residence at Rhos-y-Gilwen Mansion in Wales. Johnson, who was born in Cardiff, and raised in Connemara, is a native speaker of traditional Irish, and holds a PhD in Early Modern Irish. He’s spent his life teaching people Irish, writing in the language, and exploring the history of the language. But he wonders whether parents might compromise their children’s intellectual potential by bringing them up in a limited idiom, his description of the majority of Irish found in urban contexts.

Until recently I used to speak of native speakers and learners. This terminology is now slightly outdated. One can be a native speaker of learned Irish. One can be a native speaker of Irish as a second language. One can be a native speaker with something whose history is much, much shorter than what I call traditional Irish’.

‘By now, most Irish speakers, even in the Gaeltacht, or for many or most, their command of English is at least as good as their command of Irish. This is partly because English is so available. It’s on the radio, television, papers. The world is made up of things we say in English. And so Irish trots along behind and exists in the shadow of the language’.

‘This isn’t a recent thing, but it’s accelerated greatly. At one time there was a distinct Gaeltacht culture, until recently, and there are still the remnants of a distinct Gaeltacht culture, but most people in Ireland, wherever they may live, identify or relate to an Irish identity which includes things people talk about, the things we say about them, the way we say them, the sources of information we have, our relationship to the state and to the education system.Their is no distinct Gaeltacht way of life by now’.

The language now has more learners and urban speakers than traditional Gaeltacht speakers. In the book, Why Irish: Irish Language and Literature in Academia, edited by Brian Ó Conchubhair, Professor James McCloskey, in his article, ‘Irish as a World Language,’ associates urban Gaeltachts with what he calls ‘Second Language Communities’. He qualifies this definition, however. ‘‘There is a central sense in which this terms is inaccurate. There are now many children who have grown up in this community with a new urban version of Irish as one of their first languages, and who have passed that new language on to their own children’. Within the second language communities, like the ones we have around Belfast, there is a great range of language varieties called ‘Irish’. There are people who dedicate themselves to speak some close approximation to traditional Gaeltacht Irish, and those, probably the majority, who happily speak new urban hybrids of Irish, heavily influenced by English in every way.

This urban, pidginised Irish is having an effect on the Irish of the Gaeltacht. ‘The last five to ten years, with other colleagues, we’ve been using the word traditional Irish,’ says Johnson. ‘Now, traditional Irish, until recently, was spoken widely in the Gaeltacht areas. But in the Gaeltacht areas today, we find a mixture. We find some traditional Irish. We find some Irish spoken as a second language. And some varying degrees of competency and fluency. It’s a vary mixed community. So the word native speaker doesn’t mean what it did twenty or thirty years ago. One can be a learner and acquire traditional Irish. It’s unusual, but it’s probably not impossible. It’s a different goal to learning Irish as a second language.

The reality of the situation now is that traditional Irish ‘is on the point of being assimilated into the way Irish is spoken, taught and thought about in the rest of the country.’

‘So the idea of fluency then means different things. One can be fluent in a foreign language. Many people learn Spanish or French. And now all over the world, people learn English as a second language and speak it fluently. But they speak it as an addendum to their own native language. People in Ireland, by now, the majority of them speak Irish as an addendum to their English speaking world, or as an equal partner in that world. The idea of speaking Irish as a first language, and as a primary language, in which one speaks, learns and develops is becoming very, very rare.

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or those of us who are learning Irish with the goal of becoming part of the Irish-speaking community, and who want our children to have Irish, we need to address where we will get our Irish from. For learners, says Johnson, ‘the question is what the source of their Irish may be. It has to come from somewhere. Where will Irish be found in the future? Until recently the Gaeltacht was the source of Irish.’

For Johnson, the source needs to be the traditional Irish spoken in the Gaeltacht. ‘If you’re learning French, you have your source. It might be Quebec, it might be France, it might be Northern Africa. If you’re learning Portuguese, it might be Brazil, it might be Portugal. Each language has a source. So if people use the Gaeltacht as a source then the continuity can be assured. All you need to learn a language is two or three good speakers. So you can find them in places all over the Gaeltacht in Ireland if you want to’.

The problem is one of supply. ’The supply of Irish in the Gaeltacht is not enough to answer the demand. In simple terms, if you have a thousand schools in Ireland where Irish is spoken, you won’t have a thousand young teachers coming from the Gaeltacht. The pool is now too small. It’s become too small. What is the source of Irish. So if people whose first language is something else, English for example, decide to switch languages, they should ask themselves what the source is, where they’re getting it’.

‘Otherwise, the result is an offshoot, or something distinct from the source. If this occurs, then it’s it not so much a question of validity, all speech variants are valid, but raising children in a compromised idiom, introduces a compromise in the resources of expression. So if you raise a child in English or French or German, a majority language, there is no issue of compromise of expression. They can read the history of the world, the history of science and art, philosophy, in their own language. With a post-traditional language you simply don’t have these resources. So the question then is how, in what way are you compromising your children by bringing them up in a limited idiom. For me that’s a major question’.

‘I brought up my children speaking traditional Irish. But that was twenty years ago. And I’m not quite sure how I could do it now. In other words, people can speak Irish, and we talk a lot about the number of speakers, but what I often mention is the discourse, or abstract thought, you know… The ability to make distinctions, which obviously is a question of vocabulary, or partly of vocabulary. So for a child, or for the children of a community to develop fully, intellectually, they must be speaking a non-compromised idiom. Here we’ve arrived at a point of conflict. The conflict is between the potential of the young person and the resources the language gives you’.

‘So the two best things I ever did was one, bring my children up in the Gaeltacht. And two, get them out of there. So they went to secondary school in France. Which means that they still speak traditional Irish, because it hasn’t been corrupted by the post-traditional idiom, but their best language is French’.

The best improvement the Irish-medium sector could introduce, argues Johnson, would be immersion in a third language. ‘If you introduce a third language, perhaps a European language in our case, the tensions are different, you have a triangle. It would be much better for the children’.

In terms of raising children in an Irish-medium school in the current context , Johnson isn’t sure. ‘I’m not sure if I would raise my children now in an environment like that now. I just don’t know. And I’m glad they didn’t go to secondary school in the Gaeltacht. It would have compromised their intellectual development. And I’m glad they didn’t go to an Irish-speaking school in an urban environment. That would have compromised their intellectual development’.

‘My oldest daughter is dong a PhD in nuclear physics in Paris now. She’s a native Irish speaker. But she wouldn’t have got there by going through Gaeltacht secondary school. My younger daughter is finishing a Master’s in translation, French, German and English in France at the moment. She might have got there by going through the Irish education system. But she probably would have been a victim of the dualism Irish/English. Because the climate at the moment in Ireland isn’t pro-European. And this isn’t a particularly good thing for Ireland or Irish, because we’re returning to an older view of things. That there were two languages. This dualism again’.

There will be many who argue Johnson’s purism about the language is misplaced. The learned Irish of urban speakers still allows them to engage Irish-language media, provides an entry point into Irish literature, and could very well facilitate, if given the right kind of guidance, a better relationship between the Gaeltacht (if it survives) and urban areas. What we have in Belfast, in terms of language revival, is probably as good as it gets, and other minority language activists can learn a lot from the Belfast experience. The hybrid, urban, pidginised and creolised Irish of Belfast, Dublin, Derry and other cities across Ireland is probably the future of the language, and it likely means a new chapter in the history of the language. As McCloskey argues, ‘You probably cannot “revive” a seriously weakened language.’ Regarding post-traditional Irish, he argues, ‘We need not be alarmed or put off by these developments, for, if current research is on the right track, creolisation is a true and bare reflection of the human language faculty, and is therefore the furnace in which new languages will be formed’. In the meantime, parents and educators need to seriously think about the source of Irish in Irish-medium education, and whether Irish-medium education, in its current form, offers children the best possible resources to fully develop intellectually and emotionally. I’ll look forward to hearing the responses from people who work in Irish Medium Education as well as from urban language activists.


I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.

  • james

    I’m a loveable sort.

  • james

    Fair do’s. I’d like to see Irish speakers speaking out, in either language, about the attempts by SF to appropriate the language in order to fuel division and galvanize their core.

  • james

    Interesting. How does one pronounce Martin, Gerry, Liam et al in Ulster Irish? Not a speaker myself, you may have noticed, but genuinely interested.

  • james

    Ulster Scots doesn’t really need to be taught, I suppose, given its being so widely spoken, but I wonder if there arw conversation classes running?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And you put apostrophes in simple plurals? South American’s what?

  • Croiteir

    Interestingly enough, (to me), so do I on the grounds that the nearest gaeltacht to me would be Islay. I would like to see the development of what I fantastically call Dal Riada Gaelic based on the recordings of people like Brian Mac Ahmlaigh from te Glens, Morrison and others as well as Cowal, Islay Arran gaelic.

  • Barnaby Cricklespiff
  • Michael

    Very interesting article. In relation to the ‘intellectual development’ point, I believe education starts at home. Language medium, bi or tri lingual is irrelevant if their is the right support and encouragement at home towards the child’s education. Perseverance, grit and determination seem to be the must have characteristics these days.

    In relation to the learning of the Irish language in the Republic of Ireland, I think it should actually be removed from some English medium primary schools. However, I also believe there should be more Irish medium primary schools formed too. It should be an all or nothing effort when learning another language. Thousands of children start education every year in this country. After learning Irish for 15 years they still can’t hold a conversation in Irish. There is something wrong there. Think of all the money that has been spent to teach these children Irish for 45 mins a day, during the school year for all the primary and post primary years. Parents should have a choice. If they want their child to learn Irish, they can send them to the local Gael scoil. If not, there should be primary schools that don’t teach it and instead focus more on stem/steam subjects.
    I believe we would end up with a greater number of young people being able to speak the language fluently rather than the current system which produces thousands of students who can’t. Imagine if secondary students finishing 6th year didn’t understand addition or division after 15 years of being taught maths. Why then do we tolerate the final outcome of thousands of students level of Irish?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Good points there Michael.

    Lord knows how many Irish people abroad whose command of the language is summarised by scribbling ‘póg mo thóin’ in the guest book.

    I always just assumed that since partition nurseries would have went from English, to English with Irish, to bi-lingual, to Irish with English (and in some cases Irish only), with primary schools then doing the same (in step with the relevant generations).

    But apparently not.

    Maybe there should be a postcode referendum to whether the country wants it or not?

    E.g. If Rathmines says ‘no’ and Rosscommon says ‘yes’ then divert Rathmines Irish resources to Rosscommon (for example) and do the thing properly in that county e.g. subtitle every TV program, Irish only nurseries (and the aforementioned path) so Rosscommon has people with a good command of the language and Rathmines has a not so good command, but, the facilities are still there for those who want to learn (and thus providing a market for Gaelic Rosscommunist nannies who wish to earn a living in the Big Smoke).

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    You have made my day Sir!
    I know that there are now two of us, it was getting lonely for a while.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Do not seem to be able to upload my audio of the pronunciation. Máirtín has a weight on the second syllable with the final i sharpened, as the síneadh fada on the letter shows. Gearóid has a more even weight between the two syllables, but with a “long” o. Liam is pretty much as you have probably heard it.

    You should note though that even within Cúige Uladh there are a number of variant dialects with distinct characteristics. My own great-great grandmother was a presbyterian native Irish speaker from the Sperrins, where there were distinct variations, in addition to the several dialects in Donegal. The Rosses dialect is the most important for learning purposes.

    A lot of protestants learnt Irish before the Great War. I was told by my grandfather, the man who field commanded the 107th Mortar battery of the 36th and himself an Irish speaker, that every platoon in the Ulster division that he came across seemed to have an Irish speaker! By the way this is offered “in good faith” rather than as a point of debate, as I only have his and a few of his fellow officers word for it. All dead now alas.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I have issues from a slightly different angle. My grandfather (incidentally a fluent Irish speaker) was a long term friend of Ronnie Bunting Senior, who was often a visitor to our home. Bunting watched me growing up. When I was active for civil rights in the late 1960s, several times he pointed me out across cordons to thugs for violent “special treatment”. I was effectively driven out to exile myself with the threat of violence. As a lifelong pacifist I am repelled by the degree to which violence has debauched our culture, and the ease with which it has been associated in some minds with this rich cultural inheritance we all have in the language. Thank you for sharing your own experiences and motives, so often the personal roots of these things enrich our understanding and encourage real debate beyond the sterile political point scoring.

  • Breandán Mac Séarraigh

    Interesting. My children both attended Gaelscoileanna and have good conversational Irish. I’m not sure they are intellectually limited in Irish (or English) BUT I meet MANY, MANY monoglot English speakers who cannot articulate a clear thought in the leading world language. Yes, you need lots of people who speak a language well for it to thrive and be useful but it is no guarantee that all its speakers will use it well.

    My daughter is in the Gaeltacht at the moment. It is becoming harder to find mná a’ tí with good enough Irish to host students. It’s rare to find anyone in a shop or pub in the Gaeltacht who will converse with visitors in Irish (though maybe that’s because they are embarrassed by MY Irish). Few people in poor, disadvantaged, remote, rural Donegal seem to have the emotional resilience (resistance?) to stand up for their native tongue, especially when it is marginalised and disparaged by Ireland’s éiltes. The state refuses to accept or support the urban Gaeltachtaí, so maybe the traditional Irish is dying. Even children on Tory Island use English words for things that they cannot name in their teanga dúchasach. So maybe a creole is the best we can hope for going forward. Remember that English is itself a creole of the Germanic language of the serfs with the French of their overlords, following the latter’s loss of the their mainland estates. One day English, like Latin, will die too.

  • Granni Trixie

    Afraid I don’t know the part of the story involving Casement …do tell?

  • gero

    Incredibly similar to my own experience. I’m sure there are many in the same boat though I’ve rarely met any. It is good to know that my own view is not so far out. Its never a comfortable conversation piece in atown.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    If you’re interested, it was a tale I read in Dr Ian Malcom’s book “Towards Inclusion” regarding how uncomfortable republican inmates were with ‘Fianna Fail Irish’ of a particular teacher.

  • Seriously, your only response is to tell my wife she shouldn’t be paid for the work she does as a mental heath care professional (with a postgraduate degree, accreditation with HCPC and BACP, and over a decade of experience working with children)? I usually like a bit of banter with you, but that’s low—you should know better.

  • Ciarán Dúnbarrach
  • Jim Scobbie

    On Scottish Gaelic see some similar issues in a very different context – Clare Nance’s work, including her PhD based on a study of Gaelic medium education both in urban central Scotland and the Gàidhealtachd.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    We both appear to be among the farrow whom political Ireland has been gnawing at, gero! But the real culture endures in places well away from its misuses by selfish and basically indifferent political interests, in the hearts of those who really love and care for it. I’m reminded of Daniel Corkery’s story “Solice”, from “A Munster Twilight”. If you imagine the visitor at the end as politicians and politicos everywhere, you’ll get what I mean.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The Ulster Scots agency used to sponsor classes, but there are none at present. QUB offers entry level:

    Interestingly, as Linda Irvine points out in her talks, the grammatical features of the local everyday use of English frequently follow the rules of the Irish language. “Knowing or unknowing, Gaeilge is present…..”

  • eireanne

    indeed, Seaan – have a look at this post and video to see how the belfast gaelteacht was started

  • eireanne

    personal experience compels me to disagree. Anecdotal evidence but the relative I am describing is not, by any means, the only such person in existence in Europe.
    He was brought up in an EU country (school + university) with parents of two different nationalities , one native English. He learnt a 3rd EU language at school and a 4th thanks to attending university on an Erasmus scholarship in yet another EU country. He then took an MSc at Imperial College London and is currently finishing a PhD. He is perfectly bi-lingual in English + the language of his native EU country with an academically certified command of two other EU languages and top level science qualifications .

  • james

    Of course. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, not by any means. I’m saying in the 40 or more people I’ve met in that situation, directly as their English teacher, only about half had genuine proficiency in both languages.

  • eireanne

    glad to see we agree true bi-lingualism is possible James. I would just like to add that a pupil who is educated through irish medium schools could end up with the same type of CV – bilingual , an A level in 3rd language, an Erasmus scholarship to another EU country to acquire a 4th language – all while studying science, economics, business or whatever they like at university

  • james

    Well, I’m trilingual myself, so I have no trouble at all believing it is possible, even with Irish which has so very few genuine native speakers, and thus much more limited quality conversation practice available. Mind you, you would already know that if you had read my original post. Might have saved us both a tedious exchange.

  • james

    No, no, and agus no. 🙂

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Hey, what were yer books on East Ulster Gaelic?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for the link eireanne. While I’m familiar with much of this, it’s an interesting presentation which shows what can occur when people empower themselves at the grass roots, and do not wait for things to be done for them.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh they do, they do. But in a media driven by political press releases, what space for a real story about people trying to sustain a culture? Most Journalists simply are not interested.

  • Ciarán Dúnbarrach

    Here is the blog I put together for my tri-dialect Rathlin folklore collection

    And her is the site for my Oriel Dictionary

    There are links to the books on the right hand side.

    Next book will probably be Manx related.

  • eireanne

    Presumably you are referring to your own posts when you mention “tedious” exchanges

  • james

    Both. I find it tiresome to repeat what I had already written.

  • Art Glassley

    Is Irish a living language? In Gaeltacht areas, maybe, but as DJ and others point out, barely alive. It’s English through Irish, with silver coins in some of its pockets! As one who has been disturbed by urbanization and Anglicisation (not to mention Americanisation) of Irish, I’m happy to see energy and optimism anywhere near Irish. And it’s not a matter of “purity.” A language is best as a medium of communication, and that includes inter-generational communication. If we can’t read what the dead generations wrote, we’ve lost a lot. If our successors can’t read what we write, what are we about?

    Let them learn any language they want? It’s too late by the time they know enough to make a choice. Language is from the crib.

    Otherwise, your comment is very Irish. Ad hominem. Play the ball and not the man. Up Dev.

  • Art Glassley

    As a language teacher where? My experience in Europe is of multi-lingualism, In England and Ireland, of a mess.

  • james

    Both Northern and Southern Europe, Latin America and the ME. And also for a while in England.

  • Cathal

    Actually, Seaan, emphasis in Ulster Irish is on the first syllable (which is not the same as vowel length, signified by the [síneadh] fada). So Máirtín and Gearóid are emphasised as: MÁIRTín and GEARóid in Ulster.

    Liam sadly lost one of his syllables when he was appropriated by Anglo American Béarlóirí, making the name sound quite ‘lame’.

    A native Irish speaker, on the other hand, would always carefully pronounce both of Liam’s hard earned syllables, with an Ulsterman (or woman) slightly weighting the first syllable as in: LI-am.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for the rectification Cathal. My grandfather learnt Irish with Pat O’Shea (“Conan Maol”) who founded the Belfast branch of Conradh na Gaeilge so what pronunciation I have from him that is not already mangled by my Anglo-Irish accent is rather Kerry! I work hard to get my Ulster pronunciations correct but it’s a hill of sand……….

  • Cathal

    No problem, a Sheáain. Go ndéana a mhaith duit!

    Language is primarily about communication. As the original Gaeltacht source of the language sadly declines, the Irish that all of us speak will become increasingly mangled.

    People like your grandfather and his teacher made sure that the language would not die with the death of the Gaeltacht, however.

    You are clearly keeping that flag flying too. Go n-éirí go geal leat, and if I can help at any time let me know.

  • Ciarán Dúnbarrach
  • Ciarán Dúnbarrach

    I have discussed this article in my latest RnaG / nós column